“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing.”
I FEEL THE TAUT STILLNESS in my two young children and even in my husband, like the dry, silent crackle before thunder: the desire to laugh.
The four of us are in a sushi restaurant with my husband’s colleague, who has been describing his trip to Egypt. “The Monastery of St. Simon will change your life,” he tells us. “The building, oh you should see it. It awaits your approach on the far side of the village, wedged in the bosom of the hills.” He actually says “bosom.”
My daughter freezes. My husband widens his eyes and I sip my glass of Pellegrino to stifle the urge to laugh. My son chortles into his napkin, thankfully disguising it as a small choke, and we move on as the colleague asks the kids if they are excited about the coming baby. It is not the colleague that we find funny, not his wild eyes, nor his travel anecdotes told in an Alan Rickman voice. It’s not even the word bosom itself, but the simple fact that the word was said in a moment of seriousness.
This isn’t abnormal behavior, though we have actually taught our kids manners. They are obedient and courteous. They play nice, entertain babies in the grocery line, spend full afternoons working together to make an alligator out of an egg carton. They sit through entire church services, and old ladies compliment us afterward on their composure. But the kids are quiet because they scribble dark moustaches on the picture of Jesus on the program cover: Fu Manchu, Handlebar, Pancho Villa. They bare their teeth sheepishly at us, knowing they are treading on a paper-thin surface.
This kind of humor exists in a tense space between respect and impropriety. There’s a blissful hint that convention is about to be turned on its head. Something—or you—could spin out of control. It’s like standing at the top of a water park slide, one step away from spiraling down into pitch black, wondering which way you’ll turn next (also, you’re wondering when they last secured the bolts on this contraption, and why you gave in to the seventy-five-cent hot dog). Of course, being on the verge of disorder is not the same as actually being out of control. No one wants to be the maid of honor who laughs out loud when the pastor’s microphone shorts and he sounds like R2D2.
Some people are blessed to have been born into generations of Kennedy-esque sangfroid, their humor comprising witty quips about an article in The New York Times, their children giggling politely into their palms at a Beatrix Potter story. I, unfortunately, can’t claim such a composed heritage. My mother touches her collarbone and acts shocked at this accusation from my five brothers and me—and yes, my childhood was filled with inspiration, with memorizing Roosevelt and Goethe quotes with my five brothers, and with quiet moments of such palpable spirituality that I can still wrap myself in their memory—but it was my mother herself who once snickered into her hymn book in the middle of the church service when she distractedly sang, “Because I have been given lunch.”
In the early eighties, she bought the family a kitschy plastic nativity set that included a baby Jesus disproportionately small next to his two-foot elongated parents. He had a brown chili-bowl haircut, his left eye was slightly lower than his right one, and he lay amorphously wrapped in a plastic blanket like a little baguette. For years we break-danced him in his plastic bed of hay, thumped Mary and Joseph on the back of their heads to hear the hollow echo. Then we began hiding the baby. No one remembers who did it first, but it became an annual family competition. He who placed the baby best was king. Over the years the baby was put into beds, the fireplace log basket, the rolling pin collection. He was wedged in the fridge beside the orange juice and swapped for one of the library busts so that whoever glanced at the nativity set was startled by the porcelain head of Mark Twain. One year an overly exuberant family friend propped the baby on the crown molding above the dining room door. No one found him for days, until my mom was bringing the cooked Christmas turkey through the threshold and he slipped off and hit her on the head.
“Jesus hit me like a ton of bricks,” she told her friends later.
“You mean, like a sign to change your life?” they asked.
“No, no,” she explained. “He actually fell from the door frame. Look—I have a bruise.”
A visiting cousin once asked why this had become a tradition in our house, and my dad blinked blankly and said, “Well, why not?”
“Why is that stuff always funny to us?” my husband asks as we drive home through the city after the sushi dinner.
“Well, this one has no hope,” he says, gesturing toward my middle, and I nod and rub my belly.
“I don’t know,” I frown. “Maybe it’s the beauty of something being off.” I don’t really understand what this means, but I know that we’re talking about specific laughter—one that seems provoked by incongruity. If you see a toddler who is learning to walk stumble on a lip on the sidewalk, you certainly don’t laugh; but if you witness your own college-age brother trip on his laptop cord, you come undone. We are not so much laughing at the thing proper as we are the irony of life, our mortal silliness—our manic recognition that we’re not in control of the universe. Say that you and that same brother once had to press your knuckles into your mouths to keep from laughing at a Sunday night fireside, and the only thing arguably funny was that you were trying not to laugh at a fireside. In that instant a bizarre bond is formed, so that, years later when you try to describe this relationship to your husband, you can’t do so concretely, but you know it somehow goes back to that heady moment.
Laughter itself—even ill-timed laughter—may not be de rigueur, but it is not a sin. In fact, laughing can be Bad Emotion 911, and is sometimes—over anger or depression—the holiest response. Light-heartedness shouldn’t be confused with light-mindedness, that troublesome term that some misinterpret to mean that a religion preaching a plan of happiness frowns on a good time. Joseph Smith, one of the truest men ever to have lived, reconciled humor and religion, and is known to have romped with children and joked with friends. Even the scriptures are not without humor. God says some pretty funny stuff to the Pharisees. And, after the whole account of Ammon swooping in and chopping off bad guys’ arms and then preaching to King Lamoni, we’re told that God’s “arm is extended to all people who will repent and believe on His name.” I mean, come on.
