Some people are naturally funny and good storytellers. I wish I were one of them. I have to speak in public often, and at times I have no choice but to wing it. I’m not funny or especially quick-witted, though. So when I’m called on to speak extemporaneously, it’s a bit scary. I launch into sentences like a man walking down a blind alley, not knowing quite how he’ll get out the other end.
Usually it works out. But the other day I drew a blank. I was trying to remember the name of a historian (Michael Burleigh, as it turns out) whose book I wanted to recommend. I ended up blowing my cheeks out like a goldfish out of water.
My first thought was that I looked like a dummy. My second thought — a much scarier one — was that maybe I was losing my fastball the same way my mother did.
Over the last 10 years of her life, Mom remained mentally keen, but she gradually lost the ability to speak. At first, her brain’s proper noun file seemed to fail. Then, it was more common words.
For a few years, she had enough residual vocabulary to substitute equivalent phrases. When that didn’t work, she could still make herself understood to us — we knew where her sentences were going and could finish them, much like smartphones do nowadays when you start typing an email or text message.
It had to be frightening for her. I remember having a talk with her one night, a few years after Dad died, about her increasing difficulty with words. I told her how much I admired her grace in the circumstances.
What she had, and I don’t, was humility. No one enjoyed laughing more than Mother did — even, or especially, when the joke was on her.
We have a famous family story about my brother’s efforts to teach her to use an answering machine. The great thing about the machine, he explained, was that even when she was home, she could let it answer, and find out who was calling. If it was one of the kids, she could pick up. If it was a salesman, she could ignore it.
My brother then said, “OK, Mom, now hang up and I’ll call you. Let it ring and the answering machine will pick up.” She agreed. They both hung up. My brother called. Mother answered, “Hello?” They both started laughing. My brother explained again, “Don’t pick up, Mom. Listen to the tape.” Mother agreed. He called again. Mother answered, “Hello?”
She wasn’t messing with him. She was just forgetting. Mother laughed so hard at her blunder that she could hardly breathe. She saw how funny her predicament was. With absolutely no sense of vanity, she could enjoy the joke as though it were on someone else.
People often try to project humility through self-deprecation — as I did at the beginning of this column. But fishing for compliments isn’t real humility. Real humility is going through life attaching no importance to oneself. The humble person can enjoy a genuine, hearty laugh at his own expense. He is not ashamed of his smallness or his shortcomings because he grasps and understands them.
Everyone can trust a person with that sort of humility, because his or her advice is entirely disinterested. Everyone feels comfortable around such a person. He is not demanding. He does not complain or seethe internally when others are inattentive to his sensibilities.
Next time I think about losing my fastball, I should wish — rather than worry — that I am becoming more like Mom.
Garvey is the president of The Catholic University of America in Washington.