Prompts for the Promptless: Gallows Humor

Prompts for the Promptless Challenge: “Gallows Humor is humor that makes fun of a life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situation.” Write a story, a poem, etc. to go with the prompt.

A new challenge! Well, this one is my specialty.   So many experiences to choose from. There have been dangerous times:

I was over visiting with a friend, we were about 15 years old or so.  Her younger sister came flying through the door, eyes wide open, mouth going full tilt.  Something about the neighbor’s house.  They were kitty-sitting and Angie had gone over to feed the kitty.  The back door was wide open and the living room had been ransacked.  Lizzie and I jumped up to investigate.  I should confess here that, truthfully, I am a chicken, a coward frightened of spiders, more scared by my imagination and dreams than reality.  On the other hand, if I am with someone who is more scared than I am, well, somehow that transmutes me from the Cowardly Lion into the bravest and foolhardy of souls.

Liz and I made our way to the backdoor of the house next door and sure enough, it was open.  The kitchen looked just a bit untidy, but as we cautiously made our way into the living room ~ unarmed, mind you ~ we paused in awe at the tumbled look of the furniture and contents strewn wall to wall.  Lizzie began backing up, “I think we’d better go and call the police.”

“Don’t be silly, Liz.  They’re gone.  What idiot would stick around after Angie came in and took off?”  I prowled the downstairs, hands behind my back so as not to touch anything.  Liz took careful steps around the debris.  “Oh, the Johnsons are going to be upset!  Hard to tell what they took.”

I started up the stairs, “Let’s see what they did up here.”  We glanced briefly into bedrooms, not as tossed as the downstairs.  I had my hand on the doorknob of a hall closet at the top of the stairs, when Liz lost her nerve.  “That’s it, HuntMode.  This creeps me out.  I’m out of here and calling the police!”

I made a show of reluctance, but was on her heels as we left the house, not brave enough to stay alone.  We called the police, they came, we accompanied them into the house, telling them what we had found.  Upstairs, unaccountably, the door to the closet stood wide open…  The cop looked at me sternly, “And that is why, young lady, you never, ever enter a house you even think might have been robbed!”  Just in case I didn’t get it, he added:  “They were hiding in this closet.  You two could have been in serious danger.”  Liz and I swapped looks and I tried to look cool, but my heart was beating out of my chest.

Years later, there was the New Mexico smuggling ring I wandered into and hightailed out of…

The time I visited the L.A. Morgue to do research for a mystery novel with “my assistant,” a friend beautiful enough to distract the Coroner and gets us entry for hours…

Jumping out of a perfectly good airplane because I wanted to be a spy and thought that would be a good skill set….

…………….

Okay, most of us have little experience dealing with death. Certainly, the first time you are responsible for funeral arrangements, it can be overwhelming.   As I was the only one living in the same town and state as my mother when she died, my brothers and sister said to go ahead and do what I thought best.  For the record, my mother passed away from cancer.  It was a very fast acting cancer.  From prognosis of: she may have four hours to four days to live, then a phenomenal surgery, to death was two months. On the morning I awoke and found my mother peacefully gone in her bed in the bedroom next to mine, the EMTs arrived and pronounced her death and two police officers stood by helping me figure out who to call and what to do next.

As I recall, I arranged for her body to be taken to a funeral home; bought the casket, wrote the funeral announcement, set up the visiting times, and the time and place of the funeral, made the calls, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera, my law firm lending me the money to be able to do these things.  Selected the cemetery, purchased a grave plot on some of the most expensive land in Los Angeles with one of the best views to be found, purchased a headstone, details to follow, bought a plot for me, while I was at it. A zillion decisions to be made, expenses declared necessary that make for a grand bill.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but frankly, these things should be discussed long before they are needed.  For instance, my mother surprised me by wanting a mass and a burial.  I wouldn’t have thought that, but she had said that is what she wanted and that is what she would get.

