Finding the Funny, Even in Funerals

“A few years ago, when my dad was still sick and this preacher came to pray with us at the hospital, he thanked God that our family was able to deal with hard situations with joy,” I said. “I remember thinking it was funny that he saw it that way because I’d never thought of our sense of humor as joy. It was our defense mechanism, how we fought the darkness and tried to protect ourselves. I was thinking about that the other day, and I realized that I hadn’t been able to see the humor in anything for a pretty long time. The last time I remember making a joke about something horrible was the night before my dad’s liver transplant. He and I were sitting in his room waiting to find out what time surgery would start, and the nurse told us they were flying his liver in from Indiana or somewhere. I was thinking, ‘Hope the plane doesn’t crash,’ but I didn’t say it out loud. But then I got a text message from my brother and sister, and one of them said it. And then I told my dad what they said and he said he was thinking the same thing.” I was sitting in My Crazy Lady’s office on the far right side of her comfy beige couch. She was sitting diagonally across from me in her wingback chair. 

“Why do you think that changed?” She asked. I thought about it for a minute. 

“Maybe because I lost the motivation to fight anymore?” I said. “For years I had been holding it together and having to be strong, and now the immediate danger for my family had finally passed, and I couldn’t hold the weapons to protect myself anymore. But I miss it.” I said. 

“It doesn’t have to be gone forever,” she said. 

A few mornings later, I resumed working on my grad school application. A month before when we were on vacation, I was sitting on a beach on the gulf coast and I saw a Facebook ad for a Master in Fine Arts program in Creative Writing. I had been through two job changes but still didn’t feel settled. All I wanted was to write, and all I was doing was everything else. Sitting on that beach, considering making a concrete investment in my writing, it felt like a puzzle piece slid into place. It felt like I had purpose again somehow, and something to be excited about. It didn’t make any sense financially or in terms of timing, but I knew I wanted it. And so, beginning the second week in June, I started working on my application, a 25 page writing sample.

I had gone through hundreds of pages on my laptop including the manuscripts of 3 books in progress and many of my previous blogs. I decided that they were all terrible, and that I should buckle down and write 25 new pages. I wrote about my mom’s death, and what it was like to wait for my dad’s surgery. I wrote about going to therapy and parenting and jobs. It was all so incredibly painful that I felt exhausted after every writing session. I e-mailed it to my cousin Queens for her input, and then a couple days later, I decided that wasn’t who I wanted to be anymore. I missed the joy. I missed my ability to be able to deal with horrible situations by making myself and other people laugh. Writing about all these deep and serious subjects was sucking the fun right out of my writing and depleting the mental energy that I didn’t have to spare. The sad parts had gone on for long enough. I started writing about something funny that happened while we were planning Mom’s funeral, and caught myself smiling, finally able to remember some of the generous and loving people who had brought my family through the hardest years of our lives… 

My mom’s favorite movie was about a funeral. It was called Kingdom Come, and she had it practically memorized. It centered around the family of a man who died unexpectedly at the breakfast table and how they went about planning his funeral, navigating complex relationships, and finding hope in spite of loss. It was hilarious. Unfortunately, because she was so young when she died, only 53,  we hadn’t really had time to discuss the particulars of what type of service she should want, which songs should be sung, or which flowers she would prefer. The only real talk of funerals at our house, aside from those of her own parents and brother, had centered around the movie, except for one thing: she did not want to be cremated.

“I just don’t get it,” she’d said. “I mean, I spend my whole life going to church, trying to do what the Bible says, praying, living right, all to avoid going to hell, and then you want to light me on fire anyway? The way I eat, all you’d be left with is a big pile of bacon grease.” It wasn’t a lot of guidance to go on, but knowing this one wish, my brother, my sister, and I, as well as our spouses, my dad, uncle, and grandma went to the funeral home to plan the service. As we walked in my phone buzzed with a text message. It was Dr Incredible, checking in. “Thinking of you. I hope you find something to smile about today,” he said.

Things started out placidly enough. There was peaceful music, tasteful lighting, and staff members in dark suits with tight smiles and calm voices. At the end of a short hallway, double doors opened to reveal a room with all the models of caskets available. Different colors, textures, metals, types of wood. We were in the most depressing showroom imaginable.We selected a lavender casket with pink satin lining and silver accents. After taking height and weight measurements, the funeral director informed us that Mom would need a wide casket. My brother snorted and looked over at me, both of us remembering the times my mom had cautioned her siblings that they all needed to lose weight because they were up to eight pallbearers, as the funeral director, a tall man with an impressive dark mustache, looked uncomfortable. We followed him out into the parking lot, down a sidewalk, to the office building next door to plan the rest of the service. We entered a large conference room with a glass table big enough to seat twelve people, each of us taking a rolling chair. He handed out catalogues with flower arrangements, programs, and service suggestions. 

It was like an out of body experience, everyone looking over the list of packages in heavy leather folders like we were about to order dinner at Ruth’s Chris. I saw towards the bottom of the page that for a small fee, you could have doves released at the graveside service. I pointed this out to my dad, thinking it might be a peaceful way to end the service.  He asked the funeral director about it. 

“Unfortunately, Mr. Carpenter, that won’t be possible. You see, in the area near the cemetery, there are a lot of dove hunters. Even though it’s not dove season,in that area, we’ve found that sometimes the doves don’t make it back.” My dad’s eyes widened, and I know he must’ve been wondering if his out of control liver enzymes were creating some type of hallucination, or if the funeral director was serious. I guffawed and tried to cover it up with sipping from the bottle of water in front of me, then excused myself into the hallway. I texted Dr. Incredible back: “You got your wish,” and gave him the high points of the conversation. “Too bad about the doves,” he said, “But I can try to scare you up some chickens.”

Remembering that time, and writing about that scene, a light flickered back on.

I sent Queens a text message. “What if I scrap all the depressing stuff and just send them funny stories about mom?” I said. 

“I wasn’t going to say anything, but I agree with you. Save the heavy stuff for later.” She said. So I did. I sent the admissions committee 25-ish pages about Mom and my childhood, and what it’s like to be raised Church of God in the South. I got in. I’m starting tomorrow, actually. 

I never start any new project without a new planner, so I ordered this one, with some of the best advice Mom ever gave me. I think I’m once again armed with my sense of humor and waiting to see where my one moment of passion takes me.

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