101 Leukemia Journal, July 10, 2016 – Jokes and Laughter

July 1st I woke up at 1:00am with extreme left hand pain, in the joints at the
base of my fingers, the worst ever. I could not get relief. Couldn’t hold it upright,
couldn’t rest it against my chest, shoulder, pillow. It was terrifying. I could
feel my pulse throbbing in those joints like sharp knife cuts with each beat. I’ve
never had that kind of pain before.

I spent three plus hours walking around with my forearm and hand held parallel
to my chest, sort of balancing a bag frozen peas on it, or leaning over the kitchen
sink running cold water over it, or sitting with my head against the bathroom sink,
holding the throbbing hand under that tap. About 4:20am the pain began to lessen.
I could lie down, lay my left hand on my chest, rest. When this happened with the
right hand, I was able to rest the hand on my chest, meditate, relax around the
pain. Not this time.

Leukemic infiltration at joints, clumps of white blood cells releasing uric acid
as they die. I’m not afraid to die, but I sure am scared of this kind of pain. Hydrocodone
didn’t work the last time; I’m not ready for chronic constipation with maintenance
morphine. Now the left hand just hurts all the time, like the other one, so I decided
the best I could do was have some good laughs.

I’d been putting together a box for the youngest grandchildren, in Colorado.
A Grandma box with craft activities and supplies and my three favorite Beverly Cleary
books. Everyone loves Cleary’s Ramona series, including me. I’ve
given whole sets of them to grandchildren. But my favorites are Henry Huggins,
Ellen Tebbits and Otis Spofford, written in 1950,
51 and 53, the years I was a little girl living in Portland.

The books were piled up on the chest by my bed, not yet packed. I read about
Henry, neighbor of Ramona on Klikitat Street; Ellen, who get’s scalped by Otis,
the unfriendly Indian and champion spitballer; Mrs. Gitler, their long-suffering
teacher at Rosemont School, stray dogs and best friends and magnificent comeuppance.
Laugh out loud funny, and after that hand pain, I needed some fun.

In Henry Huggins Henry finds a stray dog after school he calls
Ribsy; his challenge is to get it home on the bus. The first bus driver says no
dogs. Henry wraps Ribsy in paper, ties the bundle with string and puts him in a
big carry bag. He smuggles the package on to the second bus.

“The next time the bus stopped Henry saw Scooter McCarthy, a fifth grader at
school, get on and make his way through the crowd to the back of the bus.

“Just my luck, thought Henry. I’ll bet he wants to know what’s in my bag.

“Hi, said Scooter.

“Hi, said Henry.

“Whatcha got in that bag?” asked Scooter.

“None of your beeswax,” answered Henry.

“Crackle, crackle, crackle went the bag.

“There’s something alive in that bag!” Scooter said accusingly.

“Shut up, Scooter!” whispered Henry.

“By this time the passengers at the back of the bus were staring at Henry and
his package. Henry tried to pat Ribsy again through the paper. The bag crackled
even louder. Then it began to wiggle.

“I’ll bet it’s a baby,” said Scooter. “I’ll bet you kidnapped a baby!”

“I did not!”

“Ribsy began to whimper and then to howl. He scratched his way out of the bag.
Henry tried to keep Ribsy between his knees. The frightened dog wiggled away
from him, squirmed between the passengers, and started for the front of the

“Just then a siren screamed. It grew louder and louder until it stopped right
alongside. A policeman appeared in the entrance. ‘Is there a boy called Henry
Huggins on this bus?’ he asked.

“Oh boy, You’re going to be arrested for having a dog on the bus!” gloated Scooter.
“I’ll bet you have to go to jail!”

Cleary, who celebrated her 100th birthday in April, is a master of comic prose.
On my bookshelves I found my favorite laugh-out-loud piece of literary fiction,
a short story discovered in an MFA program years ago.

You can read Charles Baxter’s 1986 “Gryphon,” in Gryphon;
New and Selected stories, 2011. Told from the point of view of
a nine year old, it’s about his 4th grade substitute, Miss Ferenczi, in small-town
Five Oaks, Michigan, the declining middle class world of Baxter’s novels and stories.
How can a story about a weird substitute, and death, and be so funny? After recess
Miss Ferenczi, the substitute, begins the geography lesson.

“We trudged to our desks and, still sweating, pulled out Distant Lands and Their
People. ‘Turn to page forty-two.’ She waited for thirty seconds, then looked
over at Kelly Munger. ‘Young man,’ she said, ‘why are you still fossicking in
your desk?’

“Kelly looked as if his foot had been stepped on. Why am I what?

“Why are you burrowing in your desk like that?

