When Laughter Isn't the Best Medicine

I wish I could still laugh with my mother, but it's just not that funny to watch your mom collapse in a heap

My mom and sister cracking up.

The last time I had a good laugh with my mother—an air-gasping, all-out belly laugh—she was lying on the cold hard floor at Target, after crashing her scooter into the checkout counter. We thought it was hilarious, but the Target employees did not. They rushed to her rescue, vying to call 911.

"No! No!" I choked out, wiping tears from my eyes. "She's fine! She does this all the time!"

They took one look at my elderly mother, who by now looked like she was in the throes of a stroke, and said, "Umm, ma'am. We're going to have to call 911."

Then my mother opened her eyes and piped up from the floor, "I'm OK! Just let me lie here a while."

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"See, I told you!" I exclaimed in relief. "She does this all the time. She has cataplexy, for goodness sake!" The guy helped my mother to her feet, and the two of us sheepishly tottered out of Target, leaving the store-borrowed scooter behind.

Cataplexy is a symptom of narcolepsy, the so-called "sleeping sickness." When my mother laughs too exuberantly, her muscles can become temporarily paralyzed and she collapses to the floor, unless she has a helpful person nearby who can catch her. Since my mother does not have any trouble with sleeping, we have always doubted her cataplexy diagnosis. Cataplexy without narcolepsy is extremely rare. Whatever the cause, my mom can't crack up hysterically anymore. It freezes her muscles. As a result, I have had to learn to modulate my reactions around her—which is a crying shame.

Back in the old days, my mom and I loved to laugh. Much of our relationship is based on a shared sense of what's funny in the world. Certain words can crack us up—words with stories attached to them, like "Poindexter," "Adcock" or "avert." I'd tell you the stories but you probably wouldn't find them as funny as we did. Is it funny that my mother accidentally called a kid whose name was Rob "Poindexter"? Or that we used to call anything stale, old and moldy "Adcock," after the former owners of our house? Or that we'd shout out "avert, avert" while changing clothes in our pop-up camper, meaning "don't look"? That's the thing about humor—it's very personal.

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In fact, looking back, I see most of the things that caused my mom and I to laugh aren't in themselves that funny. Like the time my grandmother dropped a potholder in the spaghetti water and dyed the noodles purple. Hilarious. Or the time I borrowed a corkscrew from the front desk at a hotel and the clerk called us at midnight to get it back. We almost fell out of our beds laughing. Another time my mother asked my boss if the BMW he was driving was a Ford Pinto. Sidesplitting. These are the kind of things that could make us fall back in our chairs, laughing until our sides hurt. These are the kind of things I no longer laugh at when I'm with her.

Now I try to lead a "modulated" life around my mom. Modulated means only a minimum amount of laughter. If I actually say the word "modulated," however, my mother goes off into peals of unrestricted laughter. So I don't say it (I said it once when she got stuck climbing into a car, and she laughed so hard I had to catch her when she fell backward). No, now when something strikes us as funny, I merely smile or give a small chuckle. When my mother catches my eye and looks ready to explode with glee, I frown and turn my head. If I tell her a funny story over the phone and I sense she's beginning to laugh too hard, I say, "Mom! Are you sitting down? Sit down on a chair immediately!" Sometimes my warnings make her laugh even harder but she usually obeys.

Unfortunately, my mother has a habit of laughing when she finds herself in awkward situations. And, at age 91, awkward situations are pretty much a dime a dozen. Halfway up the stairs, when she loses energy and feels ridiculous, she laughs. Climbing into a car when she finds herself facing the seat instead of the window, she laughs. Bending over to put on her support hose when she can't reach her feet, she laughs.

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My mother sees the humor in almost everything. She has a strong sense of the ridiculous, and she feels that getting old is the most ridiculous thing of all. "Growing old ain't for sissies," she likes to say. I see her point, but I just can't go there with her anymore. I must remain solemn-faced and rock solid because it's just not that funny to watch your mom collapse in a heap. The risk is too great. She could bump her head (and she has) or find herself on the floor unable to get up (and she has). So, at age 58, I've become an old curmudgeon. As for my mom, she still loves a good laugh. I guess you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

Tags: family