“I’m always interested in the juxtaposition of laughter and tears, and this crisis has provided ample opportunity to explore that.” So writes Rosanne Ullman from her home near Chicago. She believes the current crisis separates into the non-stricken who can still laugh and the stricken, who probably find the humor offensive.
Comedy and tragedy have always been linked, but during a pandemic, the line between them feels more fragile than ever. Not that I can pretend to know a thing about the current reality— as old as we boomers are, this is still our very first pandemic, so there’s little frame of reference for evaluating the early months of Covid-19.
All I can do is speculate. Is it the laughter that we’ll remember when we remember the way we were? It didn’t start off all that funny, but dark humor never takes long to kick in and it emerged swiftly with Coronavirus. When death gags got old, the Twittersphere lightened up by switching the focus to home-sheltering.
“Your grandparents were called to war,” one jokester started things off. “You are asked to sit on the couch. You can do this!” Another reality check, while reminding us that Shakespeare wrote “King Lear” during the Plague, asked, “What do you have planned?” At the end of the first week, you probably saw that meme offering an apartment floor-plan sketch for possible weekend travel destinations. Next came the rollout of song parodies, from “My Corona” and “We Didn’t Start the Virus” to “Sweet Caroline: Coronavirus Edition” by Neil Diamond himself. “Then spring became the summer,” indeed.
My favorite joke had a husband and wife sheltering in adjacent rooms. The wife called out to the husband, “Do you get a shooting pain in your chest as if someone is stabbing a voodoo doll of you?”
“No,” he replied.
“How about now?” she asked.
My daughter nailed Corona humor when responding to a picture of me modeling a complicated cloth-and-tape mask my husband had fashioned for me. “Blink twice if you need help, Mom,” she texted back.
I wash the plastic that covers the store-bought chicken with soap before placing it in the refrigerator. From my car, I instruct the fish store lady to leave the bag on the sidewalk and step away from my salmon. I puzzle over the best way to disinfect the Lysol spray can. How can you help but laugh?
And so I pass most days amused. The nights, not so much. Hunkering down after dinner with TV news, I can’t escape the gravity of the mounting death count cornering the screen. I watch the video footage of chaotic hospital hallways and the interviews with stressed nurses. I see the streaming tears of grief on people who can’t even hold proper funerals for loved ones they’ve lost. So I play John Prine’s “Hello In There” and cry right along with them.
Beyond the sadness is the fear. Who’s next? Those over 65 are in the most danger. Wait, that’s me. That’s my whole generation.
We thought we’d seen everything, but this is new and I’m scared. Struggling behind my uniform of mask, goggles, and plastic gloves to connect to anything that feels normal, I’m hoping I don’t get desperate enough to have to blink twice.
Rosanne’s children’s book is “The Case of the Disappearing Kisses.”