Finding and even MAKING joy inside the deep crevices of suffering is what gives life when it feels as if every other element is trying so hard to take it away.
It was late and everyone was tired… which made it the perfect moment for our foolery. Carefully, with one of us watching the door, we placed each plastic spider. There were 2 on his bald head and then several others walking up the white pillow and down across his shoulder. We dimmed the lights and with a nod, my 9 year old pressed the nurse call button.
“Can I help you?” Asked the unsuspecting voice on the other side of the speaker.
And then, as if lying were second nature to him, “My head and chest are so itchy.” A pause for dramatic affect. “Can you send in my nurse?”
“Of course, sweetheart. I’ll send her right in.”
The epidural that had been busy numbing his body around the incision included the side effect of itching that often required a second medicine to allow for minimal comfort. So, asking for relief from itchiness was nothing new for him.
We sat in anticipatory silence for that 30 seconds, all of us watching the door. The nurse entered briskly. She glanced quickly – too quickly – at my son and then back at the monitor.
“Well, you just had the additional medication for the itch so I can’t really give you anything right now. Want to try cream?” He looked at me with question and a bit of exacerbation.
“Let me take a look…” and with that she took two steps back towards him and STOPPED DEAD.
The best part about pranking your nurse – especially with something scary like plastic spiders – is that their entire job is to keep you calm and comfortable. This means that screaming because your child is being overtaken by a colony of insects is not an option.
We watched with pure joy as, over the next 5 seconds, her heart stopped, she caught her breath, her face went white, and then… composure. She took a deep breath.
“I’m pretty sure I nearly had a heart attack just now. If there’s no emergency regarding your itching, I’ll be right back with another nurse. That was too good not to share.”
…which was the cue for my friend to roll sideways over a well placed whoopee cushion letting out the most amazing and fantastic fart sound ever made in the history of farts. Together we melted into a puddle of uncontrollable laughter.
What I’ve learned about life with cancer – and worse, with the treatments for cancer – is how very imperative joy is. When life depends on progress and progress depends on moving forward we very quickly realized that, sitting still in our sadness and anger does nothing to cure Gabe’s cancer.
Not that sitting in, what we’ve come to call “The Suck” does not hold value! Indeed, at times, mindfulness requires it: to acknowledge the suffering in our lives; to sit right down in the middle of it and say this is real and it hurts and there’s good reason why it hurts. To deny the hard and painful times is to deny life.
But we’ve learned that joy and pain and fear coexist and even overlap. So we can be afraid and still laugh. And we can be sad but still know happiness.
Smiling and even laughing in the middle of “The Suck” that is cancer does not denigrate the pain and fear. It acknowledges it, takes it by the hand, and leads it to the next treatment; the next surgery; the next life event whether that is an unexpected infection induced hospitalization or trombone lessons.
And so, for the sake of life, we will keep seeking joy, even -especially- in the midst of pain and fear…
…even -especially- at the expense of our beloved nurse family.