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Getting What We Deserve

I am moaning aloud in my office when my son calls out briskly with that moral certainty and dismissiveness that is the provenance of 16-year-olds, “Mom, stop. He was stupid. It was his own fault, and he got what he deserved.”

I am listening to the last part of the Steve Jobs biography by Walter Isaacson. Christopher can hear it from his room, where he is ensconced on his bed, flipping through screens on his phone and issuing moral pronouncements.

I can’t suppress the sighs and moans that come out of me as I listen to the description of how Jobs delayed treatment for the type of pancreatic cancer that he had, which might have been arrested if he had acted earlier. I completely understand the kind of fear and denial that led him to refuse surgery, just as well as I understand a 16-year-old’s decree that this decision is simply “stupid.”  (Note: those of you who knew me when I was equally insufferable at 16, equally sure that I knew everything, and equally likely to deem someone or something “stupid,” my sincere apologies, 39 years later. Life has indeed chastened me.)

I rifled through photos to try to find one of my know-it-all 16-year-old self, but there are none. By that time, family photos had stopped abruptly. In this shot where I appear to have a stranglehold on the largely neglected household cat, I am 15, not quite yet the age where I was convinced I knew everything and meted out judgments that must have infuriated my mother.



“Oh, no,” I keep saying aloud, with each description of the progression of Jobs’ illness: the gaunt frame, the sticklike legs, the inability to eat, the pain. Anyone who has faced cancer or nursed a family member through the disease knows about these sorrows too well, and the dreary familiarity of the book’s conclusion makes my stomach hurt in sympathy and solidarity.

We were supposed to listen to this audio book as a family when we took a road trip in July to tour some of the UC campuses. I thought an audio book would be a good idea to pass the time, mitigate arguments about rap vs. old people’s music, and engage the three of us in conversation about the same book. Nancy, who is a friend of my friend Christine’s, and who I’ve never met, suggested the Jobs biography, a great choice. I loved Isaacson’s biography of Ben Franklin, and he wrote a bang-up biography of Jobs, too—a well researched, balanced, thorough, and sometimes witty account of this complicated man.

But in the scramble to get out of town, I didn’t pick up the audio book at the library on time. I wish I had—did I mention that the atmosphere in the car got a bit tense at times? When we got back, I fetched the audio book at the library and listened to it by myself, mostly in the car except for these last couple of discs that Christopher overhears.

We all get what we deserve in a way, don’t we? That includes being young, and having the carefree belief that illness and death are remote possibilities you can avoid simply by not being “stupid.” I checked myself and didn’t roar at Christopher for his callous remarks about Jobs. We’re entitled to this bubble of invincibility for such a fleeting time before life comes along to burst it.

About treacycolbert

I make my living by writing about health care. I've always written about life's chastening effect, but just as a way of sorting it out for myself. After years of doing this and keeping these essays quiet, I decided to put some of these impressions out there on this blog. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think.

6 responses »

  1. Oh so true, the certainty of youth gives way to the confusion of middle age. So many conflicting pieces of information compounded by our own skewed experiences lead us to make decisions our former selves never would. I sometimes ask my children for their ideas in decision-making just to hear that clear, unequivocal voice come back tinged with the flavor of “Why are you even asking me that?”

    I remember you at the exact age of the picture, of course. So, it also brings back memories of the two of us talking about life and basically, knowing everything worth knowing.
    Yeah, let Christopher have his time – those were good feelings.

    Thanks for writing about that.

    • Dear Linda, It has been a lifelong gift to know you. Although much of what I “knew” back in the day has proved entirely wrong, I’ll still stand by my taste in dear friends. xxoo

  2. Loved this essay, Treacy. The certainty of youth is a gift and I will try to keep that in mind when dealing with the uncertainty of my children’s choices and opinions. As Linda wrote, they will soon enough be dealing with the “confusion of middle age”. It is a good reminder to let our children have their time of certainty because that is how they will learn to move into adulthood with autonomy and self-confidence even though it often means many hair-pulling, nail-biting moments for us, their middle-aged parents.

  3. That time of certainty yields way to a healthy dose of humility as we age, doesn’t it? What a wonderful essay, Treacy. I loved it. As always. 🙂


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