When I was three my family—together in those days—went for a day at the beach. Mom stayed up by the boardwalk while my father and older brother and I went down to the water, a long walk away. It was a cold windy day and the waves were huge. For years afterwards Mom would recount how she could barely see us but she could hear my laugh booming over the roaring breakers.
My brother was the one making me laugh. Mike had found a piece of kelp about five feet long and was cracking it like a whip at the waves, yelling “Get back! Get back!” when they started to recede. It was hilarious to me to watch the waves as they seemed to obey my brother’s commands. I laugh even now, thinking of it.
Life hummed along for a few years. I was a happy child, a fierce tomboy, indomitable. Even though I was the shortest girl in my school, I ran like the wind and outraced boys, climbed trees, hit homers in street softball, caught every fly ball in the field, always won at tetherball.
The magic wore off. Mike got into drugs in his early teens and shot himself up with heroin for decades. One day he was high on smack and working with heavy machinery, and he lost his right arm. My father was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia and heavily depressed for 20 years. I formed a belief—I realize this now—that laughter was insensitive and uncaring, with poor Daddy so sick and hopeless. I imagined how it made him feel worse and felt guilty, even though he didn’t live with us anymore. So I suppressed it. But he committed suicide anyway, when he was fifty.
I started drinking in my mid-twenties. I stopped when my daughter was three and I was forty-one. I damaged relationships and not all of them were restored. Life got a lot better when I sobered up. I kept jobs, I was a safe and responsible parent to my daughter, I was just an overall better person. But I sustained painful losses. At seventy, I’m still working to heal the damaged relationship with my daughter.
I’ve had years of therapy and commitment to a spiritual program. Feelings of running like the wind, whipping the tetherball around the pole, scrambling up trees like a monkey are starting to come back to me: feelings of being exquisitely alive. I’m bouncing back, and so is my belly laugh. It’s a little rusty but still there.
Mike became clean and sober at forty. For ten years he had a good life, helping other addicts, then died of lung cancer. I don’t have him anymore to tame waves with his kelp whip and make me laugh out loud. But I have Melissa McCarthy impersonating Sean Spicer. That’s close enough.