MORNING COFFEE 22 - laugh therapy

by Susan Weber

Sometimes I hunt down a picture to wake up my idling brain. Here’s a good one—jaunty lizard sporting goofy grin. But the photographer says I’m wrong about the grin. We’re witnessing a wee chameleon’s threat display here: puffy jowl, squinty eyes, gilded maw at maximum circumference.

So much for humanizing cute desert lizards. I’d stick with my own species, but I’m no expert here either. For example, what’s really going on inside these sophisticated, medically astute professionals making rounds on the cancer unit, bounding into patient rooms all cheerful? Is their demeanor a disguise of some sort, a mask to fool those of us with a healthy aversion to threat? Life v. Death is no laughing matter but oh how we do love to laugh.

I’m not so good at self examination right now. Kind souls in tune with caregiver stress want to know how I’m doing. “I don’t know,” feels like an evasion, but it’s hard to lay a finger on all the unwanted emotions attached to dread. When life is relatively threat-free, how are you I’m fine will do. But in my skin of basic survival, I feel clownish groping for simple answers. Oncology progresses at breakneck speed but never fast enough to make everyone anyone has ever loved immortal.

When we first landed here at the citadel, I’d watch the cast of whitecoats wheel their computer carts down the hall. Attending physician, research fellow, physician assistant, nurse practitioner, med student would pull up full stop outside a room to discuss the patient inside. Hunched shoulders, pursed lips, dented brows suggested certain career trajectories might be in play. What were we to them? Guinea pigs blinking at our captors. Blood counts and chemo regimens—experiments to fuel their rise. Such was my cynical conjecture to fend off the pain of not knowing nearly enough.

Then one day, a month into my husband’s chemo stint, an attending physician devoted his lunch hour to patiently fielding our interminable questions. The slim young man seated across the bed from us removed translucent frames from his nose from time to time to rub his eyes. When I asked whether my husband would have the same doctor through transplant, the answer was no. Work on the unit was so taxing, our teacher explained, team members had to rotate through every two weeks so they wouldn’t burn out. He said this good-naturedly and we moved on to the next concern, my pen logging furious notes.

It occurs to me how brave we all are—patients, family, clinicians putting on our best face when cornered in the desert. Baring our teeth, we dare the overbearing fear to define us. We are nature’s changelings, dwarfed by a threat we can't ignore, refusing to submit.

Photo by Yathin S Krishnappa CC BY-SA 4.0