Memoir

Stroke Joke

An old pervert is walking down the street with his penis hanging out. Three elderly women come down the block in the other direction. The first one has a stroke. The second one has a stroke.

The third one can’t reach.

This is the most popular joke about strokes on the internet. Dirty old men are forwarding this joke with incorrigible regularity. It is the first Google search result for “stroke joke,” and it’s ubiquitous on websites that compile jokes on different topics, where it falls between jokes about “stress” and jokes about “stupidity.”

I couldn’t repeat this joke to my family. It had the word “penis” in it. It was about old ladies rubbing penises. It felt vaguely misogynistic, since there were three ladies rubbing (or trying to rub) this one dude’s penis, and it’s not like he had made romantic overtures to them or this was some kind of adorable elderly polygamous family. It was a man’s joke, set in a man’s world, where women—even old ones, who presumably had English gardens and grandchildren and hemorrhoids—just couldn’t wait to get in on some sweet penis-stroking action.

Plus, it was a pun.

My family isn’t puritanical. They know that men have penises and sometimes women stroke them. In fact, compared to some of my friends’ parents, my parents are very liberal. My sisters and I have always been allowed to have boyfriends visiting from out of town sleep over in our bedrooms. Everyone was encouraged to get and use birth control. No one got a second glance for living with someone before marriage. If anything, my mother worried that we didn’t date enough, that we were too shy or prudish or maybe lesbians, which was fine, as long as we married nice, Jewish girls.

The lack of restrictions is probably due to the fact that my mom got married when she was only twenty. She ran off to Israel to be with my dad, who was not only eight years her senior but also foreign at the time. Her decisions, which my grandparents weren’t huge fans of (though they went along with it since it was the ’70s and there were worse drugs you could take than Orthodoxy), probably accounts for why my mom feels she can’t judge—or anyway prevent—our decisions to traipse around the planet and try on new and weird ways of being: vegan, self-hating Jew, hippie, Jewish-Palestinian dialoguer, Chabadnik, freegan, pot-smoker, climate-change denier, Catholic.

As my mother likes to say with a slightly devious laugh, their approach to parenting is “benign neglect.” Like, ha ha, we didn’t really put a lot of effort into raising our five children, but that’s okay, because none of you ended up being drug dealers. And look at us now! My sister is a doctor.

At my husband’s parents’ house, another hectic liberal Jewish venue, the rules are different, and they engage in vulgar jokes of all kinds, ones that imply incest and extramarital affairs, ones that are about people in the family, ones that make me deeply uncomfortable. It’s a different climate there. Once, my sister-in-law came downstairs to find her sister’s husband and her mother sitting next to each other on the couch reading the Sunday Times, her sister’s husband wearing only his underwear, and neither of them thinking anything of it.

Yes, the occasional sex joke, if deftly told, might merit a chuckle among the Danans. My little sister turned twenty this spring, and I congratulated her on officially never becoming a teen mom. But pretty much any joke that relies on the word “penis” is going to bomb in the Danan household.

The second Google search result for “stroke joke” is a YouTube PSA from the National Stroke Association called “Stroke Ain’t No Joke!” I was dealing with a humorless climate, a Sahara of stroke jokes. I was a hallucinating wanderer in a Gary Larson cartoon, my straggly beard nearly touching the parched desert earth, reaching out with my last strength to what I thought was a joke oasis and finding only a penis with googly eyes, and the caption, “Roy knew he simply had to bide his time.”

I did not really want the job of being comic relief when my dad had a stroke, but I had chosen the role of family jokester years earlier, and there is no switching allowed. I had chosen that role not because I desired to be a buoy of hope in the sea of life’s toughest moments, but because I was the middle child and wanted attention. I’m actually a very pessimistic and morbid person, though I try not to let my anxiety control me, since the bad things are coming no matter what I do.

My dad getting sick was one of my darkest and most poisonous fears, a fear so persistent that I don’t even like to voice it, because when you vocalize the things you are afraid of, they come true. I talked to my therapist about this, and she agrees that’s how it works.

Thirteen years ago, my dad had a heart attack and spent the night in the hospital. I was in high school, and I walked into his hospital room and started cracking jokes right and left—as a fifteen-year-old, I had a lot of material about IV fluids—and everyone was laughing along. Then, I burst into tears. So you see, I am not some kind of emotional powerhouse who views everything in life with ironic detachment. You might even call me a weenie, or some pejorative term for a vagina that I wouldn’t want to encourage by using.

We all have jobs in our family, and because there are five of us kids, our jobs are highly specialized. My oldest sister Liora’s job is to be the emotional one. It’s not that she’s incapable of keeping a clear head, it’s that she has this way of containing all of the pain of the universe in her eyes. My second oldest sister Elisheva is the level-headed sensible one. She’s a doctor, so she’s in charge of explaining the medical stuff, and she also makes the best snacks. My little brother Charles is there for heavy lifting. And my little sister Arielle is the free spirit. I know she’s not going to like that I’m summing her up by saying my little sister is this hippie who sells almond milk at the farmer’s market for a living and didn’t even go to college. But that’s what it’s like when you’re one of five. You have to fill your role. Also, it’s true. She really didn’t go to college.

