Forward, Backward, Awkward

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Denver, CO -- Just when my mountaineering gear was spread out all over the kitchen table, Evelyn decided that she needed eggs.  That was how, at 5pm on a Thursday eve, she ended up in my driveway honking her horn. This was usually how Evelyn let me know when she needed something.  For the brief time she lived in my neighborhood, I had helped her move an easy chair and she’d given me a ride back from downtown, which was how she learned I had chickens.  Now, because of her multiple health issues, it was easier to sit outside and honk when she needed eggs. This time, however, I told her to knock it off with the honking and come in.  She could grab a dozen eggs from the fridge but I was arms deep into planning for a trip (and slightly annoyed to be interrupted). She turned off her truck followed me inside.

“What’s all this?” she asked, pointing to my gear.

“Mountaineering stuff,” I said.

She picked up each item, asking me the names of things:

“Carabiner.”

“Harness.”

“That’s a prusik -- it’s how you rescue yourself if you fall into a crevasse.”

“Fancy,” she said and then pointed at several thick plastic bags each containing a lightweight blue-colored bag and a twist-tie.  “What’s this?”

“That’s a blue bag,” I told her, a little hesitantly.  “It’s what you put your poop in to carry it out when you’re on a glacier.  You can’t leave anything behind because it’ll be there forever.”

She nodded.  “I get it. I poop in a bag too.” And she lifted her shirt to show me an opaque colostomy bag taped to her belly. Then she grinned, gathered her eggs and walked out.  

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Do you know what the sign is for awkward in American Sign Language?  You hold out your hands, palms away from you, just with your index finger and thumbs sticking out like “L”s.  It should look like you’re trying to tell your left hand from your right. Then you move them alternately away from you, pushing one hand, then the other.  If you mouth “awkward” silently while you do it, you’ll get a sense for how a movement can match a word exactly. It looks like backpedaling with your hands...which is often the first thing we do when we’re not a nurse and someone shows us their colostomy bag.

People either love awkwardness or they don’t.  Awkwardness is basically a mini-crisis in our brains where a situation or person doesn’t follow a social norm we thought was universally accepted.  Ie. Your great uncle farts when he stands up….your 90-year old friend says she wants to give you her bras….you tell everyone that the guy in the apartment below you is Stefan from Cuba but find out in front of all your neighbors that he’s actually Justin from Lakewood.  

Some people -- especially social workers -- find these stories invigorating, sometimes sweet, or maybe we share them because it’s the only way to support each other so we can support our clients.  The other piece is, in a cookie-cutter world where so many expectations are unspoken, it sparks a little bit of connectedness.

That little bit of connectedness is actually in the word.  Awkward comes from the old Norse word afugr, meaning “turned the wrong way around” -- as in a bug on its back, unable to flip itself over.  It has a sense of, “Well shit, now what am I going to do….hello? Anyone there?” Legs flailing.

And we all get flipped on our backs, get caught with our pants down or have someone show us that they, too, poop in a bag and not necessarily for environmental reasons.  It’s that moment that doesn’t fit with what we expected, and we’re stuck until someone flips us right-side up again. Maybe the sign language will catch on.

It turns out that awkward has the same roots as forward, backward and leeward but isn’t used to indicate direction.  Thanks English. And yet how much easier would it be if we were told to go awkward in our relationships, especially as we figure out how to help a family member or develop limitations with daily activities ourselves.  Imagine how much easier it would be if someone said, keep going….yes, that road to the left. You’re going to go awkward and then take a right when someone shows you their colostomy bag.  Keep going awkward. It’ll feel like you’re headed in the wrong direction but you’re not. That’s actually how you know you’re in the right place. (PS - if you get flipped over, I’ll be along shortly and flip you back.)

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Western Care Partners guides families through the maze of services and supports that come with assisting a loved one who is getting older.  We explain resources, facilitate family conversations and provide guidance through the difficult situations that come up when someone needs more help.  Contact us for more information: 720-675-9902 or www.westerncarepartners.com.

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