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Laughter Through the Tears

Being with Grandpa

September 29th, 2009

This is a long, rambling essay. It is rambling, and with such bad structure, because there is so much to say, I can’t say it all, and I don’t know quite how to say it. But maybe, somehow, you will understand what I mean.

I meant to write a post like this some time ago, long before Grandpa’s death arrived, but it is still appropriate today.
Alzheimer’s can be a sad, and even grim, sickness. Day after day is the steady grind, and day after day is the steady decline. There is plenty of opportunity for tears, and even despair. How does a person survive?

There is much that goes into coping with Alzheimer’s, but a sense of humor doesn’t hurt. One of the great things about my experience with Grandpa was the synergy between our humor. I think many people are not fully aware of Grandpa’s sense of humor because for most of his life his powerful sense of decorum often kept his humor in check. His humor was usually not the type for mature or refined company, so as an adult it was often restrained, only occasionally bursting out.

There is a good deal of overlap between Grandpa’s humor and mine, though I think I have much less of a sense of propriety or decorum. This overlap meant that as Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s grew worse, (and his sense of humor became increasingly uninhibited,) and where mature conversation was lost, we gained the ability to tease, joke, and laugh. Grandpa never, never, lost his sense of humor.

Conveying our banter, games, and jokes, is difficult. Partly because a huge amount of nuance, texture, intonation, and inside references went into the verbal teasing and this makes it difficult to relay the full humor of an exchange in a way that accurately conveys why it was funny. And partly it is difficult to convey because as a comedian I am extemporaneous, making it up as I go along, and forgetting it just about as quickly. So, if you weren’t there, you missed it, and I forgot.

At the time I didn’t really think about why I indulged in the humor. It was just something that spontaneously welled up inside me that I let bubble out. But in reflection I see the humor did several important things. First, it was a way for me to communicate with Grandpa, to express my love and affection in a way he could understand, all the way up to the end. Second, it was a way for me to take Grandpa’s mind off his troubles and misery. Introduced at the right moment, a bit of humor could effectively defuse one of Grandpa’s worried or agitated moods. Finally, the humor was simply an expression of me finding humor in life, an act which provided a bit of antidote to the hard times, and sad times.

When I came to care for Grandpa he was already significantly impaired in his speech ability, so any verbal humor was always largely a one-sided act. It was also almost exclusively absurdist humor. The key was to keep the lines short enough, and absurd enough, that Grandpa could easily grasp that it was an absurd joke. A bonus was if I could bait him into giving one word responses. Below are a couple of examples of exchanges we would have, perhaps none of them exactly verbatim for an actual conversation, but in substance accurate.

Example 1

Grandpa smiling

Me: Are you poor? (Grandpa has always thought of himself as very poor, so it is an easy answer)

Grandpa: Yes.

Me: I think we should rob a bank.

Grandpa: What?

Me: Don’t you think it would be fun to rob a bank?

Grandpa: No. (He hasn’t caught on to the joke. Otherwise he would say, “Sure, lot’s of fun.”)

Me: But it’s lots of fun. You get to shoot guns and drive cars really fast, and have the police chase you with sirens. And if you’re really lucky, you get thrown in jail.

(But this time I’ve piled on enough bad and not fun things, that Grandpa gets the joke. So I add the last twist:)

Me: But don’t worry, when they catch us, and we go on trial, I’ll testify against you and get off scott free while you go to jail for twenty years.

The last line is Grandpa’s favorite, not only because it adds a little twist to the story, but also because it reflects a view he has on life: The guilty are always getting out of their due punishment by blaming someone else.

Example 2

(I sit down next to Grandpa and give him a hug)

Me: Boy, you are so strong and handsome. How did you get so strong?

Grandpa: Don’t speak such nonsense.

Me: You’re so strong, I wish I was as strong as you. I bet all the girls like you.

Grandpa: You think so, huh?

Me: Yep. I think we need to get you a girlfriend.

Grandpa: (Silence)

Me: So what we’ll do is, we’ll take you to the beach in California and have you walk up and down the beach in a tiny bathing suit and flex your big muscles for all the girls. Doesn’t that sound like a good idea?

