“Talk Dirty to Me,” the sign read. I burst out laughing, alone in my car as I drove past the new town business—a cleaning service. Later that afternoon, I came across a letter in the local paper complaining about the sign I had enjoyed so much. A further entry noted that others had also complained that the message was inappropriate and not in keeping with town signage.
This little controversy got me thinking about how what one person considers funny can be viewed as offensive by another. On an entirely different level is Roz Chast’s recent cartoon story, “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” (The New Yorker, March 10, 2014). A chronicle of the decline and death of her parents, Chast’s story manages to be both moving and funny—or, at least, funny to some of us. I shared the cartoons with my sisters and friend Heidi and we laughed so hard we literally (and I do mean literally) cried. To me, that summed up our mutual bittersweet experience of being with our mothers in the long month before they died.
Many people are put off by talk of death (note the name of Roz Chast’s piece), especially in the context of humor, but when a very old person has lived a long, fulfilling life, death may be sad but not tragic and even, at times, funny. An example: Chast’s mother’s health was declining rapidly and she visited her at the nursing home, expecting the worst. Instead, one day she found her mother dressed and sitting on a couch, eating a tuna sandwich.
“I knew her retreat from the abyss should have filled me with joy, or at least relief. However, what I felt when I saw her was closer to: ‘Where, in the five stages of death, is EAT A TUNA SANDWICH?!?!?’”
I know exactly what Roz Chast means. After months or weeks, when death is imminent, when you’re prepared to lose your mom and you’ve had the most intimate, heartbreaking conversations of your life, when she wakes up, as our mother did, and asks for a cup of coffee and some scrambled eggs, you are at once delighted, dismayed and even (shamefully) let down because all that painful emotional preparation for death seems wasted. But when it happened, when she asked for the eggs, we all burst out laughing, our dying Mom included, because it was just so darn funny.