Cleansing laughter eases pain of loss

It was one of those early morning phone calls from out of state.

I received word from a friend of a friend that our friend had died.

That seems to happen more and more these days. So it goes when you’re in your sixth decade.

It was a sudden cardiac arrest this time.

As I tried to digest this latest news at five in the morning, a deadline stared me in the face. I knew I needed to mellow out or the piece wouldn’t get done. And then I’d feel worse. The story had a time element to it and might help a worthy cause.

As I scrolled through my email, I remembered two messages my teacher wife had forwarded me from another teacher, Sally Davis. Though I had looked at them quickly, I recalled they seemed funny, perhaps could get my mind off death for a while so I could write.

I found one on grandparents. I couldn’t find the other. Must have deleted it. I called Sally. She said she and another teacher, Gary Dilbaitis, who had largely assembled the document from past work, couldn’t find it either. She said she sent the emails to many teachers in the Clark County School District. “Teaching’s stressful,” she explained. “I try to relieve that with a laugh.”

Soon after our conversation, I found the missing message in my email trash –– I hadn’t emptied it in days.

At the top of the temporarily lost document was written: “These are genuine answers from 16 year olds … and they will breed.”

Q: What is the most common form of birth control?

A: Most people prevent contraception by wearing a condominium.

Q: Name a major disease associated with cigarettes.

A: Premature death.

Q: What guarantees may a mortgage company insist on?

A: If you are buying a house, they will insist you are well endowed.

Q: What happens to a boy when he reaches puberty?

A: He says goodbye to his boyhood and looks forward to his adultery.

I felt myself grinning and my mind floated to a movie scene involving two goofballs, Harry (actor Jeff Daniels) and Lloyd (Jim Carrey) in “Dumb and Dumber.” They were trying to figure out the last name of a woman Lloyd thought began with an “S,” maybe Swenson or Swanson. Harry suggested the name might be on her briefcase. Lloyd looked and cried out excitedly, “Yeah, Samsonite” … at least it started with an “S.”

Such a stupid scene but I laughed. I laughed again at the memory of Harry driving a van that looked like a dog too fast and a motorcycle cop pulling up along side him, yelling “Pullover” and Harry showing his sweater to him, yelling, “No, cardigan.”

I picked up the email on grandparents.

There was an anecdote with a little girl as the central character. She was pounding away on her grandpa’s computer. She told him she was writing a story. “What’s it about?” he asked. “I don’t know,” she replied. “I can’t read.”

Another offering had a boy visiting Grandma. “Grandma, do you know how you and God are alike.” Proud, Grandma answered: “No, honey, how are we alike?” Sincere, the boy replied, “You’re both old.”

No longer was I on a paralyzing downer. In less than 30 minutes, goofy ignorance combined with the sweet, naive innocence of youth had produced enough cleansing laughter, about 10 minutes worth, to almost magically transport me from despair to someone who still wanted to make a difference.

The late Norman Cousins, who wrote the 1991 memoir “Anatomy of an Illness,” was proved right yet again. Laughter –– researchers studied it seriously after his book –– can give you a respite from pain. The former Saturday Review editor, diagnosed with a painful spine condition, found that a diet of comedies that included Marx Brothers films made him feel better. He said 10 minutes of laughter allowed him two hours of pain-free sleep.

And it allowed me to make deadline on the Easter Seals feature that runs on this week’s health page.

Contact reporter Paul Harasim at pharasim@ or 702-387-2908.

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