Laughter in the Midst of Grief

Few people understood humor better than Mark Twain, who is said to have remarked, “The source of all humor is not laughter, but sorrow.”

I know that to be true.

Thinking on his quote, I recall a long, long day spent with friends helping one of our number pack her possessions for a cross-country move. Late afternoon found two of us, tired to the bone, but working steadily away in the kitchen.  We both sat on the floor, wrapping breakable items and putting them into boxes.  We had finished kitchenware from nearly all the drawers and cabinets when one further drawer, suddenly visible from our position on the linoleum, caught my friend’s eye.  As I was closest, she asked me to see what we had missed.  I rose to my knees to open the drawer, but it was stuck.  I tugged a bit, and then a bit more, and finally gave one walloping giant yank to the handle…which came right off in my hand, sending me tumbling backwards to the floor.

It was a false drawer.

I lay there on the floor, waving the broken handle above me, completely helpless with laughter, my bones seeming to have dissolved to jellyfish, while my partner in crime laughed until tears streaked down her face. After several minutes of hilarity, we finally composed ourselves and went on a secret mission to hunt down some glue and put the handle back in place—a undertaking that induced another round of stealthy, hysterical laughter.

Not exactly sorrow, that event, but certainly sheer slapstick comedy, accompanied by utter, laugh-until-you-ache hysterics. Later, driving home from that tiring day, I recalled a Dick Van Dyke routine about slapstick comedy, in which he proclaimed such base humor not to be amusing even as he stumbled about, tripping and smashing fingers and generally pretending clumsiness while the audience howled with laughter.  Why, I  wondered, was it funny, clowning about that way?  But it was, just as my misadventure with the drawer handle had been comical.

And then there was the incident with the mailbox post…  My Evil Neighbor (about whom the less said the better) was at that time the president of our condo owners association.  So when my mailbox post rotted one summer and crashed to the ground, I propped it up as best I could with bricks and waited for the association, whose responsibility it was, to make repairs.  The darned thing was so wobbly that it was only with extreme caution that I could ease it open each afternoon to retrieve my mail, fearful that it would topple over once more.  This situation went on for 18 months, as I grew increasingly irritated.  Then, late one afternoon, as I was weeding the flowerbed that surrounded the mailboxes, I reached about to lever my aging hips up from the ground, and grabbed at Evil Neighbor’s own mailbox post to balance myself.

It went crashing to the ground.

I’ve often wished I had a video of my own face at that moment! I swiftly scanned the area and saw no one watching—no cars going by in the street, no faces at windows—so I scurried hastily into my garage, hopped in the car, and got the hell outta Dodge!  I drove to my daughter’s home, wheezing with laughter, and I told her and my son-in-law the whole sorry tale, all to the accompaniment of gales of laughter.  (And, yes, both mailbox posts were repaired shortly thereafter.)

I’ve noticed that funerals and wakes are also bastions of hilarity. I experienced this for the first time when I was about 11 years old, and my grandfather died.  My Aunt Diana gathered several of us children around her in a corner of the room far from the casket, and began to tell us hilarious true stories.  Time has dimmed my memories of the tales she told us that evening; I don’t know if they were stories of my PopPop or just funny events from her own life.  What I do recall clearly, though, is the comfort  and protection that laughter provided us children as we dealt with incredible sorrow. I remember, too, the glares of disgust from our more staid and sedate relatives.  Obviously, Diana’s efforts to provide us children and herself a path out of pain were not appreciated by all. But I have thought many times since on what a kindness she did us, gifting us with laughter in the midst of grief.

I don’t really remember too many comical misadventures in my own life, aside from the incidents of the fake drawer and the mailbox post…oh, yes, and the Great Paint Can Head Splash, which is probably best saved for another blog post. Yet we rarely see ourselves as other see us. So I hope that at my own memorial service someday, there will be hilarious, comical tales told.  I hope people will smile, chuckle, and giggle at memories of my silliest moments.  For while the ancient Egyptians believed that, without a name, our soul could not survive,  I believe it cannot only be our name, for everything that we truly are resides in the glorious laughter limning others’ memories of us.

Not a Fan of Funerals

In memory of Terry Robare
Member of Many Hearts, One Spirit
Who Made Her Transition September 13, 2018

Despite having written previously about attending them (A Tale of Two Funerals, March 5, 2018), I’m not a big fan of funerals, especially as they are conducted in modern American society.  I find them macabre and disturbing.  I despise the trite comments: “He looks like he could just sit up and start talking to us”. No, he doesn’t.  He looks dead. “The flowers are just lovely.” Does no one remember that the original purpose of flowers and candles by the coffin was to hide the scent of decay?

I scorn remarks which transmute the character of the deceased into saintly values.  Few of us are without personality flaws, and being dead does not erase a lifetime of bad temperament, nor confer sainthood.  I cringe when listening to a minister who is not just a stranger to me, but who often barely knew the deceased, turn from eulogizing to proselytizing.  (“Hey! Think about it, people!  The old so-and-so is lying here dead, and your time is coming! So, hie yourself back into the fold, pronto!”)  I’ve even been heard to say that if anyone holds a funeral for me, I will most definitely come back and haunt them. I mean it, too.

