It was 11pm on Saturday, August 10, 2019. I had gotten off the stage at City Limits Comedy Club in Cork and the owner, Brian, gave me a hug and wished me all the best. I jumped in to my mother's car and drove up to Marymount Hospice to see her. I'd only left her at 9pm to head to the comedy gig, but I wanted to get back in for a few more hours and sit by her bedside.
s I arrived back on the floor, where there could be up to 20 patients in private rooms, I met Dan, one of the carers. "How are things, Dan?", I said. "Crazy in here tonight, Andrew. It's like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest". He was referring to the 1970s film set in what would then have been referred to as an asylum. I burst out laughing.
Dan was always the one who gave me a laugh on the floor. The staff in the hospice have seen it all, and they know when you need a pick-me-up and they know when to leave you alone. There I was laughing, while my mother Patricia was dying from cancer.
I was recently approached by ARC Cancer Support Centres to give a talk on comedy and how laughter in difficult times can help. Comedy releases tension. It changes a mood and it can allow you to momentarily forget all your woes. We all have different challenges in our life, but one thing we all have in common is laughter.
I think Irish people are really good at the 'difficult times'. We would win an Olympic medal for the 'difficult times'. I remember the funeral of Shay Bradley in Dublin where he had an audio recording of himself shouting "Let me out!" played at the graveside. He wanted everyone to leave laughing. I think this is gold-medal humour at the toughest of times for people.
As a comedian, my coping mechanism to deal with difficult situations is always to go for the laugh. As the youngest of four children, I needed to get attention somehow, so I would try to be funny. My mother, Patricia, was a very funny woman. She was watching the news one night where the leader of the DUP in Northern Ireland, Arlene Foster, was attending a GAA match. A big news story considering the history of the North. She said to the television, "Arlene goes to GAA matches, but won't go to work" - a reference to the suspension of the Stormont Parliament. I burst out laughing and have used that line on stage ever since.
Approaching a subject like cancer and writing jokes about it, especially when you're not the one battling it, can be a treacherous path.
She used to ask me, "Are you writing material about me?". I always had routines about my mother. I once performed on the TV show Russell Howard's Good News on BBC and did a whole three-minute piece on her. I remember her saying, "I liked it, what have you got next on me?"
When she was diagnosed, I never realised how many jokes I would write about her cancer. I asked her permission would it be alright to write jokes about it. She said, "Of course. They'd better be funny".
Approaching a subject like cancer and writing jokes about it, especially when you're not the one battling it, can be a treacherous path. Cancer affects one in two people during their lifetime and we all know someone battling it.
I remember saying to my mother after she was diagnosed that I was going to move home to help out with her care. She replied, "You living at home again will be worse than cancer". We both laughed; another joke that went straight on stage.
Watching my mum fight an illness that deep down she knew she was not going to win was heartbreaking.
She was fighting for time and the treatments she got gave her more time. Every chemo session gave her a chance to make her grandson's communion in May 2019, as that was her target.
Sometimes you don't really know what to say to someone who is terminally ill. Some mornings I used to sit on the bed and we would watch the TV show Derry Girls on the iPad with tea and toast, and have a laugh. Other mornings she would not be up for much chat and just wanted to sleep.
Your relationship does change. I got much closer to my mum and we discussed things that I probably never thought I would have with her.
One day she was in with her consultant to get scan results and she had a good news day. The tumours had shrunk and she was having a break from treatment. She came home absolutely delighted with a big smile on her face. She said, "I've been downgraded from terminal to back on the gin and tonics!"
For me, having a laugh in challenging times does help get me through things. If you feel relaxed, and can add humour in to it, it can also allow you to open up and talk more with someone about a difficult situation. While cancer is not funny, laughing at cancer is some of the best medication you can take.
My mother made her grandson's communion in May 2019 but the following week was admitted to Marymount Hospice until her passing on Monday, August 26.
My two brothers, sister and I loved caring for our mother and carried out everything she wanted. Sometimes the best thing to do is to listen and to have a good laugh.
Andrew Ryan will present a free online Zoom talk this Friday at 1pm as part of a series of lunchtime talks hosted by ARC Cancer Support Centres to mark Men's Health Week. To register, phone 01 215 0250 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. To support ARC's emergency fundraising appeal, visit arccancersupport.ie or text 'ARC' to 50300 to donate €4* [*ARC Cancer Support Centres will receive a minimum of €3.60. Service Provider: LikeCharity. Helpline 076 6805278]
Health & Living