Laughing Death in the Face

“Remember me with smiles and laughter, for that is how I will remember you all. If you can only remember me with tears, then don’t remember me at all.”

Michael Landon, Little House on the Prairie

I am becoming quite the movie buff. My new condo is literally only five minutes from the local multiplex and I’ve discovered that going to the movies is a rather enjoyable solo activity. In fact, I’m pleasantly surprised to learn that I almost prefer going by myself. I can decide to go at the last minute, I can sit wherever I choose, no one talks to me during the feature, and if I decide to leave early, there’s no one to disappoint.

Over Thanksgiving weekend, however, I went to the movies with my sister’s family which was great fun. After purchasing our tickets, drinks, and popcorn we moved to the butter and salt station where my nephew showed me a trick he uses for making sure the butter is on all the kernels not just those on the top of the bag. He took an extra straw, put it into the bag, pushed it down near the bottom and then deftly placed it under the spout for the melted butter. As he released the warm liquid into the straw he carefully pulled the straw up through the popcorn and voilà the butter was distributed evenly throughout. Great idea!

Movie Popcorn is the Best!

The next time I ventured off to the movies I thought I’d try the new butter technique. I place the bag of popcorn under the dispenser and then positioned my straw into the bag and aligned it with the spout. It was a tight fit getting my straw in the proper position. It looked easy when my nephew did it, but eventually, I had everything in position and pulled the handle forward and began to fill the bag with rich, creamy butter. It was then I noticed the butter dispenser to my right. I wasn’t aligned with the butter. I was filling my bag of fluffy white popcorn with Vitamin B & C-Pomegranate-SoBe-Water! Yes, the entire bottom of my paper sack was filled with vitamin water!

Not to worry, I put some butter on the still fresh kernels at the top of the bag and headed into the theatre. It’s true, most of the bag was really wet and soggy almost to the point of saturation, but hey, the top third was delicious!

“If you can laugh at yourself, you are going to be fine. If you allow others to laugh with you, you will be great.”

Martin Niemoller

One day, not long after the popcorn incident I was baking brownies to take to my brother-in-law. The scent of chocolate was filling my small kitchen with the promise of deliciousness. Near the end of the baking time, I took a peek into the oven to see how they were doing. Something was very wrong. There was a pool of oil floating on the top of the semi-solid brown batter. What had I done? I reviewed the directions. I hadn’t added too much oil as I first suspected. I had omitted the egg! Quickly, I retrieved the brownies from the oven and stirred the half-baked mixture with a fork. They were still wet enough that I could easily add the eggs and then return the pan to the oven. Without hesitation, I cracked first one egg and then the other into the warm chocolatey concoction. Do you know what happens when you add eggs to something hot? They begin to cook! OMG! I began to stir frantically in an effort to combine the eggs with the brownie glob before they turned to scrambled eggs. I’ve come to terms with chocolate wine, but huevos con chocolate…I don’t think so. Never fear, I was beating those eggs hard, fast and with great determination. In the end, the only evidence of my culinary blunder was a few very small white flecks of egg marbled throughout an otherwise perfect pan of brownies.

He ate them with delight.

“Never be afraid to laugh at yourself, after all, you could be missing out on the joke of the century.”

Barry Humphries
Remember the Eggs

My late husband, Dave, would have loved those stories. Humor and the ability to laugh at ourselves and each other sustained our marriage for forty-three years. In many ways, the two of us led parallel lives. We had very different interests, attitudes, and styles, but we both loved to laugh and we considered it quite an accomplishment when we were clever enough to get the other to “fall for” one of our many jokes. Not to brag, but I “got” him most often. Laughter was a very important part of who we were as a couple and who we were…are…as individuals. For many people the trauma of loss has them questioning whether they will ever laugh again. Many people wonder if, in their grief, if it is inappropriate or unseemly to smile or laugh. Thankfully, that wasn’t my experience. Telling Dave’s stories and jokes is a way to keep his memory…and him…close and alive.

As much as I wish it were otherwise, Grief has become an omnipresent fixture in my life. It hides in the shadows and rises unexpectantly with the specter of Death, his co-conspirator, to fill me again and again with unspeakable sadness. I have learned, however, that I am pretty resilient and when I can look Death in the face and let loose with a hearty guffaw, Grief can not defeat me and Death does not win!

