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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Casteel

If I've Seen Further

Updated: Sep 14, 2020

One side effect of preschool is that our son is now more attached to us whenever he's not at school. Having some time apart from us most days has him clamping on to our legs, asking to be picked up and climbing on our shoulders a lot more. It's adorable if not a little hard on the back.

One downside is that it's hard for Lexi and I to have conversations now. Lexi and I will start a conversation only to hear, "Hay! Hay! Hay! Hay!". We'll explain that we're taking our turn talking and he can have the next turn to which he invariably replies "No, it's my turn!". Sometimes we hold out and finish our thought, usually something short and sweet like who will pick our son up on Thursday. Sometimes we're too tired to fight that battle at the end of a long day and give in and say "Okay, what's up?". To which, he replies "Um...Um...". He didn't have anything to say. He just wanted the attention back on him.

It's developmentally appropriately frustrating behavior. It's our responsibility to show him how to share a conversation. We've all met the adults who weren't taught that lesson. The folks who can't be in a conversation without completely highjacking it. The cyclones of drama that drown out all other voices. Or in the case of the younger me, the aspiring comedians desperately searching for an audience to test out their material.

I started off pretty shy, but very observant. Always in the circle, but just watching, not talking. I was an awkward, husky kid who didn't think anyone really wanted to hear from me, but I was sincerely curious about everyone else. How did they hold court with such presence that we all listened with rapt attention.

This changed in elementary school, when I found a tight group of 4 friends. Within that group, I felt safe enough to start telling stories. Back then, before youtube on every phone, most of them were just retelling the jokes from TV the night before. My years of carefully observing people had given me a keen ear to detail so I was able to remember all the words and even the intonations of whatever the funniest moment on In Living Color was the night before. Whenever I could get a good laugh or even just see that I had everyone's attention, it felt amazing. I was alive. I mattered. I made people laugh and feel good, which made me feel good.

That began the storytelling period of my life. I had built up an epic number of stories, much like the father from Big Fish. I loved meeting new people even more than seeing old friends again as I got the chance to tell them all my old stories and watch them experience them for the first time. The older the story, the better I told it. Like the ancient epic poems, they were living history, changing with every telling, exchanging objective truth for rhetoric polish. Conversations were never an exchange, they were a stage.

Then my brain tumor happened. Just like when you trip and time seems to downshift into slow motion, the pace of my life slowed down. I wasn't out creating new crazy stories all the time. I was focused on my most recent and least funny tale. No one wanted to hear my old funny stories. They just wanted a detailed recollection of my most recent and least favorite story, my health. When your friends hear you're facing a health crisis, they ask about it. They're worried about you and want to show you their concern, and the first few times that happens, it's invaluable. That story is a weight you're carrying and every person you tell it to helps to lighten your burden. The problem is, everyone wants to hear just that story. Your social life becomes an infinite rerun of the worst episode in the series. At some point, you've come to terms with it. The burden has been shared. Then each person who comes to ask you about it is actually coming to share their burden of concern for you with you. The weight of your worries about your health is replaced with the weight of their worries about you. Storytelling becomes a chore. You're done with the episode everyone wants to hear and just want the next season to premiere.

After a few rounds of sharing my health crisis and coming to terms with it. I just wanted to feel normal, like life was still moving. I started turning the conversation back around to my friends, sharing the stage so I could hear some of their stories as I was getting tired of hearing my own. It's not like I hadn't done that at all before my health crisis, but when I shared the stage in a conversation before, it was usually because there was another person like me who in the words of Mia Wallace was waiting to talk rather than listening. Ironically, I got better at listening as I lost my hearing. I might not hear you call me from across the room, but I will listen once you get my attention. Once it became harder for me to hear, the venues that I used to love because they gave me the best audiences for my stories (crowded bars, busy parties) became impossible to navigate through a cacophony of tinnitus. I began replacing them with small dinner parties or quiet hikes with one or two friends. Now that it so much harder for me to hear, I appreciate the times when I can listen so much more than I used to. Even if old habits die hard. Get a few manhattan's in me and I'll start spinning a yarn big enough to knit a sweater.

I hope I'm modeling a balanced approach to conversation for our son. It's important to be able to tell your story well, but it's just as important to listen to the stories of others. Without that context, we can get lost in our own narrative. Each night, Lexi and I model taking turns asking each person about their day so that each person gets the chance to tell their story. Hilariously, our son is always overcome with a bout of shyness whenever we ask him about his day, preferring to save those tidbits to interrupt Lexi and I whenever we start talking. The skills of conversation just like the telling of a good story become more polished with every turn. The polish comes from the friction between each person's desire to be heard. I hope to teach our son that if he gives a listen and he'll get one back, while still keeping a little of that gift of the blarney my mom gave to me.

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