In Praise of Laughing at Inappropriate Times
The first Mother's Day after Andrew died, my friend Sandy presented me with a gift in the church parking lot: the book Bossypants by comedian Tina Fey. I'm not a big reader, which Sandy knew. But at her house a few months prior, I'd guffawed so loudly just reading the jacket cover that she bought the book for me. Upon getting home I dug right in. When my darling offspring asked what I wanted for Mother's Day, I said that I wished to curl up on our living room couch and read this book as they played upstairs, a wish they miraculously obliged. I finished the book within 24 hours.
Bossypants is a memoir about Tina's work in comedy, her childhood with its dysfunctions and glorious points, and her reflections on entering middle age. It's at times corny, endearing and impressive. An endorsement on the back cover comes from trees, saying their sacrifice for the book was "totally worth it." Pondering turning forty, Fey sets you up for deep insights—only to say she now likes to change her pants right after work (which I've found eerily true for me as well). Tina Fey is not for everyone, but she struck my funny bone in a big way.
And that is why, on the first Mother's Day without Andrew, I managed to actually have a good day. Tina Fey didn't just shower some relief into my spells of pain. She helped me release all my tension about how ridiculous life can be.
Take the day just before Andrew died. I went, not knowing it would be his very last afternoon, with my friend Grace to purchase a grave plot for him. She had researched possibilities and had emerged with this summary: Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge apparently equaled Cadillac, and Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain, Camry. We chose the Camry, not only because it fit our flavor a bit more, but also because of geographic proximity to our lives (one of the boys' regular baseball fields was just a stone's throw away).
Lots of things happened that day that cracked me up, though nothing about it was lighthearted. As we arrived, the gateway reminded me of Disneyland's Haunted Mansion. It was an exaggerated message in bricks and stones that shouted, "Someone in your life has died!" It was a surprise that cemetery architecture resembled, well, a cemetery. (Was I expecting something more like Target? Or a gingerbread house? Dunno.) And then, as we parked, I kid you not, the sky turned from partly cloudy to dark and stormy. Rain started coming down at a steady beat, whereas ten minutes earlier I'd left the house in flip-flops.
Into the main building we went, to be greeted by a woman I swear was named something like Tabitha or Millicent. She was dressed all in black, wore spectacles, had a kindly wan smile, and shuffled around her office in tall black boots. Completing her outfit (I noticed as we exited to take our gravesite tour) was a black umbrella she grabbed from its stand. Outside her skin appeared some tint of gray. Was she for real?
We boarded the cemetery van—Tabitha, Grace, and I. She drove us around the historical section first, pointing out famous people's plots such as poet e.e. cummings (which led me to ponder how much of my high school literary education I'd ignored, and how illiterate I actually was). For a high price, interested families could purchase a plot or two near the VIPs. (Squeezed in between writer Ralph Waldo Emerson and a founder of the American Revolution, ladies and gentlemen, we have local lover of mushroom omelets, Andrew Snekvik!)
Sensing my lack of buying power (I can't imagine why, given my glamorous, flip-flopped attire), Gray-Skinned Gentlewoman quickly drove us round to the modern section. Here, she said, were newly created areas for purchase, with lots of availability. There were diverse options—single plot, double side-by-sides, and bunk-bed style (described as "double deep," which reminded me of scoops of ice cream). The map we'd looked at back in the office demarcated areas such as the "Garden of Everlasting Love"—which appeared to be an all-Asian neighborhood with great feng-shui due to the positioning of the gravestones vis-a-vis the sun.
Next was the "Garden of Meditation." That felt Andrew-y to me in name at least. We stopped the van and got out. By this time, the temperature had dropped quite a bit and I was shivering even with arms crossed. We strode around and considered Tabitha's next presentation. "Over here, we have a corner plot that is along the hedge line . . ." Her voice trailed off as she considered my slight frown.
Shuffle, shuffle went her boots over a few feet. "Then, we have this open area which has very few burial sites purchased still . . ."
What's over there off to the side, under the row of pine trees? Are those plots for the introverts?
Tabitha laughed nervously at my joke and explained that indeed, there were spaces available under the pine trees. Their price was reduced compared with other spaces in the main part of the section.
Plots for sale! You just have to promise not to talk too much.
This got slightly awkward smiles from my friend and Tabitha both.
We all stood there with the rain coming down as I looked at a small, newly planted tree. It was along an open grassy strip that apparently would remain a grass walkway and had only two plots taken in that exact line. Across the hallway was a plot for a young man who'd died in the late 80s. A couple spaces down was an older Chinese gentleman with his wife's name already carved in the stone next to his. A Greek man down the lane rounded out the picture. Nice sounding bunch.
