Childhood cancer, Funny moments

Comedy in Tragedy


Don’t know who this guy is…

One of the ways in which real life is so completely different from any fiction you might see in a movie or on tv is the fact that even in the midst of tragedy, there are funny moments.  These you don’t see on tv.  Can you imagine Kate Winslet hanging off the bow of the Titanic, arms thrown out to her side, eyes closed as she breathes in the fresh, dark night… and then a seagull poops on her shoulder? Ok I know, there wouldn’t likely be seagulls out in the north Atlantic on a cold night, but if there was… it would be kind of funny, right?

Well the reality is that these funny, bizarre moments do happen, even in the midst of the darkest moments. Sometimes, you are in too much pain to notice them. But other times, it is the very emotional vulnerability you are feeling that opens you up to the hilarity of the moment.

On the night Martin and I received the official diagnosis about Elliot, we cried and hugged outside of his hospital room before going in. We didn’t want him to see us so extremely upset. Then we took a deep breath together, and entered the room.

We sat next to his bed and did “normal” parenting things, helped him into his pyjamas, brushed his teeth, read him each a bedtime story.

Then we sat facing each other, whispering, surrounded loosely by the pale pink and pale blue curtains that hung tightly around our chairs and his bed, and Elliot fell asleep. We talked over how the next few days would go. Suddenly our plans had completely changed. Everything and anything that we thought had been important was suddenly re-evaluated. We made some decisions. Trips would be cancelled.  Our shifts at work would have to be changed. We can get thought this! We whispered bravely. Oh, let’s not forget that appointment we had next Tuesday, call and postpone that. And the night out with friends on Saturday, just send a text cancelling. What else… We sat in the darkness facing each other, whispering, holding hands. The red lights of the monitors providing the only break in the blackness around us. The teenager in the bed next to Elliot’s coughed, a loud rusty noise in the quiet of the room. “ Oh”, whispered Martin,  “And the other two, we can’t forget the other two. They will need us to get through this. We have to be strong for them, and not let them feel abandoned.” I felt my throat getting tight, hearing him speak so thoughtfully and paternally about my two older boys, only a few hours after hearing of his only child’s critical illness.

“Yes,” I say, “We’ll just have to keep right on being good parents to all three of them. It would be too easy to start being overly indulgent of Elliot and forget their needs too.”

Thinking of something else, I add: “And also, we really have to not become too overprotective.”

Martin nods slowly. His ears heard: “And also, we really have to not become too over productive.”

He quietly says: “Um, in which way?”

I say: “Well, you know, it would be natural to want to just keep him safe at home from now on during the treatment…”

He says: “I don’t think that’s a good idea, really…”

Me: “No, exactly! We still want him to be able to go out and have fun with life! Right???”

Martin: “Ok, but you want us to relax more? Work less? Just stay home and have down time?”

Me, starting to feel a bit annoyed: “Well I think we’ll get bored if we’re home all the time! And then I’ll just worry more if I don’t have anything to do!”

Martin: “Ok Ok I agree, we’ll just be really careful and keep him home a lot, and not do too many activities or take on too much!”

Me: “But I don’t want to just keep him home all the time! I want him to do some of the same activities he was doing before!”

Him, whispering quite loudly: “He can still do some of the same activities and it doesn’t mean we’ll be spending all our time running around from work to home to activities, we’ll still be able to manage! Don’t worry!!” he is starting to look exasperated. “We’ll never have time to be over productive!!”

I stare at him for a while. My tired brain goes into slow rewind, and replay of our conversation.

“Martin” I whisper, leaning forward toward him. He leans closer.

“I said overprotective, not over productive”.


And we giggle. A bit more. A chuckle. A stifled laugh. Louder, then we just basically start laughing, both of us sitting there shaking in our little curtain tent, laughing out loud with tears rolling down our faces, Elliot sleeping like any 4 year old does regardless of noise, the other older boy sleeping and snortling in his bed like any leukemia patient loaded up on morphine sleeps through noise…

Laughter in the face of tragedy. A strange partnership. But oh so real.

With my mom’s diagnosis, we had many moments like that. I remember after her first operation, she was hooked up to one of those machines that monitor the i.v., and beeps when it gets low. It also beeps after a few minutes if you unplug it, because the battery life is quite short. And, as any patient or caregiver reading this will also tell you, it also beeps at random sometimes just to annoy you.  These machines have a mind of their own and need attention.

