“There is a very close relationship between laughter and tears,” Mary Kay Morrison, president of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor and a self-described “neurohumorist” tells the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “Laughter is a relief. When you laugh so hard that you cry, there is a close connection there. It’s something that brings relief from the stress and anxiety.
As the only stand-up comedian contributing to the Speaking of Dying Team, I take my work seriously.
Trudy James and her team of facilitators have put together a mosaic of self-love, self-love and self-preparation and connection to others. My job is to keep everyone in great spirits by bringing in the cute cat videos.
As this Thanksgiving holiday approaches, I have expressed much gratitude for what I have learned about death and dying from Trudy and her Heartwork organization. As the young sexagenarian on the block, I was more than aware that I had responsibility for my own end-of-life planning, once I got old. That, of course, would take at least another millennium, some bad cranberry sauce, and bombing on a comedy stage.
Then, life got real.
Just as the first advance notice of a Black Friday sale hit the Internet, I went to a routine doctor’s visit with a hope of doing something about a bum knee. My doctor had a different idea. “I hear a tremor in your heart,” she said.
“That’s sounds like a good title for a country song if you change heart to pickup truck,” I replied.
My doctor spends her life examining decaying tissue on her elderly patients, which does little for her sense of humor. “It’s a serious situation, ” she said, underlined by the stern look doctors practice at med school. “I am sending you out for an echo-cardiogram.”
I soon learned with disappointment that an echo-cardiogram is not some new Amazon Alexa version of the singing telegram. It is instead, and up-close and personal rendition of the old Rod Stewart hit “The Rhythms of My Heart.” In other words, the question should be answered: “I got rhythm, who could ask for anything more?”
As a sexagenarian I’ve still got some rhythm in between my preferred blues. My dance may be out of step, but I never figured my heart might be. I had every hope that I would ace the echo-cardiogram, since I had no symptoms of distress other than my knee. Everything in my body has drooped over the last dozen years, but I doubted that my heart could sink as low as my knee.
Finally, test day arrived and I was assured by the technician that this was all routine and that “my doctor would notify me eventually, “if any abnormalities were found.” By the end of the test, however, from the face on the technician I couldn’t tell whether she was about to call an ambulance to take me across the street to the main hospital, or whether she was calling a funeral home. It was quite clear that she found more abnormalities than the hanging chads of the 2000 presidential election in Florida.
I was asked to stay put in the examination room, as the technician popped out either to push a panic button or personally summon a doctor. A few minutes later, a cardiologist appeared with a two-minute warning: “You need to make an appointment with me Monday morning, and we can talk about ‘next steps.’”
I could tell the “next steps” would not include my thoughts on politics, technology or the music of Rod Stewart. “There are treatments available,” the cardiologist mentioned as she hurried back to her duties.
Treatments? Since when do cardiologists do knee surgery?
I had five days to think about the next steps. None of them would includ cute cat videos. Even my own orange tabby looked at me with fear as the day approached. I turned to the wonders of our national library of information and disinformation, sometimes known as Google. I looked up all the words and thoughts I could, as I overlooked the ads ranging from miracle weight loss plans to the Neptune Society.
Then it came back to me, that advanced directive that I was still working on? It might be handy should things go really bad. It also struck me that in my experience if I concentrated on something that might go wrong, the actual event might actually be trivial.
I concentrated on what would happen if became incapacitated and wrote down things like “no heroics,” or “comfort care only,” or “shoot me if the next election is similar to the 2016 results.”
After five days of enduring a hidden cardiology stress wait test, I finally met with the same cardiologist who saw me for two minutes five days before. “We’re just getting to know you,” she said. “There’s still plenty of time to do surgery in the future, for right now we’re just going to run some more tests.”
On the way home, I had coffee with the friend who accompanied me to the hospital with my baby bag containing my necessities for the labor of love that I was expecting cardiologist to perform this week. In it were the usual necessities of a sexagenarian approaching a delivery room: a teddy bear, a change of clothing, my Kindle, and a rough copy of my Five Wishes to be signed by my now 34-year-old baby son.
Most importantly, days before Thanksgiving, I was filled with gratitude towards the friend who held my hand through the “next steps” that are still months away, and the cardiologist who gave me a six month shot of hope until I will require more explicit cat videos.
Not only did I learn the spirit of this season of hope, I learned what “Speaking of Dying” means up close and personal. Unfortunately, laughter will not fix my broken heart valve, but love and laughter are the right tools on the way to healing.