It was like a scene out of a Cohen brothers dark comedy (think Fargo).
My friend and I were having lunch at a Jesuit retirement community, which was typically a wonderful time to take in old stories and wisdom from great men. Frank was one of these great men. He was a lifelong philosopher and educator, and now spent his time trying to finish a book he’d been working on for a few years.
Frank had a stroke a few years back, and as a result, it became difficult for him to swallow solid food. Because of this, he had been advised not to talk at meals. But Frank loved a good conversation, so it was clear to me that his silence wouldn’t hold.
So this day at lunch, he was doing just that at a table behind me – chatting it up with his friends. Suddenly, there was a commotion, and by the time I turned around there were staff rushing to his side. He had begun to choke, and one of the nurses immediately began performing the Heimlich maneuver. She tried several times, but it wasn’t working.
Then my friend – an athletic guy – got up and tried himself. A few heaves and compressions. And then, thank God. Pop! Whatever was in his throat was dislodged, and Frank drew fresh air into his lungs.
I was sent in to a state of shock. I had never seen someone really choking like that before. To my mind, my friend literally saved him from suffocating to death. Frank reacted differently. After the food was dislodged, unfazed, Frank calmly turned to my friend. He thanked him and then proceeded to say, “You know, you did a good job, but next time you need to put your hands a little lower [motioning to his stomach] to do it correctly.”
Later, when my shock had passed and my friend and I were reminiscing (this might sound morbid) but we couldn’t help ourselves from laughing. We were astonished at his composure and in fits about the absurdity of the situation. I felt guilty at first, laughing at the near-death of an old man. But then, I felt an invitation to get over my guilt and recognize that in that laughter, something wonderful had just happened.
I had an analogous experience to this back in high school, albeit one which hit a little closer to home.
My grandfather was in a terrible biking accident which resulted in massive head trauma. He was unconscious for a long time, and nobody knew how well he was going to recover, if at all. Would he be able to speak? Would he remember us? Would he need help caring for himself? Nobody knew.
To our great relief, he woke up and began to recover remarkably well. He began to tell us stories from his past. His voice was clear, but the memories were, well, a bit foggier. He had hunted for his entire life, so many of his stories were about hunting trips. As I listened to him tell a story about some outlandish bear hunt with complete seriousness, I almost couldn’t keep myself from bursting out laughing. I didn’t know how to feel about this.
One day, I remember our family leaving his hospital room, and my dad started to laugh about one of these stories. When asked about why he was laughing he said, “You know, I realized that I should just laugh sometimes. It’s funny, and somehow it helps make this a bit easier.” He was right. The laughter, in some way, helped us trust that no matter how bad the situation was, joy was not lost. The trauma and the sadness we experienced didn’t have the last laugh.
There isn’t anything immediately funny about strokes and bike accidents. They cause pain and all kinds of problems. But still, there was something about laughter and humor that brought about healing and holiness.
With Frank, it was his unexpected nonchalance that evinced an incredible freedom and lack of resentment. With my grandpa, it was in the far-out-yet-meaningful stories he told that we could find an affectionate joy that was deeply loving and heartening.
It’s this kind of humor that gives witness to how incredible human beings can be in the face of fear and pain. The kind of humor which shows that for all of the darkness in the world, that darkness can and will be overcome by strength and light. Somehow, mysteriously, I can still laugh in the face of suffering and have faith in the unconquerable power of life.