Uncomfortably numb

This is a difficult post to write.

Oh, not difficult mentally; I know what I want to say. It’s not anything I’m embarrassed about, or can’t find the words for. It’s all things I’ve been thinking about for a while now.
No, it’s just physically hard for me to type these days. They’re right when they say you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone, and it wasn’t one of the things I ever worried about (or even thought about) while they were treating me for cancer last year.

See, one of the potential side effects of FOLFOX, the chemotherapy regimen I was on, is peripheral neuropathy. While the drugs are busy killing cancer cells, they can also end up damaging the myelin coating that makes your nerves work, especially the ones that carry touch signals from your extremities.

My feet started going numb after a couple months, and eventually it moved most of the way up my legs, but I was pretty happy that my hands weren’t affected. Until the day after my last chemo treatment, that is, when first my fingertips, then knuckle by knuckle my fingers, and finally my whole hands went numb.

You know when you’re sitting wrong and your leg goes to sleep, and then you move, and it starts to wake up and you still can’t really feel anything and it starts getting tingly? That’s basically what my hands and feet are like all the time now. Except they never wake up. It’s like wearing gloves I can never take off. After a year I’m getting better at typing, but when you can’t feel the keys under your fingers, you can’t tell when they drift, and I spend about twice as much time typing anything as I used to. Thankfully the cancer shows no sign of coming back, but it’s left its mark.

I’ve been numb before, though it wasn’t as noticeable, to me at least. I don’t know if  it’s intentional, or cultural, or just part of human nature, but we all seem to numb ourselves to things, to others, to the Other, to whatever we don’t like or what doesn’t fit or what we don’t want to take the time to understand. The further something or someone is from us, or our social or religious or ethnic group, or from our experience, the less we seem to consider them or be considerate of them. And the more they become Them with a capital T.

And I know I’ve been just as guilty of it as most people, because I think we don’t even notice we’re doing it, because, well, we’re numb. We numb ourselves to other’s feelings, to other’s points of view, until we don’t even recognize them. And I think we tend to stay that way because it’s easy to be numb, to live in our own little worlds and not mind what’s going on outside.

Until something makes you notice. Something happens that’s big enough to break through the numbness, to wake up the dead nerves enough that you start to notice the world around you, and you start to feel something again. Maybe it’s something like today, which is still too raw for me to do much more than hug my kids a little tighter. But that’s already mostly in my world, more “Us” than “Them.” So maybe it’s something like a mother in Hurricane Sandy, desperately knocking on doors trying to get help to save her boys, who were the same age as mine, and getting turned away because she’s not one of us. Maybe it’s a kid going to buy a snack and getting gunned down for how he looked.

Or in my case, maybe it’s reading a story like this one last winter:

Driven Away by a War, Now Stalked by Winter’s Cold
KABUL, Afghanistan — The following children froze to death in Kabul over the past three weeks after their families had fled war zones in Afghanistan for refugee camps here:

  • Mirwais, son of Hayatullah Haideri. He was 1 ½ years old and had just started to learn how to walk, holding unsteadily to the poles of the family tent before flopping onto the frozen ridges of the muddy floor.
  • Abdul Hadi, son of Abdul Ghani. He was not even a year old and was already trying to stand, although his father said that during those last few days he seemed more shaky than normal.
  • Naghma and Nazia, the twin daughters of Musa Jan. They were only 3 months old and just starting to roll over.
  • Ismail, the son of Juma Gul. “He was never warm in his entire life,” Mr. Gul said. “Not once.”

It was a short life, 30 days long.
These children are among at least 22 who have died in the past month, a time of unseasonably fierce cold and snowstorms. The latest two victims died on Thursday.

He was never warm. Not once. And it’s winter again. And I can tuck my boys in at night and know that they’re safe and warm and I’ll see them again in the morning, and there are people in the world who can’t say that. I can’t imagine my kids going through that. Or rather, I can. I just don’t want to.

And the dead nerves start to wake up and I realize that it’s not Us vs. Them. It never was. They are Us. We are Them. My empathy for someone can’t be based on their relation to me, on where they’re from, on what they believe. I can’t look down on “those people” because I am “those people.” We are all “those people.”

And I don’t want to be numb anymore.

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