You’ve got to laugh or you’d cry! It’s a cliché but nevertheless a mantra that I frequently live my life to and I know I’m far from alone. Funnily enough (no pun intended) I’m not a weepy person. I hardly ever cry at films or books and I’ve never cried at a schmalzy tv ad and rarely even at a sentimental Comic Relief clip that is specifically designed to make you break down and sob. I can and do feel sad about others’ misfortunes but it doesn’t usually generate any tears unless it’s one of my children who’s in misery and that’s because I’m actually feeling it as mine, and I do often wonder why people shed tears about complete strangers (I’m thinking Princess Diana here); it might actually diminish the genuine emotions of those who are truly hurting mightn’t it? And it definitely doesn’t help anything, does it? I’m of course liable to blub at my own pain (mental and physical, self-inflicted or otherwise). But always, always, like an out of control toddler, I feel the hot flush of tears welling whenever I’m really annoyed, frustrated and helpless (all these things have to happen together), however petty or trite the actual consequences are. Some might see this as coldness and cynicism and egotism but I (naturally) think I show and feel appropriate empathy and sympathy when it’s really needed, as well as a normal human level of self-centredness, rather than being mawkishly moved by bathos or pathos. However, I mention it simply to set the scene.
We’re having a new kitchen. It’s been happening for several weeks because it’s quite a big job (we’ve lived in this house for nearly 20 years and the kitchen’s been in need of an upgrade for just about all of that time). Walls have come down, the floor up, doors knocked through, the whole room gutted, lighting stripped out, new gas pipes and boiler. You get the picture. Lots of trades have been doing their stuff, builders, electricians, gas engineers, plumbers, plasterers, tilers, carpenters, kitchen fitters, painters. But after the stunned stress of making all our choices (the layout, the material, styles and colours of the flooring, units, doors, handles, shelving, appliances, tiles, counter tops, walls, when I reached a feverish place where I no longer knew what I liked and what I didn’t), once the room was cleared out and the first smashing, dirty blow was wielded, I had nothing to organise and nothing to do but sit back, breathe in the dust, and marvel at it all happening around me. Except for the fridge. Forgive me my extravagance, but having just spent two years with one of them to hand, the only easy decision was to get an American style fridge/freezer with water and ice dispenser (for the cocktails, darlings, the cocktails), for which I did my own shopping around. Now, I’m quite good at organising and it wasn’t too difficult to make sure I got it delivered in the window after the floor had been tiled and the walls plastered but before the cabinets around it had been built, and while there was someone in the house to plumb it in for me. This happened two and a half weeks ago, all on schedule. Waited a day for all the liquids to settle down. Turned it on. It cooled down, the ice built up and the first cube was produced. Cheers! Then we noticed the leak: it was faulty! By now, all the handy people had finished their jobs, but I played on some goodwill to get one back to unplumb it ready to be exchanged. The exchange date was set for ten days ago, delivery time between 7am and 11am, organised for someone to be here while I was at work, but they sent a 7.5 tonne truck and couldn’t get up our road. Now, we do live on a road that is quite narrow at the bottom, and made narrower by parked cars, but since I’d already had one of the exact same product delivered, this should’ve been no surprise. It was though, and because we also live on top of a hill and they couldn’t be arsed to lug the thing to the door, they buggered off and it was rearranged for the next day on a smaller 3.5 tonne van. Attempt number two, and they come again with a 7.5 tonne truck. Attempt number three, two further days later, and they come again with a 7.5 tonne truck. Attempt number four, yesterday, and, hallelujah, they make it up the road with a correctly sized van. But without any trollies or dollies or straps so [large intakes of breath, eyebrows raised, hands on hips, lips pursed, and shakes of their heads] there’s absolutely no way they can get it up the steps and into the house. (I haven’t even mentioned the twenty-one and three-quarter hours that I’ve spent hanging on hold on the phone waiting to be rescheduled once, twice, thrice, and now four times.) At those knowing, negative head shakes, I wanted to weep.
Mature 48 year old that I am, however, I forced myself to keep some perspective. It’s just a fridge/freezer. I still have the old one plugged in keeping everything cold. Our ice cream is still frozen. This is not a tragedy or anything near it. I sent a few funny texts, and laughed with my boy.
The day before, I’d spent the afternoon with my Mum, aka Gran, at the Christmas lunch cooked and served by the lovely people who look after her at her dementia care home. I really had no conception of what to expect from this event beforehand and confess to a knot of apprehension in my belly on the way there. Gran can be prone to simply closing her eyes and disengaging when she doesn’t want to, or can’t, acknowledge the world around her. If she does choose to communicate, it can be through sharp kicks to the shins and/or shouting abuse. Sometimes, she smiles and is as interested as she could possibly be given her mental capacity. You just don’t know what you’ll get. We sat together at a table for four, with G and K, a long-married couple, K with dementia, G without. We were served sherry, deliciously sweet and dark and festive. K was very interested in the menu and anxious for her food. As soon as the soup had been cleared away, she fretted about when the turkey and trimmings would arrive. G and I repeatedly reassured her. She repeatedly worried. Gran stared briefly at me, then closed her eyes. We pulled our crackers (I pulled mine with G, and Gran’s with myself) and wore our paper hats and read out the jokes. She didn’t open her eyes when I put her hat on or listen to the jokes. We were plied with wine. G and I told each other about ourselves and our partners’ other selves. We clinked glasses and we smiled wryly at each other and across the room at the other relatives when our eyes caught or we were distracted by some shout or improper behaviour. At some point between the soup and the main course, Gran folded her arms on the table and rested her head on them, hat askew but still on. G, K and I scraped our plates clean, cranberry sauce, bread pudding, pigs in blankets an’ all. K, sated, no longer wanted to be seated at the table. She wandered off, a carer with her, and didn’t come back. G relaxed, because he could. Gran came to, knocked back a glass of wine, wolfed down her Christmas pudding and brandy sauce, a mince pie and a mint chocolate, pronounced the coffee disgusting. and then shut her eyes again. There was music in the background, and a little bit of clapping and dancing from some of the more sprightly and in-the-mood residents. Someone came round taking snaps and I captured one of my own. I had a nice time; in fact we all did. The care and kindness shone through, warming even the bereaved, worn out, worried spouses and the shaky, achy, frail, decrepit minds and bodies of all of those living through personal tragedies every day. And how we (most of us) laughed.
Real, life-changing misfortunes or fist-clenching but trivial aggravation, you really do have to keep laughing through or, well, you’d just cry, wouldn’t you? And that doesn’t really help anyone, does it?