I’m just ducky, thank you

Every day, like happens to all of us, at least one person asks me, “How are you?” Some days, if I’m out and about, I answer the question a lot. “I’m pretty good” has been my usual response until now, but I’ve been seriously thinking about changing that phrase.

I’ve been recuperating from a winter back surgery, a process that is . . . well, it’s a process. As a result, it has occurred to me that I’ve been answering that frequent question with the same words “I’m pretty good” but with a different inflection. Instead of chirpy and quick, with an emphasis on GOOD, I’ve been dragging it out with the emphasis on a slow P-R-E-T-T-TY good. That’s not so good.

Nobody really wants an answer to that everyday How-Are-You question. We’re all just used to it being the next sentence that comes after “Hi!” Well-mannered people learn early on that it’s gracious to be solicitous of friends and acquaintances. But, if I truly want to know how someone is, I stop, look them in the eye and ask, carefully, “. . . . And how ARE you?” often with a touch on the arm. It’s usually someone who is recuperating or has been dealing with a big problem.

But I’m not nicer than anyone else when it comes to everyday How Are You’s. I have one acquaintance that I would not, under any circumstances, ask how she is. I don’t have enough time in my day or week to listen to her response. It’s not that I don’t care about her, but honestly, I don’t know anyone who could handle the twenty or thirty minute descriptive litany of woes that follows that question. Don’t most of us know someone like that?

I’m definitely slow on the uptake because it took me more than a few times to realize the folly of asking this woman how she is. First she’d tell me about the symptoms, followed by the pain, the sleeplessness, the doctors, the tests, the second opinions, the test results, the trips to Erie, then on to Pittsburgh and Cleveland and the specialists, followed by the prescriptions. Then, just when I’d think I could break for the door would come the contraindications of the medicines, the allergic reactions, the effects on the stomach, and then, the lowest of them all, the bowels.

Once she starts into her unhappy bowels . . . well, there’s no end to it. The last time she got stuck in the bowels I raised my hand and said, “T.M.I.” Too much information! She hesitated, looked at me quizzically, and went right back to frequency, texture and color. Oy.

Conversely, I had an acquaintance that made an enormous impression the first time I met her. She was older, still working full time and, I found out later from others, had had a very difficult life. . . illnesses, tragedies, business failures, challenging children. But that first evening, and every meeting thereafter, I would say hi and ask after her health. Her only answer, with a huge smile, was always “Never better.” I’ll never forget her. What a grand way to go through life. No matter the size of the curve balls thrown her way, her public face was always “never better.”

My cousin Nancy is also one of those “glass three-quarters full” type people. When asked she always responds, “I’m Perfect”. There’s no ego involved it’s just her everyday state of well-being.

Recently, while carrying her three-year-old palsied granddaughter through a crowded street in Boston – on their way to a theater showing of Elmo – she tripped on a cobblestone. In an effort to keep her darling Mia from hitting the pavement, she threw herself under the fall forcing her shoulder into both the cobblestones and curb. The horrific result is a shoulder so badly shattered that the bone is mostly gravel. She’s experiencing pain she never knew existed. When I called to check on her after the accident her answer was “Almost perfect.” Last night on the phone, only a few weeks into a long recovery, I asked, “How are you, really?”

“I’m absolutely perfect.” was her quick response, and I could hear the smile in her voice. I should introduce her to my long-winded, long sufferer, the one with the bowels, but Nancy is also a realist, and she would make me pay for that indiscretion.

So thinking about our everyday response definitely has me rethinking mine. I’m much too far from perfect in mind or body to quote Nancy. And I couldn’t possibly answer with a retort I just heard, “I’m finer than a frog’s hair.” It’s just not me.

But, ya know, “Never better” has a wonderful, optimistic ring. So what if it’s a white lie some days it certainly raises the level of the conversation, in fact probably, the whole day’s prospect. And, this is a big plus – there’s absolutely no room in that response for a discussion about bowels, happy or otherwise.