Did You Hear the One about the Guy in the Bar?

Photo ©2009/Jerry Redfern

Hey, have you heard this one?

A weary guy enters a bar and sits on a stool at the counter. After a glance around the joint, he realizes he’s the only customer. No big deal. It’s been a long day and he’s thirsty.

The barkeep arrives to take his order.

The guy says, “Beer, please.” Soon, he’s enjoying a tall, cool brew.

The barkeep shoves a bowl of peanuts near the customer and then mutters about doing a few things in the back. He leaves. The customer grabs some peanuts.

After downing a little beer, the guy hears a whispered, “You are a good-looking fella.”

Confused, he checks right and left: the bar’s still empty. Another sip. More peanuts.

“Nice haircut.”

Whoa! Our guy, unsettled now, rotates on the stool, peering into the bar’s darkest nooks and crannies. He is alone. Just before his next drink—this time more a gulp—there’s another whisper: “Love the shirt you’re wearing. It is so your color.”

The barkeep returns, hefting a container with clean wine glasses.

“Hey,” the guy begins, “a strange thing—”

“Been hearing voices, haven’t you?” the barkeep interrupts. He eases the tray down and nods toward the bowl of nuts. “It’s them peanuts. They are complimentary.”

Ha . . . ha . . . ha!

The physician at one of our hospice meetings told this silly joke. We were waiting for a key medical document to be retrieved from ancient paper files. During the lull, the doctor told a joke that one of his patients shared with him earlier in the week. At the meeting, moments before, the doctor, nurses, social workers, chaplains and home health aides had been reviewing the death of a month-old child and discussing how to care for a 59-year old woman with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (aka, Lou Gehrig’s disease) who’d just been admitted to our care.

Was the joke gallows humor? Or was it inappropriate?

I hope not. Even in the worst of times, whether a dying patient, an exhausted caregiver, or one of the hospice staff attempting to find ways to help, we can’t forget laughter. We tell old jokes. We recall a childhood prank. We reveal the embarrassing story behind our silly nickname. We laugh together, with each other and for each other. Death will come. We won’t be ready for it. It is always that way. But we are yet alive and though we weep and shout and question, we also can grasp those precious moments where at least a hint of joy is part of our shared journey.

This I also believe about humor: it can be a wall constructed around ourselves to ignore the worst news, or to deflect concerned friends and family. I’ve known patients and church members who are lovely and funny and can tell a good story . . . but who seem to make sure the laughter never leads to any honest discussion. Comedian Wendy Cummings (who created the sit-com 2 Broke Girls) writes in I’m Fine and Other Lies, her soon-to-be published memoir:

People always ask me how I got funny. The short answer is: I had to figure out a way to be liked. The long answer is more complicated because humor also developed as a survival mechanism to protect myself and disarm or intimidate people when I didn’t feel safe, to make fun of myself before other people could, to avoid having to feel sadness, or to mitigate the gravity of a situation because laughter was my anesthetic for pain.

Cummings’ “To avoid having to feel sadness” can be a huge reason for humor. Hey, I’ve used humor when frightened. As a young minister, I needed surgery. Since I wasn’t married then, a church member volunteered to accompany me. She was willing to be a second set of ears to listen to the doctor’s explanations, and to be my ride there and back home. Based on what she told me later, after my first doses of anesthesia but prior to being whisked into the operating room, a nurse arrived to complete documents and answer questions. I introduced my church member and friend, a mother of three delightful teens, as “my mistress.”

Ha! Ha! Ha!

Such a funny guy.

Sure, I was a little loopy. But fear and dread certainly contributed to my efforts to make others laugh. Trying to forget that I’d soon have not control over, well, anything . . . why not crack a joke?

Laughter can become an odd barrier to real communication. Of course, people enjoy the lighthearted moments created through humor. But if a jokester has a life-threatening illness, what happens if you spend time “talking” and nothing of importance is ever said?

I prefer funny. Don’t you?

Laughing can be healing and hopeful and contagious. Hey, don’t we all need a bowl of complimentary peanuts near us!

But I hope, as decisions are made for your quality of life, or the quality of life for a loved one, that the “funny” jokes don’t prevent the serious conversations.

(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)

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