Sometimes situations in life are so absurd and uncontrollable that you respond with one of two reactions: you laugh or you cry—maybe both. Humor has ever been a refuge of mine when faced with trauma. I remember humor and trauma going hand in hand as far back as my grandmother’s fight with cancer. Imagine a withered, frail woman, sapped of her bombastic laugh and vitality, yet still burning with a fire of life in her eyes—an amusement at the pain, struggles and pressures that she’d faced. Now imagine a young Christian—slight framed, moppy haired and wearing glasses—at his grandmother’s bedside for some reason. I honestly can’t recall what I was doing at her big old house in Millbrook that day. I assume we were gathering because we knew ‘the hour’ would soon toll. I didn’t understand death then, as well as I do now. So I remember feeling quite confused about the whole process. Now, in my naïve, kind way, I asked Ludi (my grandma) if there was anything that I could do for her. All the inane inquiries you would expect a young person ask in a situation beyond their comprehension, were those that I made. Was she thirsty? Could I get her a book? (She’s laying there with her eyes closed, just trying to will the hand of death away.) Maybe run to the store to get something to eat for her? Here, she actually croaked out a reply, using her trademark humor: “If you’re going to the corner store, don’t buy any green bananas.”
I didn’t get the joke until I saw it in a Billy Crystal movie (I believe, it was him) years and years after my grandma’s passing. I laughed harder than the scene called for, because I knew how brave she’d been when staring death in the face.
I don’t know what it is with cancer and humor, but as a grown man I had a similar experience with my mom. As you’d expect, there isn’t that much fun to be had in cancer wards. During her admittance, with so much free time on her hands, my mom learned how to use a Mac and an iPhone—defying the “old person fumbling with a cellphone” stereotype. I think when mom was off and soaring on one of her pharmaceutical trips, I got upwards of 50 texts in about three hours. I kid you not. Still, when she wasn’t texting me a mile a minute, or planning this incredible, wedding-sized Christmas that she was never able to physically attend—her spirit certainly joined us at our unusual Christmas/ Wake Party in February though—there simply wasn’t all that much to do. At PMH (Princess Margaret Hospital), access to the wifi was free, however they charged for television. Mom hated television anyhow. Well, not all of it as we soon learned. You see, out of everything that we could stream, we ended up watching the Ellen Show the most. I strong-armed her into watching a “talk show”, the last of which she recalled was something from the Sally Jesse Raphael era. “Things have changed, mom!” Netflix kind of sucked back then; no big original programs and we always get shafted up here when it comes to US vs. Canadian content. CTV became our savior in this instance, because we could stream the show on that. Unimportant. What was important was that after a day of tests, painful and quiet suffering—some of those chemo drugs stripped her throat raw—or agonizing marrow taps, we had something to look forward to.
If you’ve ever watched Ellen—and you bloody well should—she’s an affable, likeable host. You feel like you and she are having a dialog even though she’s thousands of miles away. She has a real spark, a personality that comes through the screen, and that’s rare. Even my mom, who never owned cable in all the time that I knew her (post-divorce), would find herself laughing, snickering, or just cringing—but still happy—when she couldn’t use her voice. Mom’s not here to testify to the miraculous healing magic of laughter, at least not for her body, as it didn’t save her life in the end. Though, I believe humor did make a super-shitty situation bearable. Medicine for the soul. It gave us something to experience other than the march of days and treatments. While toxic chemicals were pumped into her veins, we cackled like hags and watched makeovers, home renovation surprises, and the candid, dancing interviews that Ellen does with celebrities (the voice-in-the-ear bits, where she basically puppets a celeb are comedy gold). That hour together became a ritual, one as important as those fabled “Sunday meals” that no one has anymore. I’d say that those hours, when counted, added to the weight of the friendship that my mom and I developed in her later years. Because if you can laugh together, which is a form of baring yourself, you can cry together. We did some of that, too.
I know that Ellen will never see this, but I’d like to thank her anyways for contributing to arts and popular culture in a meaningful, philanthropic way. We don’t have too many voices in North American culture that are as laid back, as welcoming and as welcomed, considering their status as an openly queer individual and animal rights advocate. There are strides being made, real strides with personalities like that; people who can influence our opinions in a positive way, without hammering that message. But regardless of Ellen’s political makeup, we should focus her ability to make us laugh. She makes people do ridiculous things on her show. She removes our perfectly moulded masks and carefully stitched bullshit suits, and turns us into fools. I love that she loves life. I think that you have to, in order to do comedy or satire. You have to care more than not, or you lack the empathy to connect an audience to an observation. The same as any art, really.
I also hope, that no matter where your road takes you, no matter how dark and dreary the destination, that you remember to laugh, to connect, and to partake in the great, cosmic game that is life. You’re either laughing with life, or against it, and you definitely want to be in on the joke.
All my love,
P.S. If you want to watch some irreverent, subversive female comedy, I highly recommend Broad City. I’ve had so many laughs from that show. I love those ladies!
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