My friends helped out in the details.  Mom’s upper denture had been at the dentist being repaired.  One of my friends, Rene, was a long time dental hygienist, as well as an experienced maker of crowns, etc.   She was with me that first day, walking through the door and right over to a chair. She pulled the chair out, saying, “First things first, Huntie.” Continuing a well-known HuntMode family tradition passed down from my Grandmother to my mother to me, she patted her lap. “Come here, Hunt. I’ll be your Mom today. You are never too old to sit on your mother’s lap…” Like a falcon returning to the wrist, you can bet I went and sat on my friend’s lap and buried my head into her shoulder. She wrapped her arms around me and just patted my back, allowing me for a few brief moments to lay the burden down. She went with me on all the weird errands of the day, helping me pick out a coffin, standing ready to assist if it got overwhelming or ready to offer comfort and steadiness, knowing my Mom had been my best friend and this was hard.  She was the one who volunteered to go get the denture and be sure the cosmologist or mortician or whomever would have it in time for Mom’s viewing – a little ceremony that takes place, generally the evening before a funeral, for people to pay their respects or maybe, in this case, to be sure my Mom looked exactly right for her last day or both.

We may have had to wait a day for the denture, but the funeral was about three days out, so plenty of time, we thought.  We picked out the clothes Mom would want.   We packed up things, returned medical equipment, shared memories and dealt with it.  Over the next couple of days, I got lots of advice from people with far more experience than I about things to watch out for…  I do remember calling one friend with an urgent plea for help.  The local Catholic priest was from Nigeria, but had studied in Ireland, and his accent was a combination of the two.  For the life of me,  I could not understand a word he said.  “Reagan, you’re Catholic.  Can you find me a priest I can understand?”  She did and he was wonderful.  I had been worried that because my mother had been divorced, they would not accept her for services.  “Oh, no, we no longer do that, if we ever did.  Your mother is more than welcomed by God and the Catholic Church.”  He asked about the service and I explained that half the attendees would be friends, family and co-workers and  half would be from Alcoholics Anonymous.  The priest laughed and said, “Goodness!  I hope a fight doesn’t break out between the two sides.”  He was half-kidding.  I wasn’t so sure.

My sister flew in and we went to the funeral home to be sure all was in order before the viewing.  It was still being set up, so I took Kate on a tour of the place, with which I was now familiar enough to have sold funeral plans.  We toured the coffins, from elaborate to simple, and I showed Kate the one we had picked and she agreed it was exactly right.  Here’s the thing:  my sister and I are quite different in many ways.  At the time, she had very set ideas of what was proper from a spiritual or religious attitude, which included a great deal of deep contemplative expressions and soulful sighs.  We also had the ability to set one another off at the most inappropriate times – full scale, helpless giggling where the more you try to stop it, the worse it gets.  (We had a terrible attack during my father’s memorial service, 12 years before.)  It started with the coffins and just got worse from there as I gave Kate the tour.  I am especially bad if I think you are putting on airs and my humor is ruthless at those moments.

The new girl at the funeral home came to collect us and seemed a bit startled by our laughter.  She had the proper persona for a last viewing, but she was understandably nervous because it was her first week.  The Director was busy at an actual funeral service taking place in a larger chapel, so she led us to our smaller chapel, where the doors stood open in quiet welcome.  The assistant backed away and left quietly.

At the far end of the chapel was a stained glass floor to ceiling window and Mom in her lovely simple Franciscan-like coffin was waiting, head on pillow, seemingly at peaceful repose.  Instinctively, Kate and I held hands and stopped on the threshold.  There was quiet music, a podium with the sign in registry (part of the funeral costs), the little memorial cards all awaiting guests who would come to say their goodbyes to Mom.  I think Kate made the sign of the cross, but one of us took the first step over the threshold and up to the sign in book.

Because I was responsible for the arrangements, and I had all those bits and pieces of advice ticking through my head, I was checking to be sure all was in order.  We signed in and then walked together to the far end to stand in front of the coffin with the sun blazing in and lighting up my mother’s features.  They had asked for a photo to capture Mom’s style.  My mother didn’t wear make-up.  She wore lipstick, but that was it.  Kate and I gazed down.  Kate folded her hands in front of her, said, “Ah…” and stared soulfully down on my mother’s countenance.  “Hi Julie…”

I looked and looked again.  Too much make-up, but that could be fixed.   I glanced over at Kate to see if she had seen it, too.  Kate was in humble, spiritual pose.  I nudged her.  “Kate,”  I began.