We'll take it.
One bunk bed plot—single breadth, double deep, with whipped cream and chocolate sauce on top.
What followed was a series of papers to sign, which went pretty quick actually. One big fat check later, Grace drove me home and I walked upstairs with brochure in hand. I whispered to Andrew something like, "Hey honey, we bought ourselves some new real estate at Forest Hills today." About 17 hours later, he died.
By cracking jokes about the experience of plot-buying for my husband, I don't mean to make light of the darkness of the day. The further I get from it, the more horrible it is to look back on the week of his death. Andrew's suffering was what it was—a terrible case of destruction and unremitting loss that was both unfair and evil. Cancer is always offensive. But something about the fact that life was so terribly wrong at that moment caused me to think and feel how fundamentally ridiculous life can be at most moments. And so, even in the face of offensive cancer and death, I found it funny that the woman who sold us the cemetery property wore all black and looked like she'd been living in a tomb for a century or so.
I might be a nut case or too irreverent. But it comforts me that others who've gone through (or are still going through) tough times approach suffering with a similar sense of humor. I was driving in Boston today and heard Tom Ashbrook welcome Will Somebody or Other onto NPR. In the fall of 2011, Will moved to join the faculty in the filmmaking department at the University in Montana. What felt initially like a leg cramp upon his arrival to town turned out to be an all-organ Strep A infection that necessitated quadruple amputations, leaving him limbless in a wheelchair for life.
Will was invited onto the radio because at the American Disability Association's big anniversary celebration he had appeared as one of the prime entertainment acts. Will had since become a professional comedian, telling funny stories of his loss to audiences both disabled and "normal." He's poked fun at everything related to being a quadruple amputee: from the gift of finally breaking his bad habit of biting his nails to not needing to wash his hands after peeing any longer. Will has shared the stage with comedians with Asperger's and ADHD and other disabilities. Will said that even before turning to comedy as a job, he found humor so helpful in combating depression and processing his loss that his friends encouraged him to pursue the stage. In the NPR interview, Will explained his entree into comedy with something like this: "It's up to those with these traumatic stories to tell their story, even with humor, because we're the ones who best understand all facets of the experience."
When he said that, I burst into tears. Why not poke fun at loss, and all its ridiculousness, when it helps us let out the tension we hold so much of the time? And why not let other people into our world and our lives by breaking the awkward silence others can feel when they wish to help and fear offending us? I find, as Will seems to have found, that being able to talk and joke about hard things with others creates camaraderie and breeds understanding and support—both among those who share similar stories and with friends and family who want to connect from their different experiences.
That said, humor can go more or less smoothly for those on the receiving end of it. Shortly after he died, I joked with friends that I was considering blowing up a portrait of Andrew to a 30 by 40 inch portrait for our entryway, as Chinese people like me customarily do. The only thing blocking me was that this is typically done for the woman of the home, not the man. So really I should put up a huge portrait of myself. But that would force my kids into a weird new reality. Not only did they lose their dad, but now, in addition to having to deal with only their mother every day, they would have to stare at a larger-than-life reproduction of her face in the hallway.
And that would be really unfortunate, because they already lost their nice parent.
My awesome, loving friends stood there on the soccer field staring at me while I went off on this. Their smiles were sympathetic, but they didn't say anything in response to my joking-ranting, but oh well. It was funny to me then, as it is now. And that's an important piece of the puzzle.
Using elementary-school-playground logic, I say if something makes you laugh, and it doesn't hurt someone else or yourself, go for it. Don't treat pain as too sacred, like you have to whisper in its company. When he was sick Andrew joked, too—about his terrible constipation and his restrictions on beer consumption and his obsession with making the perfect healthy cookie. He'd taste his creations each time, and then make the "Eh, it'll work, but let’s please not call it dessert" face or the "Gross, I'll try again" face. When laughter between us hinted at tears, we were also pretty quick to shift gears and allow the moment to become whatever it needed to. So weeping and wailing had their turns at the wheel. Sometimes I think humor was the best onramp to grief. Emotions get all intertwined like the ribbons in Aquafresh toothpaste. Through reading this, that, and the other thing The Grief Experts with letters after their names have written, I’ve found they agree with me. No doubt, some of my friends are offended by dark humor, and those of us who grieve absolutely have a love/hate relationship with “the right ways to grieve.” We can feel judged. But maybe the experts are right and there is no real timeline, no real pattern, and laughter is just what it is.
Given that, I'll take another dozen copies of Bossypants, please.