“Humor is the great thing, the saving thing. The minute it crops up, all our irritations and resentments slip away and a sunny spirit takes their place.” (Quote by Mark Twain)
My father lived 64 full years. That’s 768 months or 3,328 weeks or approximately 23,360 days. Almost 34 million passing minutes in which my father lived on this planet, interacting with people, including me. In all that time, I was struck by one telling moment in particular, a simple moment with a simple lesson…that humor is the saving thing and that, even in the darkest hours, a sunny spirit can take their place.
In life, my father was a matter-of-fact, live-in-the-moment type guy. He focused on what was in front of him, unaffected by the sideshow distractions that life can throw at you. Near death, he was resolute in maintaining his focus on what was in front of him…not on the cancer, not on the what-ifs, and certainly not on self-pity. He focused on family and friends…he was there for us.
The dying time is an emotional rollercoaster for family and friends. We spent our last minutes together in unscripted conversations; too afraid to confront the obvious, so we hid behind the routine. The absurdity of discussing next week’s weather was lost in our moment of communion; until our conversation was abruptly interrupted by that unfamiliar and unwelcome silence.
You can’t get back time; a moment passed is a moment lost. But you try and we did…try. “Dad, we love you…can you hear us…we love you!” In that moment, you are flooded with things you want to say; what you think you should say…another moment passes…silence and the pulse of time moves forward.
We stood around his bed…a communal assemblage of family and friends; bound together in the sharing of the moment. Breaking the silence, we continued to try…my brother repeating, “Dad, can you hear me…dad, can you hear me? Say something…”
A man can wait his entire life to have everyone’s complete attention; that one moment when there are absolutely no distractions. Everyone in that room, as my dad intended, was focused on what was in front of them. This…was…my…dad’s…moment!
“Dad, please say something…” In that moment, my father’s eyelids twitched; maybe the recognition of my brother’s voice…the light of life still burned… “Keep talking…” “Dad…Dad…Dad…say something.” We leaned forward in unison; both family and friends. The patriarch of our family, with a remaining breath…what would he say…we leaned further…and he spoke… “Something!” That was it…‘Something!’ In that moment, he spoke the word ‘Something!’ Again silence…then a nervous giggle followed by another; restrained at first, but growing into a cacophony of laughter. All our irritations and resentments slipped away and a sunny spirit took their place.
My father lived for a few more days, passing away quietly at home. In death, he continued to present us with situations in the ensuing days, which highlighted the importance of humor and laughter in the healing process. It was those moments that got us through those days.
And those days picked us; we didn’t pick them. The day we visited the cemetery to select my dad’s plot was a cold, blustery, winter day. It went without saying that, absent these unpleasant conditions (and circumstances), we would not normally be out on a day like this. It went without saying…to most people.
“What are you doing out on a day like this?!” We closed the door tightly behind us and brushed the snow from our coats. “Sorry…what?” The proprietors resembled and interacted like “Fred and Ethyl Mertz”, Lucy and Ricky Ricardo’s vitriolic neighbors on the popular 1950’s “I Love Lucy” television sitcom. The Mertz’ sat around a small wood stove situated in the center of the one room cemetery office. Steam rose from mittens, which were hung to dry over the stove. Blowing snow danced around the window, as the wind continued to howl outside. “Ethyl” repeated the question…making a special effort to enunciate each word this time, “What…are…you…doing…out…on…a…day…like…this?” Perplexed by the question, I shrugged and blurted out the only response that came to me…“My father sent us!” Another moment brought to us by my father…we laughed; Fred and Ethyl stared, unemotional. Given the nature of the job, I assumed it was their only defense. With smiles on our faces, we were, once again, able to focus on what was in front of us and move forward.
My father’s wishes were to be cremated and buried. When the day came to pick up his ashes, my brother and I drove to the funeral home to complete the arrangements. The director was an old friend of my brother and father. He greeted us at the door and escorted us to his office where we, in short order, were caught up in our common reminisces. Time passed as our conversations shifted between the past and present, stitched together by our common connection with my father. But then there was the business-at-hand; the need to focus on what was in front of us. Steadied by the talk and passage of time, my brother and I got up from our chairs, and indicated our readiness to go collect our dad’s ashes. “He’s right there.” “Sorry…what?” Pointing to a box on the desk, the director repeated, “He’s right there…he’s been there the whole time.” Another moment brought to us by my father…we laughed…all three of us, maybe four.
Notwithstanding the foregoing, the surreal nature of our responsibility did not go unnoticed. It was emphasized by the palpable silence as my brother picked up the box holding my dad’s ashes and as we, together, took the long walk to the car.
I opened the car door and my brother placed the box on the front passenger seat. As he backed away, I reached in and wrapped the seatbelt around the box and fastened the buckle. Together we took one last ride through the neighborhood, ultimately arriving at the house, which would forever be full of wonderful family memories. Sitting in the driveway on that day, we listened through the quietness of the present to hear laughter from years passed; restrained at first, but growing into a cacophony. We smiled as the front door opened, and our mom stepped out onto the porch.
In those last days of his life, my dad did have a clear-sighted conversation with my mom. In their private moment, he remarked, “You knew life would come to this…but in our life together, we did focus on the important things…to live, love and laugh.”
And we do too…thanks for the lesson, mom and dad!