Some Thoughts on Humor

The Blue Pill in the Applesauce

I have not told my son this story: how I felt him drop into the birthing position as I danced and stuffed dollars into a naked man's G-string. How I went into labor two days later. Perhaps a son could never find this funny but just maybe when he's older, he will.

Humor is a birthright that runs in our family. I'm reminded of this weeks after my mother's death as I sift through hundreds of sympathy cards mailed to my father. Several cards contain a handwritten note which says that the writer "will miss Elaine's great sense of humor." Amen to that. My mother was the queen of ironic deadpan. In 1985, when my five-year old nephew sang a song in his little boy falsetto while swinging his legs in our kitchen chair, my mom was the one to put this precious moment into perspective. "He can't read, can't spell his name, but he knows all the words to a damn Prince song," she said. My mother had the comic's gift, the ability to make you laugh at your behavior and critically examine it at the same time.

Since her death, friends have given me books on death and I've read them. I understand that grieving for her will be a rough river. Instead of books, though, I'd like a bereavement culture that incorporates a dose of bawdy humor. I know of other cultures where this exists--the uproarious Irish wakes, the playful traditions of jazz funerals in New Orleans. But there is nothing in my Episcopalian and very Midwestern background that encourages the levity I now seek. How I could use a Day of the Dead skeleton of my mother playing golf in the afterlife.

And the truth is that I'm recalling the irony of her illness and death anyway. The end of life is a tragic comedy and laughter, for me, lessens the tragic part. This is how my mother looked at the world, as if pain is to be expected and mocked. I suspect she learned this early in life when her father abandoned her. Or maybe she learned this as a young mother when her husband died in the Korean War or after her second husband beat and bloodied her. Somewhere in her life my mother learned to laugh through hard times, to tell life that it's often ugly and its breath stinks.

And so in that tradition I remember the fart. My daughter, who was two months old at the funeral, passed gas in mom's face the day before she died. My mother was too ill to even speak, but as soon as the baby let it rip, mom's eyes widened, she lifted a frail hand to her mouth and she smiled.

There's also the day that I was so exhausted after caring for my mother and the baby that I forgot to put mom's bottom dentures in. When I returned to the house hours later she sat with her bottom lip sunken in, her top teeth hanging over like a chipmunk's. My father pulled me to the side. "Why did you do your mother's teeth like that?" he asked.

I imagine the conversation that me and mom could have about those last days:

"I was so tired. And the pain--"

"I know. You moaned a lot."

"Girl, you don't know. That was serious pain."

"But you wouldn't take the morphine."

"It gave me bad dreams."

"I didn't know that."

"Mmm hmm."

"Remember how you hid the pill under your tongue--"

"--and spit it out."

"Daddy was upset about that. He found the melted blue pill on your nightgown."

"Your father got on my nerves trying to hide that mess in the applesauce."

"He was just trying to make you comfortable."

"Comfortable cancer," she would say.

I am still a sentimentalist who will cry during moments of kindness or beauty, but I also think human existence is one absurd little trip. We live, we die, and both experiences are painful, clumsy, and fraught with errors. Why not laugh at it? And why not laugh at ourselves?

Perhaps this is how I'll explain the irreverent baby-shower-at-the strip-club to my son. It was such a ridiculous idea that it made perfect sense. And it's why I laugh today as my six-year old boy raises his shirt to show me how he can roll his stomach. He doesn't know this, but it's the perfect imitation of a male stripper.


  1. you are pretty funny yourself. xoxo

  2. Yes, Amir will definitely laugh...:)

  3. Your beautiful post made this sentimentalist choke up a little, and smile.