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The Infinite Reach of My Mother's Laughter

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Benjamin Franklin once wrote that wine is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy [beer has often replaced wine in countless misquotes]. And the same is even truer for laughter. "Laughter is wine for the soul," said playwright Sean O'Casey, "The hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living." Laughter is a healer, a coping mechanism, a weapon and a disarmer. It has turned bitter political rivals into best friends; it got the Beatles a recording contract. And it is my mother's most endearing quality.

My mother Hallie passed away this month at age 68. She was beautiful, smart, curious, compassionate, and rebellious, a compulsive reader and a talented psychotherapist. But of all her attributes, none surpassed her capacity to laugh. It was a source of comfort, for her children in younger years and for her clients later in life. As a child, I overheard countless conversations between my mom and her friends. I couldn't make out a word; couldn't tell you a single one. I just remember sitting there, wishing I knew what was so damn funny.

One night I was playing quietly in the living room, and the silence of the house was suddenly shattered by an outburst of hysterics I've never heard come out of anyone. I rushed into her bedroom to see if she was okay. And she was fine, just reading a book. That's how I discovered Kurt Vonnegut. The cause of the outburst was his newest novel, Breakfast Of Champions. Vonnegut himself said this about laughter:

"Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward."

This is kind of embarrassing, but it bears mentioning. A few years ago, I arrived home on a cold night and after getting out of my car I discovered that I had driven all the way across town with a hobo sleeping in the back seat! That story got around rather quickly, needless to say, and later that evening the phone rang and I let the machine get it. After the beep came no words, just Mom's laugh, growing steadily and peaking in a massive crescendo when I finally answered, and it no doubt continued after we hung up.

Laughter was, to the end, the unbreakable bond between my mother and my father. Two months ago, Mom was in the hospital recovering from the second of three consecutive surgeries, and feeling pretty miserable. My father, who had been divorced from her for a decade, called her up because he felt that she might feel better if he could just make her laugh. They talked and laughed for at least an hour. Humor is a coded language between friends, and my parents' coded language explains a lot about me, the woman I married, and how we raise our child.

Hallie's laughter will stand out forever in my memory and I believe it's what many of us close to her will miss the most. But she believed that we manifest our bodies and our souls through our outlook on life, and that's why she would advise us, in times of sorrow, to look through the melancholy and find something, anything, to laugh about. Because as Martin Luther King once said, "It is cheerful to God when you rejoice or laugh from the bottom of your heart." And if that's true, then my mother makes God very, very happy.

Make your mom laugh today.