On the morning that Dad died, after the gentle hospice worker had come and gone, and the young undertakers had bundled him in their strange covering (thick, malleable plastic on one side, cotton pieced quilt on the other), loaded him into a minivan, and took him away, my sisters, mom and I found ourselves ravenous. As if the process of him dying fueled our innate hunger, our human response to nurture life with food.
So we went to breakfast.
While we were waiting for the pancakes, eggs, toast, biscuits, and immense amount of bacon we'd ordered, Becky realized that she hadn't received a response from one of our nieces, whom she'd texted with the news of Dad's passing. An awful thought crept into my head: what if she'd sent the text to the wrong cell phone number, so that niece ended up feeling bad that we hadn't told her? But then I thought about some unknown person—the one whose cell phone she accidentally used—receiving her gentle text:
Grandpa passed away at 6:20 this morning. He went peacefully and we were all with him.
I gasped, and shared my image of some stranger receiving this text. I don't know who started giggling first. Maybe it was simultaneous. But we started laughing. And we kept on laughing. Loud, gasping peals of laughter. Laughter that rose through my body in uncontrollable, delicious waves. Laughter that was just on the teary side of weeping.
Laughter that drew the attention of the other people in the restaurant.
A woman came over to our table. "I have to hear this joke," she said, which only made us laugh harder. After all, there was no joke. We were laughing at the horrible confluence of Dad's death and a missent text. I put my hand on my belly, trying to literally settle the laughter back into my body, and explained.
For a minute, as I told the story, I felt awful. Who can laugh on the day her father dies, especially such long and sustained and tenacious laughter? Who feels mirth on this day? But somehow, as the story wrapped up, I felt the awfulness drain away. What other day is there to laugh so hard? When he was finally free of his entrapment, and at peace? When he would take nothing else but joy in the sight of three of his daughters and his wife, laughing hysterically at something silly?
That experience let him know that we would be fine. That we will not do what he would not want us to do: get trapped in a mire of sorrow. Laughter didn't mean we were already forgetting, or that the sorrow had already dispersed. It meant that we were continuing to live, carrying his memory forward with us. A line from a random poem burst into my memory as the woman patted my shoulder: I have stolen/some of the light which drenches you this midnight/to wish you all the islands in the world/and every one a different kind of peace.
The food's arrival was what really quieted the laughter, although every one of us occasionally pealed out an exhausted giggle. We ate. I thought of a time I sat in that same restaurant with Dad, on Jake's second birthday, and all of us laughed at the sweetness on Jake's face when the staff gathered around him with a little cake, to sing happy birthday to him. We talked about funeral plans. Becky and I talked about running. Life moved forward a bit, with us—remembering, eating, and yes, laughing—living it the best way we could.