The Dark Side of Humor

My family has a strange, sometimes irreverent sense of humor.  I find this useful, because it opens me up to the juxtaposition of ideas that can lead to new lines of thinking.  These ideas, which more sensible people might flee, are excellent fodder for my stories.

Socially, this can be a problem, and I have learned to conceal my stranger thoughts from people I do not know well.  I habitually self-edit my speech, and if you are one of those people with whom I have shared one of my bizarre free associations, it means you are someone I trust.  Self-editing has its own difficulties, as when I studied acting, but it seems to work out better than the alternative.  Still, unusual humor hasn’t always worked out so well for the rest of the family.

More than a decade after my Nana died, my grandfather, still mourning his loss, sent a letter to his brother in Pennsylvania.

“I visited her grave last night,” he wrote.  “It’s cold, and it’s dark, and I hate it.”

In response, my great-uncle dodged the emotional depth of his letter, and instead sent him a Christmas present:  a flashlight and electric socks.  The whole family hailed this as a brilliant joke.sox-flashlight

And then my grandfather got sick.

Cholesterol was beginning to impede blood flow to his brain.  The doctor recommended a “Roto-Rooter” operation–they would open up the affected blood vessels, clean them out, and put him back together.  This same surgery had worked for another man my grandfather knew, and he had no reason it wouldn’t work as well in this case.

While under anesthesia, however, my grandfather’s blood pressure shot dangerously high, and when they gave him medication to control it, his BP crashed.  He was dead from the complications of his stroke within a week.

As they were packing up his belongings in the hospital, my parents came across the flashlight and electric socks. From what we can tell, he had considered the hospital where his wife died a significant enough health risk that he wanted to be ready to leave it in a hearse.  In response, the family decided to put the socks and flashlight into my grandfather’s casket when he was buried.

Except I can’t help but wonder.  So much of our health is predicated on our willingness to fight against entropy and live.  And I wonder if my grandfather chose not to do it.  I wonder if our inability as a family to face suffering and talk about how we really feel made him give up the fight.

I wonder if we chose to be funny instead.


One Year Later

The past twelve months have seen a lot of hidden changes in my life. I stopped serving in youth ministry, and joined the stage crew.  I wrote — and discarded — fifty thousand words of my first novel, and built a lot of connections with writerly types in my community. My technical career unfolded into mostly management with no change of title or position. It hasn’t been specifically good, or bad, just different.

And I realized, while cleaning up my Facebook timeline, that the start of this cycle was the death of a young man I knew from church, and whom I considered a friend. Even today, I find myself wondering if his life would have ended differently if I as a leader had been more engaged, better engaged, in his life during my years of influence. In the end, his life choices were his own, but still.

By way of retaining the vital memory of this man, I post here a poem I composed the afternoon of his funeral. It’s not terribly good, but it’s honest, and in that way it reflects the subject better than Homeric verse could do.


This post should be about the man who as a teen
in football, blocked my neck and took my voice away.
My lost falsetto scar is now a badge of pride
remembered every time my children criticize.

And I should talk about the one who burned a mix
CD for me because my tastes were too mundane,
and tell of how he loved the music trade instead
of how I listened on the road when I was sad.

I ought to mention how he somehow lodged his foot
beneath the pastor’s rolling tire, or what he said
to make us laugh, or how he always made me smile.
All true, but still my selfish heart says there is more.

For he is young, and I am not, and he is gone,
And I am not. He leaves me crying out “Unfair!”
In selfishness I skip the thing I ought to do,
And weep for me instead, and wish I wept for you.