It’s almost 6am and I am riding out a neutropenic fever that got up to 103. Totally normal for why I am here, and I am now sweating it off like Richard Simmon’s “Sweating to the Oldies,” save the dancing Richard in tiny shorts and tank-top with the bad 80’s moves.
Many of you have sent emails and left postings commending me for my great attitude and sense of humor through this all. I told you in an earlier posting that for me this is the only option, “that the best way for me to slay this beast is with determination, optimism, and laughter.” Lying awake, sweating off a fever, I suppose is as good a time as any to reflect on where my attitude comes from.
Almost eight years ago my father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. He has survived this often deadly disease, and despite a few speed bumps along the way, continues to be successful in his career, win a club golf tournament or two, and remain the number one Sunday buffet-eater in South Florida.
That my father and I now share a cancer diagnosis is probably no accident. We share genes, a nearly identical environment from my birth to when I left for college, and a penchant for sprinkling asbestos on our ice cream sundaes. Research has even suggested some type of link between lymphoma and kidney cancer.
But the more interesting link for me is the relationship between adversity and humor that I have taken from my father’s own challenges. Just after he was diagnosed, I tried to publish the below piece on NPR’s “All Things Considered.” They were planning on bringing me in to record, and then someone was worried that their listeners, including cancer patients and their families, wouldn’t find cancer funny. They missed the point of the piece. Cancer is not funny. Life is.
So thanks dad, for amazing survival skills. Read on folks:
MY DAD, THE COMEDIAN
By Michael Yudell
My dad, to no avail, has always wanted to be a comedian. Once, in a moment of humorless desperation, he answered a newspaper ad for comedy lessons. I discouraged him from following up on it, convinced that any comedian with the time to give private lessons was a hack, and probably had a repertoire filled with dated 1950s borscht belt humor, or, even worse, knock-knock jokes.
I imagined my father at a family gathering, his material fresh from that afternoon’s comedy lesson:
My father: Knock-Knock
Me: Come on, dad, I’m not five.
My father: (with the conviction of a professional) Knock! Knock!
My mother: Michael, just humor your father!
Me: Give me break! This is the seventh knock-knock joke of the night.
My father: (Dejected) Knock, knock.
Over the years my father has had his comedic moments–even without the assistance of a comedy professional. It usually happens on car trips, when we’re all together, too many of us crammed into the back seat of my parent’s car. He’ll have our rapt attention for a few minutes of good standup, soothing the soul of our dysfunctional clan. But instead of saying “thanks, you’ve been a great audience, goodnight!” he inevitably starts laughing the loudest at his own jokes, a sure sign of comedic hara-kiri, and quickly our guffaws and cackles turn into pleas for him to stop, or even the occasional threat by one of us to jump out of the speeding car.
There was nothing funny about my dad’s diagnosis with kidney cancer a few months ago. He required immediate surgery. It was, the doctors said, his only option. Kidney cancer is an often untreatable malignancy, and if the disease has spread, it is often deadly. That made the two weeks following the tumor’s discovery until surgery and prognosis an incredibly painful time. I was terrified. I had never really considered my dad’s mortality, and had never thought that I could be denied the chance to share with my father the watersheds of adulthood, the joys and growing pains of life.
The day of the surgery came quickly, and all of us were extremely tense as we accompanied my father to pre-op, asking the doctors the same questions over and over again in a repetitive stupor. My father, meanwhile, spent his time nervously asking the young looking doctor how old he was, as if convinced that he was sixteen and held the Doogie Howser Chair in Anesthesiology. I thought I was going to vomit as I watched the nurse and doctor wheel my father away. I remember it all now in slow motion, like a bad movie. My dad slowly extending his hand toward us in a dramatic “everything is going to be OK” gesture. Then watching him look up at the young doctor, saying with as much energy as his drug induced body could muster: “Take me to your leader!”
I’m still not sure whether it was the fear or the morphine, but in the hospital my dad was hilarious, snapping off one liners that might land him a gig at The Improv, or maybe even qualify him for a membership at the Friar’s Club. Was cancer then the secret to his comedy? Would comedians hear of this cancer-comedy symbiosis and rush to my father’s bedside to nourish their comedy reservoirs? I imagined the comedy great Milton Berle, who, after all, discovered the relationship between comedy and cross-dressing, honoring my father and his discovery.
At a Friar’s Club Roast Berle, chewing on his cigar, would say: “We’d like to welcome into the Friar’s Club fold comedy genius Allen Yudell, who will always be recognized for discovering the relationship between humor and a good tumor.” (ba-dum-dum) My father would rise, cheered on by his new comedy colleagues, and walk to the dais victoriously holding his blighted kidney high above his head, stopping to shake a few hands, and show those who could stomach the sight, the tumor that had destroyed his now former kidney. Once on stage my father would thank the audience and remind them just how funny life could be. He’d then go into his routine, briefly heating up the audience. But like our car trips before, the jokes would quickly deteriorate and the Friar’s “hook” would have to be deployed.
In the wake of this near tragedy I’ve realized that the root of my father’s comedy prowess lay not so much in fear or in a drug induced stupor, but in his ability to disarm a tense situation. In a packed car he always worked hard to neutralize some battle that was flaring up among his children in the back seat, or between any of us and my mother. In the hospital, he saw the look of terror in our eyes, worried that we might lose him to a virulent disease, and the jokes sprang forth.
I know that the jokes to come will be excruciating, mind numbing at times. But I’d sooner sit through a barrage of bad knock-knock jokes than a right radical nephrectomy any time.
Hey dad, know any good Buddy Hacket jokes?