Nothing Brings the Funny Like Ovarian Cancer

When people think about Stage IV ovarian cancer, they tend to focus on the negative. The dramatic weight and hair loss. The agonizing moans as the tumor eats away at the intestines. Being shooed from the room in the skilled nursing facility as the CNA wipes away the filth. The fact that you’re about to lose the person you’ve known longer than anyone else in your life.

But what’s often overlooked is that high-grade serious carcinoma can be comedy gold.

After having fought off Stage II breast cancer only months earlier, my mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in early November 2016. She received her first round of carboplatin and taxol in Nashville at the exact same time I watched election returns at the National Building Museum in Washington. In some ways I think my sister, who stood vigil as the chemo was pumped into Mom’s veins, had the easier night.

Three months later, Mom had a hysterectomy, and we were informed afterwards by the oncologist that the tumor was so invasive that it was mostly inoperable. Two months after that, she discontinued chemo, and on October 24, 2017 — after a dizzying array of neutropenia, incontinence, anemia, low white blood cells and platelets, and so on — she passed away at Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

And we never did make it to the dermatologist to see if anything could be done about the bump on her foot.

It’s not like we did the actual physical suffering, my sister and I, but it was nevertheless a fairly taxing year. So, like a neverending Irish wake, when we reminisce about the period, we tend to think about all the funny bits. It’s therapeutic.

Like how when, returning in the morning to stand watch in Mom’s room at the skilled nursing facility, she would evidently forget that I had left overnight, and greet me immediately with “how about plugging in my phone?”. Or “how about bringing me some water?”. It was always prefaced with “how about,” as if I had some discretion in the matter.

It was critical that Mom’s container of water be laced with crushed ice. “Can you bring me some water with crushed ice?”. Never mind that the only kind of ice the facility carried was of the crushed variety.

At other times Mom was hypersensitive to cold substances. She had grown up in Bradenton, Florida, and she often — and by that I mean at least a couple times a day — spoke fondly of her time combing the beaches of Anna Maria Island.

And the oranges. Lord, how she loved oranges. One day, she dispatched my girlfriend, who was also visiting from Washington, on an errand to find a real Florida orange. My girlfriend dutifully took up the task, and when she returned from the grocery store, she stowed the fruit in the mini fridge as Mom napped. When she awoke, her first request, naturally, was for the orange. My girlfriend carved it into quadrants and handed a wedge to Mom … who promptly spit it out because it was too cold.

She never trusted my girlfriend with a fruit errand again.

It’s true what they say about your going back to the beginning when you get close to the end. In addition to her childhood love of oranges coming back, Mom’s sweet tooth returned with a vengeance. Despite our best attempts to get her hooked on yogurt and nutritional shakes, she insisted on keeping the fridge stocked with Snickers and Cokes. She would turn her nose up at the baked ziti and chicken teriyaki and sweet potatoes the staff would bring for lunch — and which I secretly conspired to steal on many occasions — pretending she wasn’t hungry, only to suddenly rediscover her appetite when a Filet de Snicker was unveiled before her on a silver platter.

There was the time Mom asked my sister if she could run out and grab her a Coke float (from, I guess, Arby’s — bleh). My sister said she couldn’t do it, so Mom locked on her with those melting Puss in Boots eyes and said, “why not?”. Score one for Mom.

My sister’s kids — eight and eleven years old while all this was going on — were pushovers, of course. “Can you bring me a Snickers, sweetie pie?” she would inquire, and she really didn’t need the sweetie pie, as by that point said satisfying bar was already halfway to her adjustable bed.

Mom’s hearing had started to go several years before she was first diagnosed with breast cancer in the spring of 2015. She would complain of there being a lot of pressure in her ear, and that a hearing aid wasn’t feasible because it wasn’t covered by Medicare. Whatever the cause and the cure, about 90 percent of what my sister, girlfriend and I said to her was met with a sharp “what?”. If you had put dreds on her head and capped her teeth, you might have confused her with Lil Jon.

But her hearing was miraculously restored at other times — such as when Blue Bloods was on, or when, attempting to soothe her with classical music, I would turn on Alexa, whose “connected to Bluetooth” greeting always prompted a cry of “turn that thing off!”. When the sweetie pies, or her friends and neighbors, visited, her ears were as sharp as ever. One day it dawned on me: my mother had no hearing issues at all, and was rather discriminating against people aged 15–65.

Alexa, can you stfu?

In her last months, I spent many hours recording video interviews with Mom, so I’d always have her memories preserved because, well, mine sucks. Some of the stories were familiar — how she had looked up to her elderly neighbor, Miss Wood, who had instilled in her an appreciation for arts and culture; how she had discovered a passion for journalism while writing for her high school newspaper and yearbook; and so on — but one that I didn’t recall ever hearing was how she had a youthful flirtation with … the glockenspiel.

She spoke of how terrifying it was to have a solo during the marching band’s halftime performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. I prefer to imagine it this way: she emerges before the home crowd, sporting a white leather jacket with fringe sleeves, a red bandanna wound tightly around her forehead. A roar builds in the stands as she steps before her mighty glockenspiel. She raises the beaters, then begins pounding out the 19 semitones of “The Anacreontic Song”. The song reaches its crescendo, she frees one hand, douses the keyboard in lighter fluid, kisses it, then sets it alight. People scream, reefer is toked, clothing is shed, babies are born.

Take that, cancer.

People will ask, do you have any regrets? Was there anything left unsaid? Well, no, not really. What I regret is what’s unsaid now. I regret her absence. I miss her stories. I miss the funny.