The Power of Humor

This week a friend sent me Brenda Elsagher’s book Your Glasses Are on Top of Your Head, a perfectly timed gift. If you haven’t heard of Brenda (I actually hadn’t), she’s a triple-threat author, speaker, and comedian; and also a colon cancer survivor. Like me, she is a Minnesotan who developed a tumor in her rectum in her thirties. She has this great website, and here is a good article that sums up her journey pretty well. If you’re more of a video person, check this one out. She’s a really remarkable person doing some really inspiring work, bringing joy and laughter to darkness and, of course, stressing the importance of getting a colonoscopy.

Anyway, I’ve really been enjoying the book, so much so that I took a little break from devouring Michael Jordan: The Life, which my wife got me as a brilliant gift in light of my obsession with The Last Dance.

This excerpt from the book’s introduction was so touching and so powerful that I wanted to share it here (I know, I know; I said in my last post I was trying for the moment not to read things like this). It’s long — I think you need the whole excerpt to have the proper context — but it’s worth it.

Brenda writes:

One day a women called and told me she had just read my first book, If the Battle Is Over, Why Am I Still in Uniform? She said she could relate a lot to what I went through as a colon cancer survivor, except with one difference: her diagnosis was terminal. She was a couple years younger than me, and our kids were similar in age. When she asked me to speak at her support group close to my home, I didn’t hesitate.

The first person I met in the group said, “I don’t know how I can possibly laugh at anything about colon cancer. I lost my beautiful daughter to it last year.”

I knew this might be difficult, but I did the best I could, and he thanked me afterward for helping him see he could laugh at awful things, and that cancer wouldn’t have so much power over him anymore. He said he wished his wife had come with him.

Teresa, the woman who had asked me to speak, wanted to keep in touch, and so we made plans for lunch at her favorite Mexican restaurant nearby. A couple months went by; she invited me to visit and showed me her scrapbooking room, and I learned how dedicated she was to this hobby. She had been making huge scrapbooks for everyone in her family, and they were beautiful. I learned she had several trips planned for each of her children. She allowed them to take one day off a month from school to hang out with her and was doing a lot of fun things, creating happy memories while she still felt good, hoping beyond statistics that she would survive. She lived with purpose, also took trips with friends and sisters, living life with gusto and making more memory books from those trips.

When I ran into her at a craft boutique, we both celebrated that she was still alive. We set time for some margaritas, and again I enjoyed her company very much. I would call and tease her when she answered the phone, saying something charming like, “Well, you are still alive!” It sounds crass in writing, but it was the weird right thing for me to say, and for us to laugh about because it was her ultimate worry. It was a couple more months before I heard from her again.

“Brenda, I’ve got something to tell you, and then a favor to ask of you.”

“Okay friend, what is it?”

“We just got back from the doctors, and the cancer is now in my brain. I won’t have much time left, months only, and there’s something I want to discuss. I want you to give the eulogy at my funeral.”

“Wow, Teresa, I know the cancer must have really gone to your brain. You want someone from your family who’s known you for a long time to do this at your funeral, not a friend you barely know. We’ve only seen each other a few times and there’s a lot I don’t know about you. I’m honored, but I don’t think I am the right person.”

“Brenda, I’ve been thinking about this a long time. I knew this time was coming. This is why I know this is a big favor. You will have to spend some time with my family and me, getting to know me. I want people to laugh at my funeral, so I want you to do this because you are funny, and I know you’ll send them away with a special gift.”

“What’s that, Teresa?”

“I want you to tell them how important it is for them to get their colonoscopies. You and I were unusual because we were diagnosed so young. As you said in your talk at the support group, it is your mission to educate people on this. You’ve got to urge them to follow through as a last word from me. Can you do this? Will you do this for me?”

“How can I refuse? Are you sure?”

“You will give the perfect eulogy, I know it.”

“Okay, when shall I come over?”

Brenda Elsagher, Your Glasses Are on Top of Your Head
Not pictured: The Power Broker, my year-long slog (admittedly, a fascinating slog)

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