There is this old adage that states:
TRAGEDY + TIME = COMEDY
It was supposedly first said by the very first Tonight show host Steve Allen in Cosmopolitan when he was asked to define the essence of comedy. The saying is often attributed to other comedians like Carol Burnet, Woody Allen, and even more recently Tig Notaro; all of whom had their reasons.
Which brings me to Mother’s Day.
For the last few years Mother’s days have been a little strange for me. I lost my mother to breast cancer that metastasized in the brain on September 2, 2012. It’s a day I’ll never forget. Not that I could remember what I wore that night, or what I ate. Just that on September 2nd I lost my mother.
And I was there when it happened.
Not many people know that part. My father was asleep in the cot to the right of my mother’s hospice bed. Her labored breathing steadily filling the room, a metronome of human life passing by.
I was fiddling around on my iPad trying to distract myself, trying even harder to make myself comfortable on my own cot, which laid to her left by the hospital window. I couldn’t sleep, or at the very least I wouldn’t allow myself to sleep. Some part of me was unsure if my mother would make it through the night. Some part of me thought if I stayed up, she’d stick around just a little longer. Delay the inevitable. So I could watch over her as she would often do for me.
The day before, that Friday August 31st, as my mother was brought into Baycrest Hospital to the hospice floor, and even as we were told my mother had days if that (a polite way of saying “any moment”) I somehow knew she wouldn’t die just then. I know this sounds silly but I didn’t think my mother would go on Shabbat (the Jewish Friday night holiday that ends Saturday night.) She wasn’t deeply religious, but incredibly traditional, a woman that out of respect and love embodied (her) Judaism. Maybe it was sheer stubbornness on her part.
As the four of us sat in the room watching over her, the Sabbath would end just after 8pm that night.
“She probably just wants us all together for Shabbat, one last time…” I said to my older brother Jacob, while he flipped through a magazine for the third time. My younger brother sat at the window just waiting. In one of those old wide 1970’s industrial designed, often uncomfortable wood chairs with cloth padding, my father sat at the foot of the hospital bed in stoic silence.
It had been an long 24+ hours. My brothers had headed home soon after Shabbat ended. My father changed into his pajamas for the long night ahead. Exhausted by everything and weary of what may come he crawled into his cot. By 1130pm he had laid his head down to rest, by 1140pm he was fast asleep. I stood in the dark, illuminated by the glowing blue of the iPad, the hospital room smelled of antiseptic, the soundtrack for the night was the interchanging quick snores from my father, with the heavy, spaced out respiration of the dying.
As midnight rolled around I continued to shuffle around the cot. I would get up often, and look over at my mother and check to see if she was still alive. Just because I could, I held her cold hand. The extremities are first to go, the body’s response is to keep the center warm. Keep it humming along for however long it can.
It was during one of these moments I realized the only sound was the soft wheezing emanating from my father’s muffled respiration.
That’s when she had passed.
It isn’t something you believe right away. I checked to see if her lungs were moving. Maybe she was just in a deep sleep? The cancer had this incredible power to give her these terrible nightmares, her only respite was the morphine that would slay those dragons flying around in her mind.
But she wouldn’t need anymore drugs. Thankfully her pain was gone forever. And ours was just beginning. That’s not to say the when my mother was sick I felt a deep sadness and pain of the inevitable, but you always hold on to some kind of hope. No matter how small you squeeze tight, grasping to that lottery ticket firmly in that small fist.
But the moment you lose your mother, (and in some part also your father) that’s when the tragedy begins. The feelings of regret, shame, sadness, and anger at time lost and forgotten.
(And I don’t claim all parents deserve this but for those people who had parents who tried their best, this is for you.)
This tragedy of losing a parent is something you don’t wish upon anyone ever, but sadly something everyone will experience at some point in their lives.
When I lost my grandfather six months prior (Feb 2012), and my grandmother in August 2011, it wasn’t the same. They were older, and had lived full lives. When my mother died she had just turned 64 three weeks before, one year into retirement, 10 days from her 41st wedding anniversary.
She would not experience being a grandmother to my brother Jacob’s daughter, and again to my brother Tamir’s son. She never met my wife, a woman so incredible, genuine and loving. My mother would never see how much safer I am, how much better I have become.
But time goes on. And on. And on.
When does it become funny?
When Tig Notaro was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2012 she had been on stage to tell the audience a very unfunny truth:
“It’s weird because with humor, the equation is tragedy plus time equal comedy,” Notaro told a stunned crowd. “I am just at tragedy right now.”
I tried writing jokes about cancer and my mother. Truth is, I had lived so apart from my mother for the last 5 years, I had a hard time remembering a time before she was sick. Those memories slowly come back in spurts. My mother wasn’t a funny person, nor was she silly. She never danced around, wore silly hats (well I thought they were silly, she didn’t), she never sang out loud off key. She was just a typical mother, a Jewish mother – overbearing at times, nosey, overly concerned, naive, stern when she needed to be, ultimately and unconditionally loving.
She was funny in a regular mom way – those little things she said or did were unintentionally funny. Like the time she would check to see if I was eating vegetables while at college, or how she would flip out if she found out I didn’t change the sheets to my bed while at college. Basically rolling her eyes in disgust at the way I lived while at college. Or when she would leave voice mails and say things like “Hi Alex, it’s your mother” as if anyone else had that same voice, used those same words, could make you so happy and feel so loved just by the virtue that she is and will always be your mother.
But how do you laugh about those moments without admitting to the crowd your mom isn’t in on the joke anymore?
How do you mention cancer to an audience and let them have permission to laugh? Because all you want to do is laugh. Laughing about her because you miss her is all you really can do.
I heard two comedians talk about cancer this past year. In Huntington Beach one comic (a southern fellow with a stutter whose name escapes me) actually joked about losing his mother to cancer, and how he was tired of people raising money for the cure for cancer, when all they are doing is raising money to research cancer. He wanted his money to go to the cure. It was tough subject material and he was honest and vulnerable. Yet it seemed I was one of the only people that laughed at his joke. After the show I told him I really appreciated it.
One comedian Steve Scholtz, a friend and incredibly gifted joke writer, likened cancer to a wild jungle Tiger running amuck in the cancer ward. I was impressed how he was able to talk about the subject of cancer’s inevitability, infuse pathos and still paint it absurd. Yet I find the audience still holds its breath when the C word (not that one people, the word cancer) is said.
Part of me admires them for tackling that subject. Am I doing myself a disservice by not being able to? Why can’t I talk about it yet? I have the tragedy, I have taken the time. Where is the comedy?
My mother was my biggest fan, my champion, my care-taker, my role-model. My mother was my mother.
This mother’s day is a beautiful time to see those posts on Facebook, see the line-ups at the grocery store with men and women purchasing those last minute bouquets.
I tried staying off Facebook today, didn’t have anyone to buy flowers for yet. I guess I can wait until my wife becomes a mother. But I do miss standing there like a complete buffoon, flipping through cards the Hallmark section of the pharmacies and groceries stores. I miss looking for those words captured in perfect stanza, echoing my gratitude, respect and love for my mother.
Part of me wants to capture a moment about my mother on stage. Let the audience into my world. See their mother through my mother. I want to remember her in her really beautiful hats, and recall those voicemails I never had the foresight to save. I want to remember my mother as she lived, not as she died.
Perhaps the reason I want this equation to hold true is I had the tragedy, now I want to have comedy and laughter as a placeholder in honor of her memory.
I guess I just need more time.