Wednesday 20 February 2019

#Chemo Ho Ho

The Bible says that laughter is the best medicine. Proverbs 17:22 for the scholars among you. If I hadn't found a way to laugh, even through the darkest of trials, I simply would not be here, particularly given the recent ghastly epoch that began in December 2015. From whence dost though laughter flow? Well not from my mother’s womb (though my beloved grandfather was Liverpudlian funny – is it something in the Mersey?), there weren’t many cards in my family; they were more Jeremy Kyle Show than Father Ted or Blackadder - apart from the only decent bloke that married into the family. His name was Glen, but I called him Glenda Fender Bender. Sharp as a dart, his comments would fly mostly overhead pointing up and pinning people’s thoughts to his invisible board - invisible, unless you perceived the same bawd, that is. He used to make me howl with laughter while his wife and children sat there po-faced. Glenda was also decent, hardworking and generous. He didn’t last long in the family either, sadly. Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to see my father nor continue in my father’s tongue so I have no idea whether they were a hoot or not, though I have plenty of photos of my father mincing about on various stages (he was a thesp). There are plenty of photos of him in nightclubs in vibrant seventies suits having a laugh – before he appears to become increasingly portly – too much port? Nay, I discovered Monty Python, Spike Milligan and The Goons on the radio at a young age. I was never the same again. T’was a revelation. Those chaps were as silly and absurd as me! They used the same voices I used on my younger brother to extract laughs when we were swinging upside down from the avo tree in or when I was changing the plot of stories at bedtime to make them ruder or more absurd.

All my friends, from age 6 ( I was a bit of a loner before that for probable reasons best left unsaid for now) until the present, were either downright whacky, or ridiculously comical. Their senses of humour were as an axe to a dull table found in a skip preparing for rebirth or shabby shit as my husband would say. As I write this, I realise too that, the men and women I am thinking about who have made me laugh most over the years, are amongst the most courageous people I know. Could it be that humour aids resilience, or that the resilient are more humorous? Perhaps given my past, I have always sought to people my life with the crack ups amongst us. My beloved best friend – at fourteen, we gelled outside biology class where having studied me during class, she began taking the mick out of me, honing in on my weaknesses and making me laugh at them. Soon we were sharpening our humour on each other and egging the other on. We were merciless with our toupee wearing history teacher. One day we both climbed out of his window in protest at him 'teaching us' by reading out of the textbooks that we had for an hour. As we thought, he didn’t even look up. I’m not sure he realised when we had gone. We riffed and smoked in the toilets instead.

Which brings me to my next point about humour. Most humourists have a touch of the renegade about them. They are inclined to point up and protest, with wit, what is unjust. When Miss Geldenheis, one of the hostel teachers that lived in with us at school hostel, accused me of throwing looks at her husband as if, Jane banged on her door one evening to explain to her why she was wrong to think this and more wrong to say so. For starters, it was explained, I was into skinny deathly pale goths at the time, and this dude was a South-African golden boy. Jane also understood my passionate love of the writings of John Lennon. In fact she could have written some of it. Jane wrote to me not long ago to tell me what she felt about our friendship. This was long before my recent diagnosis - it wasn't a panic letter because she thought I was going to frek, but one of the things she said was that she had never met another who made her laugh as much as me. I feel exactly the same as she does. When two people hit the bite, that zing of mutual appreciation in the you crack me up stakes, theres nothing like it. I basically left home at 14, when I started working and making my own money. I was also at boarding school and spent my weekends that I wasn't staying with friends in Hillbrow, with Jane in Walkerville with her crackpot family. Her mother became my mother, her...nah I wasn't up for the rest and Jane would well understand that. I was gutted when Jane's mum died. Her mum didn't go in for rules much. She'd leave Jane's car (from when Jane was 14) where the bus dropped us off, and Jane would drive us home up a long dirt road to their small holding as the sun set. A night of merciless banter was in store following Jane's mum frying up some aubergine dipped in batter while regaling us with stories that she and her business partner - a scream of a queen in both senses got up to.

There is a full deck of cards in the family I have with my husband. My husband is quiet and dry in temperament and humour. His father is a scouse scream. My adult son Luca is hysterical. The last time I went to see him, as he spotted me coming up the road, he pulled up the sash window at his apartment block and began a comical, Chaplinesque waving routine that included throwing body shapes to match the head and slow wave movements and the hello...hellllo...helloes uttered in some foreign accent, that he kept up for the time it took me to walk off Highgate Road and up the wide path to the block. I put my suitcase down and crossed my legs in between filming him on my phone while builders stared. Later he performed an hilarious Michael Jackson shuffle in his flat during the entire phone call in which he spoke to the council. He switched to disco for the ‘on hold’ music – serious music face all the way through, while I rolled around on the floor. He’s a brilliant mimic. The other three kids are a laugh too. I think growing up around it is catching. We are a laughing family.

When I went for my first chemo, my step-cousin Karen, who is basically my only sister, and to whom I have always been very close, drove up from London to hang with me. Did we laugh? We howled with laughter through the whole thing. We have been laughing from the day we first met aged 6 and 5. Every time a nurse read out the list of awful things that were predicted to happen to me, we would look at each other and go: Or not? And start laughing. We soon began to have a reputation, and a lot of fun with the nurses - don't go there. Yesterday, for chemo, I was on my own. My other gets bored and falls asleep, so he was best off teaching the children. For me it was chemo cocktail time with some fascinating old folks that are also getting their chemo cocktails - I kid you not - the chemo is mixed especially for you and described as such. Not the kind of cocktail you might wish for but if you get in the vibe you can still have a good time. I'd already upped the mood by singing my Hey Ho Cheeeemo song before I left the house, accompanied by that push out move you do with your hands while twerking, to the accompaniment of some of my kids laughing and joining in and another eye rolling, particularly at the twerking bit. Oh Mum, please don't jiggle your bum...

At the ward I was soon watching phone videos of the prodigiously talented child of one of the nurses children singing Welsh ballads. Donna, was the nurse - Bet I know the kind of kebab you get in a takeaway shop, the old man quipped. Yeah, oldest joke in the book, What'll you have? Donna kebab! she retorted. I also had a laugh exchanging anecdotes with my chemo nurse about how one particular pain drug given for significant pain can make you behave like you are the patient equivalent of the drunk snogger at the office Christmas party (the same one I wrestled like a nutter to keep when a nurse told me it was time to give it up after recent surgery.) Later, when the ice was broke at the laughter shop, and when having taken my drip trolley with me to the loo, I got the drip wire entangled around the trolley pole, I danced around the drip pole as I kicked up my legs to untangle myself, while the old couple hooted. My nurse clocked me from the corridor as he approached the glass panelled doors. I saw you dancing, he laughed. Better than lying there in a cold cap as I could have done - not that I'm knocking cold caps - it just wasn't my choice. Hair loss was an 'or not' for me, though as I’ve said, I would have gone with the fro. As it is, I'm sticking to laughter. As I left the nurses called out to me by name to say goodbye. Everyone appreciates a good laugh – it’s light skewering the darkness and connects us in our humanity, weak and frail as it sometimes is. The tougher life becomes the greater the dose of the best best medicine required.