You know, if you’re really lucky in life, you just might learn a thing or two. A lot of folks, naturally, get to stay stupid forever — that’s no secret. The intoxicating bliss of ignorance is everyone’s option, of course; but learning actually is possible. Reality has lessons to teach anyone who’s willing to open her eyes, you can bank on that; but before a person gets to learn anything else, he’s got to come up with some way to admit when he’s wrong. It’s this way because it’s the only way it can be: humiliation must always precede wisdom.
Laughter, they say, is the best medicine. We’ve all heard that one; but laughter can also be the worst of poisons. Who are you going to laugh at, the one who’s stronger than you or the one who’s weaker? Who’s going to laugh at you? Will it be the one who needs your help, or the one who’s in a position to withhold the help you need? Sooner or later we discover that someone, somewhere is getting a laugh at our expense. The bigger the laugh, the more it hurts; that is, the more it hurts the one being laughed at. The laugher isn’t hurting at all.
I’m sure he wasn’t the first one to think of it; but my grandfather used to say, “It’s only funny when it happens to someone else.” Did something ever happen to you? Was your ineptitude, or foolishness, or awkwardness ever the source of someone else’s amusement, or were you always athletic and smart and popular and confident? Of course you were laughed at! You were laughed at, and soon after you were, you figured out the same thing we all figure out: the way to relieve the pain of being laughed at is to laugh at somebody else.
If you’re of a certain age, you can remember all the howlingly funny parodies people made of Mrs. Fletcher, the old lady in the old Lifecall commercial who’s plaintive cry, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” made everybody wet their pants with laughter. If you’re not of a certain age you can watch the commercial here. When you get to the “good part” you can laugh, but I can’t imagine you can laugh more than I did.
Why was it so funny? It’s not funny to laugh at people of a certain race, or of a certain religion, or of a certain ethnicity. That’s not, as we all know, “politically correct.” Trouble is, the smaller the pool of people we’re allowed to laugh at, the harder we laugh at the folks in groups who aren’t on the ‘protected list’. Feeble and vulnerable old ladies, for example, or fat people. We laugh at the people we can “get away” with laughing at. The ‘protected list’ changes over time, just as fashion changes, but there’s always got to be somebody who’s “fair game”;and when you come right down to it, both the protected and the unprotected have this in common: they’re all weak; weaker, probably, than you are.
There’s a line in the Bible I’ve always hated. Maybe you hate it too. It says something along the lines of, “When I am weak, God is strong.” That’s fine, but I like being strong. Why shouldn’t God work with me when I’m strong? That question always bothered me until I figured out that there’s something implied in that verse, something that’s not written down explicitly, and that something is, “When I am strong, I am an insufferable jerk.” You don’t get that part by reading the Bible — you get that part by being knocked in the teeth by life.
It turns out that my dear darling, the sexiest woman I ever laid eyes on, the one who convinced me I must be ‘strong’ when she allowed me to choose her for a partner, isn’t quite at her best these days. Not at all. In fact, just a few days ago, right after the two of us finished enjoying a lovely lunch at Watertown’s famous Deluxe Town Diner, my gorgeous wife got up from the table and immediately crashed to the floor.
And she couldn’t get up!
And I didn’t see any humor in it at all. In fact, I was completely upended by the experience. To tell you the truth, I was entirely shaken up. I was, you might say, “freaked out”. My wife was surprising me with her weakness, and — in my own way — I found out I was pretty weak myself.
Cancer sucks. Cancer really, really sucks. You think you already know that? You don’t! My wife is the most wonderful woman in the world and she, like Mrs. Fletcher, had fallen and couldn’t get up. When it happened to Mrs. Fletcher it was so screamingly funny. Now it happened to Pam and my heart was breaking.
It’s only funny when it happens to someone else.
I used to be strong, back when I was annoyingly full of myself. Now I’m not strong at all, and neither is Pam — and neither of us look to be getting stronger anytime soon. The humiliation isn’t in the weakness. The humiliation is in remembering the time I thought I was so wonderful for being strong.
So it is that I’ve arrived at the first step on the road to wisdom — I’ve figured out that I’m not so wonderful, and I’m not so strong. Pam isn’t in control of her cancer; but neither, then, am I. Things are happening to her that she doesn’t like and — guess what? — I’m not so happy about it either. Frankly, it just isn’t funny — not any of it. Have I moved away from being the laugher, the one being amused by someone elses weakness, only to discover that I’ve become a humorless pill — shaking his finger at the ones giggling hysterically.
Pam hates being sick; but she keeps telling me that the worst part, for her, is seeing that her sickness makes things hard for others. Well, things are becoming hard for me. I don’t mind doing a thousand and one little nursing chores to support her. I don’t mind picking up the slack and doing things around the house she can no longer do. I don’t find it one bit harder to love her — perhaps it’s become easier for me. Those aren’t the things that are hard for me. The hard part is to watch a woman as strong as my Pam grow weaker and weaker. And yet, she takes it all with dignity. Her body is weaker but her spirit is as strong as ever. She’s still so smart, so funny, so irresistibly cantankerous.
When Pam fell at the diner we were surrounded by people who could help — and she eventually did get up. She’s fallen since and she’s got up since. We’re making adjustments. She’s working with a Physical Therapist and an Occupational Therapist. She’s learning to use a walker. She’s making use of various aids to help her get upright and get around. She’s learning patience and she’s keeping her sense of humor while she does all of this. I’m overwhelmed by her courage — and she keeps insisting she’s not courageous. As ever, she doesn’t see her own strengths — even when those strengths are manifest in her weakness.
Pam is coming up on an anniversary. In a few days she’ll have lived a full year knowing that there’s a brain tumor that has taken up residence in her head. She’s determined to write about her year and she’s promised to get her writing out on the blog by Thursday. She’s had quite a year!
And so have I, my friends, so have I. Pam has figured out how to get up even when getting up is very, very hard. I’m finding it hard to get up when my spirits fall down; but I’m learning.
And Pam is my teacher.