Last night, I watched the movie Rent. I hadn't seen it in a long time, and my musical theater-loving kids wanted to watch it.
Rent the movie is based on Rent the stage musical. It holds a place in my heart because my wife and I saw the stage musical about 10 days after I was diagnosed with cancer. I had bought her tickets for Christmas, and I remember we had thought about not going, but we decided the distraction would be good for both of us.
It's actually a really great show, but I had a hard time with it back then. If you aren't familiar with it, it's about a year in the life of a group of friends in 1989/1990 in New York. It's based on Pucchini's opera La Boheme. For the most part, the characters are artists of some type, trying to stay true to themselves while also dealing with relationships that are complicated by the AIDS crisis that was close to its peak at that time. It was a ground-breaking musical with lots of great songs.
But when my wife and I saw the show back then, just after I was diagnosed, the thing that struck me most was how how messed up the characters' priorities were. This is what I wrote in the blog way back then (January 28, 2008, if you want to look it up):
I think, though, that if I had seen it when it first came out, I would
have been at an age to appreciate it more. The bohemian,
anti-establishment message was a little lost on me. I found myself
thinking, "You're cold because your landlord padlocked your building
because you haven't paid your rent in a year, and now you're squatting
in your old apartment? I have a good idea -- get a job."
I wasn't in a good place then.
But what struck me last night, watching the movie version 8 1/2 years later, is how much I had missed. Stuff I couldn't really have seen, not that soon into my dealing with cancer.
What really struck me last night, almost immediately, wasn't that they were a bunch of kids who didn't want to get jobs. What struck me was how much they relied on each other.
There are a few scenes in the movie involving an AIDS support group (four of the eight main characters have AIDS or are HIV positive). I could never have known, 10 days into my own diagnosis, how much a support group means to someone who is hanging on to hope so desperately. I was still numb when I saw the stage show. Desperation was still a few days away.
It's amazing to think about how much I missed that desperation. AIDS isn't cancer, and I can't say I know how someone with AIDS feels, and my own cancer isn't the death sentence that AIDS was in 1989. But it felt like it at times, early on. In one of the support group scenes, the members stand in a circle and sing about their fears:
Will I lose my dignity
Will someone care
Will I wake tomorrow
From this nightmare?
It's a heartbreaking scene. They know they are helpless in stopping their disease from getting worse. And even worse, it's a slow decline that they have probably seen in their friends.
If I had seen this show a month later, I think I would have focused on the fear, more than anything. I don't think it would have been that specific a fear, about dying with dignity. But I do remember feeling that there was nothing I could do to stop it from coming. I remember thinking, early on, how messed up it was that I pretty much knew how I was going to die. I wouldn't even have the luxury of being surprised.
But I didn't focus on that. I focused on how small some of the characters' problems were -- paying rent while staying true to themselves.
And it all made me think about how much has changed since I was diagnosed.
That reaction really sums things up for my early life as a cancer patient. I was the impatient patient. Maybe because watching and waiting requires so much energy to NOT think about cancer, I was impatient in everything else in life. I'm generally a laid back person, but back then, I just couldn't stand the idea of people wasting time on things that didn't matter. Work was hell sometimes, because I work in a field where we have to spend a lot of time talking about things in a very small detailed way. And some things really do require that kind of detail. But somethings don't. And I would lose my mind sitting in meetings when I could have been doing other things.
I remember, in the months after I was diagnosed, getting pulled over by a police officer for talking on my cell phone while driving, which is illegal in my state. But I WASN'T on my phone. I think I was just leaning on my hand, waiting for the light to change, and from behind, it looked like I was holding a phone to my ear. And I argued with the police officer, which was justified, but very unlike me. As I said, I'm usually very laid back, and respectful of authority. But that post-diagnosis impatience was in full swing, and I wasn't tolerating anyone who wasted my time.
And over time, that changed. I'm back to being patient and laid back, at least most of the time.
So when I watched Rent last night, it wasn't impatience that came out. It was mercy.
That's the word that came to me. Mercy.
I think much less about myself and the way I want the world to be for me. I think I'm more likely now to see others' suffering and want to help. Or at least to identify with it and feel bad.
Cancer changes us. Probably in lots of ways, over time. I think that's especially important for those of us who have more time to live with it than we might have thought at first.
I don't want the message here to be that cancer makes us better people. I'm not sure it does, and I don't think it should. I'm not someone who sees cancer as a gift. And I'm not someone who thinks we need to be positive all the damn time. Cancer didn't make me a better person, at least at first. It made impatient and selfish -- someone who sees people dying on stage and wishes they'd stop whining and get jobs. Cancer made me a jerk.
But things change over time. And if I got anything out of Rent this time around, it was that, even as people carry their own burdens, sometimes they are able to see the pain in others, and do something to make the world (or just their small piece of it) a better place.
I like that message a whole lot more.