Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.
If there's such a thing as truth, it’s that dying with comedy is hard.
I know because we tried. When Dad hit the skids and there were no more visits to the doctor—or anywhere—any longer, only a bed in a living room filled with the remaining hours, we laughed. The three of us: my brother Chris, my father and I, laughed and laughed, about amazingly trite things and painfully embarrassing things, and gruesome things and poop.
We laughed about poop first, just like when we were four—not altogether incongruously, because someone who is dying has the needs of a four-year-old in some respects. And being the son or daughter in this role-reversal should, at the very least, provoke titters of embarrassment. For us, it provoked guffaws and terrible puns, which may indicate a level of immaturity I’d prefer to not dwell upon.
We laughed about how Dad looked, as we reviewed the ship breaking apart piece by piece on the shoals of illness. Dad took photographs of his own feet with my phone, and his skinny little shinbones, nothing left there but veins and sharp angles, the muscles gone forever. It was the only view he had, so he took pictures of what he saw, and those were some pretty goofy looking feet sticking up. A photo of an elevated foot from a hospital bed turns out to be pretty funny.
But sometimes we had to rely upon others for a laugh in what turns out to be a monotonous job. Dying is actually really dull. Being killed might not be dull at all—in an accident, or by the hand of others—but dying is tedious. Even Dad, the one dying, was bored.
So we watched a lot of movies. Dad had no shortage of them, being an inveterate collector of all kinds of things; if he weren’t so methodically organized with his collections, he might have been considered a hoarder.
The night he fell into bed for the last time, he was watching True Blood. The bed, delivered by the hospice organization that afternoon, was sitting along the edge of the room waiting for its future tenant; I had made it up with more care than any bed I’d made in distant memory. It was, after all, at this point decorative. Hospice didn’t think Dad would need it for a while. It was there, just in case.
Dad was sitting in his brand-new-still-had-the-tag-automated lift chair, also delivered that afternoon, watching vampires eat humans. And True Blood fits the bill for funny, if you like that sort of thing: morally gray, iconoclastic, good-versus-evil-if-you-can-tell-who’s-who, which Dad did, very much. So I guess he was having fun right before he got a fever and collapsed.
That night wasn’t funny. I was scared and alone, and Dad thought he was checking out in a surprising sprint towards the finish line. I paced and panicked and made phone calls, and inexpertly shifted him over my shoulder into his “theoretically useful” hospital bed, leaving him there crookedly because I didn’t know how to move him.
After Dad’s sprint to the exit, he decided that maybe the exit wasn’t so close after all. We ended up having five weeks with him, more or less, between the Great True Blood collapse and his real departure.
Five weeks is a long time.
The first time Chris returned, we were both pretty sure that Dad was going to split any moment. Each memory was precious, and we reminisced and read passages of books he loved—and David Sedaris, who made us laugh and laugh. We wrote in the answers to crossword puzzles for Dad since he could no longer either read, nor hold a pen any longer, but Dad still recalled the most arcane facts which we dutifully penned in for him.
It was probably around the eighth day after Chris’s return that we began to sense that Dad wasn’t quite as ready to check out as it seemed. And that was about the time we started watching movies to while away the hours. We didn’t have that many things to talk about any longer, and you can’t force nostalgia.
The first movie we drew out of Dad’s collection was Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We laughed and laughed, especially at the moment when the corpse collector wanders through town picking up bodies killed by plague. A man with a body slung over his shoulder tries to dump one, to the protestations of the collector and the corpse alike.
“I’m getting better!” Says the corpse.
“No you're not, you'll be stone dead in a moment,” says the man trying to unload him.
“I think I’ll go for a walk,” Dad, Chris and I sang in chorus, as the lively non-corpse attempted to wander away; this was particularly hilarious because Dad would certainly not be doing that any time soon.
The next movie was Beetlejuice. What could be better than two novice ghosts trying to scare the wits out of the abhorrent city slickers who move into their country house? Michael Keaton as Betelguese, who tries to woo the Maitlands into using him as the blunt instrument to that end, is possibly the finest performance of an undead used car salesman in the history of cinema.
We could have had the Winona Ryder deadly-double feature, had any of us remembered Heathers.
Maybe we lost our sense of humor along the way. The hours were too long and the strain was extreme. But maybe we just ran out of comedies.
We still had a lot of time to kill, so we moved on to epics.
The nice thing is, plenty of people die in epics.
We watched the entire Lord of the Rings, Extended Version over a couple days. Who knew that twelve or so hours of warring and traitors and Dark Lords could seem short? Dad, who often slipped in and out of consciousness when it was just us non-celluloid people, fought death itself by staying bright-eyed and bushy-tailed right through the credits of all three four-hour films, an impressive feat when you aren’t dying. I’m pretty sure I napped through most of The Two Towers.
By this time we realized that Dad was not dying, like, today, so maybe our film choices began to reflect our less giddy cheek: Blade Runner.
Tyrell: Would you like to be upgraded?
Batty: I had in mind something a little more radical.
Tyrell: What... what seems to be the problem?
Tyrell: Death; ah, well that's a little out of my jurisdiction. You...
Batty: I want more life, fucker.
The genetically created replicant Roy Batty is out of luck: his creator Tyrell explains that Batty’s termination date is hard-wired into his coding. By the end of the film, while Batty chases his bounty hunter Deckard around, he makes clear he could kill him, but instead lets Deckard live in a final gesture of his developing but abbreviated humanity. Deckard silently watches him die, as Roy succumbs to his built-in obsolescence: “I’ve seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain... Time to die.”
I wasn’t with Dad and Chris when they watched The English Patient; I had stepped away from the hospital bed for a brief trip across town for a few hours. When I returned, Dad was asleep and Chris was wan.
“He told me he could relate,” Chris said.
“Relate to what?” I asked.
“To the end.”
I still didn’t know what he was talking about, my face a blank mask.
“When he pushed the morphine over to Hana. To end it.”
Then I remembered: the English patient has no more story to tell. He shoves over an entire box of morphine ampules to his nurse, and she weeps as she prepares the syringes to take his life.
“I think Dad was asking me to help him end it.”
We sat with the reality of Dad’s wishes, come to light through the tale of another dying man.
Though Dad’s time was bleeding like sand through our fingers, each second now measurably, demonstrably closer to the end, Dad wasn’t only dying, he was also tired of dying. He wanted to finish it.
In the last two weeks of his life, Dad wished to avail himself of Oregon’s Death with Dignity act. We researched it, but we didn’t have time, a final bit of irony that was not lost on Dad: he needed to inform the medical team of his wishes twice, with a 15-day window in between requests. Dad was not going to make it that long, we knew. So instead we waited, and watched movies.
If I had been more brave or less selfish, could I have helped Dad? We left the bottle of morphine by his bedside; Dad could have administered to his own end at any time. Maybe Dad was as conflicted as we were. Why else suggest it to his own kin, knowing we could not possibly help? Perhaps Dad wanted to face the end on his own terms were he alone, but he loved us too much to make the call. After all, those two weeks were the last two weeks to see his children, ever. Dad believed in death’s finality more than any other thing, and he held the sputtering hours tenderly.
We helped Dad with everything up until the very last breath, everything but that. We couldn’t; he was still our father.
The last movie he saw was North by Northwest. A mistaken-identity caper with two beautiful protagonists and a charismatic villain surpassed by few others, there was no theme. Dad watched with deep affection for film and art and adventure, until Cary Grant lifted Eva Marie Saint into a train berth on their honeymoon. Then he went to sleep.
Sometimes there’s no deeper message.