And if I laugh at any mortal thing. ‘Tis that I may not weep.
Don could be stubborn. We’d met at the Crescenta-Cañada YMCA where we became teammates or opponents during noontime pick-up basketball games. Attendance at the competitive midday games evolved over time—players moved, job demands changed, interest waned, other sports or forms of exercise took precedence, and though I noticed his absence, there was nothing unusual about it.
Six or seven years went by and my spiritual quest brought me to a nearby La Cañada, California church where he was a staff member. We reconnected during coffee-hour following a Sunday morning worship service. Though it was obvious from his rigid movements and tremors that something was terribly wrong, he spoke without bitterness about having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and the subsequent need to drop out of the pick-up basketball games. He credited not only the practice of discipline in athletics, but also a tenacious commitment to an unwavering faith in God for sustaining him when the diagnosis could have ripped apart the fabric of his life.
I asked him how this could be so, to which he smiled and said, “I’m stubborn,” and suggested we meet for lunch.
During the ensuing two years he and I met once a week. I’d pick up lunch at a sandwich shop, bring it to his office, and we’d talk. Many moments of tears and laughter punctuated our discussion about faith and life events.
One of those luncheon meetings has remained a fixture in my mind. Don had asked me to pick up a turkey-avocado-bacon sandwich for him. As he patiently, but with gnawing hunger, unwrapped his lunch I saw tears begin to roll down his cheeks. He was drenched in sweat, exhausted from the focus and discipline required for the most pedestrian activities—like biting into a much-desired sandwich.
I asked if I could help, something he’d allowed on numerous other occasions. This time, he looked up from the disheveled mix of wax paper, aluminum foil, and what had been a well-constructed sandwich, and, in a bit of irony, he shook his head, not in answer to my question, but because he’d begun to shake with laughter.
The mix of tears and laughter became contagious, conversation ceased, our shared interest in lunch waned, and we sat in each other’s tear-filled presence as sorrow and joy unabashedly crossed the line from one to the other. Finally, taxed by the emotional outburst, we sat in silence. Don, still starving, took a deep breath then declared: “God does have a sense of humor!” Then with head bowed offered grace and began to pick at the broken sandwich spread out on his lap.
Man is the only animal that laughs and weeps; for he is the only animal that is struck with the difference between what things are, and what they ought to be. –William Hazlitt
Within months of that luncheon meeting, in 1990, my brother, mother, and I stood at my father’s hospital bedside while he gave us his wish list for songs and scriptures to be read at his memorial service. The treatment for multiple myeloma had not stopped the progression of the disease, and he was being sent home to hospice care with the expectation that he would have a week, at most, before succumbing to bone cancer.
Alfred loved playing the piano and singing the hymns that had been a cornerstone of his faith and worship. He carried a sadness in his soul, one about which he never spoke, and an exuberance that would frequently make him break out in song. His exuberant, spontaneous singing often embarrassed me with the unchained scope and wavering pitch of his vibrato. As an adolescent, I’d cringe—a response I now realize was a function of my age more than it was of his voice.
On the occasion of our visit to the hospital room, which my father shared with a fellow patient, we brought a Methodist hymnal and a King James version of the Bible—both his favorites.
We were a wary and anxious threesome. I hadn’t shared the recent experience with my friend Don, but as the three of us walked down the corridor to my father’s room I recalled the words of Mark Twain: “Against the assault of Laughter nothing can stand.”
Both my father and his roommate were afflicted with a terminal disease, and were being sedated for pain. When we approached my father’s bed, our mother bent down and kissed his forehead, his eyes opened, he smiled, and my brother and I in turn embraced him and gently stroked his cheek. All four of us were feeling vulnerable, but tearfully settled into chairs and began taking notes on my father’s wishes for the service. We shared some “dark humor,” jokes about death, mother’s eventual remarriage to a man of great wealth, and questions about heavenly cuisine—whether shredded wheat, Alfred’s favorite cereal, would be available.
When he opened the hymnal and began thumbing through its well-known pages he would stop, hum a familiar melody, and encourage my mother to join in. And then without warning or concern he burst into song—A Mighty Fortress Is Our God—as I recall. He closed his eyes, and in an instant the small hospital room was his concert hall barely containing the soulful lyrics and melody let alone his now unleashed, octave-wide vibrato. His roommate must have pushed the call-button because within minutes the friendly charge nurse appeared and went to his bedside. My father continued to sing while the three of us smiled, shrugged and looked at each other.
With a voice driven by desperation and a forcefulness that soared above my father’s singing, his roommate exclaimed, “Get me out of here!”
The nurse was gentle and firm with my father, requesting that he lower his singing, which he did, and then we resumed planning.
My father’s room was on the eighth floor, and as we waited for the elevator to head home, tears flowing on all three of our cheeks, I began to laugh—not a gentle giggling, but a raucous, out-of-control belly-laugh that triggered the same response in my brother and mother. We joined two puzzled occupants on the trip down to the lobby, but that didn’t deter us. Our laughter increased in volume as we recited the man’s words (“Get me out of here!”), mimicked Alfred’s vibrato, and sang snippets of “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” all the way to the ground floor, across the parking lot and into the car that would eventually take us home once the sobbing and laughter subsided.
My father died within days, and my friend Don passed away this month.
God made both tears and laughter, and both for kind purposes; for as laughter enables mirth and surprise to breathe freely, so tears enable sorrow to vent itself patiently. Tears hinder sorrow from becoming despair and madness; and laughter is one of the privileges of reason, being confined to the human species.