Jimmy Kimmel, Jim Gaffigan, and Me
This week I found myself crying over two different health crises that were not my own, nor the crises of anyone I know. Instead, it was the family medical emergencies of two different 50-year-old comedians named James. I cried watching Jimmy Kimmel talk about what had happened with his newborn baby, and I cried at a picture of Jeannie Gaffigan with a tracheotomy tube coming out of her neck and her two youngest children sitting on the bed with her. Kimmel’s baby, as he explains his show’s opening monologue, was born with a heart condition, and if an observant nurse hadn’t noticed the signs, could’ve died without getting the interventions he needed to live. A Facebook post by Jim Gaffigan revealed that his wife is recovering from having a tumor surrounding her brain stem removed.
Now, to be honest, I can’t always tell the late night Jimmies apart. As a mother of four children, I do keep up with the Gaffigans, and I had seen Jim Gaffigan tweet about having to cancel shows because of “a family emergency.” They have so many kids, I figured maybe it was a broken arm or something. Now I think of those brief businesslike tweets and wonder if he thought about all capsing instead: “MY WIFE MIGHT BE DYING. THERE’S NO MORE FUNNY IN THE WORLD.”
Jimmy Kimmel shared the whole story of his son’s life being saved, along with the names of every single person who was involved—from the nurse who noticed little Billy was kinda purple to his family and the skilled neonatal cardiologist who diagnosed him, and the cardiac surgeon who operated to correct the baby's heart. Jeannie Gaffigan, who’s recovering well enough to tweet a little, thanked the people in the neurological department that saved her life. Inexplicably, I started to cry while swiping on Instagram to see all the flowers she'd been given. I’ve given birth four times, and I know I wrote the names down somewhere for at least some of my births, but I couldn’t tell you the names of the nurses in the room with me.
I often think of celebrities as people who are insulated from the hardships of life. Sure, they’re real people, but they have the money or power to control a lot of the things that I can’t manage to in my own life. Jim Gaffigan wanted to go to China and Japan because his kids were studying Mandarin and at least one loves anime, so he scheduled shows there and took his whole family with him. We can’t afford to take our family of six to visit my sister in Portland.
But watching these two-three celebrities (I don't want to minimize Jeannie’s role in Jim’s success, and I suppose I should point out that Kimmel’s wife is a writer for him, too) both share and react to medical emergencies in their families pulled on something inside of me. All Jimmy Kimmel’s humor and success couldn’t prevent his son’s being born with a heart defect. No matter how funny and lucrative the jokes Jim and Jeannie Gaffigan write together, or how they are able to run their lives so they can achieve their career goals and spend time with their children while traveling the world, they can’t prevent her having a tumor needing a nine hour urgent surgery to remove it. In so many ways, we are all at the mercy of our cells’ DNA, that they will read it and execute it properly, celebrities and us more mundane folks alike.
I am a stay-at-home mom with four kids. My husband is a pastor, not a comedian, but we all trek to the car together to see daddy at work. I make sure everyone is buckled. We get out and they run down the sidewalk to the church door. Lately I’ve been struggling with anxiety as I watch them run. Slow down! Don’t run that fast on the pavement! Bad things can happen to you! Please don't break anything! I’m almost dizzy watching them. They almost never fall.
As the celebrities share their families’ stories, events that the children in the families will certainly refer back to again and again as they process events and continue to build their family mythology, I'm thankful for their willingness to share it with the greater world.
I am not rejoicing in the trials of famous people, but I can't say I'm not glad to know about them. I don't want to consume the pain and fear of either family for my own growth.
But in a good way, I’m humbled. Their thankfulness, their ability to share with the wide world their own vulnerabilities—their dependence on other people, on doctors and nurses and family and friends—just floors me. Maybe celebrities can't prevent medical emergencies, but they could've kept their stories private or reveal as little as possible. Instead, they chose to share, to thank, and in Kimmel’s case, ask us all to remember those less fortunate. And me? I'm forced to question if I'm staying grateful for the people who help my family now, if I'm willing to clamber into a foothold of the uncomfortable truth that gratitude implies a need fulfilled, if I can accept that inadequacies make us human, not failures.
I think of Jimmy Kimmel’s tears and Jeannie Gaffigan’s children using a toy stethoscope on her, while the all-too-real IV bag hangs on a hook in the foreground, and I want, at least, to try. I will stick extra large bandaids and some triple antibiotic ointment in my purse, open my eyes, and fight the dizziness to watch my three-year-old’s joy as she runs across the pavement.