"When are you due?" It's a harmless question. I hear it when I meet new people at parties or when I'm out shopping. I even hear it from some of the nurses at the chemo unit during my weekly visit. Recently a plumber, returning after a year, said, "Whoa, pregnant again?"
This question is part of the ritual of meeting me. You see, I look pregnant - not fat, but pregnant. In fact, I have been known to shamelessly use that fact to get a seat on the bus or a better spot in a queue.
Unfortunately, my impressive belly does not hold a baby. I have one of the largest livers most doctors are likely to see. Once, in the emergency room, a doctor rounded up all the other doctors and residents to come and view this marvel.
Its magnificence is the result of a rare disease called amyloidosis. I've lived with this bone marrow disease and my resulting large liver for more than 10 years. I'm used to the question … mostly.
People's reactions have taught me a great deal about empathy and kindness. I've learned what it feels like to be on the other side of bad news. I understand it can't be easy to absorb the fact that what you believe to be a baby is actually a liver resulting from a life-threatening disease. Still, I usually cringe in anticipation when I begin to tell my tale.
Some people feel appalled and embarrassed by their mistake: "Oh my God, I can't believe I said that!" or "Oh, I feel so terrible!" and on and on. These people are much more caught up in their own behaviour than in what is happening to me.
I, too, have been in that position, asking what I thought was a "foot-in-mouth" question. It's hard to separate our own injured ego from real concern for others. I have learned that I must move on from my honest mistakes. Otherwise, I will lose an opportunity to connect with others and provide support.
Another reaction is an almost insensitive level of pity, casting me as a victim. It gets worse if the person breaks into tears. I don't see myself as tragic and this concern weighs me down, making me feel separate and reduced. I've learned that pity satisfies something in the giver, but certainly not in the receiver.
Those who are afraid of illness are unsure how to react. They become wary and watchful, sometimes backing away as if I am contagious. I know I wanted to do the same thing when I first entered the new territory of loss and illness among those close to me. From this reaction I have learned not to be afraid when dealing with the pain and loss of others.
I value people who react with warmth, humour and compassion. I have come to realize that compassion does not equal pity and tears. Compassion can take many forms. The other day I was explaining my belly to a woman who was hearing impaired. She looked me steadily in the eyes with warmth and put her fist over her heart. I imagine that she was making the sign for, "I'm sorry," but to me it felt like she was saying, "solidarity sister."
Compassion can be humour. It brightens my day when someone responds with kind eyes and a good joke. Once, I introduced myself to a group with the usual, "Hi, my name is Sam and I'm not pregnant." My rotund friend, Nito, followed with, "Hi, my name is Nito and I'm not pregnant either."
Compassion can also mean pushing me to do things that help me. My instructors of Taoist Tai Chi do not go gently on me because I am sick. They encourage me to work even harder for the maximum health benefit. That kind of compassion has helped me profoundly.
Children are the best of all. They stare in wonder and ask if there is a baby in my tummy. When I tell them what is really in there they ask, "What's a liver?" They don't flinch or look away; they just want to understand in a very human way.
My favourite response was from a little boy who, after I explained what made my tummy so big, said to me with a huge grin, "Polar bears must really love you." In answer to my quizzical look, he explained that polar bears really like to eat liver. I was in love.
Sometimes. when I am far from home (and not likely to get caught), I will avoid the conversation altogether. "Oh, I've still got a ways to go," or, "It feels like I've been pregnant forever." If I'm pressed to pick a number, I will say seven months. This is an estimate based on a teenage boy who once said to me, "I guess that you're about seven months along. I know a lot about pregnancy; I took a course in high school and did really well." Thank you, young man, for giving me this line.
If I'm lucky, my 11-year-old son will be with me to act as my belly ambassador. He provides a straightforward explanation of my condition. The person asking will look to me for confirmation, but won't press on.
Most of the time, however, I face the question by myself. Even when I have to grit my teeth to politely answer yet again, I value the learning I take away. I learn so many ways to provide a compassionate response to others in a similar situation.
I am more fearless when friends tell me about their cancers and losses, focusing on them and their needs rather than my own reactions or awkwardness. I do not provide pity. I do not cry over them. I do give them what I desperately hope to receive: warmth, friendship and sometimes a story about a polar bear.
Samantha Albert lives in Stratford, Ont.