32: Laughs, Prayers, and Every Bloomin’ Thing

32: Laughs, Prayers, and Every Bloomin’ Thing

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Tough Times, Tough People

Laughs, Prayers, and Every Bloomin’ Thing

Mirth is God’s medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it.

~Henry Ward Beecher

When my husband Bill was diagnosed with a blood cancer, mantle cell lymphoma (MCL), we braved our steepest mountain yet. We had both dealt successfully with tough health issues in the past. We scaled them, learned to live with them, and kept a joyful attitude in spite of them. Could we rally and pull through again? We knew we faced a daunting test of our resourcefulness.

On a late-May day in 2005, we returned home from the oncology appointment reeling from the grim news. A warm, gentle breeze reigned under cloudless soft-blue skies. For gardeners, the day had been perfect for planting. For us, the day produced an onslaught of information about non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, tests needed to stage the disease, and options for treatment and clinical trials.

Although dazed and devastated, we held onto hope. The long Memorial Day weekend loomed ahead, taxing our patience about the wait for additional tests and results.

After we phoned family and friends, Bill said, “You know, I’m going to do what I’d normally do... plant flowers!”

Bill, the gardener in our household, bought dozens of annuals—petunias, marigolds, vincas—in bright hues. Over the next week, in between appointments, scans, blood draws, and a bone marrow biopsy, Bill pulled on his gardening clothes, put on his hat and gloves, and went outside to plant flowers and tend to the beds.

“I’m planting my victory garden,” he told neighbors who stopped to eye his progress. The flowers became beacons of hope, a collage of beauty destined to grow and bloom no matter what our inner states. Bill’s blooms of beauty brightened the neighborhood and brightened our daily life, now pared to essential tasks with our energies directed toward Bill’s medical treatment and healing.

Over our twenty-five years of marriage, I sometimes called Bill “the smile man.” Humor—making others laugh—had been his lifelong trademark. Now, facing cancer and intensive treatment regimens, humor became vital for its healing capacity. After we chose a treatment plan, Bill mused, “I wish we could think of a funny slogan to wear on a badge for my first chemo session.”

We bandied about several slogan ideas, then picked our favorite.

On the first day of chemotherapy, we sported badges with our slogan: “Go to Hell, Mantle Cell!” The resulting chuckles in the doctor’s office and the treatment center gave Bill a laughing start for treatment, which lasted through the summer and into the fall, culminating with a stem-cell transplant. Bill often told the story about his motto, punctuated with his hearty laughter. We posted our badges in prominent places. Every time I sat at the wheel of my car, I saw it: “Go to Hell, Mantle Cell!” This phrase focused us on the desired outcome. It prompted a prayer for strength and courage to carry on.

Our personal prayers were joined by those of others: family, friends, church and work colleagues, even prayer chains of people we didn’t know. Prayers also arose from a surprising source.

One afternoon when we returned home from Bill’s chemotherapy, we observed our two cats, a tuxedo named Gilligan, and Tiffy, white with swirling patches of gray and brown, sprawled on a multicolored rag rug on our living room floor. Their fur shimmered from the sunlight spilling in the window. Their heads, with eyes shut, tilted toward the rug. Each cat had one front paw stretched to touch the other’s paw. We turned to each other and smiled.

One of us said—we don’t remember who—“They look like they are praying.” From then on, through the long haul of treatment, we called them the “Purrs and Prayers Team.”

Christening our cats the Purrs and Prayers Team distracted us from the rigors of fighting cancer, and centered us on what heals. Drawing strength from people, pets, interests and activities in our everyday environment boosted our spirits and alerted us to not overlook readily available possibilities for comfort and inspiration.

After Bill achieved remission, and qualified for a stem-cell transplant, he entered the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in December for the several-week procedure that would last through the holidays. A worrisome time, due to the rigorous procedure and the potential for infection, Bill’s Type I (insulin-dependent) diabetes posed yet another risk factor.

We forged ahead, determined to set up a haven for healing. We decorated his room with cheerful holiday decor. We tacked photos of his beloved flower garden, as well as our pets, friends, and family, on the mammoth bulletin board. After Bill’s stem cells were harvested, before they were transplanted, he endured a week of daily intensive chemotherapy. After the transplant, we waited for blood counts to rise. Waiting became our job, a rugged test for demonstrating patience and an optimistic outlook.

Even though the extensive transplant regime wore him down, Bill rallied every day to crack a smile and to stimulate laughter by telling jokes and stories. He had help from the “Cuddly Carolers” to provide entertainment for staff and visitors. The three stuffed cats sang “Jolly Old Saint Nicholas” in harmony while turning their head to the music’s tempo. Humor gave Bill a positive way to contribute to a healing environment dedicated to the care and treatment of seriously ill people.

Every day during the transplant process we heard from friends and family. Visits. Phone calls. Mail. On days when Bill wasn’t up to reading, I read the letters, cards, jokes, and stories to him. We felt surrounded by a cloak of prayers and blessings.

Many strategies helped us embrace a healing attitude. We learned that natural strengths, like Bill’s gardening and humor, were life-affirming measures. Reframing our sunning cats as the Purrs and Prayers Team reminded us that we could invent healing possibilities. Feeling support from family and friends, and basking in their kindness, buoyed our spirits and cemented our belief in the capacity of community, caring, and compassion to create the critical elements for healing.

Later, after Bill recovered, we wondered how we mustered the tenacity and pluck required to conquer our toughest time ever. How had we weathered the rough terrain? Could we sum up our formula for facing tough times?

The answer came when others asked, “What helped you cope?”

We smiled, then said, “Laughs, prayers, and every bloomin’ thing!”

~Ronda Armstrong

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