So even though we are all complex adults with a variety of strengths to offer, I was in charge of jokes. Jokes are important in a crisis. I’m not sure if you’ve heard this before, but people say laughter is the best medicine. Sidenote: this is not necessarily true for stroke victims. My dad had a hemorrhagic stroke, so there was really almost no medical intervention other than physical and occupational therapy after the fact, but if someone has an ischemic stroke—a blockage—it’s very important to get them medical attention as quickly as possible. Know the signs. Stroke ain’t no joke.

I was determined to make jokes, even though what I really wanted to do was cry and binge on those mini vanilla scones from Starbucks. Two days after his stroke, the day my older sisters and I arrived, my dad was still in a pretty bad state. They’d moved him out of the ICU, but he could still barely move his right side and was extremely disoriented. Early the next morning, a speech therapist came in to assess how his language skills had been affected. Actually, it was an apprentice speech therapist, and as someone who is married to a trainee doctor, when it’s your family member that is the patient, you feel like saying, no, thank you, but you’re not learning on us. Please go practice on the disenfranchised.

So the apprentice speech therapist is tossing my dad some softballs, like this is the lightning round in a game show for preschoolers. What’s your name? What month is it? Where are you right now? My dad’s not exactly nailing every answer. He is going to those places in his brain where he expects the answer to be and finding nothing.

Then she asks him, “How many daughters do you have?” My dad thinks this one over for a while and finally comes up with: “A lot.” So the trainee speech therapist starts chuckling, and the sitter, whose job it is to make sure my dad doesn’t fall out of bed, starts giggling. And I start laughing. And then I start crying, and I have to leave the room. Because of the weenieness thing.

The next morning, my dad was in a different hospital room, which he shared with an old man. An actually old man, not old the way my dad is. Elisheva and I went to the hospital that morning together, and we sat waiting while my dad slept. He was snoring, and the guy in the next bed was snoring. My dad would snore, and then while he breathed out, the old guy would snore as he breathed in. Snore, snore. Snore, snore. It was so loud that we were amazed they didn’t wake each other. My dad was killing it, and I was having trouble coming up with anything.

I did have one good joke that week, which was this: Hey, maybe Dad is just dehydrated. Sure, it’s possible he had a debilitating stroke that paralyzed his entire right side, but could it be he just didn’t drink his eight glasses of water a day? Has anyone tried giving him coconut water? Could this be an electrolyte thing? (Thanks, I’ll be here on and off all summer.)

My husband probably had the best joke of that first week, which was that my dad should consider doing the next few months of therapy as a montage. Because, duh, that would save so much time and frustration.

At the rehab facility where my dad lived for three-and-a-half weeks, the occupational therapist suggested that, once my dad got home, if he ever wanted to get out of doing the dishes, he should make his right hand go limp, and say in a pitiful voice, “Oh, my poor hand.” We still make that joke.

Laughter is closely related to crying. By the way, this whole experience renewed my belief that the glib aphorisms I’ve heard and ignored my entire life are amazingly incisive and vital to human survival. For example: laughter is closely related to crying. Also, this too shall pass. Less than a month after my dad’s stroke, my family suffered another tragedy when a young friend died in an accident. I was complaining about what a hard time we were going through, and a friend of mine said in a completely ironic way, hey, this too shall pass, right? And it blew my mind. Like, holy fuck, that is so brilliant. This, too?! Have you told other people that? Should I tweet that?

It did pass. My dad’s health improved, little by little. He’s home; he can drive. He doesn’t need a cane, or a shower seat, or even a modified car. He does limp a little when he walks, and he still can’t use his right hand very well. His speech is close to what it was; though he sometimes forgets words in English, he can usually remember them in Hebrew. He did that before anyway, so it’s hard to know if things are really different. We actually have deeper, longer conversations than we used to. He got better. It’s a little over one year later, and those early months of his recovery are now a lot like a montage.

Laughter is closely related to crying. People standing around a stroke patient’s hospital bed are a surprisingly easy crowd. No one wants to cry because crying can go on for a long time. It might not stop, and that would be embarrassing. Laughter is this incredibly useful release. If the need to cry is like the tightening of a rubber band stretched to the point of breaking, then laughter is realizing the rubber band is actually a piece of yarn that can be endlessly loosened. If you’re, say, watching your sixty-something-year-old father learn to walk again, you will want to cry sometimes, and you will laugh at pretty much anything.

Except penis jokes. My family really hates penis jokes.

Shira Rachel Danan is a staff writer at Happy Place, the humor blog from Someecards. Her writing has appeared in The Onion, Mad Magazine, Reductress and elsewhere. A Texas native, she now lives in New York.