Finding some humor in death and body parts
“Ask me about my penis.” Now that I have everyone’s attention. That first sentence is not a request for anatomical inquests, those words were written on a bumper sticker.
In truth, the car was so dirty, and the sticker so old, it might have said “Ask me about my peonies, pianist or penitence.” But to my mother’s eyes there was little doubt about what it said.
It was nine years ago. I was driving my mum to a Boston hospital for outpatient surgery.
She had a few spots on her lungs and the doctor wanted to take a biopsy. I was scheduled to take her home later that day: She never left the hospital alive.
We were stopped in traffic, I looked over at her and saw her trying to hide a grimace. I knew better than to ask her if she was OK. We Catholics have been taught to allow others to suffer in silence. Like most of the women in my family, my mother was a stoic.
Though she downplayed her condition, I would often see her flinch with pain, and her coughs in the morning would give you chills. I accelerated up to the next light.
The car was filled with fear. The silence was broken with my mother saying, “Dear God! Will you look at that.” I followed her gaze to a brown, beat-up, old car that looked to have endured many Boston winters.
“Jeffrey, get closer to that brown heap.”
I pulled up as close as I could while my mother reached into her handbag and switched her eyeglasses. She began to laugh and said, “Oh for the love of God, will you look at what that damn fool has written on his bumper.”
I must admit, from my vantage-point the bumper sticker did look to be an invitation for a manhood inquiry. Due to both tension and subject matter, we began to laugh hysterically.
After a half-hour of silent angst, it felt so good to laugh. The fear and stress seemed to vent out the windows like the smoke from my mother’s Winston. I was willing to enjoy the moment and move on, but my mother needed more information.
“Pull up next to that car I want to get a better look at him.”
I was reluctant to do that: not only because of the traffic, but also from fear that my mother would honor the driver’s invitation.
“Mum, you’re not going to really ask him, are you?”
“No, I’m a lady. I just want to see what the damn fool looks like.”
For the next 10 minutes we chased the brown car through traffic laughing like children. We enjoyed wild speculation about who the gentleman was, and what was the source of his pride. The irony was not lost on me. I’m a grown man driving like a nut with a dying woman in my car chasing a man to ask him about his penis. We never got the chance, he got away.
For the remaining 20 minutes it took us to reach the hospital, my mother could not stop laughing. I hypothesized on the source of the man’s conceit and his need to advertise. Laughing seemed to lessen the pain, but when she indulged too much I’d see her recoil in pain. It was as if we were the funniest two people on earth. The thought of him lending his car to his wife, or mother, brought us to tears. Tears of laughter and pain look much alike.
My mother didn’t last long in that hospital. Though the care was exemplary, the health care system was cold and machine like. I have much respect for the nurses and front-line care-givers, but the indifference of her cancer doctor was shocking. During those three weeks I had fantasies of hitting him.
Despite her pain and situation, for the three weeks it took her to make the transition from matriarch to angel, my mother still liked to laugh. I’d look into her morphine-eyes, set in a scared, gaunt, face and mention that bumper sticker. Usually, she would at least smile, sometimes chuckle, and always mutter, “that damn fool.”
I was always able to make my mother laugh. From childhood impressions of Gomer Pyle to mimicking my father’s posture when he woke up with a hangover I could bring my mother to tears with both humor and bad behavior. Humor kept my family sane. (Barely.) Like many dysfunctional households, much of our mirth was born from pain, but that’s okay, sometimes the ends justify the means.
I go back to Boston a couple of times every year, I always reminisce about that brown car, and bumper sticker. If I ever do run into that guy again, this time I won’t let him get away. I’ll chase him down to say thank you S
Biff America can be seen on RSN
television, heard on KOA radio, and read in this and other fine newspapers. He is taking his annual fall sabbatical. Until he returns, we are re-running some of his favorite columns.
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