I once saw a short Italian film about a 10 year old boy whose widowed father, a highly- regarded author, was killed by a pig. The father was walking under a balcony in an old Italian village. The balcony crumbled due to the weight of a huge hog – which spent its life sunning on the balcony and consuming leftovers.
When at boarding school everyone laughed at this boy when they heard how the his father died. The boy was mortified and ashamed.
Fast forward in the story.
A young man- let’s say…. a young teen, he falls in love with a young woman. He is deeply smitten. So smitten he invites the young woman to visit with is dour, maiden Aunt, his only living relative.
His Aunt has deified her late brother, having built an altar-like centerpiece in her living room featuring all the books her late brother wrote, celebratory reviews, photos, etc. The shrine creates a haunting, stuffy, and sad atmosphere.
Prior to this visit, all the girl knows is that her beau is fatherless. So, upon seeing the altar she is motivated to ask, “Exactly; how did he die?”
You have to remember that this young man has become a withdrawn and hesitant fellow due to the barrage of laughs shot at him whenever he had to recount that his illustrious father was killed by a falling pig.
In the climactic scene, the girl’s innocent, and perfectly reasonable question hangs in the air.
Our hero gazes at her, swallows hard. His Aunt proceeds to recount the facts.
The young couple remain staring at one another. Her eyes register some question-but she hesitates, and they remain silent.
After the meal we see the young couple walking, holding hands, glad to be out the tomb-like cage of the Aunt’s flat. Then the young woman turns to him, and with love in her eyes asks, “ Is it true? Is that really how your father died.” He hesitates…. We feel his tension, but, love is at stake. Trembling with newly found, never-before-used courage he says, “Yes, that’s how it happened.”
Their eyes locked; she laughs…… and so does he(!!) for the first time.
This same sentiment is the theme of the compilation Exit Laughing, How Humor Takes the Sting Out of Death, edited by Victoria Zackheim (North Atlantic Books, 2012).
This comforting book makes the reader feel as if she has been invited to a dinner party to share not only good food, but personal stories about how humor appeared at times of death of a loved one.
Most of the stories are written about the author’s experience of caring for an elderly parent. The stories reveal how humor arises, unplanned and unchoreographed – it just happens in the juxtaposition of dealing with one of the greatest mysteries of living- that of dying.
Through the stories we experience the power humor has to dissolve old competitions between siblings, and long-held grudges against parents. Moments of profound tenderness and love make surprise appearances. These are not contrived tales or overly sweetened messages. Each entry is written with clear eyes and an opened-heart.
This “generosity of spirit” can empower and inspire the rest of us to step into the role of caregiver, free of old and petty arguments, eager to feel the unique sort of love that is only possible when caring for a dying parent.