So my sister Michelle and I are on the evening “shift “at the hospital, watching over our mom who had fallen asleep after telling us to stop giggling. It’s like being a kid again, in the back seat of the car as our mom tries desperately to drive us to school on time after we’ve missed the bus, and now are stuck in traffic, and we’re giggling. Only now that I have my own three kids can I relate to how the giggling is just making the situation worse. But I digress.

Michelle and I were giggling because we are slowly being driven mad by the unpredictable beeping of the i.v. machine. It had been beeping non-stop for 30 minutes, but the nurses were just switching shifts, the day nurse leaving and the evening one having just arrived for the night. It’s dark out, our dad has brought Julie (youngest sister) home for supper.

And the machine won’t stop beeping.

Michelle ventures out into the hall, finds the nurse, and tells her that, well, the machine that beeps, is well, beeping. Our medical lingo was not as good then, we actually referred to it as the beep-beep machine. The nurse exasperatingly says she’ll be there when she has time, and that they are quite short staffed tonight.

Sidebar here, as I mention that nurses just don’t get paid enough for all the work they do, they are truly the unsung heroes of the medical profession. I could go on about this for a whole other blog… Maybe I will at a later date. But the fact it that they work hard and are often overworked and overtired. It is not surprising that they can sometimes lose patience. And yet, I have rarely seen them be anything less than professional.

In any case, we wait another 20 minutes, surrounded by beeps and an increasingly frustrated mother, who is being woken up by the noise. Both Michelle and I make attempts at reading all the labels on the machine, trying to figure it out without touching it. We check the cables, but they all seem ok (in our expert opinion).

We peek out into the darkened hall again. No nurse.

Finally, I press one of the buttons on the machine. It still beeps. Michelle presses another. The beeping stops, then starts three seconds later. So we both just start randomly pressing all the buttons.

The nurse comes in.

Caught with your hands in the cookie jar.

We leap away from the machine.

The nurse grumpily quickly pushes some of the buttons until the machine stops beeping. Since she’s there, she also checks our mom, does a few nurse- type things while Michelle and I hover in the background like school kids. Just as she is about to leave the machine beeps again, like it’s saying goodbye. The nurse sighs, turns around, stares at it angrily with her hands on her hips, then says it must be the battery alarm that’s malfunctioning, and she’ll get a new machine when she has the chance but right now she has to do the rounds. And she leaves.


Michelle and I look at each other. Our mom has actually fallen asleep now, and we consider whether we should just go home.


Or, maybe we should look for a new machine? The nurse won’t have time for hours…


Maybe we could just kind of go for a little walk through the quiet dark hospital, and if we happened to see a loose beep-beep machine, commandeer it?


We head out.

And this is how Michelle and I happened to find ourselves wandering the dark hallways of the hospital late one evening, peeking into empty bedrooms, avoiding any people who looked official (by the way, anyone walking around a hospital late at night looks official).

Our plan was to get a beep-beep machine, roll it back to our mom’s room (somehow carrying it up or down staircases since we were avoiding the more populated elevators), and triumphantly show it to the nurse who would gratefully hook it up to our mom, thus making us the heroes of the Quiet Night’s Sleep.

At one point it did occur to us that we might get caught, arrested, and thrown in jail on suspicion of medical equipment theft. This made us laugh quite a bit.

So we were actually wandering around the dark, quiet hallways of a hospital late at night, laughing our heads off, and looking to steal a beep-beep machine.

I won’t tell you how the story ends, but let’s just say I have no criminal record. The photo here is Michelle and I, looking very innocent. Never mind that the actual events I’ve described take place roughly 20 years after this photo was taken.

We always look this innocent...

I wonder now if our mom appreciates all the hard work we did for her. I somehow suspect she would rather not know about it…


And tragic.

Can you relate?

3 thoughts on “Comedy in Tragedy”

  1. You and Martin are a great team, making sure that Elliot is treated for his illness but still has those childhood opportunities. To worry but temper it with humor, to make sure the other boys don’t feel left out, to Laugh at the moments in between the stress of it all.

  2. C’est si bon, de revoir les souvenirs avec une nouvelle perspective! Je pense qu’Elliot ve rire quand il va lire cela plus tard…
    J’ai joui encore plus!

  3. As always your letters move me to a new level of appreciation. You and Martin have been handed a huge responsibility but how you deal with this is what makes you very incredible. We will keep you all in our prayers. Keep on blogging!

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