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A Mature and Intelligent Period of Grieving: On Death and Humour in Writing
My first job after my mother died was a contract position writing a Joke of the Day calendar. Each day I input approximately ninety jokes into an Excel spreadsheet, selecting which would appear on significant days such as the day my mother died, her birthday, the day she birthed me, her wedding anniversary. Really each of the 365 days had some link to my mother; some were dates I hadn’t had yet without her, others I remembered as, for example, the last time I saw my mother on the third of June, the last fourteenth of November we would spend together, etc. To the right of each date I would type out a one-liner, or a pun, or a man-walks-into-a-bar type setup, only I kept the bar talk to a minimum as the assignment description included, “…appropriate for children and conservative adults.”Photo by Alex Tran
“Humour is among the highest level of maturity. This too is a joke I tell. When asked if I think I’ve repressed my feelings of grief I told my therapist, ‘I’m just being mature about it.’”Afterwards I tried to write this scene over and over again, piecing together what I knew, but I kept making myself laugh. The prose felt offensive and insincere. “On the morning of my mother’s medically-assisted death, she insisted she wash her face. She applied makeup, probably was the most beautiful person ever to receive the MAiD service.” What I wanted to say was: my mother died vain. This is a phrase I’ve repeated to myself in the months since her death. It makes me feel sick in the bottom of my stomach. When I walk up to the building in Westmount where I see my therapist weekly, find new methods of coping with body dysmorphic disorder, I think about my mother, who died in vain. I make jokes to my therapist when she suggests I try going out at night without makeup; I say, “My mother would kill me!” and we laugh about it. Vanity was a sick joke we told each other, and now it is just me, and getting better is a joke too. She died beautiful and I’ll die healthy! *Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant organized defense mechanisms along a continuum of immature to mature. Humour is among the highest level of maturity. This too is a joke I tell. When asked if I think I’ve repressed my feelings of grief I told my therapist, “I’m just being mature about it.”I took a leave of absence from my MA program after the death, and withdrew from my position teaching a class at the school of continuing studies, which I was about to do for the very first time. I’d designed a course about how to run a literary magazine, which I only knew how to do because I’d made it all up for myself three years prior. What I’m getting at is my life was shaping up to be a funny joke in more ways than one.I had romantic ideas about the way the world works before I watched cancer kill my mother’s body. Now I am a practical person. And with practicality comes a curious edge of humour. There is nothing funny about my mother dying. But there’s a certain way of arranging the words that turns them into a bit of a joke. It’s all quite funny if you think about it. How absurd. Her, wrapped in an oversized leopard smoking coat, shaking, we bitched about the men in our lives in the emergency room. I took frequent erratic smoke breaks, came back and she said, “You better not be smoking.” We laughed. Well that’s not funny either.When we laugh about death we’re offering the same condolence we offer when a person receives any kind of bad news. “It’s okay,” we say. But often, it isn’t. And always, it is. What’s the worst that will happen?*In the Q&A period at the launch of my first novel—a story primarily about my mother’s cancer—I found myself refusing to answer any questions about the plot, the writing process. A local writer Jacob Wren asked about my home exercise routine (I’d made reference to buying a folding stationary bicycle). This became something I worked into every answer.Even now I am dodging the plot.What I wanted to say in this essay is that I laugh about death because death is a lens through which I’ve seen the world for the past year and this way I laugh every day. The night I said goodbye to my mother, she said, “See you,” caught herself, and laughed.“See you,” I said.I laugh every Monday in my therapist’s office. I let myself cry the very first session, when I had to explain the context: the rare treatment-resistant cancer, the two years, the day she was declared cancer free, the day she was declared stage four, the mastectomy wound that never got to heal, the wigs, the lung, the pain medication through a port in her stomach that cut off one night and left her screaming for hours in the upstairs hallway, the last birthday, her sister who told her to wait for her wherever she goes, the funeral, the poems, the jokes.Laughter is like crying, my therapist told me. It just comes out.* * *Fawn Parker is a writer based in Montreal. She is the author of Set-Point (ARP, 2019) and Jolie-Laide (Palimpsest, 2021). She is an MA candidate in creative writing at the University of Toronto and a course instructor at U of T’s school of continuing studies. Fawn is co-founder of BAD NUDES Magazine and its sister-press BAD BOOKS.