Laughter Is Medicine
My husband died Saturday. The funeral is tomorrow. You have written about your father’s funeral, and the days before and after. Is there anything we can do to make things easier for my ten-year-old son? I know he’ll have a hole in his heart forever. I want to do everything possible to support him.
My mother took me to a therapist after my father’s funeral. Everyone was pretty worried about me because I quit talking.
They tried to get me out of my shell, but I hurt too badly to laugh, smile, or talk. Besides, I didn’t have anything to say.
The therapist’s office was behind a Methodist church and the doctor was a man with a New York accent who never shut up and always tossed a football in the air while he talked.
I guess this was his attempt at being a down-to-earth guy, playing with a football while he explained my father’s suicide. But it didn’t work.
Every time he spoke, tossing that dumb ball, I kept thinking of how my father used to say, “There’s no better form of birth control than a New York accent.”
And I would start to giggle. But I still refused to talk.
He told me to stop laughing. Then he asked me to try a mental exercise. He handed me an empty mayonnaise jar and a handful of pennies.
“Put a penny in the jar,” he said.
I wouldn’t do it. So we sat for a long time and I held those pennies, thinking about how foolish I felt.
“Those are hurt-pennies,” he said. “And if you put enough hurt-pennies in your jar, one day you’ll have all your hurt in an itty-bitty place, then you can put the lid on and hurl it into the ocean.”
Then he tossed his football in the air.
This guy was off his rocker.
So we waited forty-five minutes. I didn’t move or speak; he played with his ball. Finally he glanced at his watch and said, “Okay, time’s up. See you next week.”
And I never went back.
I tell you this because in the year after my father’s death, the best thing that ever happened to me was not therapy time with Yankee Doodle Dandy.
My saving grace was Dolly Parton.
I’m serious. One of the first things my mother did after my father’s funeral was take us on a trip to Branson, Missouri. My uncle came along.
What a trip it was. We stayed in a cheap motel, we took a dinner cruise on a riverboat called the Branson Belle, and it was great. The riverboat had a floor show with fire-swallowers, singers, dancers, and acrobats. And for dessert, they served baked Alaska.
My uncle, who always wore bib overalls, sat beside me and poked fun at all the acts on stage.
“Look at this wahoo,” he’d whisper. “This guy sucks, I don’t think his cornbread is done in the middle.”
And I’d laugh until my ribs hurt.
At intermission, my uncle took me onto the deck of the grand riverboat. It was a scene straight out of a Mark Twain novel. I looked at the wide water and started crying. I felt so silly, crying in front of him, but he let me alone. He didn’t try to console me or tell me to hush. He didn’t even ask me to talk.
This was a man who had seen Vietnam. He knew a thing or two about loss.
The next night, we went to Dolly Parton’s Dixieland Stampede. Hundreds of people gathered in a lobby, and a Dolly Parton impersonator wandered among us. She walked right past me and I blushed.
“HEY, DOLLY!” my uncle shouted. “COME HERE!”
I nearly died. “Hush,” I said.
“DOLLY! THIS BOY IS YOUR BIGGEST FAN!”
“I am not.”
The woman made a beeline for me. The crowd parted. She hugged me and almost suffocated me with her enormous blessings.
My mother gasped and started praying in tongues. I got my picture made. Dolly kissed my cheek and I was ready to bear her children.
Certainly, I know it wasn’t the real Dolly Parton, but it was pretty cool, and something happened in me.
After the show, we went to get ice cream, and my uncle made us laugh some more. Even my mother was laughing. She laughed so hard that ice cream ran down her shirt. I laughed so hard no noise came out of my mouth and all I could do was clap my hands.
And that was the night I started talking again.
On the way back to the motor inn I sat beside my uncle in the car. My mother and sister slept in the backseat. And I missed Daddy pretty bad.
“Thank you,” I said to my uncle.
“For making me laugh.”
He said words I’ll never forget. Perhaps, they were words that altered the destiny of my life, more than any mayonnaise jar ever could.
“Laugh as much as you can, man. It’s medicine.”
He said nothing else.
And I don’t think I should, either.
Except this: I hold your family in my heart.