“She looks lovely.” My sister interrupted.

“I dunno, Kate.  I think she looks black.”

My sister broke protocol and whipped sideways to look from me to Mom.  “What?!”

I said firmly, “Look at her nose, Kate.  It’s flattened out and her mouth seems odd…. She looks black, Kate.”

“Change places with me.”  Kate ordered.  “Maybe it’s the light.”  We shuffled positions.  Kate studied Mom.

“See what I mean?  It’s not the make-up, Kate.  We can tone that down.  It’s her bone structure.  It’s different…” Could we fix it?

Kate was silent and then said, unwillingly, “You’ve got a point.  Oh, Julie…” She said to my mother.

I could feel my mother standing behind me, looking over my shoulder. “Somebody got had here…”

“Alright, this won’t do.  Where’s the assistant?”  I looked around as if she might materialize with the thought.  “Kate, you stay with Mom and I’ll go find her.”  My sister nodded and tried to recapture her spirituality.

The Director was still busy, so I brought the hapless assistant into the chapel, straight up the aisle and we came to a full stop in front of Mom, my sister turning towards us, just the slightest frown beginning. I explained the problem with the make-up and then said, “Here is the real problem. Somehow, my mother’s features have changed and I need you to change them back.” The little assistant blanched. Clearly, this had not been covered in her training. “I’ll get someone.” She bolted.

Kate and I looked at one another. “Don’t start, HuntMode,” She said warningly. I snorted. She averted her eyes, back to looking down at Mom. A giggle started deep inside Kate, spread like a virus to me, and we stood there,  shoulders shaking, little trills escaping.  There were no unseemly guffaws, just muffled laughter. Then, we heard the assistant coming back and straightened up. The poor girl spread her hands in supplication and quietly said, “I am so sorry. No one is available at this time. The widow next door collapsed and the Director cannot leave. He assures me he will take care of this…”

He did call me later, saying that because rigor mortis had set in and left prior to Mom’s denture being put in, her face had perhaps shifted a bit. “Please shift it back.” I said unhesitatingly. “We will fix this, Ms. HuntMode. You have my word.”

The day of the funeral, we gathered at the Catholic Mortuary for the service, an entirely different place than the funeral home. There were, of course, some hiccups.  Mom was once again on display in an area set aside before the mass and, I must say, that was a gorgeous chapel, another exquisite stain glass that drew the eye  above the alter.   My sister and I made sure Mom’s bone structure was back in place.  Kate and I said not a word to anybody else, but we each had crossed our fingers- they had done it.   A while later, my older brother pulled me aside.  “Whatever you do, Huntie, don’t lean down and kiss Mom goodbye.”  He was pale.

Four days is a long time, preservation or not….  I cast him an alarmed glance.  “You didn’t!”

“It felt like the right thing to do.”  He looked like the harried assistant.  “Don’t do it.”  He was in full earnest.  ” It will be a long time before I get that out of my head.”  He moved away, turning to greet people.

Word came the priest would be late.  We were to wing it for 30-45 minutes.  Right.  Wing a funeral.  They were already seated and Mom in her now closed coffin was at the front, near the alter.  I climbed the dais to the podium and turned to face my family, friends and people who adored my mother.  I have a recollection of welcoming everyone, thanking them for coming, and announcing the priest having been delayed and something to the effect, “So, this would seem like a good time for anyone who would like to say a few words about our Mom, Julie, to come forward.  I’ll start…”  I stepped down and walked back to my seat and held my breath.  Public speaking is the number one rated fear of human beings.  But love is the strongest of all.  One by one they conquered their fear and stepped forward to recount stories of my mother, that wonderful 5’2, 95 lb. tower of strength, breaker of glass ceilings in her time woman.  There was more laughter than tears because she was remarkable in all the daily affairs of life.  The day of her funeral was to have been her 33rd AA birthday and we tossed anonymity away that day to honor and pay tribute.

