"Not to get all up in your business, but you look like you're going through some treatment." It's the bald head, of course. I mostly haven't been bothering to cover up when running errands -- it's 90 degrees out in Chicago right now, and it's just more comfortable and simpler with a bare head. But now I'm regretting that, because she just won't stop talking. She keeps asking me questions, and I try to give polite, short responses. Five minutes trapped in the supermarket checkout line, and suddenly I'm fighting back tears, and I don't know why this woman feels compelled to pour sympathy all over me, but I'm really wishing she'd just stop talking and let me get back to dealing with my voice mail. It's a relief when it's finally time to start unloading my cart, although even then, she keeps talking for a bit longer, and now the poor checkout clerk is being coerced into listening to all this too.
It's a delicate negotiation, these conversations about cancer. Obviously, people notice the bald head. Sometimes, it feels like my fault for not covering up, and thereby encouraging these conversations, but I'm trying not to give into that feeling. Usually, when someone actually says something, it's brief, encouraging, and often from someone who's been through it themselves. "Ten years and counting! Hang in there." For me, at least, that's generally a fine level of interaction. It even helps, a little, all the survivor stories, piling up.
And sometimes even more interaction is okay. There's a nice guy at the UPS store, whom I deal with regularly, shipping out Kickstarter books, etc. We've had a lot of brief, friendly conversations over the years, though I don't remember his name and I doubt he remembers mine. I went into the store with Kevin last week, bald, and the guy obviously noticed, but the store was crowded, and he didn't say anything. I was back in a few days ago, on my own, on a quiet afternoon. And while I can't reproduce the entire conversation, he somehow managed to ask how I was doing, to invite further conversation, if I felt like it, without being pushy at all. We talked about it, a bit awkwardly, for a while. But what was really nice was that at any point, I could have exited the topic gracefully. And even though it was, in fact, a little upsetting -- sometimes just talking about cancer makes me teary, even in the best circumstances, it was still okay. Nice, even. Neighborly.
I don't really have any conclusions here. It's not easy, figuring out the right thing to say, and sometimes there is no right thing to say, and sometimes saying nothing isn't as good as saying something would be. The best I have is to let the person in difficulty take the lead -- follow their indicators, as best you can, as to how specific and intimate the conversation is going to go.
And maybe, if someone is *clearly* trying to do something else, like listen to their voicemail or empty their shopping cart, leave them the heck alone.