We're getting close to Christmas and the farthest thing from most people's minds is death, or so I'm assuming. But it's pressing on my mind this year. My father died last Wednesday, and today we are going to the funeral of a friend's brother, who died suddenly this past Tuesday.
One thing I've learned for sure is, try as you may, you can't plan death. The world is full of surprises, and death, even in the midst of a holiday that rains so much color and joy. Like holidays, life with all its color and vibrancy ends too. Throughout it all, you try to keep laughing. That's why, even in the midst of my father's passing, I wanted to read David Sedaris. I wanted to laugh.
I loved Naked, published a few years ago, and expected great things from When You Are Engulfed in Flames, which I picked up a few days before we heard the news that dad was in the process of dying. I wasn't altogether disappointed, although the dark humor and pointed quips struck almost too close to home.
The cover of Sedaris' book has a skeleton on it that appears to have a cigarette between its teeth. The cover is meant to be the death mask of Sedaris himself, who was, until fairly recently, a habitual smoker, and whose final essay, "The Smoking Section," refers to his process of quitting. There's also an essay in this collection about a skeleton that Sedaris once bought for his partner Hugh, who decided to hang it in the bedroom. Sedaris found himself looking at this dangling skeleton, which seemed to say to him, "You are going to die."
I can't say this struck me as particularly funny, just true, having recently stared at death straight in the face and recognized, sure as I'm sitting here right now, that this life, solid and real as it seems, is indeed ephemeral as a dream and quick as smoke to disappear.
My father was a strong, indomitable soul, full of enthusiasm for life, with a vitality so palpable it was intimidating to some. He lived a year and a half longer than he was expected to live, and no one, least of all the doctors who predicted his demise, could believe he could carry on so long, his heart being in the shape it was. He humored us, mugging till the very end, reminding us of his amazing resilience and also of his capacity for laughter and the importance of it. It has always been a balm and savior for our family.
Taking my dad's cue, the night after his passing, my siblings and I drank, smoked pot, and drove fast and furiously around Hilton Head, where my dad lived. I turned around to my two sisters and brother once and said, "How does it feel to be 15 again?" No doubt, each of us was filled with the intractable knowledge somewhere deep within that we are no longer 15 and will never again be, and are in fact now ourselves on death's list, however far into the future each of us may live.
Still, the laughter helps, and for us, for me, provided a much needed respite from our vigil with death, reminding us that good times can be there, sometimes even in the midst of heartbreak.