No, for many reasons I despise funerals and can rarely be persuaded to attend one, except for the sake of speaking to a few of those who are grieving the most. Even then, my appearance at any funeral calling is brief.  Open or closed, I frankly avoid the casket, contenting myself with signing the guestbook, examining photos, or watching the life-video the family has put together, perhaps hoping that from these I might glean in-depth knowledge of  or at least a sense the essence of the life lived by the person who has passed.

Memorial services or  celebrations of life–those are another matter. Those I attend gladly, and come away, if saddened, also refreshed and satisfied. I happily attend Talking Stick ceremonies (blog post December 10, 2017, Another Talking Stick) and wakes, where I can hear stories about the life of the deceased–little things that I might otherwise  never have known. For the same reason, I am pleased to write eulogies: to share memories of the one who has passed.

That is, I think,  the true essence of saying farewell to someone who has made their journey to the other side of the Veil: their story. The little memories of a lifetime, well-lived or otherwise, that comprise that person.  The rounded viewpoint given to us about an individual when someone other than an immediate family member or minister speaks of them, for those individuals often tell stories only of the deceased’s legend.  I want to see beyond the legend and the myth to the reality of the human being: flawed, wondrous, judgmental, open, accepting, confused, contradictory, thoughtful–complete.

The ancient Egyptians believed that if our names were forgotten, our souls ceased to exist, and therefore (although they preserved the body, believing it would reanimate in the afterlife) did all they could to ensure that their names would be spoken and remembered. They were, in a sense, correct, for our names are the heading at the top of our story. And perhaps that is why I despise modern funerals: for it is not the body of our loved one which needs to be remembered; it is their story.

My Mother’s Talking Stick

On the evening of my mother’s memorial service, I was the only person who rose to speak of her. The sadness of that is ineffable: that no one knew her well enough, or cared enough, to speak a farewell at her passing — or perhaps that no one trusted their painful memories of Betty Jean enough to speak kindly.  Truely, as my father said to me later, all those present at her memorial were there on his behalf.  As she aged, Betty had retreated farther and farther from nearly all social interaction, until she lived primarily lying on her bed, reading and smoking alone, seeing no one, calling no friends or former coworkers, not knowing her neighbors, leaving the house only for doctor appointments.

In the days leading up to Mom’s memorial service, I struggled with what I could say about the woman who gave me life. I adhere always to the principal that it is wrong, at a funeral or memorial, to speak ill of the dead, partially because they are not there to defend themselves, but primarily because there are people present who are wrapped in grief and mourning, and who do not need or deserve the load of another’s unpleasant remarks about the person whom they loved.

But my mother had been a seriously mentally ill woman, challenging to live with and difficult to love. I racked my mind, but most of all my heart, for words that would say farewell calmly, and without condemnation.  And finally, after much soul searching, I realized that I needed to concentrate upon the rare and precious moments when the other woman – the healthy, kind, brilliant and loving woman – peeked out from behind the tormented soul.  The woman, as I thought of her, whom God had actually intended, before whatever concatenation of mental illness and painful experiences set my mother on the path to her own destruction.  And from that perspective, I found words to speak my mother’s memorial.

Although speaking in public is to me absolutely terrifying, I stood before my father’s friends and our relatives on that November evening in 2010, and spoke these words of my Mother with all the kindness and understanding possible.

“As an adult, working with the Bradshaw material, I came to have some understanding of the complex woman who was my mother, and the myriad forces that drove her.

“Also as an adult, I learned that our thoughts do not choose us; we choose our thoughts.

“And so, thinking of my mother, I choose to remember her as she was on the nights when I, as a little child, sometimes could not sleep. She would lay me on the couch beside her and read me poetry.  Not children’s poetry; beautiful, majestic works from books, and things she liked from magazines.  Poems that were far above my head, at that time, and yet,  from how well she read them, I learned the cadence and rhythm and power of the written word.

“And that is how I choose to remember my mother, Betty Jean: She read me poetry.”

It was a brief and simple speech, quickly delivered. My father wept, but no one else cried — not even I, who weep at woeful movies or sad novels or a cross word.  We were all dry-eyed.  No one else rose to speak, either, and sometimes that fact still haunts me.  One should not go down into the darkness with so few people to genuinely mourn.

There is a ceremony used in some NeoPagan communities, called A Crossing, in which a Talking Stick is passed from person to person sitting circled in a room. Each person, taking the stick, describes a pleasant memory of the one who has gone.  And if they have nothing pleasant to remember, nothing kind to say, they merely sit silent as they hold the Talking Stick.

I’ve asked that this ceremony be held for me when I leave this life. I hope that I will not have outlived all those who have known me, and that there will be more than one person to say farewell at my passing.  I hope that there will be more who wish to speak than to merely stay silent as they hold my Talking Stick.  I hope that those who are present will put aside remembered differences, and speak of only pleasant memories, at least for that brief ceremony.

There was no one but me to speak my mother’s Talking Stick. But I hope that was enough.

In Memory of Betty Jean Snoddy Gregory
1930 -2010