“This is not the house. You know it’s not the house. We are always stopping somewhere- I just want to go home. Just take me home. Take me home!”
This was my great-grandmother’s reaction when we pulled into the driveway after her 100th birthday party. Instead of taking our usual local route, we had taken the highway, getting off at an exit that Dada didn’t recognize. Normally, changing routes would not have led to a major incident, but for a woman with silver hair, a wiry frame and dementia, taking a different way home added to the confusion that ruled her life.
And though it seems horrible to say out loud, most times all our family could do to cope with Dada’s condition was laugh.
Laughing was all we could do when Dada had thrown a tantrum about wearing a dress she had never tried on to her party, even though we had spent the entire day before helping her in and out of fitting rooms. It was all we could do when she forgot pinning up her bun even though she had already gone through a whole pack of Goody’s bobby pins. And when she and her head full of metal showed up at her surprise party looking as frightened as a kid getting her shots, we did the only thing we could- we laughed.
Recently, I came across an article by Jonah Lehrer, author of How We Decide, on paradoxical laughter. He looked at why it is that we laugh and smile at the most inappropriate times (i.e. at funerals or upon hearing devastating news). After looking at research from physiologists and neuroscientists, Lehrer writes:
What can Freud and Bergson and the temporal gurus tell us about those irrepressible smiles in the face of pain? I don’t know. The point, I guess, is that laughter isn’t just about comedy. Behind every joke is a temporary tragedy, a man slipping and falling on a peel he should have seen… “getting the joke” and “solving the problem” are really the same basic mental process. A punchline is a eureka moment in miniature.
For our family, seeing the woman who had raised us slowly forget who we were was one of the most tragic things we had ever faced. And together slapping our thighs and letting bellowing laughter into the air was our process of solving the problem. Even if no one else got our joke, it didn’t matter. The point was that laughing helped us understand how someone we loved to the last detail, couldn’t remember our names.
In the years since Dada’s passing, I’ve learned to let laughter help me cope with everything from the tragic to the absurd. While some may call it denial or a distraction, I think it’s one of the healthiest forms of release. Laughing helps us to remind ourselves that life will not always be this serious, that things will not always be this way.
Today, when there is nothing remotely funny about your situation- take a minute for absurd laughter. Allow joy into even the darkest moments and remind yourself, “It won’t always be this way.”