March 24, 2012
My gut has ached most days for lo, these many years since run-ins with colon cancer forced me off the road and into a ditch. Most days bring a menu of pain and discomfort. The baby is kicking, I grouse to my wife. She sort of smiles and gets the message. It all began with the operation I can never forget.
I lay dozing in my hospital bed when surgeons put down their weapons, more tubes snaking out of me than in a broken down sink. The seven-hour surgery had left me in throbbing pain. Cancer and multiple sclerosis did not prove to be great bedfellows, and the body in the bed seemed to be on strike.
The situation was absurd. It was like getting hit by an airplane. I wanted to laugh, maybe because I was too old to cry. Instinct told me humor only could help. I lay there, waiting for the dreaded moment when some sadistic nurse would pull off the covers and throw me out of my cocoon to begin the painful process of walking. I ached in anticipation. My sense of humor was speeding south when my wife appeared.
Meredith sauntered into the hospital room and ignoring the crowd of people in white, casually mentioned that she had just returned the dress. What dress? I asked with little interest in whatever she was talking about. “That cute little black dress,” she answered. “The doctor said you are going to make it.” Meredith paused. “I would have looked so cute crying hysterically in that outfit.”
I had to laugh. Through years of sickness, that little black number has been a topic of conversation whenever times are tough. The flimsy garment also has become a reminder that things always can be worse.
Meredith’s threats that she really is going to buy that dress have defused stressful moments through the years. There have been many. The lesson has not been lost. Laughter beats drugs, is better for you and is a lot cheaper.
Years later, chemotherapy was ravaging my body. I was on a monthly regimen of that toxic treatment as an experimental therapy for the MS. My hair turned white and fell out in clumps. The weight loss was frightening, the experience hell.
How do I look, I would ask my beautiful wife. Why don’t you put on that little black dress, and let’s go dancing. I was quivering, weak kneed and shaking like a man locked in the freezer. Friends would point out the hair loss, as if doing me a favor. It’s a toupee, I would answer. Drop the subject.
I fall and swear up a storm. It happens too often. Then I crawl across the floor in search of a counter or heavy chair to lean against as I struggle to straighten my legs and slowly pull myself up with whatever upper body strength I can muster. Gabe shows up, home from school.
“What are you doing down there?” he asks, betraying no alarm. What are you doing up there? I respond. “Just seeing what you are doing down there,” he answers as he wanders away. He has seen this before. I’m just looking for something, I throw in. Gabe knows the signals. I am okay and want to fix my situation myself.
None of the banter is particularly funny. Our exchanges are not polished standup comedy. The shaky humor is functional, intended to blow off bad situations. Defiance lies just beneath the surface. You are not going to get me, is the unspoken message. Chronic illness does take a person into the theater of the absurd. Our coping challenges seem so arbitrary, the luck of the draw.
The choice is stark. I can laugh or cry. Too often the impulse is to take the low road and dissolve in tears. That would cast me as a victim in my own eyes, a role I refuse to play. Breast beating would send a very bad signal to kids of any age. They must learn to laugh their way through heartache.
This is an extremely long play. There is no audience around these parts for high drama. Low humor is acceptable. Little laughter, frequent smiles punctuate our lives. I will settle for that. “Come on, gimp. We are going to be late for dinner. Drag your sorry ass out here,” Meredith’s voice rings out from downstairs. It is just another Friday night.