Finding the ability to laugh isn’t always easy. There are days when joy can remain an out-of-reach, unattainable goal, but Happiness and Laughter also live at my house where they are constantly working to keep the sadness at bay. Often when I least expect it, I’ll find a picture, or remember a funny situation, or come across an object Dave unintentionally left behind for me to discover causing me to smile, chuckle, or dissolve into fits of laughter.

“Ah! To be able to make someone I love laugh years after I’m gone, that is all the immortality I could ever ask for.”

Kate Braestrup, Here If You Need Me

Soon after his death, my sisters and my daughter-in-law were helping me pack Dave’s clothes for Goodwill. “What is this?” my daughter-in-law asked incredulously. The look on her face was a mixture of bewilderment, disbelief, and hilarity. Pinched between her thumb and index finger she held a piece of navy blue knit material. Suddenly, right there in the midst of this very sad task, the four of us began to roar with laughter. She was holding the remnants of a long-forgotten practical joke….her father-in-law’s rather ample…underpants with “Chick Magnet” emblazoned across the bottom.

Chick Magnet Undies

Thanks, Dave!

And…Take that Death and your little buddy Grief too!

One Foot in Front of the Other

“You’re braver than you believe, stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”
A.A. Milne, Christopher Robin

Several years ago, my granddaughter and I took a short hike toward a promised overlook. It was obvious that she was really not enjoying this adventure. Her foot hurt, she was tired, and she wanted to turn around. The ‘beware of bears’ sign didn’t help either. We stepped off the wooded trail to rest on a large boulder while we considered what we would do. In this small clearing, the sun’s rays shone down upon us, no longer filtered through the leafy overhang. We could hear the rush of a small stream as it played amongst the pebbles on its way to the sea and wildflowers were peeking through the scrub in their dresses of white and blue and yellow and orange. It was just a brief moment of light in the forest. After this short respite, we stepped back onto the path, into the shadows, and beneath the umbrella of leaves.

Glacier National Park

“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.

C.S. Lewis

Grief is like that too. As I hike the trail through this valley, the trees open up more frequently to moments of light and flowers and joy, but without warning, I look around and find myself once again in the gloom of thick underbrush and beneath branches that block the sun. Even so, if I keep myself open, grief continues to teach me her lessons. Fear, courage, and bravery are on the first page of her syllabus. It takes a certain amount of daring to face the disorientation and uncertainty of life after a loss. Nothing is as it once was and it’s difficult to find your bearings. To live without equilibrium takes strength, faith, and fortitude.

Grief is also about becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. Losing a map and compass all at once – a way to orient our life.

Samantha Smithstien

“You’re so strong and brave,” people told my friend at the death of her second husband. “I’m not brave or strong,” she replied. ” I just get up every morning and put one foot in front of the other.”

Each day we make the choice whether to pull up our big-kid pants, put our feet on the ground, and take those steps forward…or not. Often, we’re doing well to sit on the edge of the bed and just think about moving and there are days when even that is a stretch. But, with courage, hope, and a great deal of bravery eventually, we shuffle our feet and move to the music of life.

One Foot In Front of the Other and Lead with Love

I decided that this year one of my goals is to consciously work on being brave. “Be brave. Be brave. Be brave, ” I chant to myself throughout the day hoping that at some point it will become internalized and I can change this admonition into an affirmation. “You are brave! You are brave! You are brave!”

For me, being brave means moving forward not necessarily with confidence, but with faith. It is the belief that scrambling over the obstacles life puts in our path will make the next hill a little easier to climb. Being brave acknowledges that we’re all going to stumble, fall, and skin our knees. It also gives us the resilience not to let those set-backs put a halt to our progress. Being brave allows us to laugh at ourselves when we trip and land spread eagle on the ground, our glasses askew, and those big-kid pants on display for the world to see. Bravery reminds us we just need to get back up.

“Success is not final, failure is not fatal; it is the courage to continue that counts.”

Winston S. Churchill

On my December trip to Vermont as darkness fell and after hours of driving, I accidentally turned off the road I knew, the road I meant to be on, and started down an unplanned route. In that instant with a single right turn, I was facing my top three fears…being alone, being somewhere unfamiliar, and making an error in judgment. The disembodied voice from my GPS assured me that I could indeed go forward on the new road and that it would lead me to my destination. Since I had never approached my destination from this direction I thought perhaps the GPS knew a better way. She didn’t. Following her instructions, I found myself in upstate New York, on the wrong side of Lake Champlain. She’s taking me to a bridge, I thought. She wasn’t. At 10:30 on a Wednesday night, I found myself at the ferry dock which had been closed for hours. I was on the wrong side of the lake, I didn’t know where exactly I was, I had no idea how to find the bridge, I was tired, and it was beginning to snow. In all honesty, it was scary.

