Playing Through

One Couple’s Notes on the Cancer Dance

by Sharon Pavelda

“I have a surprise for you,” said Randall, rushing up to meet me at our appointed rendezvous. Seeming unusually pleased with himself, he looked more like a young suitor than a 64-year-old husband. He put his arm around me and started ushering me down the hallway, smiling and chuckling to himself.

“Close your eyes and let me lead you,” he instructed. Randall is tall and too slim, thanks to the cancer that had been inexorably draining him of his health for the past year, but he looked especially dapper this day in his navy blazer and gray slacks. I closed my eyes and took his arm, grateful that on this day before the ten-hour, life-changing surgery he was about to undergo, he had somehow touched into the source of joy that was animating him at the moment.

He navigated me down halls and around corners of the immense M. D. Anderson main clinic in Houston, Texas. We had spent a week there two months earlier, meeting physicians and surgeons, oncologists and radiologists, who evaluated Randall’s health and presented their plan for an attempted cure of the adenoid cystic carcinoma that had invaded the lining of the nerves of his tongue. They explained that this type of cancer did not respond to chemotherapy or radiation treatment and that surgery was his only hope of a cure.

They offered a fearsome trade: his tongue for his life. Removing the entire tongue and taking a transplant from the thigh to rebuild the floor of the mouth is called a radical or total glossectomy. We had returned to M. D. Anderson after much research, prayer, denial, tears and discernment, to have the total glossectomy and reconstruction.

“Do you hear anything?” Randall asked. I heard many things: snippets of conversation in various languages, elevators dinging open, the rumble of carts. And then I heard the faint sounds of a flute and a piano. As we approached its source, I felt my heart lifted by the lilting melody.
“Is it live music?” I asked, aware that we had entered a large space where the music was joined by the sounds of a bubbling fountain.

“Do you want to open your eyes?” he asked, as he took me in his arms and started dancing me to the sweet rhythm of the song.

“Not just yet,” I said.

Dancing in public places is an acquired skill for my beloved former athlete, preacher husband. He discovered his love of dance in his mid-fifties. When his illness was first diagnosed as most probably being ALS (known as Lou Gehrig’s disease), and the reality of total paralysis leading to death was predicted, Randall became a firm proponent of Dancing Everywhere.

So I kept my eyes closed and let myself be transported by the safety of his arms and the ripples of the music that went out and out, embracing everything. In that moment, I knew that all was well and I could surrender to the inherent safety of life and death, in the arms of the Big Love that holds it all.

When the music ended, I opened my eyes and looked up at the red clown nose that had suddenly appeared on the end of Randall’s nose. I laughed as people sitting around the fountain in the main lobby smiled and gave us a thumbs up or clapped. The lovely blond flautist turned out to be Pat, one of the hundreds of volunteers who offered hours of service to the patients. Pat had been in on the surprise, and her eyes were shining as Randall introduced her to me.

As we turned to leave, a woman sitting in a wheelchair by the door urgently waved us over. She was using oxygen to help breathe and she gasped out, “Are you Patch Adams? I know he’s tall.” Dr. Patch Adams is the joyfully brilliant physician made famous by Robin Williams’s portrayal of him in the 1998 film, Patch Adams.

Randall smiled and shook his head and we introduced ourselves. Beverly lived in Texas and had lung cancer. She had enjoyed our dance and was a big fan of Patch Adams. We said we were, too, and talked about why Randall was wearing his clown nose (he has a history of using clown play during his parish ministry days) and about cancer and the power of play. I often think of Beverly and offer dancing prayers for her and the many others we met through the international “Cancer Club” during our four-month stay in Houston.

When we first entered the medical maze of What’s Wrong?, Randall and I took a vow to not lose our humanity in a distressingly dehumanizing system and to try to connect with the humanity of every worker and fellow patient we met. It was a challenge! But taking the vow gave us a purpose that turned our focus away from frightening prognoses to people who, like us, were more than their jobs and educations and greater than their incomes or their illnesses. We had learned over 60-some years that the most direct path from heart to heart was laughter, and that getting there was child’s play.

I was 40 years old before I discovered that my life’s work was play. The play that claimed me was the play of childhood. It was the play of creation that dances at the heart of all creative effort. I knew it as a sacred gift and experienced it as life-giving. I recognized it in the impulse to laugh. I discovered that the holy and the hilarious can be one, and that humor is the truth, only quicker. I used my training as an expressive arts therapist to create spaces where people could remember and reclaim the birthright gift of play in interactive, improvisational ways.