“I’m lookin’ for the book, Miss Ferenczi.

“Bobby Kryzanowicz, the faultless brown-noser who sat in the first row by choice,
softly said. ‘His name is Kelly Munger. He can’t ever find his stuff. He always
does that.’

” ‘I don’t care what his name is, especially after lunch.’ Miss Ferenczi said,
‘Where is your book?’

” ‘I just found it.’ Kelly was peering into his desk and with both hands pulled
at the book, shoveling along in front of it several pencils and crayons, which
fell into his lap and then to the floor. . . .”

Cleary and Baxer, as funny as they were, were not enough. Still terrified at
the prospect of more joint pain, I reserved Cathleen Schine’s 1983 first comic
novel, Alice in Bed from the library. No waiting list for old books.

Alice, beautiful college sophomore, is suddenly hospitalized with complete,
mysterious leg paralysis. Her father, in the process of divorcing her mother,
sends her an explanatory, self-pitying letter. Her mother suggests she answer.

“Alice reread the letter. Perhaps her mother was right. A letter like that should
not go unavenged. ‘OK, Mom, I’ll write Dad,’ she said.

” ‘Dear Dad, I hate you and hope you drown on your holiday. In the United States
we call it a vacation. . . . I will certainly convey your regards to Mom. She
is at the moment emptying my bedpan, but when she finishes I’m sure she will
be eager to hear about your much-needed trip. Deserting one’s family in a time
of crisis is an important step on the rocky road to adulthood, I agree. . .
. I hope the pajama sleeve of care unravels and strangles you in your sleep.
Love, Alice. P.S. I’m having emergency exploratory surgery tomorrow. I guess
I’ll be pretty sanguine then, too. Get it!?’

Reading in bed has always been a treat; Cleary, Baxter and Schine, and cackling
laughter, sort of bolstered my coping skills. And then about 2:00am one night, I
heard a thumping and crashing on the front porch. Our front door has a full glass
pane; when I got up to check, saw the neighbor cat on the porch. I hate that cat,
left out to roam at night, killing baby birds in the two nest hidden in the porch
honeysuckle vine. I’d hosed off bird parts and nest weavings just that week, so
my heart is hardened against the free-ranging marauder.

I rapped on the glass door, usually enough to send Gato the Murderer scurrying.
But it just turned toward me, so I opened the door and hissed a firm “Scat.” A little
raccoon turned it’s head, and started in the door. “Scat” I yelled this time, quickly
shutting the door. From the beauty bush beside the front step his mother, Mrs Racoon,
and his twin eyed me, kept sniffing around but weren’t in any hurry to leave. I’m
scared of raccoons with young. They carry rabies; mothers especially can slice you
open with those sharp claws.

Mrs. R and the twins stood their ground; clearly the porch was theirs, a way
station on the ramble from the brush pile in the lower woods to the neighbors’ trees
and bushes across the common circle. I turned on the porch lights but they just
kept nosing around. I went inside, turned on the outside garage lights, came back
and banged on the front door. The R’s ambled off down the driveway, in no hurry,
not scared of me.

A few mornings later I saw fresh raccoon prints on the sliding door to our deck.
We keep 3 buckets of kitchen scraps there, for burial in the compost pile. My husband
put round conglomerate stepping stones on top of each lid, but the R’s will find
a way.

Racoons are smart and strong, will eat just about anything, plant or animal.
I’m sure they tried the stones but haven’t dislodged them, yet. The little paw prints
were young raccoon. I recognized their prints because I took school kids on tracking
walks at Litzsinger, looking for paw prints and real scat – wild animal poop. Racoon
scat is easy and fun to identify. Who doesn’t like poking at a twist of raccoon
scat with a stick, finding bits of fur in it, little bones, persimmon seeds. I am
happy they live in my lower woods, but racoons can’t come in my house.

My beloved Hundred Species Yard is not really mine. It belongs to the wild creatures
I planted it for. I built the brush pile along the creek, planted persimmon and
wild plum and mulberry trees, hazelnuts, aronia and viburnam for berries, all as
a partially restored woodland habitat. Chipped the paths through the woods. No surprise
Mrs. R and her twins think the front porch is theirs, too. I wanted habitat for
native bugs and snakes and birds and small animals, and I have it. The last laugh
of that week of worst pain ever was on me, and a good joke, too.

Another night I sat on the front porch to watch the fireflies, thrilled as always
with their mysterious, magical beauty, and gave thanks for all the wild things,
animals and plants, that live here with me.

NOTE: The ideas and opinions in this post do not necessarily express the thoughts or opinions of the Ethical Society of St. Louis or its leadership.