Seyon State Park, Vermont
New Year’s Eve, 2019

Don’t be afraid of being scared. To be afraid is a sign of common sense. Only complete idiots are not afraid of anything.”

Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Angel’s Game

With help, via cellphone from my son; after figuring out how to override the GPS that kept trying to take me back to the ferry; and with a great deal of positive self-talk as I drove twisty, snow-covered and deserted back roads I eventually found my way to the bridge and familiar roads in Vermont. I was disgusted with myself for not simply returning to my regular route after making the wrong turn and yet, facing my fears and solving the challenge of the situation was exhilarating and empowering. Half of being brave is just breathing and taking that next step.

“A hero is no braver than an ordinary man, but he is brave five minutes longer.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Be brave. Be brave. Be brave.” Yes, this is my mission for the year. I was never courageous enough to climb the huge pine tree with the rest of the kids in the neighborhood. I missed seeing the world from that lofty vantage point. What else will I miss if I don’t dare to live my life as it is, even if it is still a little out of sync? I’m learning to be brave, so I’m pullin’ ’em up and I’m steppin’ out.

“Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final.”

Rainer Maria Rilke with

Learning to Dance with a Wooden Leg

“The death of a beloved is an amputation…At present I am learning to get about on crutches. Perhaps I shall presently be given a wooden leg. But I shall never be a biped again.” 

C. S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

The anniversary of my first solo trip around the sun is fast approaching. Facebook reminds me of the everyday things that were happening last year as we moved, unknowingly, toward the head of the line where together our tickets would be punched, but where we’d board separate flights. How could I have known that that morning I would come home to discover that Dave had left his body…bad knees, painful legs, and bad heart…behind in his favorite chair, coffee still warm in his cup, to journey to an unknown realm without me?

I was still posting photos from our latest adventure. Dave loved life. He lived without an agenda taking each day as it came and finding joy, wonder, and delight all around him. Traveling expanded our world, giving us even more opportunities for pleasure, adventure and amazement. While we were able we went as far as we could, as often as we could, for as long as we could. When his mobility declined to the point that he could no longer join in on walks in the city or short hikes in the National Parks, Dave would happily find a bench and wait patiently for my return. Knowing that he would be waiting gave me confidence and courage to take my limited hiking skills and head out alone on unknown trails.

Suddenly there was no one waiting for my return, no one waiting to see my photos, no one waiting to hear of my escapades, no one waiting with a warm car…no one waiting. I had to decide whether to store my trekking poles or learn to move forward on my own.

Scenes from our last trip…Colorado and Utah, September 2018

One of the greatest challenges of grief and loss is learning not only to live without the one you’ve lost, but learning to live without the person you were when you were with them and learning to live as the person you have now become. I, only half jokingly, wonder if that is why senior citizens are asked whether they’ve fallen recently. With each loss we have to regain our equilibrium without the stability of what once was. With a part of ourselves missing we have to teach ourselves a new way to find our balance.

Stability often eludes me, but I am learning to live my life with that wooden leg that C.S. Lewis talks about. There are times that are really difficult, the nights are especially sucky, and tears still come unbidden, but now and then I hear Dave’s voice encouraging me to find joy, seek adventure, and laugh as often as I can.

Bloody Marys on the Deck
Basalt, Colorado, September 2018

If I have died; and you refuse to live because I am gone, I died two times. But if you take the joy I always had in life, and live it for me in your own, and past on to others then I’ll know that the world will stay a better place for I was here awhile.

Nadine McLaughlin ‘Death Wish’

Years ago…almost two decades now, Dave, my friend, Suzette, and I went out to dinner. It was Suzette’s suggestion to try a new Ethiopian restaurant that had just opened in her neighborhood. Dave and I agreed to give this new cuisine a shot. We all knew we were in trouble when we were met at the door by a waitress who asked, “Would you like a booth or a basket?” Basket? Basket? What the heck did that mean? We opted for the booth. It was pretty much down hill from there. We ordered the Ethiopian Feast for Three. When the meal was brought to our table the chicken portion was represented by a single drumstick. The rest of the meal was also rather scant, but easier to share. On the other hand, none of us liked it at all. Thus, to paraphrase Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall…the food was terrible and there wasn’t enough of it. Life too, can be painful and hard, but most of us still want more. Even with the pain, darkness, and the aloneness of grief, life is still worth the living.