Randall and I had the good fortune to discover the Interplay™ community when we lived in California for five years. This international organization offers a way and a place to reconnect with the wisdom our bodies carry in an effort to bring more ease and creativity into our lives. Through simple forms of movement, storytelling and sound, Randall and I developed new ways to enjoy being in the moment with no agenda. Randall took the leadership training and co-founded a weekly men’s group. I met every Monday morning with a group of women ranging in age from 25 to 90. You could say we exercised our play muscles. We also experienced the way that even the smallest playful interaction with another opened our hearts to the presence of the holy.

The imaginal realm is a sacred place for us, even when it is zany and silly and foolish. We respect the power of free, deep play to open us to ourselves, to one another and to Love. For us, playing from the heart is a spiritual practice just as meaningful as any other in our lives. It refreshes and renews us to meet the Holy One in silence as well as in laughter, and we learned to rely on this practice as we danced in the dark halls of cancer.

The feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness are very familiar to the seriously ill. They are familiar to children as well. We suspect it was the imaginal realm that Jesus was inviting us into when he said in Matthew 18:3, “Unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven”. What characteristics of children do we think Jesus meant? Trust, simplicity, freedom? Certainly these are part of the picture. But we miss the power of childhood if we dismiss the freely improvised play of children as without value in our “serious” endeavors and desperate needs. It is children, with “beginner’s minds,” who are not bound by the limitations of the known, but who are open to the magic of the impossible. What if the kingdom of heaven within us is that Playground of Possibility in which Jesus lives and plays and heals?

Believing that God is waiting to meet us in every moment of spontaneous, artless play allowed us to practice fake tap dancing on the polished linoleum floors of the countless exam rooms where we were abandoned to wait for hours on end. It encouraged us to use a round tabletop in a conference room for an impromptu drumming jam session and to play with the gizmo that makes the exam chairs go up and down while waiting for the oncologist to arrive. It freed us to draw pictures with a magic marker on the large white paper bibs used for the barium swallow tests (a smiling heart with lungs and the words, “This man has a great heart!”).

The surprise of being interrupted by nurses and doctors and physician’s assistants in the midst of our shenanigans brought a blessed disruption of the power differential and led into the empowering equality of the unknown, where anything can happen. Being “caught” playing allowed us to laugh and to invite others, for one lovely moment, to join us in dropping our disguises as patient, doctor, nurse or aide and to recognize each other as the equally beloved children of God who are called to join in the Dance of Healing.

Two days after coming home from his nine-day stay in the hospital, Randall had to be rushed back into the emergency center. Doctors discovered an abscess at the site of his transplant. All of a sudden, I found myself holding the suction for the doctor who had to quickly insert a new tracheotomy in Randall’s throat. A flurry of activity swirled around us. There was only time for a local anesthesia, so Randall was awake and aware of the commotion. Things were happening quickly and the speed of it was frightening.

The nurse who was inserting the IV line into Randall’s arm was efficient and cheerful. Randall smiled at her, pointed to her feet, and mouthed, “I like your socks.” Randall is a socks person. It’s a kind of club, this love of wild and weird socks, and you know if you belong. This nurse belonged. It was St. Patrick’s Day, and she was wearing socks striped in hot pink, yellow and Day-Glo green.

Surprised by this patient noticing her socks in the midst of such urgency (and no doubt charmed a bit by his smile), she nevertheless heard the invitation to play.

“Do you want ’em?” she laughed.

“Yes!” said Randall, surprising himself as well as her.

Suddenly, we were in the midst of sacred theater, acting out a classic scene of compassion and service. Terry, the nurse, pulled off her socks as several others came to the cubicle to see what all the laughter was about. Her tears spilled into her laughter as she struggled to get her small socks onto Randall’s size 13 feet.

“Those are lucky socks!”

“They’ll bring him through!”

“That’ll keep his feet warm; gets cold in surgery,” sang out the chorus.

There were hugs and more tears and laughter as Randall’s gurney was pushed into the hallway with his green-tipped feet sticking out past the mattress. We had no guarantee about what was going to happen in surgery, but thanks to our spontaneous, playful interchange, we had moved from fear into a spacious place in our hearts, where we know Love dwells. It is a place where we are never alone, and where nothing is impossible.

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