There’s an old adage: “laughter is the best medicine.” No, it won’t cure a cold or fix a broken bone, but there’s something to say about letting go in a moment, no matter how nervous or nauseous or achy you feel, and letting yourself get swept up in anything from a raunchy joke or a witty riddle to something silly in between. I learned that important lesson from my father. My dad is the king of puns. Actually, let me clarify that a bit by saying he is the king of questionably amusing word play. Whenever the opportunity presents itself for a quick rejoinder or a snappy comeback, you can see a look of fierce concentration on his face as he works out the details to his latest vocabulary concoction. Conversation halts for a moment or two as we all wait for the inevitable, and invariably we groan, as his comebacks are masterpieces of cheese. He always looks so proud of his latest accomplishment, often repeating it more than once to make sure everyone heard him, as we visibly cringe, which makes him chuckle harder than he did at first telling. I’ve wracked my brain to list a few, but they’re generally so light and fluffy that within moments they’ve evaporated without a trace. And as if his pun play wasn’t enough, Dad always has a relevant joke to toss out. This past Jewish New Year’s dinner, he showed up with a folder filled with pages of one-liners he found online, just in case there was a lull in conversation. As he ran down the list, his eyes lit up with delight at eliciting any sort of even slightly amused response. Of course my dad isn’t different from many relatives who use family dinners as their comedic stomping ground. What sets him apart, however, is that he’s constantly looking for the humor in things, despite what he does all day. My dad is an oncologist, a cancer specialist. His days are filled with chemotherapy and painkillers, delivering hard-to-hear news to patients, helping them through their last months and days with grace and empathy. And a good laugh or two.
When I was growing up, I remember hearing Dad’s car pull into the driveway after I got home from school, and running to the front door to ask how his day was. He would fill me in on patients he’d seen, how they were feeling, if they were getting better. Or worse. He’d tell me if
they’d gone into remission or if they’d gone into the hospital. I remember hearing about one patient who asked him to keep her alive until her daughter’s wedding, another until her grandson’s bar mitzvah. We’d talk about patients who wanted to make it through the holidays so
their families wouldn’t be plunged into mourning at a usually happy time. Through weekly visits, lengthy chemotherapy treatments, and hospital stays, my dad became a friend, a confidant, a therapist to his patients. He worked with some for months, some for years. I never could understand how he seemed to handle so well the pain of sharing bad news, and then watching people he cared about deteriorate.
Looking back I realize that perhaps my dad was so well suited to his job because he came from a broken home back when divorce was shameful. I could feel his pain when he told me how he would spend weekends taking two subways, alone, to visit his own father, too embarrassed to tell anyone where he was going. Neither of his parents remarried and he didn’t have siblings. He lived with his mother and grandfather, who rarely spoke to each other. His childhood was filled with silence and solitude. In spite of his emotionally bereft family life, or perhaps because of it, he was able to develop empathetic bonds with his patients. Relating to his own family often remained difficult for him, as if by the end of his workday he was completely empty. He would regularly disappear into his study to spend hours alone, listening to classical music and dealing, in his own way, with the sadness that surrounded him from both the past and the present.
What’s truly inspirational about my dad is that somehow he found grace in that sadness. He explained to me once that when people have a finite amount of time left they often face the future with a heightened sense of appreciation and gratitude for what they have left. Being able
to help them gave him purpose and he often used humor to bring them back into the moment. He taught me that laughter is a remarkable way to be present. What my father was doing was helping his patients find moments of Zen (although he’d adamantly refuse to call it that). Being
fully present gave them a little break from the enormity of what they were dealing with. Years ago, a friend of my husband’s was in the hospital with cancer that had been in remission since he was a child. But it was back and his prospects were now bleak. When we got to his room, it was filled to capacity -- I think the staff knew time was limited so they let everyone stay. Rich was in bed, barely talking, surrounded by whispering friends and relatives. I started chatting away, as I do in stressful situations, telling him about a book I had recently written: a collection of silly, embarrassing, and laugh-out-loud funny vomit stories. At that point the room was silent when Rich said he had a story for me and shared a hilarious tale of college buddies (many of whom were near his bed), a case of beer, and a car air conditioner that spewed out fetid fumes every time it was turned on after that night. Rich’s eyes were sparkling and the tension in the room evaporated as everyone cracked up. The door opened and his mom walked in, looking worried, having heard all the noise out in the hallway. In that moment though, we had been transformed from anxious well-wishers back to college friends reminiscing about old times. Humor brought us together and made us forget the pain and sadness for a little while.
When I find myself in stressful situations, humor is my default coping mechanism. I find that laughing relieves anxiety, breaks tension, and effectively distracts unhappy children. It takes the edge off the pain of being in a different homeroom than a best friend. A baseball team loss becomes less tragic. An endless wait in an airport goes by faster. While I’m the world’s worst joke teller, I specialize in sharing embarrassing personal stories. Recounting how I broke my own finger in a step class, or the time I unwittingly had my hair chopped into a boy cut, can force a grin. Asking for help recounting a silly scene from a movie works. Sometimes I even resort to a quick tickle, knowing that once a smile breaks through, I’ve got a chance to help someone find a little joy and be in the moment.