My mom died when I was 26 and she was 58. I loved her more than anyone in the universe, and I was devastated. She didn’t want a funeral, but did want a wake, so we had an afternoon party at my dad’s house. I remember standing in the kitchen, eating a tortilla chip that broke and fell into my blouse. I looked inside my blouse, found the chip lodged in my bra, and pulled it out and ate it. I then realized a friend standing on the other side of the counter saw me do it, and we laughed. Until that moment I had no idea I was capable of anything other than confusion and fear and unrelenting waves of I-will-never-see-my-mom-again grief.
When I was 44, I was sitting on the floor in my dad’s house—just steps away from where the tortilla chip incident occurred—with my dad’s ashes and my brother’s ashes in front of me. My friend Rebekah sat on the bottom step of the stairs. Together, we swathed my dad’s urn and my brother’s green cardboard box in bubble-wrap so they could be mailed to my home a thousand miles away.
My whole family was dead. I had to clean out our family home in four days, before it went into foreclosure and was auctioned off by the city. I thought of a time when we were 16 and my dad and brother were out of town on a business trip. Rebekah and I were upstairs, in my dad’s bedroom, watching our pupils in the mirror to see if we could notice them dilate (oh, did I mention we were stoned?). The doorbell rang, so we started downstairs. We both stopped on the stairs. We could see my dad and brother standing outside. They had come back from their trip early, but because we had the chain lock on the door, they couldn’t get in.
“Hold on!” I called, while Rebekah ran back to my dad’s bedroom to hide the bong.
I let them in. “We got finished with our business early,” my dad said.
Don’t act high, don’t act high. “It’s great to see you!” I said, probably with too much enthusiasm. “You’re going to have to give us a little time to clean up your bedroom, though. We have our stuff all over it.”
“Sure, no problem,” my dad said cheerfully, and sat at the kitchen table reading his mail.
I raced upstairs to my dad’s bedroom. Rebekah had opened the windows and was walking around waving her hands through the air like a spastic magician. This is what we spent the next twenty minutes doing, walking around waving our hands, until we were convinced my dad’s bedroom was pot-free.
Twenty-eight years later, we’re sitting at the bottom of those stairs, wrapping my dad and brother’s ashes in bubble wrap. I started laughing. “Of all the times we’ve been in this house together, I don’t think we could have ever predicted doing this.”
“I know, right?” Rebekah said and cracked up, too. I know she remembers every single goofy incident (parties and boys and school truancy and tons of laughter) that ever occurred in the house since we were kids.
Right that minute, her husband walked in the front door. “What’s so funny?”
“These are my dad’s ashes!” I hooted, pointing to the blob of bubble wrap.
As I’m telling this story, I have no sense if you are laughing, too. Or if you’re mortified (so to speak). That uncertainty is one reason I think death writing is so consistently bleak. We are afraid of how it will be taken, of how we will be perceived if we ever insist there is anything funny hiding inside the devastation. We worry it will seem disrespectful.
Of course death, itself, is rarely funny. One of the stories in my new collection, Baby’s On Fire, features a recovering addict whose father was killed when a coconut fell off a tree and hit him on the head. The narrator knew it was the stuff of cartoons and he watched as people tried to muffle their guffaws when he told them the story. But his grief, his loss, was quite serious.
On the other hand, when my mother-in-law told me and my husband how her 94-year-old father died, we laughed our asses off. He had been given dire medical news predicting he would never walk again, so he stopped eating and drinking. My mother-in-law, Gaynl, was asleep in her parents’ guestroom when her mother woke her up and told her he was gone. Gaynl fully expected to see her father lying in bed, under the covers, lifeless. A body, but no longer a soul. But when she walked into his bedroom, she found him standing upright. He had somehow gotten out of bed, was walking towards something, and then just stopped. Permanently. Well, if that isn’t weird enough, Gaynl’s mother said it just wouldn’t be proper for him to be standing there like that when the folks from the funeral home arrived. So Gaynl had to wrestle the body of her dead dad back into bed and arrange him so he looked like he’d gone peacefully in his sleep.
Of course, a lot of what makes this story funny (to me and to Gaynl and to my husband, at least) is the context. This probably wouldn’t be remotely hilarious if it had happened to a child, or someone else who hadn’t engineered their own dignified death. And the fact that Gaynl’s mother was so concerned about propriety at such a time added to the ridiculousness. But it points to how irrational people get when someone dies (grief being a form of insanity, and all), and that can create some downright silly circumstances.
Also, people—when they are alive—are wonderfully, freakishly weird, and whether that weirdness is discovered for the first time, or it just gets made bigger and brighter when they die, it can be pretty comical. I mean, you tell me: How should I have reacted when, while cleaning out my dad’s closet after my whole family was dead, a friend ran across my dad’s penis pump? Yep, those two phrases—“my whole family was dead” and “penis pump”—were just in the same sentence.
We suck at death in our culture; that’s not exactly breaking news. We don’t talk about it often, and when we do it’s in whispered euphemisms. Despite its constant inevitability, we are nonetheless surprised when it happens.
We are always surprised by how it feels.
That’s the writer’s job – to illuminate the aspects of the human condition that surprise us. That grab at our hearts. That make our breath rush away from us. It’s a writer’s job to unveil the human experience as fully and unflinchingly as possible. To see and hear and feel the details that surprise us about life and about death.
Let me be clear: I am not saying that writers should add humor to their grief writing simply to make it easier on the reader or to sell more books. I’m not claiming that “Laugh Your Ass Off” should be added to Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s famous Five Stages of Grief. After my family died, friends would make well-meaning suggestions like “You should watch Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog! It’ll cheer you up.”
The thing was, it wouldn’t. There were times when the aftermath felt so bleak that I knew I wouldn’t be able to crack a smile at something others found utterly hilarious, and that would leave me feeling even more desolate. The kind of humor I’m talking about happens organically. That’s the beauty of it—we don’t make it happen. And after something sad that we had no control over happens, there’s something magical about something enjoyable happening that we had no control over, too.
I’ve been writing about those small magics ever since my mom died—in my stories, in my essays, in my memoir. I do worry that parts of my memoir are “unrelentingly bleak.” I assume no one will want to read about how painful it was to watch my dad and brother descend so quickly into mental illness and addiction that I could not help them and they could not survive.
I am aware that the “funny parts” don’t happen until after they die. It wasn’t until then that I was able to experience a release. Notice I say “release” – not relief. It’s different. It’s not Whew—things are finally better! It is the clutch of the inevitable momentarily liberating you from fear and uncertainty and “Ohmygod, I can’t handle this anymore.” It’s your muscles releasing their death-grip on your weary spine—even if for only a moment. It’s an unbridled laugh bursting from your lungs.
Whether you are a writer or a reader, rejoice in those small breaks from the pain, because that is what keeps us alive. And come on, is there any other way to respond to finding your father’s penis pump?
Liz Prato’s short story collection, Baby’s On Fire, is forthcoming from Press 53 in May. Her work has appeared in over two dozen literary journals and magazines, and she edited the anthology The Night, and the Rain, and the River (Forest Avenue Press, 2014). Excerpts of her recently completed memoir have been published by The Rumpus, Subtropics, Summerset Review, and Nailed. She lives in Portland with her husband, a bookseller, musician and writer, and their furry feline friends. http://www.lizprato.com