Metastatic Humor (A Comedy of Cancer)
"During a late-August afternoon, about a month before she died, my mother and I recited a duet of suggestions for the inscription on her gravestone. Each one made us laugh."

by Robert G. Margolis


She was dying from metastatic colon cancer. Our Jewish tradition, relying on its beloved “Song of Songs,” proclaims, “Love is strong as death.” That is true, but not without humor. Or, as James Joyce wrote, “Loud, heap miseries upon us yet entwine our arts with laughters low!”

During a late-August afternoon, about a month before she died, my mother and I recited a duet of suggestions for the inscription on her gravestone. Each one made us laugh.

Your Ad Here.

If you want to cast the first stone, use this one.

We have to stop meeting like this.

Laughtears, to use a Joyce word.

Fall was her favorite season, and it was near. Through a front window, her gaze followed a sleepy sway of trees in the late daylight, then glanced at the sky’s blue solace.

Abruptly, and without sequitur, my mother told me that before she died, she wanted to… commit a crime! A robbery, in fact. And she wanted me to help her commit it. She became Mom Quixote! I was, well, her Sancho.

“Don’t ask me questions. I just want to do it!” she exclaimed.

“This comes from… Where, Mom?” I asked. She shook her head no in refusal of any question about her decision.

Abruptly, and without sequitur, my mother told me that before she died, she wanted to… commit a crime! A robbery, in fact.

I proffered many guesses. Maybe it came from a book or a poem I read to my mother or from a movie we watched together. Who or what gave her the idea, she would not say. Besides, she was too weak now to even take her afternoon walk around her neighborhood block.

“Well, Mom, unless you want to rob your own house…” I began.

“I am dying, Robert, and you need to do this for me,” she said. We were dappled in shadows. The autumn light filled the living room with its sad, liminal beauty.

I confided my mom’s request to a friend from work named D. She had recently met my mother, and something unspoken happened between them. My mother gifted her television to D after her death. Visibly affected by my mother’s presence, D would not share what occurred between them.

“I can’t talk about it,” she said.

When I asked, my mother said, “It’s between me and D.”

When I told D my mother wanted to commit a burglary, she smiled, as though it was what she expected to happen.

“Use my house,” was all she said. My part in this mystery included accepting silence as an answer to my questions. It was settled. D would leave the front door unlocked, and I would pretend to pick the lock.


One midsummer Saturday, we visited my paternal grandmother, then in her early 90s, but still able to live on her own in her apartment in Philadelphia. My mother was like a daughter to her, but only my mother knew this was the last time they would see each other. My grandmother knew my mother was ill, but not that her illness was terminal. My mother did not want my grandmother to bear this knowledge.

We were quiet driving home that summer day. Her final time together with my grandmother reverberated within us, and we reflected in silence, for words would disrupt the impact of this final parting. Suddenly, seeing a Wendy’s in the near distance, my mother said, “Let’s stop there and eat.”

Maybe this was the first appearance of Mom Quixote, because my mother usually felt a physical revulsion toward fast food. To eat it would be a violation of her body and her ethics to eat right and live well.

But that day, she ordered a Wendy’s chicken sandwich—an over-salted piece of old meat with limp lettuce on a bleached-white bun. She ate it, solemnly, her brow furrowed in concentration.

“How is it, Mom?” I asked.

“Not bad,” she replied.

I could not contradict her opinion, for she ate that chicken sandwich as if it was the very cure for her cancer. With ceremonious bites of a Wendy’s chicken sandwich, she altered—or better yet, freed herself from—a lifelong perception of health in herself. Just another day in the comedy of life and death.

My mother’s time was possessed with urgency. Two days later, after dark, we embarked on the burglary.


For the “burgling,” my mother dressed in all black with a black cap. It was a performance of some other-self she never was nor would ever be. She didn’t want to be the woman she was: 65, with scrupulous attention to what she ate with a faithful discipline and routine for staying in good health, who ends up dying of cancer—as her mother did at age 48, and her father at age 66. It was as if all her effort and striving on behalf of her health was eradicated by cancer. She would not live beyond her father’s age. Life transgressed with her.

Her soul was, for a time, as if concussed by a collision of realities. The soul, Oscar Wilde said, grows from old to young. Contrarily, the body grows from young to old. In her dying state, was she a different person than the one who had lived and known herself for 65 years? Yes and no. Between the yes and the no was a metastasis of humor. Between the yes and the no were Mom Quixote and her faux burglary.

When we arrived at the front door, my mom stopped.

“This is enough,” she uttered.

“Okay, Mom,” I said gently. “You are victorious. Let’s go home.”

Even if Mom Quixote actually had “burgled” my friend’s house, it would still be an act of pretending. Her fantastical imagination heightened reality. I was at once assured and consoled. With death near, she showed herself who she could become.

Driving home, she said, “Don’t tell your aunt and uncle about this.”

We must have looked like the characters in a Buster Keaton silent film short. At the time, I did not understand what (if anything) Mom Quixote wanted to steal. After she died, I realized she wanted to take back her other life—the life before cancer.

Memory refracts; our “caper” imprisoned. This curious incident—when I remember it, when I attempt to interpret what it may have meant to my mother—feels similar to how I am affected by events or incidents in the Hebrew Bible, the ones concentrated into a spare few sentences, without any of the details or explanation that we expect and want from a narrative. A superabundance of meaning erupts, for which there is no interpretation equal to explaining it. Even the best interpretation only amplifies the question: What does it mean? The event remains suggestive of a secret but defies any attempt at comprehension. It is much like Mom Quixote, deliberately mysterious in her actions, refusing to offer any explanation, and answering any question with silence.

 Memory refracts; our “caper” imprisoned.

Mom’s humor metastasized, both transforming and transiting abruptly, and spread to areas of her life, like the finality of her cancer, that it had never otherwise occupied.

I think my mom felt it in this way: a sense of humor too deep, too secreted for our usual laughter, like sharing a private joke with the Angel of Death. Her humor contained a secret about herself—a metastatic moment in which a dying woman realized what is undying. It was a moment that can create deep silent laughter or an absurd gesture.

After the faux burglary, Mom Quixote did not appear again. Her work of subverting and liberating specific lifelong self-perceptions and assumptions about life had been done. My mother’s metastatic humor continued to grow and spread throughout her last summer and fall. I heard it in the ascendant sound of her laugh. I saw it in the patience with which she comforted her friends who visited one last time to say goodbye. I felt it in how her bedroom became, as one hospice nurse told me, “like a temple, a place of sacred presence.” It allowed her to do again something she especially loved to do: dance. She did not dance as if her body was well, but she danced with the whole of her circumstance.

“Life Is A Dance,” read the inscription on her gravestone.


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