I don’t know about you, but the past few weeks have been hard. I’m not sure if it’s COVID, politics or friggin’ Mercury dawdling in retrograde, but this whole month has felt like “walking through quicksand,” as my friend Jill so perfectly described it. And then, this weekend, Mother Nature decided to bring the Arctic Circle down to Texas, plunging our temps to historic lows (I swear to God, I may have to take a restraining order out against her).
As of this writing, my dog and I have been lucky. We haven’t lost heat and our pipes seem to be holding up (though the toilet in the master bath is a bit of a question mark). My partner down in Corpus hasn’t been so lucky. Nor has my Mom.
Her assisted living community has been without power for just over twenty-four hours. That means that my nearly 80 year old mother and all the other residents of her community were without heat all day yesterday, when the mercury only got up to 12 degrees, all last night, when the temperature dropped to 5, and still this morning when it’s now a balmy 16 degrees. This after almost exactly a year since Mom’s been able to leave her community due to COVID.
Can you guess what Mom’s reaction has been?
Anger? Tears? Depression? “Walking in quicksand?”
Good guesses all, but nope. Not even close.
That’s right. Mom’s reaction to being both locked down and frozen has been laughter. And I’m not talking about that crazy-sounding, post-psychotic break laughter that pushes people away with its threat of danger. I’m talking about that warm, contagious laughter that brings people in with its fragrance of gentleness, reassurance and the possibility of a different way of looking at, experiencing, things.
I talked to Mom probably four or five times yesterday. Each time she was laughing. Eager to share something funny that she had found in the day. Never were her laughs at someone else’s expense. Always they were about the simplest thing (“My boy, there is so much snow outside that you can’t even see where the sidewalks end and the curbs begin). Sometimes they were about turning the simple into the fantastic (“They gave us flashlights for tonight. I don’t know about everyone else’s, but my flashlight is so strong that I could probably beam you up if I shined it on you”). This morning Mom’s laugh was even seasonal, given that it’s Mardi Gras. Explaining that she had on “pretty much everything in my closet” and had topped it off with a bright purple faux-fur type jacket, Mom said, “I tell you, if someone were to turn the covers of this bed down, they’d think they’d found a very chubby oompa loompa!”
Now, to be fully transparent (always a struggle for any southerner), there has been one instance these past twenty-four hours when Mom did not laugh. It happened right before her oompa loompa comment when I asked Mom if they’d brought her coffee yet.
“Nooooooo,” she said with the stern tone she used to reserve for Sister and me when we’d pushed her too far.
“Well, Mom,” I said, “There may be a delay since there’s no power.”
“Oh,” she said, “Let me assure you. There won’t be a delay. I don’t care if they need to go to Starbucks. They’ll get me my coffee!”
And just then, as if on cue, one of the aides came into Mom’s room.
“Good morning honey,” I heard Mom say, “Do you have my coffee?”
“Yes Miss Barbara,” I heard the aide reply, “Two cups!”
“The oompa loompa is happy,” Mom reported back into the phone. Laughing. Of course, laughing.
Now, why am I telling you this story about my mom?
Because, even if you have power, even if you have heat, even if you read this when it’s no longer Mardi Gras, I think there’s a lesson in it for all of us. That lesson has to do with what’s just under the surface of Mom’s laughter.
I’m talking about joy.
You see, despite being locked up for almost a year, despite having to spend much of that year eating three meals a day all by herself in her little studio, despite not having any heat for the past twenty-four hours, Mom still manages to find joy in simply being alive. And just finding joy, makes Mom laugh.
At the glory of being alive.
My bet is that, if you asked Mom, she’d say it isn’t hard to do. That the laughter, the joy, the glory always is there. You just have to look for it.
Right before I started writing this piece, a Dalai Lama quote showed up on my Instagram feed. It goes like this:
I have been confronted with many difficulties throughout the course of my life, & my country is going through a critical period. But I laugh often, & my laughter is contagious. When people ask me how I find the strength to laugh now, I reply that I am a professional laugher.
So, look, if laughter works for the Dalai Lama and my mom, why not give it a try?
Now, I get it. It’s often easier to choose anger or sadness. After all, those pushy emotions often are front and center with their little hands up, screaming, “Me, me, pick me!”
But why not take a chance and gently push their hands down, so you can look over their heads and see if laughter, joy and glory aren’t standing there waiting.
With open hands.
To lift you out of the quicksand.
The Mom Chronicles is a blog series about a middle-aged son learning to care for his elderly mother.