People deal with grief in many different ways. From my father’s last few weeks through his funeral, in spite of the difficulties and sadness of impending loss, I just had to laugh.
All his life my father had been a hypochondriac, so it came as no surprise that my mother revealed to my sister and me in the last few years of their marriage that he’d cheated on her with a psychiatric nurse. My father’s hypochondria lasted through a heart attack and lingered up to the moment he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That’s when something in him shifted—that lifelong fear finally became reality. The disease progressed and a crisis after treatment landed him in the hospital where he stayed right up to his last few days and a transfer to inpatient hospice.
It’s been more than a decade since my father died, but I think about him and that period often. As with many parental relationships, ours had a history—and not a good one—and my father, who had untreated mental health issues, had a knack for tugging wildly on the bonds between him and other family members. When he called me to tell me that they’d found something suspicious on a scan, I put all that aside and tried to support him. Humor saved me during all those months—my own darkly humorous side and the funny and odd things that happened in the process.
In the hospital, at my father’s bedside, I sat with his lovely ex-wife (not my mother) and one of his six girlfriends at the time. It couldn’t have been a more perfect mix of reconciliation and the absurd.
For those weeks he was in the hospital and through the last few days in hospice, I worked half a day during the week and left for the hospital before noon. Once my father was moved to hospice, a young social worker called me every morning, starting on a Monday. “Ms. Batchelor, your father has entered a new phase.” Then she’d catch me up on the latest stage of the dying process; I don’t recall too many of the details but I thanked her after each call. The hospice staff kept him very comfortable, so comfortable that while he’d been pretty much out of it in this hospital, he became more lucid in hospice. One afternoon, he sent out the doctor and nurse with, “Have a nice day!” I never knew my father to use that clichéd line, but I’m grateful for the positive attitude he so rarely demonstrated.
On Thursday, he ate for the first time in weeks—chicken and rice. I kissed him goodbye. On Friday morning, the nice young social worker called me. “Ms. Batchelor, your father has entered into a new phase. He’s dead.” She used a serious tone as she broke the news; I wanted to laugh even as I slipped into that surreal place where you learn the person responsible for your existence has shifted out of that condition.
The serious young funeral home representative was very nice as he showed me the options. He must have thought there was something wrong with me—I coped by handling everything with minimal seriousness. When he found out my father was a Dallas Cowboys fan, he suggested a Dallas Cowboys themed spray for his coffin. I couldn’t have been more gleeful. “That would be perfect!”
At the funeral in a room next to a chapel walled with dark paneling, I saw my father’s body in the coffin and I couldn’t help myself. “He looks so natural!” The spray of blue and white flowers resting on top of the coffin were impaled with wires with letters attached that spelled out “Dallas Cowboys.” I hadn’t expected it to be quite so, well, explosive. In cleaning out his things, my husband Ron had found a card my father distributed to the women at the senior dances he attended. Embossed on it were his name, a top hat, and something similar to “for a good time call.” Ron tacked it on the board on a stand with the other mementos of his life.
My mother came from Pennsylvania because he had been her husband for almost forty years, and so did his lovely ex-wife and presumably all of the six girlfriends. I didn’t count them and since I didn’t know all of them would have only been guessing as to who was who. My sister, a romance writer, gave a moving eulogy, with me and my brother standing beside her. She ended her remarks with the image of my father sitting at the 50 yard line in heaven. My brother added the impromptu finish: “Go Cowboys!”
A British friend from work told me it was the most unusual funeral she’d ever attended.
The minister who officiated played along with my coping mechanism, occasionally whispering something irreverent in my ear. I couldn’t have been more grateful. The fact that I drew on humor throughout this ordeal, a balm to the stress, a way to move beyond the trouble between my father and me for all those years, may shock some. At the end of the day, the best memories of my father were the jokes and teasing directed at me, my siblings and friends growing up. So it seems natural that laughing my way through the grief, reserving time later for sadness and regret, were my best course of action.
I picture my father in heaven now, sitting on the 50 yard line, watching a mythical Dallas Cowboys team not generally managed by Jerry Jones. A team that wins every heavenly Super Bowl, where none of the food in the stands is off limits because of dietary constraints. I’m sure the video projections are much, much larger than in the earthly stadium, and without a doubt, my father has never been happier.
While I’m reasonably confident in this scenario, what I’m not sure of, though, is whether dating is allowed in paradise.