I dislike people asking me how I am. Generally, I am well. Or some version of well, depending on varying definitions. But being unwell has never got me anywhere so I see no point in it.
My doctor once complained to me that people complain too much about common ailments when they should just accept the body is imperfect and live their lives instead of whining so much. Sure, get checked out and stay as healthy as possible. And quit bitching. Then she looked at me and said, “if anyone has a right to complain, it is you. If people knew what you deal with, they’d shut up.” True, maybe. But I don’t think so. People like to complain. Some like to be miserable. Misery makes them happy.
Most of the people I see on a regular basis know not to ask me how I am unless they mean it. I don’t mean friends. I mean people I see but don’t know well. Cashiers, postal workers, bank tellers. We are always friendly. I am not the stuck-up, elitist, aloof snot many people think I am. I just don’t do smalltalk and pleasantries.
For instance, at my local grocery store, most of the people don’t ask me how I am doing. I even come in on occasion with my service-vested dog. Then they know I am not doing as well as I might like. Or that Dusty just wanted an outing.
Cashiers ask everyone how they are doing. They also always ask me if I found everything I was looking for. That is a habit I can’t seem to break them of. But asking me how I am doing is something most no longer do.
They used to. And I would answer with a question. “Is that a pro-forma question or are you genuinely interested in the state of my health and general tenor of my life? Because if you are, I will tell you. If you are not, please don’t ask.” They usually answer honestly that it is just the thing to say and we generally go on to have a pleasant financial transaction without the unnecessary interpersonal interaction and personal disingenuousness.
Once, the manager saw me staring at the soup cans. Five minutes later, she walked around again and saw me staring at the soup cans. She asked me if she could help me find something. Well, yes, I said, stunned back to a more shared and active version of reality. “Chicken and rice soup.” If she sees me in the store, she asks now if she can help me find something. It is appreciated. I tell her so. And she knows better than to ask how I am.
The last time I bought chicken and rice soup was for my wife, Lee, She of blessed name, as my not-too-distant ancestors would say. The manager had to help me find it among the other shelves and rows of cans. It was something she craved when she had brain cancer. Funny, somehow, doing such ordinary things for someone so extraordinary. For someone soon to be gone. The sacred in the mundane.
One late night, I left the hospital. It was April. Or May. Don’t ask me much about time in the seven or nine month period. I went to Publix late. It was nearly closing. Or I got in just before and it was after closing. I had four items. One might have been a vegetable sub on whole wheat bread. It might have been a cookie and fried chicken. On some of those hospital nights I went for comfort food, letting myself off easy. I would have had three items, but off the discount shelf was a bottle of Jack and Coke for a buck ten. And why not?
I don’t drink. Well, barely. I don’t want not to feel. And I didn’t want to deaden anything of what I was feeling. Folks tried to get me to take something to sleep. A tranquilizer. No need to feel it all the time, they would tell me. No. I never wanted to not feel the hurt, the pain, the agony. The impending loss. The emptiness, helplessness, uselessness. I didn’t want to, don’t want to deaden or dampen, even temporarily, anything to do with Lee. But this night, drink and the new episode of Justified would do just fine. Seriously, what is better to drink with a Kentucky crime drama than a bottled bourbon and Coke?
I got to the check-out. A tall, young fellow was behind the counter. I put my items and one cloth bag on the belt.
“How are you?”
Oh, no… not on this, one of the worst of all nights. “Is that a pro-forma question or are you genuinely interested in the state of my health and general tenor of my life? Because if you are, I will tell you. If you are not, please don’t ask.” I have it down, you see.
He laughed. “No, seriously, how are you this evening?”
He seemed like a nice kid. I thought I’d let him off easily. “Seriously, you don’t want to ask that question tonight.”
“Things a little rough, huh?”
Ok, I’m getting annoyed. “I’m giving you an out, you know. A free pass. Seriously, please stop asking.”
He looks at me a little funny. That’s ok. If it gets me my four items and I get to go home for a few hours before heading back to the hospital, then he can look at me any way he wants. The last few nights I slept in the hospital in a chair next to her. I feel wrecked. I must look wrecked because she was worried about me and sent me home to sleep. I just want a few hours in my bed. Food, a little TV, bed.
Three items rung up. He picks up the Jack and Coke, hesitates before sliding it over the scanner. Then looks at the label a bit closer.
“Well, this’ll make it better.”
I had it. Tired. Late. Hungry. Wrecked and worse, really didn’t want to leave my wife in the hospital and have my, first?, maybe my first, night alone in the house. Maybe, certainly, one of many to come. One of a life-time of nights alone to come where she isn’t with me. After thirty years, not with me. Considering this, I think I handled myself well. I think I was nice. Really.
“No, I am pretty sure that will not make it better. I am pretty sure, whether I drink that or not, my wife will still die of brain cancer. And a little Jack and Coke won’t make that better. But it might make it so I can sleep tonight.”
He lost a bit of color in his face. His smile dropped. The jocularity disappeared. He just looked at me. And, slowly, said, “Sorry.” One word. And put the bottle in the bag.
“I gave you an out. I asked you not to ask.”
“Yes, you did.”
I hand him a twenty. He hands me change. I leave.
Some number of day later I am, again, checking out of Publix.
”How are you today?”
“Let me ask you a question. When you ask that, you don’t really want to know, right? I mean, you don’t really want each person, all day, to tell you how they are really doing, do you? Aren’t you just saying hello? Really, isn’t it just a more formal way of saying hello? Or saying, I see you. I recognize your presence here is important to me. Isn’t it more that?”
She stares at me.
I stare at her. And say, “Peek-a-boo.”
She blinks and smiles. Shakes her head slowly. Scans my items.
It is sort of like saying “namaste.” Translated loosely, it means “The divine in me recognizes the divine in you.” I see you there. My spark of the divine sees the same in you. And here we are, together.
Alan Watts used to talk about God playing Hide and Seek with itself. The divine breaks itself up into all these people to experience the thrill of finding itself again, anew, in all these bodies, aspects, places, ways. A game of fun and discovery. Watts used to drink quite a bit.
Very much like a game of Peek-a-boo. God hides from itself. Sees itself, is surprised, blinks. Smiles. Says, “There I am!” and goes off to do it again. Next. Next. Who will I see myself in next?