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Mindful : October 2013
October 2013 mindful 63 wellness feel human and part of the proceedings. And since the proceedings did seem to involve me, somewhat, it felt good to be part of the team. After the surgery I was taken back to my room, where I noted, with disappointment, that I’d gained a roommate. “What a drag,” I thought. I was in pain and just wanted to sleep and be left alone. It turned out we’d both had abdominal surgery and the nurse instructed us in how to put a pillow over our bellies if we coughed. She didn’t even mention laughing. My comrade was a jolly gray-haired grandmother whose surgery was to be followed by chemo a nd other unpleasant events. Compared to her, I was lucky; I was just in for the surgery. You wouldn’t think there would be a lot for us to laugh about, but whether it was the extreme vulner- ability of the situation or the drugs, little by little we bega n to joke around. On the surface, things weren’t great, but we were both going through the same problems, so that alone became funny. Our inabil- ity to lift a pea, the bad food, even our pain—it all became fodder for a kind of gallows humor. It was so infectious that the nurses asked us to go and visit some of the other patients. Between my new friend and my morphine pump, I was acing Post-op Surgery 101. Five days later, I was out of the hospital and landed with a thud, back in a world where everyone is supposed to be well. When I revealed to my friends that I’d recently had cancer surgery, many responded with grim faces. I understood. They probably thought they were supposed to look grim. But what I hungered for was someone to laugh with me about what I was going through. When they said, “Ca ncer can be beaten,” I said we might also want to try shooting or suffocation. (These jokes never went over nearly as well as I thought they should.) I was alive. I felt pretty good about that. In fact, going through ca ncer made me feel more alive, because I appreciated things so much more. Every- thing was more vivid now. I hoped I might even be able to help ma ke the process ea sier for other people. I told a nyone who’d listen that no situation forces us to lose our sense of humor. Even if we hurt, we can still laugh. It helps us feel human a nd connected to one another. It reminds us that we are all just one tiny pratfall away from tragedy ourselves. We don’t have to like it, but seeing the humor of our situation eases the pain and suffering that sooner or later we all encounter. I was reminded of this when I accompa nied my husband, a professiona l comedian, on a comedy tour. Shortly after we arrived at the “comedy condo” where we were staying, we discovered that the MC—and our new roommate—was a par tially deaf, self-described “dwarf in a wheelchair.” Until the moment the front door opened, we had no idea whom we’d be sha ring with. It happened so suddenly that I didn’t have the opportunity to put the politically correct “don’t notice he’s a little person” barrier around my psyche. So when the taxi driver and club manager burst in carrying a very small man, a wheelchair, and a suitcase, a cascade of unexpected thoughts were triggered. I couldn’t really see anything funny about his situation, and I noticed my tendency to talk to him as if he were a child. It was going to be a long tour, I thought. When it was time for him to go onstage, he struggled out of his wheelchair and, using a cane, proceeded to take what felt like a really long time to hobble, bowlegged, to the microphone. Then, pulling himself up to the mic he said, “I know what you’re thinking...and yes, I a m Portuguese.” It brought down the house. He could have chosen to dwell in the pathos of his condition, but instead he chose humor, turning difficult circumstances on their head and creating a situation where we could all laugh together. His humor leveled the playing field, reminding us that we all face difficulties...even the Portuguese. The ability to find the funny pumps oxygen into adverse situations. It’s hard to cower when you’re laughing. It’s hard to be angry. And it’s hard to feel sorry for yourself, which can be the most paralyzing state of all. With humor, we can live our lives a little more honestly, and less fearfully, even though we can’t make bad things go away. I’m glad I chose to laugh the day of my surgery. With every silly joke, I became more relaxed and felt present and accounted for. Just as they were about to put me under, I asked for a moment alone with my uterus, knowing it was about to be pulled from my body. I thanked it and wished it well in its future endeavors. Sleep came just as I wondered if I had time for one last cigarette. Then I remembered: I’d quit. ● When my friends said, “Cancer can be beaten,” I said we might also want to try shooting or suffocation. (These jokes never went over nearly as well as I thought they should.) Elaine Smookler is a comedic performer and playwright and the director of communications for the Centre for Mindfulness Studies in Toronto.