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!

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

Someone Move the Cookies!

“You don’t stop laughing because you grow older. You grow older because you stop laughing.”

Maurice Chevlier

Dave and I both enjoyed playing cards although he played more often than I did. Throughout our married life he played in a weekly poker group. In retirement he added weekly cribbage matches and the occasional pop-up Texas Hold ‘Em extravaganza to the list. Together, we played Spades, Hearts, Do Dirt to Your Neighbor, Ninety Nine, and lots of Euchre. Euchre is very popular in the Midwest where we grew up. If you played cards and you lived in Michigan chances are you played Euchre.

Rank of cards in a game of Euchre

When I decided it was time for me to reach out to friends and add some fun back into my life, playing cards, Euchre in particular, seemed like the perfect way to begin. We’d start a women’s card group. There are lots of expats from Michigan living in central Vermont, so it wasn’t difficult lining up friends who knew the game, were excited by the idea, and willing to play. We’d just need to find a night that worked and get started. That should be easy.

Remember when Friday and Saturday nights were reserved for nighttime fun? In retirement every night is Saturday night. One problem…there’s a twenty year age spread between the four of us so although technically, by the local senior center standards, we’re all senior citizens, half the group is still employed. We’d have to plan around their work schedules. Then of course our calendars are also filled with volunteer commitments, family obligations, and previously planned fun of various kinds, but we eventually found a date that suited us all.

As the hostess, I had certain responsibilities. I had to be sure to clear a path through my house to the kitchen table where we’d play, but these were good friends who wouldn’t mind a little dust and since I’d had workmen in my house the previous week …stripping wallpaper and painting…there was a fair amount of dust to be found. Have you ever noticed that when you dust it just all comes back? I think that’s God’s way of letting us know she wants it there. Who am I to question divine wisdom?

OK, dust or no, I’d concentrate on the snacks. The days of popcorn and soda or pizza and beer appear to be over. I’d have to put some thought into this. I settled on wine…red and white, lemon-ginger ice tea and I had the handy Keurig as backup if someone wanted coffee, but we’d need finger food too. Something easy to hold along with a handful of cards. Between us we had…vegetarian, no dairy, no gluten, no eggs, no soy, and one who was game for anything. Bless her heart. The spread was an interesting combination to be sure including olives, peanuts, carrots, cookies, chocolate of course, hummus, and corn chips. Seemed about right…and besides there was wine.

Finally, we were ready to bring on the cards and get the game underway. Euchre has many variations, so our first order of business was clarifying which rules we would follow and how we’d keep score. The game is played using only the cards from nine and above. That leaves the fives as the perfect counters for score keeping…a talent in itself. The bottom five pips…suit symbols…would count for the first five points. Then the top card would be turned over exposing the final five. We’d just need to remember to actually take our points.

“We use the twos to keep track of trump.” I’d never heard of that, but it sounded like a good idea. When trump was called the two from that suit would be on top of a stack of four. What a clever idea.

“Do you play that the dealer can steal the deal?” Having the deal is a great advantage and you have to be sneaky, quick, and clever to be able to pull it off.

“Of course, ” we agreed. With all that decided, it was time to let the games begin.

Finding the rhythm and refreshing the rules took a bit of time but soon we were all playing like Las Vegas card sharps. As the game progressed it became evident that I was sneaky, clever, and an accomplished deal-stealer, much to the annoyance of the more trusting players. “OK. I have an idea. Let’s put the cookies on the left side of whoever is supposed to be the dealer.” Of course, that plan depends on someone actually moving the cookies.

“Wait. Who called trump? We need a little figurine to put in front of the person who made trump.”

“Nothing compares to the stomach aches you get from laughing too hard with your best friends.”

Unknown

Picture it. We now had glasses of wine, small plates for our snacks, fives for counters, twos for keeping track of trump, and a rotating bowl of cookies as well as the actual cards for each hand all vying for space at the table.

Playing Euchre as senior citizens is more complicated than those games we played in our youth. In addition to remembering whose turn it is, which card was led and how many tricks were needed we also have to flip the trump-tracking-twos, remember who called it, and of course… move the cookies. More of a challenge to be sure, but with an even greater reward…joy. Oh, we all wanted to win, but that wasn’t necessarily our final objective. Levity, laughter, and hilarity were the order of the day…not competition. We just wanted to have fun! Our laughter was unrestrained, genuine and bountiful. My tummy hurt and my cheeks ached by the end of the evening, but my spirits were lifted and I felt lighter than I had in quite awhile.

Anne Lamott says that “laughter is carbonated holiness”. That seems like the perfect definition to me. I am so blessed to walk my path in the sacred effervescence of laughter. We’re playing again next month. I have the perfect figurine to help us keep track of who called trump. Her name is Remembrance.

Her name is Remembrance
A gift from Kathy, 2019