I’ll confess that I sometimes feel bad about how often I laughed when it came time to tell others that my mother was dying of cancer. But there was a sick irony to it: she’d been a smoker her whole life, yet the doctors told her the tumors on her lungs were genetic and had nothing to do with cigarettes. That was the first joke. The second was that she and her siblings were adopted, with no knowledge of their birth parents, which meant those aforementioned genetics were a complete mystery…which meant they were a complete mystery to me, her first-born son, her first blood relative, and the lucky 21-year-old who now knew that unpreventable lung cancer at 43 was a real possibility.
I’d been living in La Paz, Mexico, for several months, writing for a Canadian magazine that moved its headquarters there before hiring me and bringing me down in February 2005. I got the call from Brian, my stepfather, a couple of days into September. He was optimistic, as is the custom, but he told me I should probably come home soon. What could I do but laugh? Lung cancer always seemed like something my mom would earn, not something by which she’d be blind-sided. I took a few days to prepare a dramatic speech for my boss, Rachel, detailing the privilege it had been to work with her, the transformational effect Mexico had had on me and how much I hoped we could continue to work together even after I returned to Toronto. Standing in my kitchen, though, all I could do was shake my head, chuckle and tell her my mom was sick and I had to leave. She was shocked and sorrowful, as is the custom, but sadness yielded to bemusement and she was soon wearing a strange, foreign grin of her own.
“Why are you laughing?” she asked me, thoroughly uncomfortable, clearly unsure how to proceed. In hindsight, maybe I should have had the courtesy to cry.
I made it almost 21 years without experiencing a close death; by the end of 2005, I was a scholar. In July of that year, my friend Keith was killed in a cycling accident in New York City. Not only was his my first funeral, but he had been instrumental in getting me the job for which I’d moved to Mexico. While in New York, I stayed with Sean, a friend of Keith’s whom I’d never met, but who invited me into his home regardless. On December 18 of that year, his father, Terrence, would die of cancer. Two years later, I’d be the best man at his wedding. These things happen, I suppose.
I got home at the end of September, eight weeks after my mom’s diagnosis. When I finally saw her, she looked sunburned; the cancer had spread to her eyes, I learned, and the blasts of radiation necessary to successfully combat it had reddened her complexion. She’s an artist, I thought, a painter – and it’s going after her eyes? Irony is one thing, but even I knew the best humour was seldom so mean-spirited.
After a couple weeks in Toronto I got my old job back, shipping and receiving for a sporting goods company. It was a welcome distraction, and no matter what was going on at home, I knew I could count on the warehouse staff to break my balls for being ugly or shy or Jewish. I retaliated by bumming cigarettes off them, which elicited a response not unlike Rachel’s reaction to my lighthearted announcement of impending doom: they were taken aback and a little disgusted by my gall, my lack of respect for the gravity of the situation, but neither were they prepared to challenge the poor bastard whose mom was dying.
“It’s genetic,” I’d remind them when they protested. “At least let me die with dignity.”
I was back at work for two weeks when my boss at the warehouse told me I should stay home until everything was settled. Now it was my turn to protest. The circumstances notwithstanding, leaving Mexico felt like a defeat on some level, and now I wasn’t even allowed to pack boxes a few miles from my house? I could come back to work whenever I wanted, he said, but he didn’t feel right keeping me there for eight hours a day. His intentions were good, so I relented, bitter as I was. It turned out my shipper/receiver skills were put to good use at home: someone had to be there to oversee the delivery of various medical supplies – oxygen tanks, a walker, a wheelchair, an adjustable bed.
Around Halloween, I was surprised to get a phone call from one of my closest friends, Matt, who had been at university in Edmonton but had apparently just come back to Toronto. I’d been hoping I would see him; his father died when he was young, long before we’d met, and even if he had no real advice for me, his presence alone would have been a comfort. He sounded grave on the phone, as is the custom, except he wasn’t back to see me – his older sister, Kathy, had just died suddenly and he had flown home the next day. She was 34. These things happen, I suppose.
My mother died on November 6, making it about four months from discovery to departure. We sat Shiva at my aunt and uncle’s house in north Toronto. I shattered my previous record for “most consecutive days wearing a tie.” Friends came to pay their respects and, after a series of stoic handshakes, I couldn’t take it anymore: I brought up our fantasy hockey league. Understandably, my attention had lapsed, and my team was tanking and in dire need of resuscitation.
“Anyone feel like making a charity trade?” I asked. “It’s been a rough few months.” Murmurs and guilty smirks all around. I noticed that as the proximity to tragedy decreased, the benefits of gallows humor diminished proportionally. Maybe a laugh at the expense of the situation made me feel better, but I was just making other people feel awkward.
So I kept the wisecracks to myself, and especially sheltered my family from them – my family, many of whom were convinced this was the event that would bring me back into the fold of Judaism. But the nightly Kaddish infuriated me. My mother, in case anyone had forgotten, was dead, and these people wanted me to take part in a prayer that all but ignored the deceased and simply extolled the virtues of getting back to worshipping God like a normal person? I’d been terrified of death ever since the notion revealed itself to me when I was four, a fear exacerbated by the endless adolescent Hebrew school discussions of the messiah and the end of days, and now I was expected to find solace in Judaism’s embrace like some Stockholm syndrome victim? Was this a fucking joke?
According to the (admittedly outdated) Elisabeth Kübler-Ross model, those feelings would have probably fit neatly under “Anger,” her second stage of grief. There was a science to grieving, as far as she was concerned, and tragedy had not been dealt fully with until one had experienced denial, anger, bargaining, depression and, finally, acceptance. It’s a sensible system on its face, but it’s been challenged and debunked since its introduction. Writing in 2008 for Skeptic, Russell Friedman and John W. James argued, “[There] are no typical responses to loss and no typical losses,” and that theories like Kübler-Ross’s “put grieving people in conflict with their emotional reactions to losses that affect them.” Barring the possibility that it was simply unfunny or came off as sociopathic, maybe people were put off by my approach because it ran counter to their expectations of the actions of a person engaged in what they might have believed – or wanted to believe – was a static grieving process. In hindsight, it’s hard to blame them.
To this day, Matt feels like I’ve handled my mom’s death poorly. “Gallows humor,” he tells me, “is just a way to have a conversation without looking the other person in the eye.” He’s not wrong, necessarily, but that flat dismissal ignores that humor can be a benchmark for healing as much as it can be a coping mechanism. Unless you really are a sociopath, it’s difficult to not be acutely aware of the weight behind this sort of black comedy – it’s not just laughing in the face of death, but laughing at death itself, at the absurdity and perceived impossibility of it, and that can require a certain level of healthy acceptance and rational thinking.
It’s not for everyone, though. Some will see it as a shield against one’s true feelings, a tissue over seeping trauma, and that may be accurate. Some will see it as disrespectful not just to the deceased, but to fellow mourners with more modest senses of decorum. You may be offended, personally insulted, downright disgusted that a person would plumb the depths of self-absorption insofar as they disregard every modicum of common decency and instead revel in the twisted pleasure of a discomfiting, rude and nasty joke. And you know what? You might be right about that, too.
But give me a break, will you? After all, my mother’s dead.
Jordan Ginsberg is a writer and editor living in Toronto, working steadily to corner the market on stories about transgendered porn stars, wannabe cyborgs and underground surgery. He has written for This Magazine, National Post, Premiere and others.