laughter is the best medicine


My lovely sister is the Features Editor with the local newspaper in the island of Jersey. My dad’s diagnosis of cancer, and my 7 week visit, inspired her monthly column for June. I have pasted below the content, and included the photo that was printed in the paper too. She did check with dad and me before sending it off to print – we were both happy to approve! She writes so well, it’s a shame she doesn’t have a blog too.

Laughter is the best medicine

I’m going to mention the C word.

I’m sorry, but it has to be done. This is because it has affected my family and, really, every waking thought in the last two months.

And do you know, some good does come out of it. One, it has brought my family much closer together, quite literally, and, two, it caused a younger member of the family to give up smoking. Hurrah for that.

My father’s diagnosis of lung cancer came on 20 April. By then, my big sister had already arrived from Canada, having left her husband and three kids behind for a massive seven weeks.

My sister, or Smell as I call her, is, how do I say, a strong character. Before she arrived, my family were doing all the concerned stuff, asking ourselves questions and getting a bit down about what was going on. She arrived to stay with my parents and she immediately brought a certain presence about the house.

She speaks her mind but she is a ‘glass half full’ person who sees no need to worry about what ‘might’ happen and takes full control of what could help. She would rub Dad’s back, encourage him to drink water and plonk natural supplements and radiation-fighting tablets in front of him, saying ‘take that’ in a way that suggests ‘no’ is not an option.

She lit up the house like a permanent ray of sunshine, helping Mum with chores, baking and lifting the mood with her daft sense of humour and cheeriness.

It is strange. The four of us – Smell, me and my parents – are on the same wavelength. You couldn’t imagine how the conversation went when we happened to be whiling away some time, her, Mum and me doing a different crossword at the same time.

‘Six across… Woody perennial, five letters,’ says Smell. ‘Perennial woody, hmm,’ comes the quip, and you can only guess where it may have gone from there. You had to be there but it was wordplay and puns and going off on tangents that would have made Miranda Hart, Lee Mack and Tim Vine proud…

Several times we got the giggles. The first, I really don’t know why we laughed so much, but we were doing our first ‘selfie’ of the holiday (by which I mean a photo with the camera set on self-portrait. No, I hadn’t ever called it a selfie before either.) I had a bit of an embarrassing moment, where the camera seemed to have a mind of its own, ending with it flashing in the air, totally missing us, leaving Smell dissolved on the floor.

We got the giggles in a restaurant when it was just the two of us. Ironically not a drop of alcohol had passed our lips – and here we were, creased up like we had each consumed a bottle of wine. We reminisced about sharing a bed at our grandparents’ house when we were little. (Perhaps it was where the name Smell first came to mind.) We chuckled to the point of not being able to speak.

And then there was the iPad. Smell borrowed it when taking Dad to his hospital appointment and came back with a selection of silly pictures taken on Photo Booth (you can distort photos, making hideous but very funny images with stretch, squeeze and twirl effects). When we showed them to Mum we took some of her too – the result sending us all into hysterics.

And of course as much as we laughed, we cried. We cried when we met at the airport, with relief that she had arrived after a mammoth four-flight journey, and we cried when she left. I cried unexpectedly all the way home in the car after a nice day out with her, and I was close to tears several times when going about a normal working day.

I cried on Liberation Day. It was unfair – there were bands everywhere – brass, marching, pipe. I should have worn sunglasses. Smell thought it odd that I should hold back. Why, she asked. Aren’t people allowed to see you cry?

I hadn’t expected tears to start while watching the ferry come in. Dad’s homecoming after two weeks of radiotherapy. I heard the rumble of the engines before I saw it. As the ferry rounded the pier heads I was overcome and surprised to find that I was welling up. Fortunately this time I had my sunglasses on.

Eventually Dad was helped from the ferry, though he still had to walk from the luggage area. I could tell from his face that, although the journey itself had been ok, the hassle he faced getting off the boat and back to the terminal building was an ordeal. Up and down in lifts, supposed to be met by a buggy or wheelchair, eventually given assistance.

You know if someone says they need assistance, THEY NEED ASSISTANCE. I had already asked a member of Condor staff if the help would be in place. He said he would check with his manager. Passengers might seem mobile, they may even move around the cabin and go to the loo, but if they say they cannot walk however many metres to the luggage carousel, they are not making it up. My dad is 78 this week and has just had two weeks of cancer treatment and he effectively has one functioning lung. It really shouldn’t be beyond the wit of people who book these things for them to happen.

I should add that I had been due to fly to Southampton to accompany him home but his treatment was completed in ten sessions instead of 13 and he was unexpectedly sent home the weekend of the Jubilee. It was a holiday weekend – all flights to Jersey were full.

So he was told he would have to take the boat. Alone. Having spoken to the Jersey liaison officer at the Southampton hospital I was assured that assistance was booked at both ends. It happened in Poole, but not in Jersey. Although eventually a buggy gave him a lift as far as his luggage, not one member of staff offered him assistance further than that. Appalling.

Anyway, Dad is home. Smell is a world away, a mere whiff you might say, back in Canada. Normal service has sort of been resumed.

There is a new batch of squirrels, blue tits and greenfinches to watch in the garden – and all that Dad really needs to worry about is whether the pesky seagull has gobbled up all the peanut cake on the bird feeders.

I feel somewhat guilty for having enjoyed my sister’s visit so much. I feel like I have laughed more in the last couple of months than I have for years. I think it has something to do with heightened emotions. The circumstances in which we were brought back together were not what we would wish for but we were making the most of it, and everyone – despite our family not being huggy people – was hugging every time we said goodbye.

I recommend it. Do it even if your family is well. Do it even if it is not a special occasion. Just because.

It could be years before I hug my sister again. And if I think about that too much, I may cry again. It’s difficult to describe the bond you have with a sibling. Smell and I share the same daft sense of humour. Yeah, she calls me Smell too. We yawn the same way. I had forgotten. She did it while watching TV and I laughed.

I felt complete. She was home.

5 responses »

  1. That was so beautiful, and so beautifully written, thanks for sharing. Although it did make me a little homesick:)

  2. Particularly thought provoking as I have just seen MY sister today for the first time in about 4 years – and she lives on the island!! Communication breakdown – will NOT let it happen again!!! xxx

  3. It’s amazing, isn’t it, how… oh, how do I word this… grief, pain, illness, suffering?…. none of those words seem just right… but when it happens and you’re all drawn together, the closeness is like nothing you’ve experienced before. I experienced that last year when my Dad died. Thank you for this post, Nicola. Your sister expressed it very well.

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