Lisa K. Friedman is a novelist, essayist and humorist based in Washington, D.C.

Fear and Laughing

Original publication: AUG. 6, 2009

Our worst fear has recently come to pass: the dementia ward of the veterans’ home where my father had been living transferred him to a psychiatric hospital. But when I met my mother there on the day they brought him over, I wasn’t really surprised to see her waving from across the hall with a big smile on her face, about to laugh. We’re a family of laughers. We laugh when we’re happy, when we’re angry and, most of all, when we’re frightened.

“That’s him,” she said, chortling and pointing to the ambulance in the bay. “He just arrived, and he’s mad as a wet hen. But the ambulance driver said he didn’t slug anyone, so that’s an improvement.”

They wheeled my father up. “Hi, Dad.” I touched his hand, which was locked down under a thick restraining belt. His sweat pants were stained with food; the socks on his feet twisted and wrong. He looked at me through the blue eyes I’ve been looking into for 49 years. I smiled at him, and winked. He winked back. He is 75 and in perfect health if you don’t count his brain. He’s had dementia for a few years, but things got worse after an adverse drug reaction.

They pulled the gurney away. “We’ll meet you inside!” I yelled. My father craned his neck and answered: “Two. Four. Seventeen!”

My mother and I followed someone into the admitting office to do the paperwork. “We brought his medical records,” I told the nurse, reaching across the desk to where my mother sat, stalwart. I wiggled my fingers for the papers, but my mother only glared at me.

“Mom. Pass me the records.”

She shook her head.

The nurse moved away, ostensibly to retrieve a form. I leaned toward my mother. “What are you doing?” My mother gripped her purse with two hands. “I don’t want them to have a bad impression of your father,” she said. I reached for her purse. She held tight. I pulled. “We probably shouldn’t have an altercation,” I said, pausing. “It might look bad.”


CreditHolly Wales

My mother smiled. Look bad? We were in a mental hospital. Who cared? We both began to laugh, gently at first, and then with increasing gusto. By the time the nurse returned, it took all of our shared strength to stop.

The nurse handed us an information sheet. “This is the number of the telephone on the ward,” she said, pointing with her pencil. “Call this number anytime and ask to speak with your husband,” she explained, looking kindly at my mother.

Later we sat with my father on the ward, trying not to cry. For months, professionals had been saying that he’d probably need to go to the psychiatric hospital. But we’d closed our minds to that possibility. My mother declared she would not survive it. And now here we were.

We sat on either side of him, distracting ourselves with his food tray. I cut up the chicken and put the loaded fork into my father’s hand. My leg bounced off his — something was there. “There’s something in Dad’s pocket,” I informed my mother. “Put your hand in there and pull it out, will you?”

She crossed her eyes. “I’m not doing it. You do it.”

I held my breath and reached in — and then extracted a brightly colored, stuffed bowling pin. I held it up and met my mother’s disbelieving stare. That did it; we collapsed into gales of wrenching laughter again, hiding behind our hands and lowering our heads into our collars. “Stop,” my mother begged with her eyes flooding tears. “Stop, or they won’t let us out!”

I got up and walked away, wiping my eyes. I imagined I looked like every other visitor, splotchy with emotion and bereavement. When I regained my composure, I returned to the table. My mother had stepped into the bathroom; my father was eating his napkin.

Soon it was time to leave him there. As we waited to be escorted through the double-locked doors, the hall phone began to ring. A woman appeared wearing a long purple sweater and opera-length pearls. She picked up the phone and began to speak gibberish with a Slavic accent. She chattered, listened and then hung up. As she walked away, we saw that she was naked from the waist down.

My mother’s eyes widened. “That’s who answers the hall phone?” she blurted.

The security guard appeared and escorted us through the maze of doors and foyers until we met with the cool air. “Call anytime!” my mother squealed, bending at the waist with her arms crossed over herself. By the time we walked across the parking lot, we were laughing so hard our faces were slick with tears.

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