My mother makes me laugh. She makes many people laugh. She is loyal to her family, an outstanding hostess, the best gift giver anyone ever met, and a skilled pianist. My mother could bring a room full of 200 people to tears with her piano playing. She stands up for her children when we face adversity and would stay awake all hours of the night just to pray for us if we asked her to. She intends to be all of these things but rarely does she aim to be a comedian. I recall one afternoon passing through my parents living room on the way out the door while my parent carried on a conversation. Just before the door slammed shut I heard my mother say with sincere excitement, “Boy if I could have been a fish on the wall for that one!”
My second year of college, I was perplexed about whether to change my major and throw three semesters of hard work away or stay with my current studies with little confidence I would secure a job in the real word as an artist. My mom mechanically loaded the dishwasher and said with a voice completely void of worry, “Well only you can make that decision, so, you know…. poop or get out of the pool already.” Because my southern Baptist raised mother would not be caught dead saying the spicy alternative to “poop”. Duly noted mom. I did opt for the latter and got out of the pool (or, uh…off the pot rather). Thanks to my mom’s canny advice, I do enjoy a gratifying career and I still have time for my art; all without ever having to poop in a pool.
The fondest memory I hold of my mother, hands down, was in 2008 during one of the most tolling seasons of my life. A most unfortunate series of events led to concerning health issues. I stepped down form the duties of my job and was prescribed several months of chemotherapy to extinguish a tumor growing at an alarming rate. The weeks leading up to the chemotherapy, I was not afforded much time to be afraid or anxious. The administrative nurse became my personal event planner and I waited on her phone calls daily to learn where my next appointment would be or the results of my recent blood work. I had a port catheter placed in my subclavian vein under my collar bone on a Friday, my first chemo infusion on a Monday, and a surgery scheduled for Tuesday. My mother arrived from Houston to join me in these delightful festivities and do wonderful things that moms do like prepare meals, keep my place orderly, and bring me a glass of water if I couldn’t get it myself.
As we entered the infusion room at Texas Oncology on Monday afternoon I felt as if I were in a luxurious first class section of a freakishly large airplane. Large pleather recliners were lined up in rows, each row facing each other. One had the option to look at a fellow chemo receiver across the aisle or look up at the TVs suspended from the ceiling. Volunteers in blue aprons walked the aisles offering doughnuts, crackers, and hand massages. Not too bad…..only this particular day I was earnestly afraid. The sort of fear that creeps in when one realizes control of daily choices has been handed over to another force. My next few months were a mystery and my wellness was in the hands of these green wrapped and gloved employees traipsing around the clinic making “just another Monday” jokes. I was drawn by the staff’s composure but it did not stop my teeth from chattering. My mother is not a fan of needles, medicine, and high tech metal equipment but she braved the first few steps into that airplane with me. I nestled into the large recliner, my new incision throbbing and my mother sat on an armless chair near me, and off we flew into the wild blue yonder with stewardesses bustling around us.
My Port-A-Cath left such significant swelling that it took four painstaking pokes before the needle successfully penetrated the little rubber button under my skin. My mother made unintelligible noises under her breath which did not help the situation and I found myself becoming irritated. “Mom, if you cannot do this, please leave. You’re not helping the situation.” I looked around the room at the vividly bright bags of kool aid suspended from bags above each patient before me. Some were purple…some pink. Mine was a delightful urine yellow. I looked down at the needle on the left side of my chest and the thought of this yellow drug being infused into my heart, then pumped to all parts of my body was enough sci-fi to send me to the border of my squeamish threshold. This is real stuff and this is happening. I was certain the only option to escape my current circumstances was to cry, vomit, or laugh. It was more likely that a comet fly into the room than either my mom and I to laugh at that moment. However, it is my mother I am talking about and comedy is never out of the question for my mother. Ever.
At that moment, my mother had been watching the male nurse who help access my port seconds earlier. She leaned in toward me with a scowl. I could sense her strong disapproval of him before she even spoke a word. “I don’t even like that guy. He did nothing to make you feel comfortable. He didn’t even make small talk, he just cut right to the cheese!” I’m not sure at what point we started laughing, but it happened. It began like a slow earthquake and unfolded into a natural laughing disaster. For the next 20 minutes, while yellow Actinomycin D sailed through my veins and sent microscopic soldiers to attack every unwanted and wanted cell in my body, we laughed. We laughed like we were stifling hiccups at a funeral. It was the sort of laughter that leaves you questioning if you may or may not have peed a little. We laughed until we noticed curious eyes directed our way. We laughed until we were doubled over and I believe at one point I began sobbing. We would stop, catch our breath, gather ourselves, and realize the inappropriateness of it all in such a somber climate. Filled with relief we had finally stopped the uncontrollable laughter and feeling horrible that we may have offended someone in the room we busied ourselves by picking up a TV remote. An episode on HGTV began to appear on the screen above us when I heard a shrill, wheezing sound coming from my mother. I turned to look and her eyes were pinched and tears were pouring from the sides. She made pained hiccup sounds and I lost control again. The nurse with few words approached us and decided to make conversation now. “Is she drunk?” He asked with an amused grin. “Some people do this…” I replied, “She has never had a drink in her life!” I watched as the truly confused nurse walked past to carry on his duties but not before noticing other nurses were now laughing as well. Cancer isn’t contagious but laughter is and it filled me with relief. My mother quieted once again and then asked, “What did I say again that was so funny?” I had to repeat the botched phrase which then elicited a low growl in her throat as she stifled another explosion of laughter.
What should be one of my most daunting memories is one of my favorites. I loved that day. What I didn’t know however, was that the very next day I wouldn’t be able to laugh. What I didn’t know was that the very next day I would have my closest encounter with death. And what I didn’t know was that the very next day would be a wrinkle in time that separated my life’s timeline into “before and after”. In fact, I was not able to laugh without pain for six months. I am so grateful we shared those delirious moments together. Fretting about the future should never come at the cost of laughing and the present joy of the moment.
Thank you mom for modeling how to laugh at yourself. Thank you for being you, when I most needed it. Thanks for the love you have given us throughout our lives and for your consistent faith in the ALL Knowing in the midst of the unknown. I can’t be with you this Mother’s day to hug your neck, but I hope this bring a smile to your face and suffices as a card. Most importantly, I hope today finds you laughing.
“She is clothed with strength and dignity, and she laughs without fear of the future.”