My mother-in-law was a wonderful, vibrant 85-year-old woman with a mind like a steel trap until the day that she went to mail a letter at the local post office where another elderly person, who was in possession of less of his wits than she was of hers, hit the gas when he should have hit the brake. In pedestrian vs. car contests, usually the car wins. As a result of the accident, she suffered a very severe crush injury and subsequently lost her leg. She also lost the sharpness of mind that had been her hallmark, even well into her dotage.
We lost her to pancreatic cancer four short years later. Having survived such a tragic accident only to fall victim to that bullshit was fucking ridiculous. But, what a four years it was. Along with the loss of her short-term memory, she also lost most of her inhibitions. She was more fun than a barrel of monkeys.
Before the accident she was very proper. She also cared a great deal about what other people thought of her. She was very diplomatic. After the accident? Not so much.
She rehabbed a few blocks away. It was a great place. They encouraged family involvement; we were able to spend a great deal of time supporting her recovery. My daughter, who was 11 at the time, probably spent the most time with her. She encouraged my very shy mother-in-law to participate in activites. In doing so, she became less socially anxious herself. They shared more Jell-O and butter cookies than they should have. But mostly they laughed. A lot.
Certainly the situation wasn’t ideal, but the lessons my daughter learned from her Grandmother’s willingness to do whatever had to be done in an effort to get as well as she ever would— that spoke volumes about her Grammy’s character. And the experience changed my daughter. For the better. She was provided with an opportunity to use her inherent gifts— kindness, caring, and generosity of spirit. She honed her wit. And not just by spending time with her grandmother; they tooled around the place, made friends, helped other folks, and had more than a few laughs.
When I would get there in the afternoons, I would often discover that my daughter had taken “Dottie” or “Pearl” or some other resident down to the hair salon, or out onto the patio. Other times, I would hear my daughter laughing in the common room the minute the elevator doors opened. The nurses and the aides, upon seeing me, would just point in the general direction of the laughter and smile. They used to call her their “little ray of sunshine”. And she was.
The card games that she organized were the best, though. The absolute best. She would deal out the hands, try to create and explain some semblance of the rules, and then all hell would break loose. She would be doubled over laughing as she ran around the table trying to get them to stop showing their cards to each other, or to make melds through discards or pick-ups. Eventually she realized that, for them, the fun was in the camaraderie; it wasn’t really about the game. So, she would let them do whatever they wanted. There was one man who always wanted to know if he had “won”; according to her, he always had. She knew it meant something to him, this idea of “winning”. Sometimes he was suspicious. He would look confused and ask her to explain just how, exactly, he had managed to win when he only had twos or fours; she would remind him that they were “Super Wild” cards. Satisfied with her explanation, he would demand another hand. She always obliged.
The television in the common room always seemed to be broadcasting one talk show or another, particularly in the afterschool hours. Often the topic of the day was related to sex. This programming was quite the springboard for conversation, as you can well imagine. They would often forget how young she was. Their running commentary would send her into absolute fits of hysteria, especially the comments from her own Grammy. I will never forget the day that I witnessed my formerly demure mother-in-law turn to my daughter, wave her hand in a dismissive way in the general direction of Oprah, or Tyra, or whoever it was they were tuned into, and say, “Every generation thinks they invented sex. They didn’t. How do you think you got here?” My daughter nearly choked on her butter cookie as her face reddened and she squealed with delight.
After I composed myself, I entered the room and suggested that we try to find a baseball game. The guy who liked to win at cards, God bless him, said, “Finally. Someone with some sense.” My satisfaction that I had steered the conversation away from matters sexual was short-lived, as one of the women looked at me and said, “Yeah. That sounds good. Maybe you can explain the whole ‘first base’, ‘second base’ thing to me. I can’t seem to keep them straight.” She then looked directly at my kid and said, “I seem to remember that ‘first base’ is just kissing, so ‘second base would be…'” That’s when I told her to listen to the announcers because sometimes they explained things during the game. Suffice it to say, some new sports fans were born that day.
I think that what both my daughter and I took away from this whole experience was that there truly is healing power in laughter. It may not cure you, but it sure helps. It’s been a little over a year now since we lost Grammy. We were very lucky to have had her for so long. It was an honor to laugh with her. (And, yes, I’ll admit it. Sometimes we laughed at her. She was a good sport. And we’re not saints, for crying out loud!)