“I took you into this world Thomas, and I can take you out!” She liked to say that and it was always impossible not to laugh when she did, for both of us. Mom stole that line from Bill Cosby, and it brought her great joy. She also often said “Hello Handsome!” with great enthusiasm, usually referring to one of her grandsons and sometimes to the dog when she was in a very good mood. It took me a couple of years to realize that she got that line from “Young Frankenstein!” “Bitterman, I fell out of the car! Did you see that Bitterman? I fell out of the car!” – that was another favorite, and she would say it doing a pretty damn adorable version of Dudley Moore’s drunken Arthur from the movie of the same name. I’m pretty sure “Arthur” was her favorite movie of all time. I’m not sure how she would have felt about the remake, as I haven’t seen it, but if it’s funny that’s good enough. Mom loved to laugh.
OK, everyone loves to laugh. Mostly everyone. I suppose it would be more accurate to say that I loved making my mom laugh. And I was good at it. Of course almost everything I did to make her laugh was stolen from Saturday Night Live or the popular comics of my childhood. One Christmas Morning my brother John and I left the family room, stuffed our shirts with the discarded wrapping paper and returned to perform an impromptu “Hans and Franz Merry Christmas.” Sure we were entertaining everyone, but we did it for Mom, and she loved it. On another Christmas, my then brother-in-law Grady accompanied me on the piano as I sang “Chopping Broccoli” from the very funny Dana Carvey SNL skit. It became a yearly tradition of sorts, “Sing broccoli Tommy, c’mon, please, for me?” she would ask. My mom had a lovely childlike innocence, a brilliant and loving inner glow that is hard to come by – it was hard to say no to her.
As I got older my Mom-comedy got a bit edgier. One weekend when I was home from Law School I came down to join Mom, Dad and my sister Jaclyn for breakfast. Mom asked “how did you sleep?” I responded, “not that great, do you think you and dad could keep it down tonight?” Mom looked at me puzzled for a brief moment until she realized what I was insinuating. Dad immediately started laughing, then Mom began to blush. Of course they hadn’t kept me up the night before, it was just fun to embarrass her – because after the embarrassment – laughter. “Oh, Tommy you are so bad.” The older I got, the more I would hear that. Mom rarely used profanity and we were never allowed to as children but once I was in College I used to drop curse words just to get a rise out of her. “Don’t say that word Thomas …” “What word Mom … “Shit”? Shitty, shit, shit, shitty, Shit!” She’d laugh, shake her head and .. “Oh, you are so bad.”
OK, maybe my mom-comedy was not edgy, it was juvenile. But it worked. For a while anyway. Mom developed Alzheimer’s when she was about 58 and it took her fast. By the time she was 60, she was gone. For all intents and purposes, Mom was in a coma-like state for about the last 6 months of her life, and the previous few months were not much better: she had not only forgotten who we were, but who she was and what it meant to forget. There was a lot of time that she would just sit there, unaware of where she was, who she was, unaware of anything.
One afternoon I was sitting with her in the living room. There was a James Bond movie on HBO, but neither of us were watching it. Mom appeared to be staring in the direction of the tv (the disease had progressed quite a bit at that point) and I was playing with my new laptop. I looked up in time to see the credits roll and the name of the producer: Albert R. Broccoli. I said “Look Mom, chopping broccoli,” neither expecting her to hear me nor to respond. But after a brief moment she gave a small, faint, tired laugh, looked at me with a focus I hadn’t seen in months and said, “Never stop making me laugh.” By the time I realized what had happened and before I started weeping, she was gone again.
It’s been over 12 years since she passed. I’m not sure I believe in an “After Life” but if there is a Heaven she’s up there and she’s probably watching. While I’m sure she has had her moments of thinking “what the heck is Tommy doing with his life?” I do hope she’s laughing and I hope she knows how important she continues to be.
So here’s to Joan Ellen Boyd O’Keefe. She brought me into this world; she loved me before anyone else did; and she loved me simply because I was.
Happy Mother’s Day.