36: Last Laugh

36: Last Laugh

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Grieving and Recovery

Last Laugh

Mirth is God’s medicine. Everybody ought to bathe in it.

~Henry Ward Beecher

My father’s funeral could have been a sitcom. There wasn’t much to laugh about in the last few years of Dad’s life. On Christmas Eve 1996, my mother had a stroke. It left her partially paralyzed and unable to talk clearly. Dad spent the next four years caring for her, in spite of his own battle with prostate cancer.

In November 1999, they moved to a nursing home, where Dad died in mid-February 2000. The final few weeks were especially difficult. He had grown up in an orphanage and the last place he wanted to be was an institution—or, more precisely, an institution was absolutely not the last place he wanted to be. He was an independent man, but he was no longer able to get around on his own, even to use the bathroom. And he was in so much pain that his moans often brought tears to the nurses’ eyes.

He died during a snowstorm on a Sunday night. The memorial service was Thursday, the only bright day in a week of stormy weather.

He had left no instructions for a memorial service and he hadn’t been to church for years. But he had been raised a Catholic and at one time considered entering the priesthood. So we asked the local parish priest to conduct the service, even though he knew Dad solely through our brief descriptions. We had no way of knowing that he would accidentally provide us with one of our most cherished memories.

My sister Sandra, who travels widely, has a knack for relaxing anywhere and a certain lack of inhibition. At one point, before anyone had arrived at the funeral home but the two of us and my son-in-law, who had driven us, she decided she was exhausted. So she lay down on the floor. Bill, one of the funeral directors walked into the room—and almost fainted when he saw what looked like a body lying at the front of the room.

That gave us a small chuckle, but there was more in store. The organist was the mother of the funeral home owner, a nice woman whom I’d met before. We’d picked a couple of songs for the service, and asked her to finish with “On the Street Where You Live.” Both our parents loved show tunes. During our teens, if Dad came home with a few drinks in him, he often asked Mum or me to play his favorites on the piano, including “On the Street Where You Live.” That, we decided, should be the very last song.

We dug out Mum’s sheet music so Mrs. Anderson could practice before the service. Then, at the last minute, she asked us to pick a few more songs, explaining that sometimes services went on just a little longer than anticipated and that she didn’t want to run out of music. So we made our choices, again emphasizing that “On the Street Where You Live” should be the last one.

People were starting to arrive. Dan, my husband, wheeled Mum in. She looked very nice, dressed in a red woolen jacket, hair freshly done, wearing a touch of make-up. This was the biggest social event she’d been at in years, and although she sometimes wept silently, she spent a lot of time looking around to see who was there, occasionally waving with her good hand.

One of the last to arrive was Dan’s Uncle Andy. He and my parents had been friends as teenagers. He was a bit eccentric, to put it politely. He had lived alone most of his life and frequently wandered around unshaven, wearing appallingly stained or worn clothes. But he had gone all out for the funeral. His hair was neatly cut and combed, he was clean-shaven, and he was wearing an orangey-red denim leisure suit straight out of the 1970s.

Sandra and I rolled our eyes at each other, but said nothing. Mum gave him a big grin and held his hand for a few moments.

The music began. We were still greeting people when “On the Street Where You Live” started. Just as we realized what was playing, the funeral director came over to explain. “My mother is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s. She can’t drive any more, can’t live alone, but she’s a talented musician and I hate to take this away from her.”

“Oh,” one of us said. Sandra and I exchanged quick looks, silently communicating, “I’m okay with this if you’re okay.” We both knew that if it had been Dad, he would have been falling over himself to be nice to Mrs. Anderson. So we soothed Richard, telling him everything would be just fine.

As we took our places at the front of the chapel, we both noticed that Mrs. Anderson had taken off her shoes and was pounding the pedals in her stocking feet. The priest slipped behind the lectern. Conversation ebbed. Mrs. Anderson kept playing.

And playing.

Father Paul looked at us. I looked away. Sandra raised her eyebrow. Father Paul looked at Mrs. Anderson. Everyone looked at Mrs. Anderson. Finally, the priest went over, put his hand on her shoulder, whispered something in her ear. She nodded, but kept on playing until the song was over.

We had met Father Paul two days earlier and knew that he was a former mailman who had come to the priesthood somewhat later in life. A small man with protruding front teeth and short hair that stood on end, he looked a bit like Alvin the chipmunk trying to be a punk star.

The vestments, of course, didn’t belong to a punk star image—the chasuble was creamy colored, flecked with darker threads, as though it had been spun from wheat. But he was wearing dark running shoes, possibly to make a quick getaway after the funeral.

And then he called our father Harold.

Dad’s name was Frank. He had a great laugh and a great sense of humor. Puns, slapstick, political satire, all might provoke a chuckle or a roar. He was also deeply amused by children, animals, and the ridiculousness of everyday life.

When the priest called him Harold, Sandra and I studiously avoided looking at each other. Somewhere in a back row, one of my friends poked another and whispered, “Cheryl’s going to have a fit.” She was right, but not for the reasons she thought. Sandra and I were trying not to burst into a fit of laughter.

When we were teenagers, Bill Cosby was one of the family’s favourite comedians. Sandra had started calling Dad “old weird Harold” after one of the characters in Bill Cosby’s comedy routines. When the priest mistakenly used the name, we both thought of that. And smiled, knowing that somewhere out in the universe, Dad was smiling with us.

~Cheryl MacDonald

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