Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Livelihood, Part I

They told us we would never have to starve, and we would never have to hate what we do in the long run.

Unlike most aspiring artists, my parents actually encouraged me. They had come of age during both a population and economic boom, when one could graduate college and work somewhere as a professional. When I was being instilled with this career-optimism as a kid, everyone seemed to have the idea that we were past depressions, past wars besides the distant, mostly secret ones that never had civilian drafts. Like a wide swath of middle class kids, I had my basic needs met, I was supported, and it was given that I would go to college then go on to some sort of career. And my parents hoped it would be in writing, probably because they had never gotten the chance to follow their own artistic dreams.

I know now that I won’t be a writer. For nearly thirty years I’ve been struggling to be anyone. Now I just long to be an adult who works and eats and is minimally crazy.

Along with that swath of middle class kids, I was fed the notion that if I worked hard enough I could achieve anything, that the best thing I could do is follow my dream. And even after seeing countless artistic depictions of people stuck in miserable, dead-end jobs, I didn’t consider that there might be something to that. That it was a trope because nearly everyone had to come to that, to see their dream then scale down their expectations, scale down, scale down, until they’re just surviving.

You only have to work hard. My grandparents had been through the depression and the second world war. My parents came up from scrappy working-class to lower-middle-class backgrounds. My mom was the first woman in her family to go to college. Both of my parents had artistic inclinations--my dad as a painter and my mom as a writer. My mom was more of a dabbler, but my dad was different. I’ve written about his art before. He was great, like he was at most non-athletic things he tried. But the draft put his dream on hold; it took a deferral to attend medical school to keep him from going to Vietnam.

Becoming a doctor is something to be proud of, among the highest aspirations of kids coming from the lower socioeconomic rungs of the ladder, not that my dad was particularly low on that ladder. If you talk to ambitious teenagers who aspire to be first-generation college attendees, becoming a doctor or lawyer is the most commonly cited ambition. They answer this regardless of their unique talents and passions. Ultimately, they want to be successful. Then hopefully the next generation can do what they really want.

My dad told me that he dreams of nothing but medical procedures--bodies floating by on a grocery store checkout conveyer belt, and he has to operate on them quickly before they fall off the edge.

He’s not even an emergency room doctor or a surgeon. Most of the time he’s dislodging clots from the arteries of old people. Still, he came back from work every day shrouded in gloom, exasperation. My mom tried to train us to tiptoe around him, to be good, the source of zero stress for him because his work is terrible and he only does it for us. If I ever asked him about his work he would put on his calm-but-quick doctor voice and describe complex procedures with a sense of adeptness, an air of enthusiasm barely breaking through his expression. But asking him whether he liked his work was usually met with a deep sigh, and a weary, “I just can’t stand being around sick people anymore.” He can do everything right and something can still go wrong. Sometimes people sue him. Sometimes they die.

Cancer was my dad’s first hiatus from work.

He went through six courses of chemo, then six weeks in a hospital bed in which they plugged him into poisons to kill all the lymphoma cells they could for days at a time. They took out his stem cells through a tube in his jugular vein, pumped him full of more poison, then put new stem cells back in.

When I saw him months after his stem cell transplant, his complexion was ashen and he couldn’t walk much without becoming dizzy and winded. Sometimes he vomited. Sometimes he fell. He still hadn’t grown his hair back, and he loudly snorted mucus through a nose that just wanted to slick it out since it didn’t have any hairs for resistance. We thought he might be dying, that his stem cells would kill him.

In spite of this all, while he was still snorting and vomiting and wheezing, he told me that his six months of cancer treatment had been less stressful than going to work every day.

He didn’t die, and after a year of treatment and recovery he went back to work. When I asked him again, he told me he still preferred cancer.

To be continued in Part II.

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