You never know how you’re going to react when told your cheese has cancer. Oh, sure, you try to plan for these things, imagining yourself taking the news with dignity, perhaps closing your eyes and rocking back slightly on your heels to demonstrate what a blow this has been. But then you breathe deeply, and with hardly a quiver to your voice you ask, “What kind of cancer? Should we plan for the worst?”
But when it really does happen to you, it mostly leaves you feeling numb. Numb and shocked and angry at whatever god can just snatch your curdled dairy products right out of your life without so much as a warning or a chance to say a proper goodbye.
This terrible news was delivered to me last night, by none other than that most empathetic of oncologists, Dr. James Wilson. His technician had performed the tests by putting several chunks of fresh mozzarella into tiny paper cups and micro-cooking them for twenty seconds.
I recognized the tech as the gal with a forehead seemingly woven from other people’s eyebrows, who supervises the self-checkout at Home Depot. The cancer testing job must have been a part-time thing, but she seemed very capable, very professional. She certainly knew her way around a microwave.
However, as good as each of them were at their work, neither could describe just what type of cancer my cheese had contracted. They just looked at each other, and at the floor, neither one wanting to deal the final card in this already devastating hand.
Eventually I found myself losing a grip on my composure and screaming, “Tell me! What are we talking about? Non-gouda Questicular Lymphoma? Fetanoma? What??”
I mean, yes, I know a little something about bovine-extrusion-related health issues. I read Web MD. But they still needed to get me to the ballpark for crying out loud. What was my insurance company paying them for, anyway?
The best Dr. Wilson could do was hand me a “Far Side” collection and point to a picture of a cow standing on its hind legs, delivering the eulogy at what I inferred was a memorial service for a half-pound of provolone.
“That. Your cheese has that one. There’s nothing more I can do. Go home and make it as comfortable as possible. Wrap it in a damp towel and place it in the window, perhaps with a view of the pasture. The end will come soon enough.”
Frustrated and impotent, determined not to cry but already blinded by tears, I collected my little cups of nuked mozzarella and left the office. Waiting for the elevator, I whimpered to myself, “This must be a dream. I can hardly believe this is happening. This has GOT to be some kind of freaking nightmare.”
Which, of course, it was.
There is something about waking from a vivid dream that is the one great human unifier. Forget putting your pants on one leg at a time, forget the common denominator of everyone eventually dying. That semi-lucid moment of “What the heck was THAT all about??” connects us with the rest of our species in a way few experiences can.
Ever had the flying dream? How about the one where you’re naked in school / church / Denny’s? Or that dream where you forget your locker combination, or the vocab for a Spanish test you flunked 30 years ago, or the fact that you’re married so you feel no guilt making out with Curtis Olenslager behind the metal shop?
I imagine that even people as far removed from humanity as Kim Jong Il and Brittney Spears still wake up gasping for air and wondering how they made it all the way to the Lone River Mall wearing nothing but a 'Hello Kitty' shower curtain. Gosh, who hasn’t?
What I don’t understand, however, is the need to share our dreams with others. What is the point, exactly? It’s not like we’re reporting on something real, like our trip to Colonial Williamsburg or the time we ran over a raccoon because we were distributing Happy Meals to the back seat instead of watching the road.
There is no logic in relating our dreams to someone who couldn't possibly have been there, since “there” was merely a burst of truant chemicals roaming the otherwise peaceful streets of our minds, spray-painting retaining walls and pipe bombing the mailboxes. We might as well start a conversation with, “The following is a list of things that didn’t really happen to me over the last 24 hours. One: I did not grow a tail…”
I have to admit that, as a mother, I have little patience with listening to my kids talk about their dreams. “Last night, I dreamed…” are four syllables guaranteed to put my lights out faster than a toaster in the bathtub. I feel like a hostage, forced to take an interest in the endless tales my captors are spinning for fear that otherwise I’ll be branded heartless and unsympathetic. It’s like “Stockholm Syndrome: The Home Game.”
I don’t mean to sound cruel, but honestly, how am I supposed to respond to these stories? “Wow. You sure were brave. You know, in your head and stuff.” Somehow that just seems condescending but let’s face it, the choices are limited.
I’m not a whole lot better about nightmares. I wouldn’t mind them so much if they happened during the day, when I’m already conscious. But I don’t do well being awakened in the middle of the night for any reason. I pity the unfortunate home invader who thinks he’ll get anything other than a screeching, ten-clawed nightmare of his own for waltzing into my bedroom uninvited.
If I’m lucid enough I try to spare my kids the nuclear option, but even then it’s only by degrees. As far as I’m concerned, if your dream was bad enough to wake me up any time before seven a.m., that monster better still be clinging to your backside, visible to the naked eye and braced for a whooping.
My favorite, of course, is when helpful folks try to interpret your dreams for you. These people are so earnest and sincere, so absolutely convinced there is something profoundly revealing and life altering about this stuff, they’re practically begging you to mess with them.
I knew a girl in college who based her entire life plan on her dreams. She was the only person I’ve known to actually keep a dream journal, and she carried it with her everywhere she went in case she, I don’t know, nodded off in the ladies’ room or something.
She always had some new puzzle to solve, handed to her by a vindictive subconscious which clearly hated her guts and hoped she wound up working swing shift at the AM / PM.
“So last night I dreamed I quit school and married one of Barry Manilow’s roadies,” she would tell me, genuinely concerned about this new and unexpected turn of events. “What do you think that means?” My answer was always the same. “Well, Janine, I think it means you should sit with the sopranos today.”
But she was so intent on finding meaning in her and everyone else’s dreams, I couldn’t help but toss her the occasional juicy work of unapologetic cow poo.
I’d look deep into her eyes, then look away as though I was mustering the nerve to finally break the chains of silence and confusion that had imprisoned my psyche for years. Taking a deep breath and expelling it slowly, I’d begin, “Well, it always starts out the same. I’m drowning in human saliva, and I can’t find the watch my dad gave me when I was paroled…”
That probably wasn’t very nice of me, but she asked for it.
It doesn’t take a genius to figure out the significance of most dreams. Take the “naked-in-public” one. Near as I can tell, it demonstrates a deep-seated fear of being naked in public. What more is there to say? It’s sublime in its efficiency. “Don’t ever be naked in public. You'll hate it.” There you go, mystery solved.
Dreaming you can fly all by yourself? Well, that means you have a fear of taking your shoes off in airports. Duh.
And what would these experts have to say about my cheese’s cancer scare? Does it speak to abandonment issues? Am I only afraid of losing the mozzarella, or does the fear extend to all pizza toppings? Will I, for example, ever be able to have a healthy relationship with Italian sausage? Canadian bacon? Mediterranean olives? Good heavens, is this a racism thing?
All I can say for certain is, if Cinderella was right and “a dream is a wish your heart makes”, then my heart really needs to get a life. In the last week alone, it has evidently 'wished' for a house fire, a tornado, and a dirigible occupied by every gay man I ever dated to crash into the University of Utah football stadium. In flames, of course. That one was easy.
And what are we thinking, telling kids that the reward for hard work and righteous living is the realization of all their dreams? Who came up with that sadistic promise?
“Remember the one where you’re being chased by tigers and your legs won’t work and although daddy is standing right there holding a rifle he’s too busy chatting up the waitress from IHOP to even notice you're about to be devoured?
“Well guess what, punkin? Dreams really DO come true!”