Some of my funniest stories don’t necessarily begin that way, and they may not end that way.
I explain gallows humor in that article so I won’t go over it again here, but in a nutshell, it’s finding something unendingly hilarious in otherwise horrible circumstances, things where there really shouldn’t be any humor at all. It’s a survival technique, generally.
For example, this story begins…
So we went to pick up my dad’s ashes.
My sister, brother, uncle, and aunt went to the funeral home to pick up my dad’s ashes.
Everyone grieves differently, sometimes from moment to moment. My sister was not in a good place at this point, and I was in full disassociation mode.
Full disclosure – I loathe the funeral industry. I have nothing but contempt for the business that takes advantage of people while they are in the darkest place of their lives to sell them caskets that cost thousands of dollars that they may have to take out a loan to afford. There is no reason and no excuse beyond predatory capitalism.
It is with that frame of mind that I walked in and immediately my mind went sproing. It looked like Barbara Cartland barfed on Laura Ashley, accompanied by the dulcet tones of music that made Yanni sound edgy.
The overstuffed furniture and pillows, the pink and green throw rugs and flower patterned curtains with puffy valances, which looked like a Jiffy Pop dome covered in 1950s wallpaper.
Already, I was stifling giggles. It was just so very aggressively absurd.
When we were called into the salesman’s office, my sister and I sat at the desk and everyone else crowded around us. My husband sat next to me, which ended up being a very good thing.
Before we started choosing the headstone, when the salesman began to speak, I started to lose any semblance of control. He spoke in this near-whisper, so-very-sincere it practically oozed concern, the kind of voice one practices with a tape recorder to make sure it is just the right mixture of concern and sincerity. It caused me physical pain trying to keep it together. Then he poked the proverbial needle into my composure balloon.
He said the word “cremains.”
I had never heard that word before, and it was without question, the funniest thing I had heard ever. Then he said it again. And again, with that soothing voice right out of central casting, surrounded by tiny roses that I swear were mocking me, pointing at me with their thorny rose arms chanting “Haha! You’re trapped!”
My eyes started to fill with tears. I reached for Chris with my left hand, while my right hand snatched about seven tissues which I shoved against my face and just, lost it. I shook with laughter, my whole body lurching up and down and a sound I can only describe as the squeeeeeaaak a straw makes if you pull it slowly out of a plastic lid. Luckily, everyone interpreted this as weeping, except for Chris who has met me.
In the end, we did what we needed to do, and the salesman handed my dad’s “cremains” to us. Nothing about that was funny.
All of this is taboo. We have so many around death, but they are things we should be talking about because I know that they can eat at a person, the guilt behind it.
My dad had prostate cancer. The doctors didn’t catch it until it was far too late. He lived the best he could during his final years, but ultimately spent the last six months of his life in a hospice.
During this time, Chris and I drove to see him every day. We left San Francisco for Fremont, about an hour and a half drive, at 4:30 during rush hour. We did this every day for months.
After a while, I found myself grousing about this obligation. It became an inconvenience, we had to leave work early, traffic is a nightmare, and so on. Dad did not ask us to do that, it was what I wanted. But after a while, it became a burden.
When I caught myself thinking that, frowning as we headed to the car, my heart sunk. How many times did he drop everything to be there for me? How many sacrifices did he make to see me grow up? I felt terrible.
I got the call from my sister. We went to the hospice to say goodbye and have an impromptu wake, and I saw my dad lying there, no longer my dad but looked like him. We shared our memories and cried with the staff (dad was a charmer, everyone there loved him) and we went our separate ways to grieve.
The next day, at 4:30, a thought entered my head. I don’t have to go to Fremont. We don’t have to make the hour-long drive during rush hour. We don’t have to do that anymore.
And when I caught myself thinking that, my heart sank.
I was relieved.
I was not relived my dad was gone, that I would never see him again. I was relieved that my life could slowly return to normal. That I could finish my work day, come home at a reasonable hour, have a relaxing evening with Chris, plan for Saturday.
I wasn’t relieved that my dad was dead, I was happy that I was alive.
He was in terrible pain, bedridden, couldn’t eat, couldn’t do anything he loved. He didn’t want to live that way, not even in a hospice with its own very good dog.
He was an active person, he belonged to so many clubs, this was not life for him. He was just waiting. I know this for a fact.
Shortly before he died, dad asked me if I would interpret a dream for him. He had never done something like that before, a WWII veteran, he wasn’t touchy-feely. He started to speak very quietly.
“I am in an elevator, but it goes all sorts of ways, up and down, sideways. The doors open but I don’t get out. I want to get out, but it’s not the right floor. So it gets to the top floor, the doors open, and there is such a light in the room. I want to get out, but I’m scared. What do you think it means?”
His voice started to tremble slightly at the end, and when he asked the question, he lowered his head, looked over his glasses with raised, fearful eyebrows. He knew exactly what it meant, but he wanted to hear it.
“Why don’t you want to get out? That room sounds nice.”
“I’m scared. I don’t know what will happen.”
“If it feels warm and nice, maybe that’s a good place for you. A safe place.”
He stared at me for a moment, and then nodded and turned his head.
A few days later he was gone.
He had checked in with each of us. He wanted to know that we would all be ok, and he wanted us to know that he valued what we are. My brother was an electronic wizard, my sister was levelheaded and dependable, I was the touchy-feely arty person who interprets dreams.
I loved him, I didn’t want him to leave. But he was in terrible pain, and he wanted to go. I know that for a fact. The elevator dream was not exactly ambiguous.
It’s not bad to want one’s life back. He would not have been happy if we had stopped enjoying the life that we have.
In the end, my dad valued my strangely wired brain. I believe completely that he would have been as disgusted by the funeral home as I was, and I would have caught his eye, pointed to the plug-in air fresheners that smell of chemical roses, and he would be giggling as much as I.
So please, be as kind and gentle with yourself as you are with your loved one. Call on whatever it is that gives you comfort, however you cope. You do not disrespect them by living a good life, you honor their memory.
My dad found his peace finally in his Christian faith.
My uncle asked him what he wanted to pray about. He replied in an uncharacteristically quiet voice.
“Give me the grace to die.”