Monday, October 16, 2006

Dark, dark humor

Oh, dark indeed

How does one describe laughing in the face of certain death? People do it, you know. In fact, I know a person like that. She has been worried that her death will inconvenience people. Despite having been sentenced to an untimely end by a diagnosis of inoperable cancer, she kept trying to make things work out for the best.

That's how some people are: They find reserves of strength and courage that enable them to elevate concern for their loved ones over their personal worries. My friend fretted that she would outlive her husband's emergency family leave from his job, putting him in the difficult situation of choosing between continued employment and continuing the spousal bedside vigil. She wanted to spare him that.
The Collector: Bring out your dead!
Large Man: [carrying body] Here's one.
The Collector: That'll be nine pence.
The “Dead” Body: I'm not dead.
The Collector: What?
She worried that her son would have to leave for college before her illness ran its course, distracting him from his studies and preventing him from coming to terms with her passing. Apparently it would have been ideal if she had died during the summer, with a nice memorial ceremony, some hugging and crying, and then life going on for the survivors. Yes. Neat and tidy.

But she hung on, exceeding every negative prognosis and establishing herself as an exceptionally long-term survivor of her fatal condition. She even survived the withdrawal of chemotherapy, once the doctors decided it was no longer doing her any good.
The Collector: What?
Large Man: Nothing. There's your nine pence.
The “Dead” Body: I'm not dead!
The Collector: ’Ere, he says he's not dead.
Large Man: Yes, he is!
The “Dead” Body: I'm not!
Clinging to life and mocking death had become a running gag. She knew that her friends would screw up their courage to the sticking point each time they visited her. Each of us hoped to acquit ourselves well, conducting ourselves politely, refraining from saccharine platitudes, and offering good company and gentle diversion. The patient didn't always cooperate, preferring instead to crack ribald jokes, but she was just being herself. I'm sure she knew that many of us would breathe a sigh of relief once we slipped out the door after a “successful” visit. Each visit, of course, was likely to be the last.
The Collector: He isn't.
Large Man: Well, he will be soon. He's very ill.
The “Dead” Body: I'm getting better!
Large Man: No, you're not! You'll be stone dead in a moment.
The Collector: Well, I can't take him like that. It's against regulations.
The “Dead” Body: I don't want to go on the cart.
Large Man: Oh, don't be such a baby!
The Collector: I can't take him.
The “Dead” Body: I feel fine!
Yet she hung on, alternately fading and rallying, and we steeled ourselves for more “last” visits. If she could endure, how cowardly would we have to be not to pitch in and travel the path with her as far as she could go?
Large Man: Oh, do me a favor.
The Collector: I can't!
Large Man: Well, can you hang around for a couple of minutes? He won't be long.
The Collector: I promised I'd be at the Robinsons'. They've lost nine today.
Large Man: Well, when's your next round?
The Collector: Thursday.
Summer came and went. Fall arrived. The son went off to college. The husband went back to work, his vigil taken over during business hours by a rotating roster of family members and in-laws. The invalid's colleagues kept visiting and calling. Sometimes she turned us away because she was too weak for company, but other days she swapped stories and told jokes like old times.
The “Dead” Body: I think I'll go for a walk.
Large Man: You're not fooling anyone, you know. [To the collector] Isn't there anything you could do?
The “Dead” Body: I feel happy! I feel happy!
[The Collector glances up and down the street furtively, then silences the “Dead” Body with a quick whack of his club.]
Large Man: Ah, thank you very much!
The Collector: Not at all. See you on Thursday.
Large Man: Right.
Friends and family have now had more than a year of marveling at her strength and endurance. And all during that amazing time of pain and acute suffering, her first thoughts were always for her loved ones. Day in and day out, she worried about her friends and family.

Her worrying is done.

We'll laugh later. Because right now it's time for the dark.



Anonymous said...

I keep trying ways to say how much I appreciated that don't sound like I'm ignoring the sadness of your friend's death, but I just can't find the right tone of somber regard. Still, I appreciated this, and I am sorry for your loss.

-- xn

Unknown said...

My grandmother died in about 6 months, with only the last two or so really bad. She had in-home hospice and family with her all the time.

As awful as that was for us, I think we all agree that hiding our grief to be with her during her last months has paid off in the lack of feelings of guilt for not being there, and in the comfort at being a comfort.

My uncle, her son, died similarly several years later. I feel worse about his death because I was all the way across the continent and couldn't be there to help comfort him.