Weeks after the sushi dinner I am still assessing humor and questioning if it can even be pigeonholed into tidy definitions. The kids splash and crack up in the bathtub. It is raining outside and my husband and I have found an afternoon of stillness amidst what seems constant activity with young children. He is propped on our bed, reading emails through his dark-rimmed glasses, and I am wrapped in a blanket next to him, lazily rubbing the bump of my emerging belly and thinking how much better looking my husband gets as he ages, and also wondering which book I want to read next. I am remembering the two of us doubling over with laughter in the university library the semester we met. Tears rising, I snorted out a dribble of snot. The memory mixes with our kids’ voices echoing in the bathroom, and time seems to collapse into one grand existence. The world slows so that I see each raindrop fall outside the window, and I recognize that this is one of those moments of unadulterated bliss to remember always as I rise to check on the kids and feel the pool of wetness below me and know suddenly that I am miscarrying.
* * *
Recovery is a word that lands on the back half of your tongue, heavy and cloying like a cheap cough drop. It is a word that wears wrinkled pajamas, dirty hair, and the faint smell of menthol. A word indoors convalescing while the other words like caprice and merriment are out to play. You sleep, have food brought to your bed, read an entire memoir about a guy’s childhood on Cape Cod, and try to ignore the irony that you are doing exactly what you fantasize about doing during hectic days. You eventually rise to attempt something domestic and clarifying, such as organizing the baking supplies, which only produces the overwhelming urge to nap. In between sleep you hear your children and husband playing downstairs, and the pleasant jazz song “What a Difference a Day Makes” loops perversely inside your head.
The children spend their afternoons in the neighbor’s backyard, where they water box shrubs and feed chickens. We live in the city, but our neighbor has preserved a kind of rural quaintness and has given my kids afternoons that I think they will remember forever, and only into adulthood attach them to a vague memory of my sadness and comprehend what has happened. For now, they have been told simply that we thought there was a baby but there isn’t, and so they chatter about chickens. “One is named Coco,” my daughter says. My son answers with “bobo,” then, “bottom.” They laugh as they go to their room to play, and I feel both a strange relief in their blissful ignorance and a heavy panic that I am so far away from rapture.
I complain to my doctor, who frowns and suggests joining a group or taking Unisom. He offers a grieving book whose cover shows a woman curled against a train window drinking tea, as if sorrow easily parlays into international travel. The book suggests a list of distracting activities—meditating, knitting, perfecting coq au vin—to keep the reader from stalling emotionally as might a bicycler peddling too slowly uphill. I know that eventually life goes on, that we move forward. Yet I have the sense that the process has less to do with momentum and more to do with release—not unlike a bottle of champagne popping open across a restaurant. The room’s atmosphere is altered, a tension is let out. It’s neither the smiling couple with glasses in hand, nor the champagne itself that turns your thoughts toward immortality as you chew. It’s the startling millisecond when the bottle releases the cork that somehow translates into mirth, and it’s the pop of joy you might be dying for.
And of course, that release does come. Eventually, the density of late summer passes, and early September brings nippy weather. My husband and I stand wrapped in scarves, watching our children hop along the sidewalk in front of our local bookstore. Thirteen years together has alleviated the need for constant conversation—we have never been nervous talkers—and we stand shoulder to shoulder in silence. Two mothers push strollers past us, complaining about the hassle of nighttime bottle feeding, and so my husband reaches to squeeze my fingers. A rotund woman comes towards us. Her black scarf lifts in the wind and flutters around her face like a bat before she slaps it down. She stops and frowns at me, and I realize it is a secretary from my son’s school.
I smile hello, but she leans into me and grips my forearm. “I know about it,” she says.
“Pardon?” I say.
My event, my misfortune—my “ugly tragedy.” She has heard. “But, my dear,” she says, “life’s trials are what enfold us into the bosom of God.”
My husband rests his hand on my forearm. I press my lips together and look down at my hands, examine my dry knuckles, but I start giggling anyway.
“Excuse me,” I say, covering my mouth. “So sorry. I—”
The woman blinks, then frowns, but my husband and I are unable to explain ourselves because we have begun laughing. A teenager hopping into his car startles at the sound, and an elderly couple on a bench turns to us. We are breathless, gasping. This simple luxury. Glorious discomposure.
We are not laughing at what this woman has said, not the sentiment that we happen to agree with: that hard things can make us holier. We are simply laughing. The woman eventually huffs an acrid farewell, but we are too breathless to say goodbye. I still don’t understand why we can’t just conduct ourselves like normal adults—we’re the anti-Kennedys—and, boy, will I have to answer to this lady for having laughed so inappropriately. I still don’t understand the parameters of this humor, but I know that for now I am thrown aggressively into this one moment. There is seriousness, there is unpredictability, there is devastation. But also, there is laughter.