Of death and humor

Last Friday, the most wonderful man passed away. He was on this earth for ninety years. Almost a century! Born in a Wisconsin farm house, with nine older brothers and sisters, he road in a horse-drawn sleigh, milked cows by hand, carried in wood for the stove, pumped water instead of turning on the faucet, attended a one-room school, and listened to the radio for entertainment.

He toiled long hours on the forty-nine-acre farm when his brothers and sisters got jobs . . . got married . . . joined the priesthood . . . or became a nun. He married a city girl, my mother, in 1949, and ten years later they sold the farm and moved to a small town. He worked as a painter and held other jobs in a factory for over forty years.

I never heard him complain once.

Dad was a quiet man. I was closer to my mother growing up, so when she passed away in 2002 and he moved to California to be near us, I knew it would be a new chapter in our lives.

It turned out to be an enormous gift. I got to know him on another level. For growing up an “old school” Catholic, he never fit the stereotype. I introduced a friend of mine to him once and I later told Dad that this friend was gay.

“Poor man,” he said.

I understood Dad’s meaning. Yes, it is difficult to live as a gay man in our society of unacceptance. However, Dad accepted him and loved him as he was.

Dad’s whole being radiated love. His hugs were the best! Ask any of my friends, often the receipents of those hugs. He held on tightly, as though he were infusing you with his energy. And of course, he was. You walked away feeling loved, happy, and joyful.

Dad had the most amazing sense of humor. Dry and quickly delivered, you’d miss it if you weren’t paying attention. And his laugh! Uproarious, the kind of laugh that proclaims it a GOOD THING to laugh!

So last Friday, when the call came unexpectedly, I first denied it. “Your father just passed away,” said the nurse.

I’m so in-tune to his every need, that I expected I’d have a warning. A buzzer would certainly go off in my head, right?

“No he didn’t,” I said back at her.
Pause.
“Liz, I was there.”

Oh. Right. Reality check.

When I appeared in his room, it wasn’t a big deal to see him. After all, as a Catholic of older parents, with lots of relatives, I’ve been to my share of funerals. I’ve seen so many dead bodies by now I can’t even estimate the number.

But somehow, when that body is your own parent, it’s different. I leaned over and kissed him and smoothed his hair. It hadn’t even been an hour, and he was already cold to the touch.

My friend, Cathy, was on her way. Why not get started? I began with taking down the multitude of 90th birthday cards and pictures that adorned his walls.
When she appeared, packing up his room at the nursing home went quickly. She took out the clothes in his closet and I began folding and piling.

“Uh, Liz,” Cathy looked down at the stack of clothes. They were all on top and around Dad’s feet and legs.
“Isn’t there something terribly WRONG with this?” she said.
“You think he’d mind?” I asked.
“No.”
“What do you think he’d do?” I asked.
“Laugh,” she said.
And we did.

Writing and Reading Exercises:

Sometimes we think of reading and writing HUMOR in a category all by itself. But really, is life like that? Just a day of all humor? Isn’t life a mixture of sad, happy, funny, tragic?

As you read some of the best books, the most wonderful scenes, note the way the authors handle emotions right along with humor. Sometimes life is filled with both.

Exercise: 1. Write a moment of sadness from your life. 2. Turn this moment of sadness into a moment in fiction. 3. What kind of humor can you add to it to lighten this moment? Sometimes a light touch helps with pacing too.

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4 Responses to “Of death and humor”

  1. Karen Says:

    Thank you for sharing these wonderful memories of your father. May each of us live, laugh, love and hug in his honor…

  2. Susan Taylor Brown Says:

    Oh Liz, this is a lovely way to remember your father, with laughter.

    He would have probably thanked you for keeping his feet warm.

  3. Mary Koehler Says:

    Thank you so much, Elizabeth!

  4. Andrew Bacon Says:

    So sorry to hear about your dad, Liz. My dad’s on the edge himself right now. This is a moving post and I’m so glad he got to spend such a long life.

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