I spent the last ten years of my mother’s life trying to make sure that she died laughing. She had Alzheimer’s and she was old and frail and some days she didn’t even know who I was. But she still always enjoyed a good laugh.
Other people might have found it insensitive that I laughed at my mother’s aches and pains and the indignities of old age, but when I laughed, my mother laughed with me, even if she wasn’t quite sure what she was laughing about.
Nobody really knows what happens when we die. Maybe nothing does. Maybe we just stop. But I think there is always the slight possibility that whatever emotion we are feeling at the instant of death is the one that we are stuck with throughout eternity, so I did my best to keep my mother laughing.
At that stage in her life, it wasn’t that difficult to make her laugh. I could tell her the same jokes day after day or even hour after hour and they were always new to her. I could wear a funny t-shirt or sing to her off-key or waggle my eyebrows when a good looking young doctor went by. A lot of things made her laugh. Or maybe it was just being with me that did it.
“Getting old ain’t for sissies”, she used to say. And as I struggled to deal with her retreating mind and her declining health, I wondered if that meant that the people getting old couldn’t be sissies or the people taking care of them. I hated and resented what old age was doing to her and I was a definite sissy when it came to watching it happen.
Her doctors put her on anti-depressants and anti-anxiety drugs that kept her from feeling sorry for herself and kept her from feeling sad. But according to everyone I’ve asked, they haven’t invented a drug yet that really makes someone happy. They just have drugs that will keep your from realizing that you are NOT happy, which isn’t quite the same thing.
So I started my own quest to make sure that she died laughing. I lost all inhibitions about dancing and singing in public, of dressing wild and making a fool of myself. Whatever got that little laugh was worth doing, and worth doing often.
She wouldn’t eat her meals sometimes and she wasn’t sure why. She wouldn’t like to stray far from her room at the nursing home, and she wasn’t sure why. But her heart and lungs and arms and legs and every thing vital, other than some of her brain cells, seemed to be functioning pretty well. But at the rate she was forgetting things, I didn’t really know how long it would be before she forgot how to laugh. I hoped that I could help her remember long enough to make sure that she died laughing.
I don’t think it would be such a bad thing if everyone could die laughing.
When someone’s illness becomes terminal it isn’t unusual for family members to gather around and fill their loved ones final days and hours with tears. But maybe it would be better if the friends and family could sit around with their loved one and have one more good long laugh to remember them by. I mean, isn’t the laughter really what we want to remember instead of the pain and deterioration and tears?
I don’t know who I’m really kidding. I didn’t do the whole comedian thing for my mother. I did it for myself. I’ve always felt that the laughter of someone I love is one of the greatest sounds in the whole world. So when my mother and I got to the end of our time together, I didn’t want to remember nursing homes and adult diapers and infections and fears and tears and regret. I wanted to remember her laugh. And now that she is gone, that’s the thought that brings a smile to my face, knowing that I helped her laugh up to the end.