My mother was dying. She told me she needed a laugh.
“No surprise, mom. In the hospital, everyone does.”
“Tell me a joke,” she said. “This place is so serious.”
She knew that I didn’t like telling jokes. I wasn’t good at it. It was so typical of her to make demands that made me uncomfortable. It had been a mistake to come here.
A week earlier, mom’s doctor had called me in Madison, WI where I lived.
“I’m aware that you haven’t visited your mom for a while. Her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is fairly advanced. She’s in the hospital. If you want to see her before she dies, you need to get to Chicago as soon as you can.”
The phone clicked, silent. Clearly, mom had told her side to the doctor.
Putting it mildly, my relationship with mom had always been difficult. She had been addicted to drugs for most of her adult life. My childhood and adolescence were full of drama as a result. Sick of her theatrics, I kept my distance after graduating from high school.
Nonetheless, the doctor’s call released a longing that I had held caged in a tiny corner of my heart. Our fractured mother/daughter thing somehow had to fly straight before it was too late.
After years of therapy, I realized that I had never had any control over mom’s addiction. But I did have control over how I related to her. At the moment, this meant seeing to it that she didn’t die alone. Being with her at the end, I hoped, would heal something that had been broken in both of us.
When I arrived at the hospital the next day, mom was connected to an oxygen tank, along with other medical apparatus. I kissed her on the forehead. She winced and murmured that she was dying. An attending nurse patted her hand. Then mom closed her eyes. I noticed that even with the oxygen, she was struggling for air. The nurse sedated her; my mother slept. Hour after hour, I sat next to the bed and watched her labored breathing.
The body on the mattress was almost unrecognizable. Frail, white-haired, and deeply wrinkled, she had become a crumpled tissue paper version of her former self. When had she gotten so feeble? Tears came to my eyes. I tried to blink them away. If she suddenly woke up, I didn’t want her to see me crying.
“There, there,” said the nurse, as she tried to pat my hand.
The night before she died, mom was awake. That’s when she asked for the joke. I stalled for time.
“I’ll come back tomorrow with one.”
It occurred to me that mom might not have any more tomorrows. I chewed on my raggedy nails. She dozed off.
Outside the hospital, I called the man I had been dating for several months to ask if he knew any jokes suitable to tell someone who was dying.
“Everybody’s dying, darling.”
“You know what I mean.”
Nat was a good storyteller. More importantly, he made me laugh. That wasn’t easy to do. I was still grieving my husband who had died unexpectedly five years earlier. We had been married 29 years.
“Here’s an Ole and Lena joke that might fill the bill.”
Most people from the upper Midwest of the United States have heard more than a few stories about Ole and Lena. Ole and Lena are a flinty and not very bright Norwegian Minnesotan farm couple.
As per usual, Nat was funny. I realized mid-laugh that I was starting to rely on him. My stomach churned. I knew all too well that people died and were therefore inherently unreliable.
“Thanks, Nat. I knew you’d have a good one. Let’s talk again tomorrow. Need to go practice now. I want to nail that joke.”
Shattered, I went to my hotel and zoned out in front of the television.
At the hospital the next morning, mom was awake. I told her the following joke, complete with my best Scandinavian accent:
Ole is on his deathbed at home.
He asks his wife, “Lena, is everyone here?”
Lena replies, “Yes, Ole. All your friends and family are right here in the bedroom with you.”
“Lena, are you sure?” Ole says.
“Yes, Ole, I’m sure they are all here.”
“Well, if that’s so, Lena, why are the lights on in the living room?”
Mom laughed. A single woman who’d raised me on a clerk’s salary, she had, out of necessity, always been frugal.
“That was good. Where did you get it?”
I told her about Nat.
She said she was happy that I had found a new love. I was about to say that I didn’t think my relationship with him was love but then stopped myself.
“Me, too, mom.”
“I love you.”
“I love you, too, mom.”
I wasn’t sure that what I had said was really true as I reached for her hand. But we both cried. Then we talked. It was something we hadn’t done in years.
She died later that day and left many parts of me tangled and broken. Despite fantasies I’d indulged as a teenager, I hadn’t actually expected my mom’s death to fix my relationship with her.
The unexpected lesson mom taught me as she died was that broken things could heal if given the opportunity.