Saturday, November 9, 2019

Inappropriate Happiness

When I started chemo back at the end of September, the nurse giving my first round of infusions was required to read aloud to me all the potential side-effects of the five different medications I was about to receive. When she got to the powerful anti-nausea drug, one of the several side-effects listed was "inappropriate happiness." I burst out laughing when she said the phrase; it seemed absurd, those two words together, right at that moment, in that place. The nurse smiled too at my laughter, and went on about her life-saving business, gathering the various bags of cancer-killing fluids destined for my veins. And then, I found, I couldn't stop laughing. Just when I had calmed myself, I'd look around the chemo suite at all the sick people getting infusions, and I'd erupt in side-splitting, uncontrollable giggles again. When the editor-in-chief of a magazine I write for rang my mobile in the middle of one such outburst, instead of letting it go to voice mail and calling him back like a grownup, I giddily answered, giggling a breathless hello from my chemo lounger. And I hadn't even taken the inappropriate happiness-causing anti-nausea drug yet. Thankfully, he's a good guy who totally understood the weirdness of the moment and was only calling to green-light a story idea we'd been kicking around. He wished me well, and I went back to (more quiet) giggling and getting the stink-eye from other patients who failed to see the absurdity of our inappropriate happiness. I know. I'm a horrible person. And rude. Really I should take my cancer treatment more seriously.

Eventually I settled down enough to get my infusions, and I've returned for subsequent treatments, which my latest scans indicate are doing their job in keeping the metastatic cancer in check. The drugs and radiation have bought me more time. So giggling aside, I have reason to be happy enough with the outcome of my chemo suite visits. Especially today, which marks my second cancerversary. Two years ago on November 9, I received my diagnosis via a phone call from a young pulmonologist as I was driving home from work. (Poor guy. It has to suck to have to make those calls.) Though I had pulled to the side of the road to get what I had anticipated to be not great news (curable lymphoma maybe? something else perhaps infectious but curable? anything as long as it was curable?) hearing I had advanced lung cancer made me feel as if I were driving off a cliff. Now I am running along that clifftop every single day. Life with metastatic cancer is, indeed, an existence on the edge, in lots of ways; in my case, I stand on the cutting edge of research I pray daily will outpace the disease.

As my calendar closes in on the last of scheduled infusions, I've thought more about the idea of inappropriate happiness. Right now, I'm responding to current treatment well, a combination of radiation, infusion and targeted oral chemo. My medical team is amazing; I'm privileged to have some of the best oncologist-researchers in the country working on my case. I am blessed with family and friends who care for me with an unmatched degree of love and tenderness. I have good health insurance. And for a poet like me, inclined to eternal melancholy, I am, for the most part, on most days, dare I say it, (mostly) happy with my life.

But I still turn the phrase around and around in my head, "inappropriate happiness." Given the broken state of this world, it makes a weird sort of sense. To be able to say "I'm happy" – in the midst of the muck, when we could be expressing anger, outrage, and especially sorrow at what we've done to the planet, at our own sad plight – is probably inappropriate. Like waltzing through a battlefield in a gown or tux, to declare one's happiness, to think of joy in the midst of devastation is absurd. But still, maybe, beautiful. And absolutely necessary.

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