One Afternoon In Maine, October 2019

In the Beatitudes, Jesus said, “Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Ecclesiastes…and of course The Byrds…remind us that there is a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.

About that dancing…Anne Lamott says that the loss of a loved one “is like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly…that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but,” she says,” you learn to dance with the limp.”

A few years ago, as part of our church’s Coming of Age program…think Bar Mitzvah or Confirmation…the youth and their adult guides were exploring the idea of death. One of the facilitators asked the group, “How many of you are grieving the loss of someone or something?” Nearly everyone raised a hand…adults and teens alike. I’m approaching an anniversary, a date on the calendar, but I am surrounded by people…friends, family, and strangers…who are also just putting one foot in front of the other and moving slowly down the same path. We link arms at times to steady those for whom those wooden legs are new and as yet untried, but we all move toward the time when even momentarily we can leave our weeping and mourning to laugh and dance.

I know this anniversary will be difficult. I’m sure there will be weeping, the ugly cry, runny nose and the whole shebang, but I also know that I’m learning to dance. The dance may not be pretty considering the whole balance thing, the limp and wooden leg, but…there is still dancing and laughter. Dave is waiting patiently for me somewhere…but for now I’ll journey on by myself…dancing and laughing whenever I can and recognizing there is still a time to mourn and weep when I can’t.

Following My Own Path
October 2019

Feeling All the Feels

Ice Cream with Papa…Chocolate

One Spring day my first grade class walked all the way from the elementary school to the ice cream stand several long blocks away. It seemed like miles for my short little legs. I walked to the window, paid my money, and took two quick licks.

Ice Cream with Papa

Then watched as the ice cream fell from my cone to the middle of the street. As I watched the vanilla deliciousness melt away I was heartbroken. I still remember the pain of that loss. The ice cream had sprinkles.

Throughout our lives we all encounter sadness, disappointment and loss. Grief is the natural response to losing what is important to us. When a loved one dies, a relationship ends, a job is lost, we suffer chronic illness, our plans are dashed…or we simply watch ice cream melt on the pavement…we can be assured that some degree of sorrow, despair, and grief will soon follow.

I knew that anger was one of the stages of grief, but I thought that meant that I would be angry with my husband for not taking better care of himself or angry with the universe for placing me in this unwelcome and unwanted position. Nope, I could have had those feelings, but in all honesty, I didn’t. Instead, I find that I have a very short fuse with just about everything else. This reaction has taken me completely by surprise.

Inferno
Based on sculpture by Brian Jungen, AGO, July 2019

I’m angry about things that make sense. I’m also angry about things that only, maybe, kinda make sense and I’m angry too, about things that rationally, make no sense whatsoever. It’s as though I’ve been blowing all my emotions into a balloon that’s stretched taut and just about to burst. It’s the finality and the frustration of loss that has been filling that balloon. Once the ice cream is on the blacktop there’s no way it’s going back in the cone. The exasperation of that moment has to go somewhere, so it is transmuted into anger. There’s a fair amount of jealousy that’s trying to find release too. A six year old watching her classmates blissfully licking ice cream is a case in point. Sadness, frustration and jealousy are all swirling around together pushing at the sides of that expanding latex sphere.

Recently, I saw Billy Elliott The Musical in Stratford, Ontario. In one scene, Billy is consumed with anger and frustration. He channels his distress into dance as a way to…as my mom used to say…get the mad out.

Billy Elliot, The Musical…Angry Dance Live at the 2009 Tony Awards with Elton John

Just as everyone experiences loss and grief, no one escapes feelings of anger. Even Jesus was filled with righteous indignation. We’ve been taught to keep our emotions under control, but it is important that wherever they originate…the deep despair of death, the myriad minor daily exasperations, or watching ice cream puddle at your feet…to feel all the feels. It’s not healthy to deny or suppress anger. Bottled anger often destroys the vessel that contains it. Might as well look it in the eye and name it. Don’t be afraid to feel the heat and energy of it. Let it wash over you and wallow in it for a spell. Know it for what it is. Then find a way to let the air out of the balloon. Channel that power into a form of positive expression and find a way to get the mad out that doesn’t involve kicking the cat, breaking the dishes, or giving yourself another reason to be angry.

“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” 

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

My short fuse won’t last forever, but it will probably come again. When it does I’ll be ready for it, recognize it, and then like Billy, maybe I can transform it into something creative, beautiful and perhaps…after a satisfyingly inappropriate gesticulation or two… it will lead me back to wholeness.