‘How are you’: a poem

There’s an aftertaste of yesterday’s
sensitive murmurs and concerned, defeated looks,
“Have you heard?”

I haven’t.
All day,
“Have you heard?” “Yes, very sad.”
I develop the habit of dropping my gaze and slipping out of the conversation
without a fuss,
becoming invisible.
I haven’t heard,
and there’s probably a reason for that.
The pace has picked up slightly,
everyone is moving around with an air of caution and maturity,
paying each other perfunctory versions
of the usual passing smiles,
everything toned down in respect.
We swim through the day
like an obsolete cassette player
running itself down through its last hours
into obscurity.
“How are you?”
someone asks,
just out of courtesy, of course,
not seeking deep, thoughtful response.
Well, I’m okay. I’m okay.
We carry on, the hive,
dodging each other as we swing round blind corners of filing cabinets,
pushing muffled trolleys and even typing on mute.
Low, graceful voices teach me new tasks,
leaving me wiser and more useful.
Near the end of my lesson, they ask,
“Do you know, Helen has cancer?”
Well, now I do.
I drift away at the end of the day,
feeling guilty, because, I’m okay.
I go home to my partner and make the usual two calming cups of tea,
and he asks me how I am.
“I’m okay,” I say,
because I am, I’m okay.
I think about what the right answer is,
what one of the mature, concerned voices might say,
what would be respectful.
And I think, well,
this is not my drama,
not my story,
I shouldn’t be infusing my eyes and voice
with what I am only guessing is the
appropriate emotional response.
I wouldn’t drop my face on greeting someone in a wheelchair,
would I?
I wouldn’t downplay my ability to walk,
and run, and make the most of what I still have available.
Of course, whatever the reason they’re in a wheelchair,
it probably isn’t terminal.
And, in all likelihood,
they probably haven’t just heard.
I’ve only just heard,
indeed, so has Helen.
So, that’s, different, then.
It’s not a case of distraction or avoidance, or
showing my respect by using what I’ve got
because I should appreciate it while I can.
This is not news for which there exists
an ‘appropriate’ response.
But this is not my business, really.
We eat.
We watch a drama about a man funding his cancer treatment
by cooking and selling drugs.
We laugh, we make love, we talk, we go to sleep.
The alarm is snoozed the usual three times,
and then we drag ourselves up and out.
Back at the office,
I hear that Helen is going to be away for a while.
They are replacing her,
temporarily,
and would I like to stay a little longer?
Of course, I say, and feel guilty,
because, I’m okay.
I will drift out of this place
with only a shopping list
tonight
and the thought,
“Thank god I’m okay.”

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