My ex-husband and my mother had shared a very special relationship.  Quite simply, they adored one another.  He and his family had a tradition of getting drunk before the funeral and I had threatened him with bodily harm if he showed up drunk at my mother’s funeral mass.  “I swear to God, James, I will knock you out cold and there will be plenty of men to help me if I need it.  I’ve bought another plot and I will put you in it!”  Naturally, for me, his was the greatest eulogy of all…  he told of having been over to Mom’s apartment and seeing a large web up high on her closet door.  “I pointed to it and asked Julie if she’d seen it.  “Why no, James, I guess not.  Those things don’t bother me.”  And, that was Mom Julie.  She would look at you and never see the cobwebs, only the good.”  (Makes me cry just thinking of it.)

One of my cousins, a professional singer, stood up and sang a capella Amazing Grace and for the first time I really heard the words of that song. Straight to the heart.

My mother was well-loved and she would have been delighted to have seen how many people came to pay their last respects. Actually, we are all convinced Mom was there. Kimberly was certain of it when on the way out, the coffin, which was on wheels, got away from the escort and started to wobble off course. Not missing a beat, Kimberly and I walking behind it, genuflected and caught it, bringing it  back into alignment. “Mom HuntMode!” Kimberly said fondly.

At the graveside, still winging this – there are no true books on this or not enough to time to read ’em when you need ’em ~ my brother announced we would say an Our Father, and that he would take Mom’s role for every AA meeting ends with the Lord’s Prayer.  It turns out my mother was always a step out and off the chorus and as we began, “Our Father, who art in heaven,” Sean would follow immediately on the heels of it, with a beat or two behind, “who art in heaven,” echoing each line… “Amen.”  “Amen.

But, wait, there’s more…  All during the lead up to the funeral, people would ask “Is there anything you need…?”  It is what you say, of course.  It is rare to be taken up on it.  I was on a roll, though.  “Why yes, there is.”

“Ohhh…?”

“Yes, I’d like a plate.”

“A plate, Huntie?  A plate of what?”

“Just a plate.  Or a cup or a saucer.  It doesn’t have to be new, it can be used, in fact.”

“Okay..  That’s it?  A plate?”

“Yep.  That will do it.”

I had dishes coming out the wazoo, all piled higgledy-piggledy  in a box or two.  Bless their hearts.    When my husband and I had separated, I had separated out old dishes from new and put them in a box.  One afternoon, my Mom, Rene and I went to the garage, all cleaned out and empty.   We stepped inside.  We lined up and each of us took a piece of crockery.  We saluted one another and lifted our cups and plates high and hurled them against the back of the garage.  The satisfaction of smashing something is not to be underestimated, especially for uptight Anglo Saxons.  Mom’s plates bounced, of course.  Frustrated her no end.  She got into it though and was soon smashing along with the best of us.

I had known I would crash after the funeral, that if I were going to cry, that would be the inconsolable time.  What you are never told is that the world has a gaping hole in it when your loved one leaves, but it closes fast and people move on and they expect you to move on, too.  I am not one of those.  I fiercely resent my loved one being gone and I do not let go easily of them.  The plates were for me when I reach the point where I had to blow or implode.  One afternoon, towards sunset, Rene showed up.  “Come on, kiddo.  It’s time.”  She grabbed the box and we went out on the third floor balcony overlooking the alley.  Rene looked up and down the alley, searching for witnesses.  She snatched up a cup, passed the box to me, and flashed me a grin.  She held the cup over the balcony, standing on tiptoe for maximum reach.  She grinned again, a very wicked grin and hurled it down onto the ground three stories below.  Her utter joy was infectious.  “Go on, Hunt.  Do it.  I double-dog dare you.”  Well…. we snatched and smashed and then raced down to clean up the alley…

Mom’s grave site was located in a new area and many were awaiting their tombstones, including Mom.  I had decided I was not in a hurry and might follow the Jewish tradition of a year’s mourning and then install the gravestone, while I pondered how to sum up her life, besides the dates.  I visited though many times throughout the year.  Sometimes friends would come with me, sometimes alone.  It was a beautiful place.  High on a small hill with a fabulous view of the Pacific Ocean.

