Recently, I reconnected with my sister whom I had not spoken with in many years. Though we live thousands of miles apart, we soon found ourselves laughing, despite tears. In that magical moment when I heard my sister’s laughter coming through the line, gratitude filled my heart. For it could only be some kind of God-given gift that enabled us, after all this time, not only to reconnect, but through shared laughter, to forgive, to heal and to transcend the tragedies of our past.
Together, we waxed nostalgically about a time in high school when, in an attempt to cheer her up, I jumped onto my bed flailing my arms and gyrating wildly in a perfect imitation of the Go Go girls on Soul Train. This memory alone brought on gales of laughter. It reminded me of those times when we’d laugh so hard that one of us would have to beg the other to stop.
Today, I realize that our silly antics provided a distraction from the harsh realities of growing up in a home ravaged by violence, mental illness and addiction. Yet, it wasn’t until well into adulthood that I began to understand the nuances of what we Irish call black humor. Humor—not everyone finds funny. Humor—that delicately traverses the razor’s edge between joy and despair.
I remember one cold winter night when we were in high school. We’d put our brothers to bed and we sat huddled beneath a blanket watching Saturday Night Live. The late John Belushi, considered one of the great comic geniuses of all time, stood alone on the stage with a plastic doll lying in crib.
My sister stuck her fingers in her ears to block the urgent and primal sound of a crying child. I sank deep down into the blanket, frozen, mesmerized, wishing it would stop.
On the stage Belushi’s eyebrows danced up and down. Laughter rippled through the crowd. My sister and I began to giggle as Belushi attempted to calm the pretend child, but predictably, his soothing words were ineffective. The crying grew louder. Finally, when it became unbearable, he picked the doll up and whacked its head against the crib rail.
Instantly, the crying stopped.
My breath caught in my throat. A few nervous laughs erupted on the television. Belushi gently laid the doll back down. Relieved, my sister dropped her hands. Belushi slowly turned and tried to tip toe away but, before he could sneak off, the crying resumed, but the further he moved away, the more the sound escalated in pitch and volume.
The television crowd howled as he sank to his knees and clasped his hands to pray. He pulled at his hair, rubbed his face, and waited. Gradually, the crying ceased. Once again, he quietly stood up and tried to slip away, but this time the sound rebounded with such ferocity that my fingers flew up to my ears too.
In a fury, Belushi grabbed the doll and began to rake its head back and forth across the crib rails begging it to, “Shut up. Just, please, shut up!”
The audience roared.
My sister and I tried to stifle the strange impulse to laugh, but the harder we tried not to laugh, the more gasps of muffled laughter leaked out. Finally, my sister wiped away a tear. “Why are we laughing at this?”
“It’s sick,” I whispered back dabbing at my own eyes. Then, I reached under the blanket and playfully pinched the soft underside of her arm imitating our mother, “I’ll give you something to cry about . . .”
“Oh my God—now, that’s really scary!” She shrieked with laughter. In unison, we burst into uncontrolled hysteria and buried ourselves under the blanket so as not to disturb our mother who had retired to the room above us with a jug of red wine. The scene switched to Dan Akroid saying, “Jane, you ignorant slut.”
To this day I’m not sure what was funny about that scene. Perhaps, because my sister and myself were both surrogate parents to our own rambunctious brothers, we knew first hand how utterly powerless a person can feel when trying to calm a hysterical child. Moreover, for our own self-preservation, and to keep ourselves from having to witness a real baby suffer such a fate we had spent the better part of our young adulthood vigilantly guarding against this very sound.
A famous comic once said that all comedy is born of tragedy plus time. While this formula may be true, I have learned that not everyone shares the same taste when it comes to humor. When I read books such as “Running With Scissors,” or “The Glass House” I laugh aloud, while many of my friends never finish the book.
Scientist say that when we laugh certain calming chemicals are released in the brain and this is why people who experience a great shock will sometimes break into fits of spontaneous laughter. This physiological response is the body’s way of processing an event that the mind simply cannot wrap its arms around. This may explain why I sometimes find myself laughing when laughter is not really an appropriate response.
A friend of mine recently told me that for thousands of years all across Asia people have attended Laugh Camps where they sit around and laugh for hours in order to heal one another of illness and trauma.
But the proof for me that laughter is the best medicine lives in my heart. Because, when I heard my sister laughing, I knew beyond our bloodline, we shared something much more profound. We shared a well-honed, perverse ability, to laugh! To see irony in the most excruciating pain and the most despicable of human behaviors, and this medicine, which had allowed us to cope with the pain of our past, continued to prove itself as a powerful potent potion for our healing.
And, when you think about it, there’s really nothing funny about that. HA!