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Playing the C Card

Posted 12/30/2014

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  We've all done it, played the "C" card on appropriate occasions. The first time I really thought about this was many years ago when the son of one of my beloved patients played the card. His mother had just died, and he badly wanted tickets to a sold-out concert. Somehow, he got through to a supervisor in the booking office (this was probably in the good old days before "press 2 for..." when you actually got to speak with a person) and laid out his story: "My mother just died of leukemia. She was having a bone marrow transplant in Seattle, a last ditch effort, and it didn't work....And I was with her..." etc. etc. Not only did he score front row tickets, but was given an invitation to come backstage and meet the band. His mother would have loved it.

  More of us have played the card in more mundance circumstances. I frequently hear from women who ripped off a wig when stopped for speeding or to confront someone who was trying to edge in front of them for a coveted paking space. I have heard stories about bald heads being exposed in the hopes of getting a better price for something or an earlier dinner reservation. We may use it as an excuse to not do things: go to a party, write thank you notes, keep up with paperwork.

  There is the more serious use of the card in times of real introspection or trouble. Knowing that we possess this trump card, do we consider our lives differently? Do we say or do things that we might not otherwise manage? Susan Gubar has written beautifully about this:

Living With Cancer: Playing the C Card

If you are dealt a crummy hand, you might find yourself playing the cancer card — even if other people object. I’ve come to believe that in certain cases, I not only could but should play the C card.

Before my mother died, I regularly needed to respond to an official document from the German government. A notary public had to certify her existence so she would receive the reparations sent to many Jews forced to flee the Nazis. Filling out the certificate — it was called the Lebensbescheinigung, or “proof of being alive” — always tripped me into irrationally intense distress, and not only because it reminded me of her displacement.

When, two months after the funeral, she was sent a proof-of-being-alive form, I threw it in the trash. That was the first time I played the C card. I had no wish to keep the money illicitly, but somehow mailing a letter with a death certificate felt deeply repugnant. At a later date, I simply returned a check with a Post-it recording her date of death. Cancer served as my excuse for not responding properly.

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