Why the simple question “how are you?” would send me into an existential tailspin

It seems like a simple question. Uttered, often, without thought. A greeting, almost.

“Hey, how are you?”

“Fine, how are you?”

“Fine, thanks.”

Me, with my husband shortly before he went on hospice. (Photo courtesy Rebecca ort photography)

Me, with my husband shortly before he went on hospice. (Photo courtesy Rebecca ort photography)

And then everyone goes about their day.

Except, when your 44-year-old husband has brain cancer, it’s not such a simple question.

The question might come at school pickup. It might come by text; it might come from a neighbor or friend stopping by with dinner; it might come on the sidelines of the soccer field.

Getting this question – always from someone sincere and well-meaning, I should say – would cause fits of uncertainty in me.

You see, I find it an impossible question. It requires a series of split-second calculations:

Who is asking? Do they really want to know, or are they just being polite?

How much do they already know? If I were to even begin to answer, how much context do I need to give? Are they interested in summary-level status, or the details of the latest medical news?

Am I even interested in telling this person how I really and truly am?

And anyway, how am I? Can I even answer that for myself? At any given moment I might have multiple answers that are all true. I mean, on one level, I might be fine. Or even good. I might not have a headache and I might have eaten recently, for example. But on another whole level – say, the existential level – my whole life is falling apart before my eyes. So, on that level, I’m the exact opposite of “fine.”

More often than not, all these thoughts would swirl in my head for a fraction of a second, I’d sigh and give up, and out of my mouth would come: “fine.” Which was neither helpful nor accurate, but it was all I could muster.

And I’d miss a chance to connect with someone who really did care, and really did want to help.

Sheryl Sandberg, in her book Option B, talks about learning after losing her husband that “how are you today?” is a much more manageable question. I agree, and I try to stick with this when speaking with someone I that know is going through a rough situation.

Generally speaking, I’ve been trying, since my experience with my husband’s terminal illness, not to default to “how are you” as a greeting. “Good to see you,” “what’s happening?” or “what’s new?” are all great options. I don’t always remember, but I always hope to.

And, I am happy to report that, if you run into me today and ask “how are you,” I will answer “fine.” Maybe even “good” or “great,” depending on the day. No existential tail-spinning required.