Grandpa: Don’t be stupid.

I did a lot of variations on the “Your Handsome” joke. Grandpa was never a big man (perhaps topping out at 140 lbs in his prime), never was a man for the girls, and certainly never wanted to prance around in any type of bathing suit. It was probably not possible to come up with a more absurdly stupid joke, and Grandpa rarely found it funny. But I enjoyed it immensely because it was a great way to tease Grandpa because he found such jokes about his person slightly embarrassing, highly stupid, and vaguely inappropriate.

I could go on and on. I had various other stock basic jokes which I would take off in infinite variations. There was the “When you were a little boy . . .” jokes usually centering around some supposed wickedness he had done as a child, or somehow involving how his mother had treated him (kisses, hugs, spankings, etc). When I came in the house and he asked who it was, I would tell him I was his conscience come back to haunt him for all the bad things he had done. Then there were the motorcycle jokes, the car jokes, and the traveling jokes, all things which Grandpa hated and all things I would suggest he engage in, in some elaborate and over-blown fashion.

Grandpa wearing hat

Some of my verbal jokes didn’t necessarily involve Grandpa directly but were my own little personal riff on life which he may or may not have got (depending) but he certainly gathered my general mood. I took to loudly singing him “Georgie Porgie Puddin’ Pie” when I took him out to lunch or supper (don’t ask me why—it just seemed the thing to do) and as Grandpa took to calling me Gene (the name of his brother) I took to calling him Georgie. Part of the joke was the implicit messing with his mind and/or messing with reality—he would shout “Gene!” and I would shout “George!”—and part of it was just a subtle acknowledgment of the ludicrousness of our entire situation—calling people by names that weren’t theirs, shouting endlessly for people who weren’t present.

As time went on, I became increasingly convinced that, in some sense, Grandpa was on to that deeper subtext of the joke. The most clear example came about the middle of this summer, one evening when Grandma was quizzing Grandpa about the names of people in his family. One of the first things Grandpa lost to Alzheimer’s was the ability to recall faces and names together. So when Grandma asked Grandpa for the name of his mother he glowered at her (not wanting to admit he couldn’t remember) and then told her very distinctly, and defiantly, “Georgie.” His (rather brilliant, given the circumstance) verbal riposte left Grandma nearly hysterical with laughter. He couldn’t remember his mother’s name, but he could remember that Georgie was the “wrong” name that everybody kept using for the somebody and so he deliberately used it to make his own point.

On another occasion (perhaps a year or so ago) there was some company visiting. Grandpa was sitting and listening to the people converse, and I imagine he got to thinking it was the most inane blather he had ever heard, because in the middle of the conversation he burst out, “Pick your nose, pick your nose, pick your nose.” He was probably thinking that the conversation was about as interesting as watching someone pick their nose (and the thought just happened to come out of his mouth) but it certainly left an awkward silence. I was not present for that particular conversation, but it was relayed to me with a mixture of horror and amusement. I found it greatly amusing, and ever afterward I would burst out to Grandpa at odd intervals, “Pick your nose, pick your nose, pick your nose! Don’t forget to pick your nose!” (or some other variation on the fine benefits of nose picking). In the months afterward I doubt Grandpa remember his initial statement which had sparked my reoccurring admonition, but my admonition could often get a chuckle out of him.

I could never be entirely certain how well Grandpa was following the humor. One day, sometime during this summer, Grandpa was hollering at the top of his lungs, for nothing in particular. I was sitting next to him, trying to keep him company while I flipped through a magazine. He would shout “Hey!” with ever increasing volume, staring across the room as if something over there should answer. I would say, “Yep,” or “I’m right here,” or “I hear you,” in response. Either my responses simply weren’t registering in his mind, or he was truly trying to get the attention of the (non-existent) person on the other side of the room, because his volume kept increasing. Finally, after a bellowed “HEEEYYYY!” I drolled out, “A little louder, Grandpa. The Chinese can’t quite hear you yet.”

There was silence. Then Grandpa said, “Was that a snide comment?”

I had to laugh then.

