My darling friend, Amanda, was bright, beautiful and quirky and whatever was going on in our lives our conversations always bubbled with laughter. Once, after I had been on the phone with her downstairs, I walked upstairs to where my husband was. “Were you talking to Amanda?” he asked. “Yes. How did you know?” “Oh, you always laugh a lot when you talk to her.”
One thing we agreed on was exercise-for-the-sake-of-exercise; we hated it. So we started a group based on the idea of making exercise fun. We would take an iconic dance, say the ‘You’re the One that I Want’ routine from Grease and, with a couple of key costume or prop items, get our dance instructor to teach our group the routine. So while we worked at perfecting the steps with plenty of attitude and improvisation we would all have an aerobic work-out and lots of laughter.
Soon after we started it, Amanda got pregnant with her fourth child and it came to a natural end when complications forced her to sit on the sidelines. The goal of trying to turn it into a business partnership was clearly going to have to take a backseat for a while so our laughter returned to our more natural sedentary state and she and her husband honoured me by asking me to be the baby’s Godmother.
Three months after she gave birth, Amanda had a catastrophic stroke. She was only 33 and, initially she was unable to walk or talk or do anything for herself. She was confined to hospital for months while friends and family rallied round to help her husband to cope with carrying on with the demands of working and looking after their house and four children under seven.
Each time I went to visit her in hospital it seemed I had to find her in a different place. It was a big, multi-roomed public ward and her place in it was constantly changing. She still looked the same in repose, she was still beautiful but it was hard to know how to communicate for the laughter had stopped along with the easy verbal communication we had always enjoyed. My heart broke for her; she had always been so full of life and lark-y laughter. There was never a dull moment with Amanda and her brood and I longed to be able to do something meaningful to help the arid landscape of her hospital existence.
One day I thought I would take her a nightie to wear as a day dress. I had recently bought a cheerful plaid flannel nightie for myself and I thought it might brighten up her days to wear something more vibrant than the normal hospital wear so I bought one for her too. The day I took it to her, on an impulse I took mine along too. Because her speech was so impaired it was tough to know if her understanding was too and I wanted to explain that I had one just the same. Perhaps I was conscious that I was missing my friend and the easy camaraderie we had always enjoyed so this was an opportunity to share something – even if it was only matching nighties.
When I arrived I gave her the nightie. She gave me her lop-sided smile she nodded her thanks and then indicated that she wanted to put it on. I helped her clamber into it and told her she looked beautiful in it. She nodded and tried to speak and I tried to decipher what it was she was trying to say but our communication was laboured – almost embarrassing. So I got out my own nightie and showed it to her with the kind of pantomiming one does to someone who doesn’t understand your language. This is the same as yours. This is mine. Do you understand?
She laughed. That was a sound I hadn’t heard in a long while and it seemed to refresh the stale hospital atmosphere like the chuckle of a mountain stream. The same laugh. My same friend.
“Put it on.” she mumbled.
“Put it on?” I queried in pantomime.
“Yes!” she nodded back vehemently.
All I wanted was to hear that laugh again so I did. There we were together dressed identically. She on her bed and me on the visitors’ chair beside the bed. She looked at me and I looked at her and we laughed. We laughed and laughed and laughed together. All the sadness and frustration and loneliness and lack of communication that we both felt in our different ways was laughed out in an ascending series of stepped hilarity. When the laughter slowed down, all we had to do was to look at each other and off we’d go off into peals of shared laughter again.
Into the midst of this walked her ex-husband. She was not delighted to see him. In the past he had treated her badly and they were not on good terms. But it was not just that… he was inhibiting our laughter. This laughter with which she was expressing all the stress of the past weeks and, because we were equals in perfect communication and matching nighties, it may have been the first time for weeks that she had not felt isolated and handicapped. That didn’t mean we stopped laughing because we didn’t. We kept looking at each other and dissolving into giggles.
He was uncomfortable, excluded by our laughter but also our rising tide of giggles defused the cloyingly patronising triumph of his pity for her. It was obvious that there was no way in the world she was going to be grateful for his magnanimity in coming to tell her how sorry he was for her. Finally, “Fuck off Perry.”
She said it clearly and emphatically with all the sounds and stresses in the perfect places. She made it crystal clear that no-one was going to pity her – and certainly not him! We were both surprised at the success of this unorthodox sentence and we looked at each other and laughed in a perfect accord of thrilled incredulous surprise. I don’t remember Perry leaving. One minute he was there and we were melting back into the irresistible communion of laughter and the next time I looked around, he was gone.
Later I felt sorry for him. Nothing could have prepared him for the reception he got and from his point of view I know he believed that it was big of him to visit, but Amanda was my only concern and the fact that she had not had to submit to being grateful to this man, when she was so ill and vulnerable was extraordinary. We never again achieved that same ecstasy of uncontrollable laughter but I like to believe it was a factor in her amazingly complete recovery.