Saturday, March 8, 2008

what's a friend?

I've spent a good portion of the last two days doing extensive renovation to a friend's house. It has been freaking foul. She found out a few months ago that she has a rare condition that is a precursor to cancer of the esophagus. The survival rate is low. She can't swallow. She was flown, by her family, back out to Texas to get tests and so hat they could help her watch her daughter. She left her boyfriend (she pays the rent) to take care of her pets and the house while she was there, in preparation for moving back to Texas to be with her family. While she was gone, the two months she was gone, he and his friends, by way of telling her he'd like to break up with her, did not let the dogs out to crap or piss for both months, built a fire in the backyard and tore the fence up to do it, kicked holes in the walls, shattered beer bottles against the walls in the house, and, it goes without saying, didn't clean any of it up.

So for the last two days, I've been painting, mopping (the urine and feces have crystalized and dried, meaning that the 2400 square feet of floor has had to be scraped before mopped), patching the walls, retexturing the various pits, bumps and scrapes, and helping get the broken furniture out of the house so that it could be run to the dump. The boyfriend in question has been lazily removing the things of his he felt like moving and bitching about her. I have been considering a sucker punch for him. To the nose. She, unfortunately, has been crying about him and trying to get him back, and occasionally saying she'd never want to see him again. Even though it is mostly because of his daughter and how her future will be affected by a daughter who will only see her father when he feels like it, something the boyfriend's own father did to him, we have been encouraging her to sue for child support (not that she'll get any) and to remove his rights, because he would not, at this point, be able to take care of his daughter and having his daughter wait for him to show and be disappointed would not be fair to her.

In any situation in which something like this happens, the friends of the person to whom it happened have a choice. I could have refused to show, if nothing else because it seems (as it usually does in these situations) that everyone knew he was a shit except her. I could refuse because this puts me days behind on dissertation writing. I could refuse because the inside of the house has fumes so strong that I chemical burned the skin of my face after yesterday's twelve hour day, something I knew was going to happen from the odor the first time I saw the damage. I could also have lectured her about how stupid she's been the whole time. Certainly I was there because I would like to rent the place when it's finished. Among other things, I paint. My supplies have been in storage for a year or so now because there's no where to set up. The place was once a wood shop and has a huge workshop attached to it, and both my girls are musicians (saxophone and piano) and dancers (jazz and ballet) and have been without a practice space while I have them.

But, as I had time to contemplate while painting the 14 foot walls yesterday, what does it say about friendship? No matter how I feel about it, at the end of the day my 95 lbs dripping wet friend, who cannot eat and is being forced to do most of the work herself, is crouched over the crystalized mess in the workshop, scraping away. At then end of the day, her good-for-nothing boyfriend (I want to say sperm-donor, but hey, let's be genteel) is still whining at her and complaining because he does not actually want to have to move his stuff (although why he would still want to stay there, I don't know.) I could have bitched and moaned the whole time (and to some extent, I'm bitching here), but can you stiff your friends this way? And what does it say if you have the ability to help and you stand back and tell the people around you that you basically don't want to help them so they can enjoy their consequences/punishment and 'learn their lesson.' Maybe I'm sensitive to this because when I had my daughter, my family basically threw their hands up en masse and told me to do everything myself. I didn't know how to change a diaper when I took her home. I was gratified to find out that hospitals do parenting classes now and actually make sure you know what a car seat is and how to use one. I couldn't even ask anyone what that noise meant. The answer, for the most part, was 'you had her, you learn.'

We shouldered through, my oldest and I, but I did a god awful job of care at first. I didn't know how to change a diaper, so I frequently missed poop when I changed her and as a result, she had a chronic diaper rash for awhile there. I burned her mouth at least once when I transitioned to formula because I didn't know the 'test it on the inside of your wrist' trick. I had no idea how to do all those things and panicked a lot, something anyone with kids will be able to identify.

So I guess one of the questions I feel compelled to ask, when I am asked for help is who will get screwed if I don't help. When I have taken care of someone's kids for them, when I have hidden a woman from her partner, when I have fed someone using my student loans or been exhausted and tried to cheer someone up anyway, when I have driven across country with someone to give them another driver (if I have the kid-free time) despite the fact that I know I can't afford to eat on the trip, if I give up something for someone, who am I screwing? I have and often use the ability to say no, and occasionally 'go fuck yourself.' But there are situations where I, in good conscience, cannot abstain.

The case could be made that I am enabling my friend's bad behavior. I suppose. Of course, she is going to move back in with her family, she is still waiting for the results of the last biopsy to know if she has a fairly fatal form of cancer, and I would like to move into that space (it's seriously cheap in rent because it's down in the poorest part of Albuquerque and I want the studio space.) So yesterday, as my shoulders were burning and I had paint on everything and I was covered in soapy curls of urine, I thought about what being her friend meant to me. I met her through my partner, whom she got the best job he's ever had. In the time I've met her, she's given us tons of clothes her daughter grew out of (doesn't hurt a little boy to wear some pink), a high chair and a swing. At eight o clock at night, she's swaying on her feet in the driveway and trying to give us kid clothes and another piece of baby furniture, in case we need them or to give to someone else or sell at a used clothes place if we need the money. I've been on my feet since seven ten that morning, my nose has shut down in self-defense, I haven't eaten since eleven and I'm all but dead. She goes to hug me, and I give her that brief squeeze I've learned to do to people, and she hugs back harder, clinging to me. She's all of five foot nothing and so bony I'm a little afraid for her, and she comes up on her toes and keeps saying thank you in my ear. So I hold her back. The whole time, I'm thinking, goddamn.

That's exactly what I mean. So I held her back because she's my friend and because she and I and my partner have made a culture of generosity, passing help back and forward and trying to make each other's lives better. And in her ear I thank her back.



r@d@r said...

a teacher i studied with recently said that psychologists studying addiction are starting to amend their "co-dependence" model, which had been stretched to bursting to include all sorts of things it maybe shouldn't have. basically, they found in their research that among the people who survived the personal bottom of their addiction, after prison time, suicide attempts, homelessness, etc., the ones who "made it" had at least one friend who never gave up on them no matter what, who was there to model selflessness to them and provide a lifeline to their own humanity. according to the old model these people were supposedly "co-dependent" and not only were exacerbating the addict's condition but were in fact sick themselves; according to the changing model however, it's been suggested that what these people are may simply be good friends.

mouthybitch said...

I'm glad to hear that. It's always seemed to me like it was nearly impossible to learn how to be a decent person if, to your experience, no one was decent to you (I'm thinking the frequent correlation between neglect and/or abuse and drug problems), and asking someone to transition to a more generally acceptable way of thinking (one that does not include violence as a common solution to problems) if they have never seen it, never experienced it (people without fringe experience tend to be made very uncomfortable by fringe people and sometimes will lash out or ignore them) and no one explains the basic assumptions to them have little to no ability to understand what they're 'supposed' to think and feel. The constant unknowing, I think, makes addiction very attractive, as well as making other people with the same problems attractive (because they aren't expected to know things they have no context for.)

Thank you for commenting. Seriously.