The vending machine theory
There are two plumbers in my basement, clanking away as they install a new hot water heater. Our old one decided on Sunday that its service life was over.
I remember when I was in the thick of my last round of chemo, back in Maryland during the lost summer of ’05, we had a toilet overflow and flood out the room below it. I was sick and weak, Pete was already overwhelmed trying to pick up the pieces of the household that I’d been steadily dropping, the kids were young, we lived in a place with few friends and family, and the ceiling was literally falling in. It felt like the end of the world.
One of the valuable lessons I learned the first time around is that the amount of shit we are dealt in life is not metered, at least not in any way I can make sense of.
I will give you another example from ’05. Months before my initial diagnosis we’d booked a 2-week vacation at a beach house in RI. The trip was to be a two-fer, allowing us to visit with family but also have our own time and space for vacation. We timed the trip so that we could attend my cousin’s wedding. As it turned out, I had my final chemo the day before we had planned to leave for that trip. We proceeded as planned anyway. The thing about the last chemo treatment is that even though it leaves you feeling your weakling sickest, it is the last one and therefore even though your body is crumbling, your spirit soars because you are done, and you are maybe done forever.
So we set out for the 8-hour drive north, and realize about 2 hours into it that we’d forgotten to take all of the hanger clothes (Pete’s suit, my dress, you get the idea). OK, no problem, Pete would skip the ceremony and I would borrow or buy a dress (we hadn’t planned to attend the reception, because contrary to popular belief, I do understand the concept of limits). We get to RI, set up temporary quarters at my dad’s house for the night (Emma is 4, Fia 18 months), and next morning as I am getting ready to drag myself to see my sweet little cuz tie the knot, we hear a spl-crash. It is the sound of a pill bottle falling to the floor, contents scattering. And as we all rush to the guest bedroom, there is Sofia collecting little pink pills (benadryl) and doing what 18 months old do with colorful found bite-size objects.
We call poison control, and then while I head to the wedding, Pete heads to the ER. Where Sofia eats a big bowl of charcoal ice cream and tragedy is averted. And then the ER doctor feels the need to give Pete a long lecture on keeping medications safe from kids. And to this day, I do not understand why Pete did not strangle that asshole. Because at that point in time, there were 4 of us sleeping in makeshift quarters, I was the functional equivalent of the walking dead, and oh by the way, of the half dozen bottles of pills I had taken with me, benadryl was the most benign option by an order of magnitude. All Pete had to say was “sorry, my wife is half dead from chemo and we are sleeping on air mattresses at my in-laws for one night until we can get into our vacation rental and we didn’t even remember our wedding clothes but you’re right, we really should have toted along those child safety locks.” I am certain any jury would have let him off for whatever he might have done to Dr. Judgy McKnow-it-All.
So these two little tales from 7 years ago bring me to why I didn’t even flinch at the hot water heater.
Because I know that life is not a vending machine.
Sure, you can put in your $1.25 and hit B7, but if you think you’re going to get a Mello Yello every time, joke’s on you.
A common refrain that I heard then and I hear now is “you don’t deserve this.” And that is a 100% true statement. But it is predicated on the belief that there is some algorithm for how and why life doles out shit. In my experience, there isn’t.
People often say “you are strong, you are brave.” I am not. I am plodding through this because that is what we all try to do when we hit B7 and get a big ol’ shit sandwich.
If I were to draw a circle and stand in the middle and place every person near and dear to me around the perimeter, I could look in any direction and find somebody who got screwed by the vending machine. Loss of loved ones. Debilitating diseases. Loss of children. Violent crimes. Did any one of them ask for or deserve what they got? I know they did not.
I think that we have a basic human need to understand why things happen. And I think we feel some basic entitlement to fairness. When things happen that seem unfair, we can’t find the answer to the why. And we end up chasing our tails into sadness, or despair, or anger.
(Don’t get me wrong, I feel sad and desperate and angry quite often, sometimes all at once. I’m just saying that if we approach life expecting an Even Steven tally at the end, we are guaranteed to feel a disproportionate amount of sad et. al.)
For me, to maintain forward momentum (whether it be through major disease or minor household inconvenience), it is essential to not get lost in the why me, to accept the fact that sometimes life kicks you when you’re down, to let go of the expectation that if I just press the right buttons, I will get exactly what I want or expect.
Postscript: There is corollary to the vending machine theory, and lest you think I am a total fatalist, I promise to revisit this at some future date. The working title is “how to turn your shit sandwich into shit-ade.” I admit it needs some work.