Cancer is funny.
Especially Merriam-Webster’s definition numbers 2 and 1a (placed in that order here for literary effect).
fun·ny | \ˈfə-nē
2: differing from the ordinary in a suspicious, perplexing, quaint, or eccentric way: PECULIAR
My car has been making a funny noise.
1a: affording light mirth and laughter: AMUSING
His account of the war came in bits and pieces, sometimes bloody, sometimes funny.— Robert Penn Warren
I didn’t know that cancer was funny as-in ‘peculiar’ (definition 2), until my mom decided to forgo further treatment for it. At times that feels tragic, but more often it feels peculiar because of what the meaning behind the word cancer now brings to each moment that I’m with her.
I used to meditate like a motherf@cker to get the same cut-through-the-crap, ground-of-being-ness that I feel in her presence of late. It’s funny how 6 simple letters (there’s not even a fancy one like x, y, or z) strung together manifest such a potent, bullshit detector.
Without the words being said, there’s a pervading sense of ‘not this,’ ‘THIS.’…that brings us to a place so powerful, it must be where we came from.
It removes the want of too-many-words, if any at all.
It’s peculiar that 6 letters could do all that.
And even more surprising that those 6 letters would also at times be ‘haha’ funny, as described in definition 1a. An unexpected gift in the steaming pile of manure.
Haha-cancer is like when you’re hovering 12 inches off the bottom of the pool, starving for oxygen, then you open your eyes and see: “Oh, there’s a bottom to bounce off.”
And you shoot to the surface for a laugh, because it’s too soon to drown.
Cancer has made my family optimistic, catastrophizing-comedians about tragedy and taboo (more-so, anyway.)
I took my kids to visit my mom a couple weeks ago (during the school week. That’s right. They missed 2 days of school to spend time with their grandmother. Come and get me Ventura County School Board - my verbal-shame-guns are loaded, I DARE you.)
The evening of our arrival we huddled around the kitchen island with our bowls of Mimi’s famous chicken noodle soup – it’s her traditional welcome.
The conversation went straight into the deep end of the pool about cancer and Mimi’s mortality. The moment was beautifully somber, and after a while it felt to me like the oxygen was thinning in the room. Until my eleven-year-old daughter, who had been looking conversationally constipated, quietly spoke her concern:
“Mimi? When you die, will you please not flicker my lights.”
Bounce off the bottom.
We all roared with laughter until no sound came out. And the post-roar hush gave way to a delicious exploration into how we would let one-another know that we were still there, even when we no longer appeared to be.
I was totally fine with flickering lights… and now I know what to threaten my kid with if she get’s out of line.
Another bounce-off-the-bottom moment came when my mom was telling my dad how she’d like her send-off:
“I want to be cremated – I don’t want anyone staring at my skinny corpse, or patting my hand, or God-forbid making comments about how thick my hair USED to be.”
(Mom has been a nurse for 56 years… she’s earned the right to lose the filter.)
“Whoever of my kids would like to say something, great. If not, great. Just please don’t let anyone go on-and-on, people have better things to do.”
Which actually is completely consistent with how she has lived her life:
“it’s too short to just sit there.”
The oxygen started to feel thin, and something made me ask: “Hey ma, can I wear you (her ashes) around my neck in my aromatherapy pendant? You know, I’ll just wrap a little of you in cellophane, ball it up, and stick it in there.”
To which she answered: “Hell no!” And we all bounced-off-the bottom into the talk of life, and how it will end, and how we’ll be remembered - including what pithy phrase we’d want on our headstone that would best sum up our years.
My mom’s would be: “I’ve got better things to do.”
My Dad’s: “Unbelievable.” He uses that phrase like the dad in the movie “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding” uses Windex. He applies “unbelievable” just as well to the latest government scandal as he does to a good poached egg after church on Sunday morning.
And Mine: “Return to Sender.”
That 3-word phrase is as necessary to me as the thing that beats my heart, heals my wounds, and grew my babies in-spite of all I’ve done to get in the way.
It has had a charge to it since I first heard it in 2nd grade - when the guy from the local post office visited our classroom to teach us about where letters come from, and how to give them back.
Even then I loved the sound of it – Return to Sender – and how it, like other words or phrases, carried a… SOMEthing beyond it’s literal definition.
Like how the delightful staccato of “Seren-di-pi-ty,” adds a layer of magic to it’s meaning:“the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.”
But in the sound of the word you can hear God playing peek-a-boo with us… coming out from behind the veil to pinch our butts with little miracles.
Or the UMPH of metaphor beyond the simple words: Grandfather Clock.
I hear the words… and in them I feel time watching me, and watching out for me.
In the second chapter of my life – the one after the post-office-guy – Return to Sender became a metaphor of divine nihilism.
It was a particularly dark period where I’d often contemplate how much I’d just rather not be alive. When the therapist would ask me “do you have a plan?” I’d always answer “No. But I know what the note would say!”
The shady, smart-assery of visualizing The Sender getting ME back with that sentiment - like giving God the bird for the mess of my mind – was satisfying enough for me to hang in there.
The Sender’s serendipitous peek-a-boos burned off the clouds and wrote the pages of the 3rd chapter of my life, and Return to Sender took on a new flavor: That I was eventually going back to the place I came from, no matter what I did, became the reason to live, and live more fearlessly. Like, I can’t screw it up, because I know where I’m going.
In the 4th and current chapter, Return to Sender has become a description of a place that I never left, and will never ‘return’ to because I’m always there. It’s not something eventual, it is now, even when I can’t see it.
Illustration works better than words for this one, so here goes:
Yesterday I woke up in a high-speed wobble. That’s when life seems to be moving so fast, and there’s a lot of bumps on the road threatening to rip the tires right off the cart.
It was one of those THIS-SUCKS-AND-IT’S-NEVER-EVER-GOING-TO-GET-ANY BETTER(!) boo-hoos that come with exhaustion, overwhelm, and a lack of resources.
In the first chapter of my life, I would’ve cried and my mom would have helped me feel better.
In the second chapter, I would contemplate hitting RESET on the whole heart-beating thing as a quick cure for all my to-dos.
In the third chapter I would PUSH through by hiding my ‘weakness.’ Then I would double-down on attaining enlightenment so that I didn’t have to feel this way or put up with any of this bullCRAPOLA anymore!
But yesterday I knew, and wasn’t fooled by the fatalistic noise in my head, that The Sender hadn’t left me, or hadn’t sent me anywhere. My mind was just too noisy, and tired, to hear It’s silence, and feel It’s ever-presence.
And that’s what’s so peculiar-funny, and haha-funny about Cancer.
It took 4 Chapters of my life to learn what those 6 letters showed me in an instant.
Time is a luxury that you can spend at HOME, or playing the game of trying to get there, but the game is rigged in your favor because it’s impossible to leave.
You can’t be sent anywhere.
And there’s no one to return to.
You are The Sender.