Dear Ms. Meniscus:
I have rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia and can barely get through the day. My inlaws are pressing me to host a holiday saying all my husband’s sisters have children and work and since I don’t have children and don’t work (I was laid off) it’s the least I can do. I can’t bear the thought of having to cook and clean for all that company. Any suggestions for what to say without starting a fight with these people (I can’t stand it when they call me lazy).
They Call Me Lazy
Dear They Call Me Lazy:
This is the easiest question I’ve gotten in months. The hard part is whether you have the gumption to do what you know you needs to be done, and do it in a way that will help your relatives clearly understand your situation when Thanksgiving is over.
But before we get started on your job in this family mess, this reminds me of the old joke about the son who gave his parents five dollars each for their anniversary. Irritated, their father said, “son I have something to tell you. You were born before your mother and I were married.”
“Do you know what that makes me?” the son said.
“Yes, and you’re a cheap one,” his father replied. (I told you it was an old joke.)
So here’s the set-up, Ms. Lazy. First you ask them to chip in for dinner. Not food, but hard cash. Everyone has to give at least $5. They know you don’t work, and you will tell them that you’re willing to be the host, but they have to help out. A few will give you money. Take it and thank them. You’ll need it for your drug co-pay. The rest won’t give you anything. Remember their names for when their kids graduate from high school or have a birthday. You know what to do.
Next buy turkey lunch meat, bread, mayonnaise and whatever else you think will help make a nice, but not too nice, turkey sandwich.
Now, go buy enough People or Us magazines for everyone coming to dinner. Cut out the arthritis ads – Humira, Enbrel, Celebrex, any of them, and throw away the magazines. (I mean recycle them by taking them to your doctor’s waiting room.)
When you set the table on Thanksgiving Day, use plastic eating utensils and super glue them to the table cloth. (Yes, you’ll ruin the table cloth, so leave the lace one in the drawer.)
Put the arthritis medication ad on each plate.
As everyone sits down and notices the ads, shut up. Your silence will create silence. When they are quiet. Ask them to recall their first thought when they woke up this morning. Go around the table. Everyone must answer.
Do not discuss the arthritis medication ad. Some people will notice that their eating utensils are glued to the table. Do not respond to their comments or questions about this. Just keep smiling.
When everyone has given an answer, take a deep breath and read the ad aloud, including the side effects (don’t read the patient insert. You only have a few hours.) Then say, “this is what I thought about when I woke up this morning. It’s what I think about every morning.”
Then ask them to pick up their fork. “Difficult?” you’ll say. “Yes. It’s not exactly how difficult simple tasks are for me, but it’s the best I could come up with.”
About now, your guests are probably getting irritated with your self-centered actions, so it’s your responsibility to help them understand why you’ve done this by barely controlling your irritation with them.
“It’s not my intention to ruin your Thanksgiving. I know this is not what you expected, but arthritis isn’t what I expected. We all have reasons to be sad, angry, and depressed, and if I can help any of you be less sad, less angry, or less depressed, I would like to do that. Sometimes I feel like we don’t take time to understand what each of us has to lug around every day, that part of us emotionally or physically that we didn’t ask for, but we have to deal with. Sometimes, it’s helpful to let someone else know about our burden.
“This is usually a day when we give thanks for what we have, but we all know that we have to come to terms with what we don’t have, or that what we do have isn’t what we wanted. It might be money or happiness that we don’t have, or, in my case, a health problem that I do have. And part of coming to terms with what we do or don’t have is putting it in perspective as well as understanding what others do or don’t have that causes them pain.” Did you get all this?
Now go around the table again and ask people to volunteer their thoughts about what they’re not thankful for. Try to keep it light so your table mates don’t devolve into complaining. Some people will not be able to grasp this request. Let them be silent. They may surprise you later and tell you, or decide to tell the whole group. Be careful to just listen. No judgment. After they finish, explain that for you, it’s not about what you don’t have. It’s about what you do have and it is your constant companion. Sometimes doing something as simple as picking up a fork is nearly impossible and always painful. It’s like it’s glued to the table. It’s a good bet that a few people will say things that truly surprise you. People want to be honest about their feelings. They’re usually just waiting for the chance that comes from being in a safe place.
Then you need to finish this off so everyone not only understands your issue as well as other peoples’, but they find peace in a turkey sandwich and a glued fork when they were expecting, at least, canned cranberry gel and a few perennial casseroles in oven-baking dishes.
Here’s how you’re going to do that:
Your big finish will be to say that you could have cooked the dinner everyone was expecting, but it wouldn’t have been the dinner that brought us together to understand each other. It would have been the expected dinner, the dinner like the others that would have been forgotten. You can explain that you don’t want to be angry at your family, but when you cook a dinner as if you didn’t have a serious physical disease, the result is good food with bad feelings, accompanied with the lie that lets people believe that you are healthy. You’re not.
You’d rather be honest with your family and not do what hundreds of thousands of other people with arthritis do every day – keep the pain and anger to themselves.
Dramatic? Yes. Risky? Yes. Uncomfortable? Yes. Possibly a way to redefine your relationship and give your family a chance to love and respect you. Yes. Another opportunity for your family to call you crazy. Maybe.
Reminds me of the old joke about the butcher who backed into his meat grinder and got a little behind in his orders.
Thanksgiving. Don’t settle for old jokes when you can create a new life.