The best times were when Grandpa got my jokes, and then tried to take them one step further. It didn’t matter if his Alzheimer’s stopped him—the effort was all that counted. On another occasion, some time ago, he was calling out randomly. He shouted, “Gene!” so I shouted “George!” So he shouted, “George!” so I shouted “Where are you?” so he shouted “Where are you?” so I decided to have a little more fun and shouted “Give me all your money!” Grandpa started to repeat me—but then caught himself—in that instant the Alzheimer’s parting for just a moment so that he realized what we were doing. “You want it all, huh?” he said, mischievously. “Well, hold out your hand, palm up, and I’ll put a little—” but then the Alzheimer’s struck again, and his words left him. I couldn’t decide if he had been attempting to say he would put something naughty in my hand or that “all his money” was a pittance, but I laughed for his attempt to best me, and Grandpa laughed too.

Perhaps we had the most fun with our physical humor. I had a running gag where when Grandpa called (for me, somebody, anybody, to do something, anything, not sure what) I would come to him and offer him a pinch, a poke, or a bite. Sometimes, I would even tell them they were on a special sale. Firstly, this would distract him from whatever imagined problem he had, and secondly, it almost always got a good reaction from him. And there was a good chance that if I give him pinches that it would devolve into a “pinching fight” where we would both try to pinch the other while chuckling with mock malevolence.

I constantly “harassed” Grandpa physically, playfully, partly because with him constantly calling me over it got boring to come and simply ask him what he wanted (especially when he couldn’t come up with any answer) so it became more fun to come over and harass him whenever he called. And it served the purpose Grandpa really wanted, which was for somebody to come and pay attention to him, and remind him that he was loved. Of course, not to be entirely outdone, Grandpa wasn’t aloof to sneaking his hand out, thumb sticking up threateningly from the cushion beside him when I began to sit down. He never quite dared let me sit on his thumb, but it was his way of saying, “I gotcha back.”

As Grandpa’s Alzheimer’s grew increasingly worse he became increasingly less aware of his surroundings and in this condition I found the great opportunity to “get” Grandpa. For someone else, I’m sure the game would have been cruel. It consisted in me coming upon Grandpa when he was completely absorbed in his task (often picking lint from the carpet) and leaping on him, snarling and biting like some ferocious lion descending on its prey. Without fail, he would jump out of his skin with a shout. I would then fall down beside him, laughing and crowing, “I got you! I got you! I got you!” And Grandpa would laugh, and say, “Yeah, you sure did. You sure got me that time!” And sometimes he would vow that one day he would get me back.

One of my most favorite times was when I snuck up on Grandpa, commando style, slithering around the couch so I could pop up and take a bite out of his knee. He jumped—oh, he really jumped! Afterward, in the midst of his laughter, he said, “Did you see me? Did you see how I jumped? It’s a good thing I didn’t have my mini-club then or I would have splattered you all over the place.”

Yes, indeed, Grandpa knew how to appreciate the fine art of getting someone.

My most favorite time, was the time he got me back. It was a bad evening for him. He spent I don’t know how long down on his hands and knees, shouting incomprehensibly. Finally exhaustion overcame him and when I came out to check on him he was sprawled on the carpet like a dead man. He looked so sad, weary, and worn out as I bent down to check on his sleeping form—and at that moment Grandpa went “Bwhahahahaha!” and came up, grabbing for me. Oh, yes, I jumped. It was completely unexpected.

“I got you! I got you!” Grandpa said, chuckling gleefully. And I was so proud of him.

I treasure all of those times. They are memories that can still make me laugh, even now, two short weeks after Grandpa is dead. I treasure them, because even in the midst of Alzheimer’s—even in spite of it—those times were times when we had fun together in our own personal, crazy, zany, way. It was the way we spoke the language of love.

This last story I will tell is not exactly a joke, but it seems a fitting conclusion. Every night when I put Grandpa to bed I would tuck him in and give him a goodnight kiss. But I got bored with that. So when I tucked him in I started giving him “hundreds” of kisses all over his cheek. I was teasing him, a little, but then one night after I did it he looked up seriously and said, “Just one kiss, now. Any more than that, and it’s a little queer.”

If you say so, Grandpa. Just one kiss.

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