I took a break from visiting Dave last week. I stayed at home for a couple of evenings to remind our dogs what one of their parents looks like and gave them lots of cuddles. I even let them sleep on the bed. Oh my.
When I finally visited Dave again, the change in his physical appearance was quite striking. I spent the first fifteen minutes of our time together exclaiming about what I saw. At intervals throughout my visit I would pause, open-mouthed, shake my head imperceptibly and marvel at his deliverance to better health. He was rather pleased to wave me off at the elevator and return to his bed, unobserved.
He had shaved which means he sadly no longer looks like a ruggedly handsome European football star. His cheeks were plumper. His eyes were less sunken and dark. His shoulders were less hunched. His arms were just starting to look a little more muscly. He was fatter. He could talk for whole minutes at a time without a mid-sentence break to take a breath. He stood up and moved around for non-essential reasons. Who was this person and what had he done with my debilitated husband?
In short, Dave looked bett-er. Not better as in “fully better, restored to good health and his baseline, with not a care in the world, and ready to take on the world again”. Bett-er as in “better than he has been” and in keeping with his transition from “fairly unwell” to “suboptimal”.
There is a subtle yet important distinction between saying someone looks well and saying someone looks well-er. In my experience, most people are unaware of the distinction, or are not very good at communicating that they are aware.
On day five of this admission one of Dave’s little known acquaintances unexpectedly dropped by and commented that he looked really well. At this point he had only just mastered the crucial skill of lasting six whole hours without spiking a fever and requiring more than one antipyretic at a time. His muscles were still rebelling and his lungs were not playing nicely. Dave and I had a whole conversation using solely our eyes and eyebrows.
“Ummm…. does she even have eyes?”
“I can see that she has eyes. But perhaps she is vision impaired?”
“Maybe she lacks the ability to interpret what her eyes are seeing?”
“Let’s give her the benefit of the doubt here.”
“Let’s. Because frankly, you look about as well as you feel. Which is to say, totally rubbish.”
“Just keeping it real.”
I assume that people who utter such phrases are trying to engage with us about CF. They are trying to buoy our spirits. To help us look on the bright side. They want to say “At least you have your health” but since we sometimes do not, they modify it to “At least you look well”. Even when we are pretty well this catch phrase seems superficial, a nod they feel compelled to give to our health, glossing over nuances so whomever we are talking with can move onto something else less foreign.
When someone is living with a long-term health condition, is a statement about how we perceive their health really necessary? Could we be a little reckless and try a question instead? Do we dare to ask how they feel, rather than telling them how we want them to look? People living with cancer or lupus or diabetes or epilepsy or fibromyalgia or chronic fatigue syndrome or kidney failure or depression or anxiety, or really any kind of ongoing health concern, just might appreciate the freedom to tell us how they feel rather than being squished inside a box we have created for them.
I encourage you to channel your inner radical and give it a go. It’s not easy to retrain your brain. Go easy on yourself if it takes a few tries to create a new habit. I am not perfect either. At clinic on Friday I saw a friend for the first time since his lung transplant and I almost slipped up. I said “You look…” (Oh God, don’t say well! Say…. ummm…. what can I say? What the heck can I say?) “… different? How are you feeling?” Phew! Hypocrisy very narrowly averted.