Dying of Laughter: How David Sedaris Brought My Family Closer Together
It was 2004 the first time I heard the name David Sedaris. My earliest memory of reading Naked was in a crowded hospital waiting room. I had an appointment with the ENT, who was about to slide a camera down my nose and into my throat — hardly an amusing experience. Yet there I was, laughing so hard I had to cross my legs to keep from wetting my pants.
That was just the first time Sedaris’ work helped me through hard times. I was undergoing fertility treatment and feeling discouraged. His books were meant to be a surefire way to make me laugh, and they did. As soon as I finished Naked, I picked up Me Talk Pretty One Day. By then I knew he was too good to keep to myself. I sent copies to both my brothers and my mom. Not my sister or father, they don’t share the same sense of humour. One brother, Brian, called me and said, “Nope. Not my thing. Too sad and dysfunctional.”
Huh, I thought. Who’s he?
David Sedaris became part of the family. My brother Michael, my mother, and I would trade stories of his around the table like he was one of us. Sometimes, at religious events something would trigger a reference to him and the three of us would burst out laughing — often inappropriately.
All the while, I kept reading. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim and When You Are Engulfed in Flames were two of my favourites. Then I discovered he was coming to Montreal in the spring of 2011. I got tickets as a birthday gift for my mother, and my brother and father joined us. My father wasn’t particularly a fan, but he’d rather sit through something he doesn’t enjoy than be left out.
The evening didn’t disappoint. Sedaris was funny and charming, and it was a relief to have an idol live up to, and even surpass, my expectations. He did a book signing, and when our turn came, he took the time to tell us a couple of jokes and asked for a couple in return. When he found out about my mom’s birthday, he put together an assortment of hotel toiletries and presented them to her as a gift. She still has them to this day.
Flash forward eight years to February 2019. Once again, I’m sitting in a hospital waiting room. This time, I’m waiting for the CT Scan that will confirm the stage IV ovarian cancer we suspect my mother has. This time, I’m clutching my signed copy of Me Talk Pretty One Day, desperately searching its pages for words that will make me laugh.
Several months later, during chemo treatments, I brought that same book along with me. Sometimes, just when the Benadryl takes effect and she’s getting a little loopy, I read a few pages to my mom. Maximum laughs.
By April, I was feeling completely helpless to do anything more for her. I sat down and wrote a letter to my idol. I explained our history with his words, how his books made us laugh and brought us closer. How my mother treasured his toiletries. I wrote him of her cancer, and how I was doing everything I could to keep her laughing. I told him that she hadn’t yet read Calypso. I asked him if he’d consider sending her a signed copy, that I’d be happy to pay him for it. I mailed the letter to his publisher and forgot about it.
Life carried on. We went from treatment to treatment, to surgery to recovery, to treatment again. Somewhere along the line, things went downhill, and my mom ended up in the hospital after each round of chemo with a high fever and low platelets. I downloaded Calypso and once again scoured its pages for laughs. And while I appreciated the depth of the essays, those tension-relieving laughs I was searching for were nowhere to be found. But something else was.
In one essay, Sedaris writes about a neighbourhood fox and how one night a week, he moves his desk outdoors and spends the entire night answering mail, waiting for her to appear. Huh, I thought. Maybe I’ve got a chance. I hadn’t thought about the letter in months, and then promptly forgot about it once again.
Then, in late August, I went away for a week on a family vacation. When we got home, I saw a small package in the pile of mail. I picked it up and almost fainted. It was addressed to me, from David Sedaris. It was postmarked Emerald Isle. He mailed it. Himself. While on family vacation. He spent $17.25 to mail me a book. This, for some reason, impressed me more than anything else.
I didn’t even open the package. I flew out the door, into the car, and drove to my mother’s house. I thought about how amazing it was that once again, he surpassed my expectations. Not only did he reply to my letter, he spent $17.25 to mail us a book. This was a true mensch.
When I arrived at my mom’s, I breathlessly explained to her about the feelings of helplessness, the letter, and the package I held in my hands. She smiled and said, “How could you feel helpless? You’ve done everything for me.”
But I could see she was thrilled. I handed her the package and she tore it open. Sure enough, there was a copy of Calypso, with a letter tucked in between the pages. My mother pulled it out and unfolded it. It was the letter I’d sent him, and on the bottom, he’d scrawled, Julie, you forgot to tell me your mother’s name.
My mom opened the book, flipping to the title page, where he’d written, Dear _________, Your daughter owes me. Signed, David Sedaris.
“This makes it such a better story,” my mother said.
We looked at each other and laughed.