I am not comfortable talking out loud to the dead.  My friends would chat with Mom, bringing her up to date, but I always figured she knew what was going on.  I would catch her scent in a room I walked through.  It was not a perfume, but the scent of my mother, something indefinable that was indelibly marked on my senses from thousands of hugs and kisses.  You located the grave by area and site number and eventually the car just drove to it.  I was there often enough to notice if it was not in tip top shape and would call to request they do what was necessary.  The year anniversary came and I went to see how the gravestone looked.  It was a rose colored marble and it wasn’t there.  And, once again, the site looked dry and in need of a trim.   But they had assured me it had been installed.

This time, I did talk out loud.  “Mom, I don’t know what happened, but I’ll find out.”  I promised fiercely.  I got to my feet and turned around.  My gaze caught sight of a pink marble stone that was about three to five rows up and two or three graves to the right.  I looked down at Mom’s grave.  “You don’t suppose they put it in the wrong place…?  That’s new.”  Trust me.  I knew who had been there and who was newly arrived.  I said hello to the Admiral as I walked towards the freshly  placed headstone.  He had been there a long time.  I walked up and stood there for a long time, staring at it.  Her name, her dates, the names of her children and the quote I wrote down just before Mom died, when I had asked what she would like said at her funeral.  What great deeds she would want recounted.  My mother had snorted.  “Oh, HuntMode… a person’s greatest deeds are found in the doing of everyday things.”

It was very quiet in that place.  Restful.  Gentle.  I had been visiting the wrong grave site for over a year.  It was beautifully tended and cared for, the grass bright green, her flower holder just right.  And, I heard my mother say, “Oh, Pooh Bear, finally!  You made it…”

19 thoughts on “Prompts for the Promptless: Gallows Humor

  1. Pingback: Prompts for the Promptless – Ep. 9 – Gallows Humor | rarasaur

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  3. Oh man P!!
    A whole year!
    I’ve only been back to my dad’s grave I think twice in the past 12 years – not where I see him.
    Thanks for sharing this – I agree with your brother, although I did not kiss my dad goodbye, the last memory I have of him was in the coffin at the mortuary. He looked peaceful, and I can only hope he was and still is…

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    • Customs vary, J. Our cemeteries out on the West Coast are relatively new and gorgeous – in fact, that particular cemetery has a very famous population – it being Hollywood and all. About kissing someone goodbye…. nope, not for me. I truly did spend too much time at the L.A. Coroner’s Morgue…

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  6. Boy… I never forgot that day! I’ve recollected that incident next door at the Hopkins’ house to a few people since then. I felt in my gut that someone might still be in the house…

    Such a sweet, moving story during what was such a difficult time for you. I can see you and Kate breaking out in laughter…
    “Lizzie”

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    • Anna a/k/a “Lizzie,” I’d wondered if you’d remember! So glad you read through to the end of this long story. That is how I see it – we can try to surround even death with formality and life just escapes around the edges and springs to the fore.

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  7. Hunt, You continue to surprise me, what a wonderful story, so rich with detail, with love, and with caring. If you mom had been a fly on the wall she would have loved your brother’s remark about not kissing her. I know I did, And kinda having a feeling about you, I can see you making it all right. Please take care, Bill

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  8. So much to take care of in such a short time and you managed to get it done. A terrible thing to find your mother’s features rearranged. You have a lovely way of telling a difficult story. I couldn’t stop reading till the end. Nothing dull about you.
    The bit about the plate(s), I knew immediately what that was about. Yes, surprised me. Might a recommend a wonderful book, off topic (more about a damaged war vet), by Frances Itani called Deafening. There’s a lot of plate throwing and just reading about it made me feel better and understand how good it is to smash something without hurting yourself.

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