Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Humor and Resilience

Today I’d like to share with you a wonderful example of resilience that I recently encountered.

Last week I sat in the crowded waiting room of Hadassah’s surgical crowded daycare unit while Daniel underwent a minor knee operation (it went fine, and he’s recovering well). A sea of sound surrounded me: Arabic spoken softly into phones and between other patiently seated relatives; a Hebrew conversation a bit further away; alternating chatter and music from the television fixed above and to the right of my head; and erratic bursts of “gunfire” from a computer game a child was playing on the other side of the room. Cellular ring tones and announcements over the intercom occasionally punctuated the loud but strangely lulling hum. The words of the newspaper article I was reading were beginning to swim, and my eyes were starting to close of their own accord, when a sudden commotion shook me awake and made me look up. Two women had run into the waiting room after a young man of indeterminable age.” Walking with jerky steps, and loudly articulating seemingly meaningless syllables, the young man rounded the bend, dropped down to the floor a few feet in front of me, and started spinning around. “We’re not at home, Simcha,” the younger woman said as she took firm hold of his arms and guided him into a seat.

I got a closer look as the three sat down. The older woman, whom I’ll call Malka, looked to be in her fifties. Her open, good-humored face was well-tanned, and her moderate décolletage, good-quality jeans, and longish, blond-streaked hair placed her in the comfortable working class. Yaffa, her thirty-something companion, was somewhat more formally dressed, with silver hoop earrings emerging from her short dark curls. Both wore tasteful makeup. No family resemblance was apparent between the women, but despite his distored eyes, cheekbones, and mouth I could see that Simcha’s face was a copy of Malka’s. A look at the sticks that were his legs and his tiny feet made me wonder how he managed to get around on his own.

As soon as they were seated, Malka’s phone rang. She handed Simcha the phone. “It’s Eliezer,” she said, smiling. “Say hello.”

“A-oh,” Simcha said, grinning at the phone.

“Tell him you’re in the hospital.”

“Ah-in oh-i-al!”

“Tell him to bring you balloons,” Malka went on, and paused for a second before adding, “Tell him to bring balloons for five hundred shekels!”

All three burst into uproarious laughter. “I-uhn-e-el!” Simcha gasped into the phone, before succumbing to another giggling fit.

After Malka closed the phone, sighing and wiping her eyes, Simcha went on shouting partial words, which his mother completed for him before responding, interspersed with hoots and howls. He also barked occasionally. As he spoke, he gesticulated in a sign language that both women seemed to understand fully.

From time to time he sang. “Ta-too-ta,” he trilled, “ta-too-ta.” At one point he stood up in the middle of the room and gave a full performance, complete with coordinated claps, steps, and arm movements. Malka and Yaffa clapped along and smiled at him encouragingly – and proudly. I later learned that he’d sung “The Honey and the Sting,” a popular Israeli song asking God to preserve each aspect of our lives, whether bitter or sweet.

After he’d finished, he went back to his frenetic activity. Every few seconds he’d touch his mother’s face or arms, and every couple of minutes he’d jump up again and wander about or out of the room, occasionally throwing himself to the floor. Once or twice he crumpled a piece of paper, threw it across the room, and began to stamp his foot rhythmically. Each time, Yaffa or Malka retrieved him gently but firmly, always with a smile and often with a laugh. When got overexcited, Malka distracted and calmed him. Once, when he started pulling her hair too hard, she took him by the shoulders and said, “Here, let’s talk about ta-too-ta.” He happily took up the refrain.

The room’s other occupants – even the man sitting cheek to jowl with Simcha, absorbing an occasional poke – took him in their stride. Most ignored him, but many smiled sympathetically. As for me, it exhausted me just to watch Malka jump up every couple of minutes to make sure her son didn’t get into any trouble, and spend all the time in between amusing him as they sat together. Where did she get the physical and emotional strength? It seemed almost superhuman. What really struck me, though, was that from her face and manner it was clear that she thoroughly enjoyed her son.

After a while I went over to speak with her. She motioned to the seat next to her, which Yaffa had vacated when she took Simcha to the bathroom. I expressed my admiration for her upbeat attitude, and she replied, “Well, it’s hard, but we do what we can.” At my question, she explained that Simcha suffers from an extremely rare genetic condition resulting from a duplication of the twenty-second chromosome. “It’s so rare that no one can tell us what will be with him – how long he’ll live, what medical conditions he might come down with, how he’ll develop….” She smiled. “He’s still developing, you know.”

We spoke about her sense of humor. “That’s what our family’s like,” she said. “Whatever there is to laugh about, we find it. Simcha, too,” she added as he and Yaffa made their way back. He was singing again, giggling between lyrics that only he – and the select few – could understand. “I can see that,” I said quietly as I got up to give them their places back.

I spent the rest of the time until the nurse called me to the recovery room thinking about Timora, and how things would strike her as funny that others wouldn’t dare smile at. I write in my memoir, for example, that a classmate once warned her against eating a popsicle containing bright yellow food coloring. “What will happen?” her friend later told me she said. “I’ll get cancer?” Timora didn’t develop her sense of the absurd in a vacuum; our family, like Malka’s, places a high value on a good laugh, especially, I might add, as an alternative – and antidote – to despair.

I think that one “secret” that resilient people know is that laughing really is a lot more fun than crying – and healing to boot. If we can laugh at the sting together with the honey, at the bitter with the sweet – well, we can enjoy our own small lives, whatever Life (with a capital L) throws at us.

1 comment:

judy said...

Good humor is contagious ... There are countless situations where a small dose of it can make the difference between hope and despair.