Monday Night Cancer Club is a Daily Kos group focused on dealing with cancer, primarily for cancer survivors and caregivers, though clinicians, researchers, and others with a special interest are also welcome. Volunteer diarists post Monday evenings between 7-8 PM ET on topics related to living with cancer, which is very broadly defined to include physical, spiritual, emotional and cognitive aspects. Mindful of the controversies endemic to cancer prevention and treatment, we ask that both diarists and commenters keep an open mind regarding strategies for surviving cancer, whether based in traditional, Eastern, Western, allopathic or other medical practices. This is a club no one wants to join, in truth, and compassion will help us make it through the challenge together.The old definition of comedy was a story with a happy ending, while a tragedy was a story with a sad ending. This was obviously before Aristotle's Poetics re-emerged with its insistence on rules and cathartic release and hamartia (dumbed down for high school to "the tragic flaw"). In the halcyon days before the preeminence of fusty academia, things were freer. Therefore, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet are both tragedies because at the end they haz a sad, although classically they'd be considered melodrama because the protagonists didn't have to die. Likewise, Dante's tour of hell, purgatory and heaven is a comedy, not because it's a laugh riot, but because it ends happily.
If I had to classify my life with cancer, it would be a battlefield melodrama, melodramic because it's been unpredictible, set on a battlefield because I've experienced long stretches of calm punctuated by moments of sheer terror.
And it hasn't all been Extremely Serious. I've had moments of jaw-dropping grace and experiences of laughing until I cried. That's what I want to share tonight--in all the stress of the election and at a time when the East Coast is being shaken by the scruff of the neck, maybe a little bit of humor and a touch of awwwww is a break.
So here's the deal--I'll share a little funny and a little sweet, and then it's your turn. All too often we get busy and stressed and we forget to laugh. One thing we all share here is the knowledge, the acute knowledge, that all we really have in this world is time. There's a time to fight and a time to laugh. Or at least, we can smile.
Memory is a slippery thing, and most of my funnier memories are more wry than pratfall. When I was first diagnosed, my son Jack was two. Today he's a cadet at Virginia Military Institute and planning for a career in the Army. Then, his favorite movie was Kelly's Heroes and he spent most of his time keeping us safe from the Nazi hoards. But he wasn't a complete partisan. One of his favorite games to play with me was "French Girl," wherein he, a Nazi soldier, would take me prisoner, march me into the kitchen and make me make him grilled cheese sandwiches.
When I was in treatment, Jack came up with a new game: the three of us were Kelly's Heroes. He, of course, was Lt. Kelly, the hero. My husband Andy was Oddball, the Don Sutherland tank commander, mostly because he was funny and liked to make Jack laugh. And me, I was the Telly Savalas character, Big Joe, because I was bald and gave orders. I spent a lot of time in a cardboard tank.
1994 was an eventful year. Andy ran a printing press for one of the country's largest printers and, on Valentine's Day, his hand was accidentally pulled into the press. People have lost their hands, their arms, their lives, in accidents like this. Andy was lucky--quick reflexes limited the damage, but he lost all the flesh on the outer part of his hand, as well as his little finger and part of the fourth finger. It was days before we knew whether he would keep his hand. The happy outcome: thanks to some great surgeons, lots of operations, and physical therapy, he retains 90% use.
So by the time I was diagnosed in November, we were already used to the hurry-up-and-wait of healthcare, and had already developed a serious case of gallows humor. In fact, my surgeon was kind of horrified that, just before I was taken in for the mastectomy, Andy and I were joking about how a tumor could hide in a breast as small as mine. (My surgeon was wonderful, but he was also Very Serious.)
My Very Serious family was also horrified when we proposed that our Christmas card that year be a family portrait, Andy standing with his mutilated hand draped over my shoulder and covering the mastectomy scar, and the caption, So....how was your year?
We thought it was damn amusing, anyway.
As I recovered, we would go to a local dfh restaurant to catch the local open mike nights. Andy would always position himself on the far side of the table. At first, I thought it had something to do with the sound quality, which was rarely reliable. Finally, though, he confessed that he just wanted to watch the men and women, both strangely fascinated by a bald woman in public, come up and hit on me.
That kind of validation was especially valuable at the time. I had no hair and a depression the size of a large salad plate in my chest. I was also nauseous most of the time, but I was trying really hard to be strong, to act like it was no big deal, like it was nothing to worry about, because I didn't want to scare the kid. But it was difficult. When my hair started falling out, we borrowed an electric shaver, put Jack in his high chair with a bowl of chocolate ice cream, and as a family we shaved my head. The thinking was that, if Jack could see it go, my baldness would be less frightening. Andy told Jack, "This is what men do to their women. Grandma's next." My mother-in-law, who lived nearby and worked in the evenings, stopped by to find my hair all over the floor and Jack covered in chocolate, crowing, "Grandma's next!"
Eventually, order was restored, the kid was cleaned up, and I stood looking at myself in the bathroom mirror for a long time. I never thought I was vain, but to see myself like that, pale, drawn, much older than I looked a few minutes earlier, it hurt. But with bedtime already overdue, I didn't have much chance for self-pity. Wearing my new standard bandanna and baseball cap, I put Jack in his crib, tucked him in and sat down to read him bedtime stories.
But he wouldn't stay settled. He got up. I laid him back down and tucked him in again, he got up again. We went through this four or five times until, exasperated, I sat back, debating on how to get him to stay down.
With determination, Jack pulled himself up, leaned over and plucked the ball cap from my head, and sent it sailing across the room. Then he pulled the bandanna off and threw it after the cap. He leaned way over to pat my cheek and whispered, "Mommy pretty." Then he laid back down, pulled his blanket up, and looked up, ready for his story.
In the years since, whether it was a blown curfew or a wrecked car or just the Curse of the Teenager, that memory got him off the hook with me more times than I want to remember.
And finally, this doesn't fit the narrative but I want to thank Kossack R. A. Salvatore for his writings, which I consistently enjoy. But after my bone marrow transplant I had absolutely no sense of humor. Everything was grim. Everything was dark and gray. In trying to keep my mind moving, I was reading one of Salvatore's Drizzt novels, I think it was Passage to Dawn, and came on a scene involving Pwent, the Pigpen of dwarf warriors, a bunch of invading drow elves, and a sidearm catapult.
The first time I read the scene I chuckled. My reaction surprised me, so I read it second time, and laughed. Jack happened by and asked what was so funny. I read the scene to him and, aloud, it was even funnier. Then I read it again, and again, and by the seventh reading we were both wiping tears, our sides ached, and I remembered how good it felt to laugh. After that, laughing got easier, and I got better.
So maybe it's been a battlefield melodramatic comedy (in the old sense, anyway).
The laughter bank is open, and I've started with my poor deposit. It's your turn.
PS: I've queued this diary early because, by publishing time, I may not have power or internet. So if I don't chime in in comments, you'll know we're here reading by lamplight, along with everyone else on the East Coast.