I am one of the lucky ones whose parents, through a combination of good genes and good living and good luck, were still around when I was in my 40s. When I thought about losing either one of them, which I did rarely and fleetingly, I pictured myself sobbing next to a hospital bed, drained faces, the gaping abyss that would come with the loss of someone who had loved me unconditionally from my first breath.
Then my dad got sick in June this year and died in July. And I realized I’d left out an important facet of the process of losing them: laughter.
Admittedly, mine is a family where a quick wit was prized and prodded to higher purpose. A sense of humor was as important growing up in my home as was the ability to work hard, tell the truth and clean the rabbit cage without being nagged to do it. I don’t believe we were special that way; the proprietary humor that can thrive between family members is part of the glue that holds tribes together. Puns didn’t fly in my family, but an ability to quote entire Monty Python sketches or long scenes from Christopher Guest movies was non-negotiable.
So I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that even if Dad got sick, his sense of humor might remain intact. In the first week after he was hospitalized, the nurses came in every hour to check on him. They’d always ask, “Are you in any pain?” And he would nod somberly and point to whichever combination of his three children were in the room, keeping worried watch, and say, “Yeah, these kids are a pain in the ass.” When the nurses gave Dad the green light to walk the floor of the hospital to get some exercise, a route that took us past people who appeared much sicker than my father, I couldn’t stifle the urge to whisper as I held his arm, “Dad, if a Hunger Games scenario breaks out on the fifth floor, you are totally winning.” We’d snicker together, but quietly, so as not to disturb the guy in the next bed who screamed “JESUS CHRIST” through the flimsy cotton curtain every few minutes.
My sister, the one who was really good at physics in high school, decided that in order to get the right angle she needed to actually climb up onto the hospital bed and straddle my father. It’s not a move taught in most nursing programs.
There were hard weeks after he was discharged and came home, under doctor’s orders, with 24-hour supervision, even though he felt relatively strong. A handyman came and installed a second handrail on the staircase that led to the second floor of my parents’ home, the place where my brother, sister and I retreated to whisper to one another about treatment options, second opinions, hospice homes. It didn’t matter what sad decisions we reached upstairs: Every single time my sister and I descended, one or both of us would grab the handrails on either side and yell, “Olympic Parallel Bars Performance!” and try to support ourselves using our questionable upper body strength to entertain whoever was sitting on the couch in the living room below.
As his physical strength declined, it became a three-person job to help move Dad—who was 6’1” and 175 pounds—comfortably and safely. At one point, my sister, my brother’s daughter and I were helping position him in his hospital bed. My sister, the one who was really good at physics in high school, decided that in order to get the right angle she needed to actually climb up onto the hospital bed and straddle my father. It’s not a move taught in most nursing programs. “Sorry, Dad,” she said cheerfully as she towered over him on the bed, “but you know we’re not professionals.”
Dad, who had mostly stopped talking by that point, nonetheless managed to say, “That’s apparent,” as her knee grazed his face.
And so it went, stretches of grief about the inevitable, impending loss of a man whom we all loved so much punctuated by life-affirming moments of laughter shared between family members and friends. It was almost as if, in those belly laughs, our bodies took in the air that the situation was slowly pushing out of us otherwise.
On Dad’s last day, the house was full—my brother and his wife, my sister and I were there, and various nieces and nephews kept showing up. At some point, it became clear that my mom, overwhelmed, needed to get out of the house for a little bit. So I offered to take her to her favorite place on earth: The Dollar Store. She loves it as much as my dad has always hated it. He was forever complaining about the “bags of crap” she brought home.
Before we left, I went to Dad’s bedside and gave him a big kiss on the cheek. “See ya, Dad, I’m taking Mom to the Dollar Store!” He was beyond responding, but I believe he could still hear me.
I didn’t expect those to be my last words to my dad. He was gone by the time we got home.
Laughter was completely absent in the hours that followed. There I was, finally looking into the abyss of a parent’s loss, that jagged and surreal feeling of someone whom you loved your whole life and who loved you just as long, having the temerity to be gone. Then came the pain of calling our two teenage daughters to tell them of their grandfather’s death. A second abyss opened, the one between their grief and my ability to comfort them. The sight of my mom and siblings and nieces and nephews suffering over Dad’s loss was a different and equally awful thing to witness. I mostly wished my husband’s plane, which was flying from California to New York, could subvert the time-space continuum so I could feel the comfort of his presence sooner.
But hours and hours later, as I lay in bed in the guest room at what was now just my mom’s house, I thought of something. “Maybe the prospect of seeing one more bag of Dollar Store crap is what finally finished him off.”
I think Dad would have laughed with me.