Anybody who knows me in real life knows that I am a tasteless person with a sense of humor low enough to reasonably be called vile. I cope with my cancer in part by being rather a smart ass, at least when my emotional energy allows. I am not the only one in my circle who does this. But it also bothers the hell out of some people around me.
Playing Cards Against Humanity a couple of days ago, someone passed me the "Brain Tumor" card. I thought this was absolutely hilarious. Likewise, there is a joke going around just lately which I continue to re-tell, that goes thusly:
Q: "What's the difference between Jay Lake and a ham?" A: "A ham can be cured."
The partner of the person who first told me this joke (they are both dear friends) is very upset by it, even though I crack up every time this comes out. If it was up to me, this joke would be told at my funeral.
Humor is incredibly suggestive at the best of times. Humor in the face of mind-numbing adversity... If I couldn't laugh at this at least some of the time, I'd have curled up and died of grief and fear a long time ago.
I must remember that when a dying friend trusts me with intense emotions, they are not asking for me to solve a problem. They are asking me to listen. To be with them. To ease the loneliness and fear to whatever extend my presence can. To be present with them in this very moment.
[B}ear in mind that everyone in a position similar to mine may have different views of their needs. And some of us (myself included sometimes) can be driven to profound irrationality by fear or stress. Sadly, there is no really good answer.
For me, gallows humor is relieving. Entertaining. And much, much better than most of my emotional and conversational alternatives. For others, it can be profoundly offensive. See my comments about adverse reactions to the Alternate History of My Cancer video [ jlake.com | LiveJournal ].
But you know what? It's my cancer. I get to decide how to cope. I also get to change my mind about my coping strategies. In either case, it's not my job to help other people feel better about their fears for themselves or or me. It's my job to make myself feel better. That's the best thing I can do for anyone.
This true of anyone in my situation. Most people probably aren't as enthusiastic about tasteless remarks as I am, but they get to choose. This is my choice. If I could go out death's door laughing, I would.
This reminds me of a story, perhaps apocryphal, that went around the Twin Cities gaming community many years ago. A member of the party is dying from his battle wounds, and someone brings out a scroll they can barely decipher. They recite what's one it, and ask for their companion to be cured.
Immediately, his flesh becomes harder, he turns a deep pink, and goes completely stiff. He has been "cured" - like a ham.
I have a friend in the Navy who was almost shot by someone in Afghanistan -- after drawing on her, the shooter decided not to shoot her, and instead went on to shoot someone else. And my friend said something like, "Maybe I should be offended that she didn't shoot me," with a smiley-face, clearly making a joke.
It's hard to know how to respond to such a fraught situation, especially one I have no personal experience with and especially over email, but I followed her lead, and I said, "Well, it's an honor just to be nominated, right?" And she seemed to really like that answer, that I was playing along with the black-humor, tension-easing game.
Everyone does cope differently, and I think people coping often try to give us clues as to how they are coping and what they find helpful. I also think when you're emotionally worn thin, sometimes something that's funny one day can be painful the next, and vice versa. It's tricky territory. I figure the best I can do is follow the lead of the person I'm talking to, with the understanding that I will sometimes get it wrong.
BTW? That ham joke? I thought it was very funny too.
I often think about a story Carol Carr told me some thirty years ago (I think it was not terribly long after Terry died). A friend of hers had some (unspecified) family disaster of enormous proportions, and called Carol up to say, "You are the only person I can trust to laugh with me about this."
I had an incredibly peculiar dream where you were in a Panama hat and turquoise hawaiian shirt (okay, that's not peculiar) and were adamant about sharing a cheeseburger at the Orlando airport before you got on a plane.
Of course there was bacon on it, but I think the bottom half of the roll was pumperinckel, which ... frankly, sounds intriguing.
Make tasteless jokes. Dance if you want to. Do crossword puzzles. Do it the way you want to, and the way you need to. Don't go kicking other people in the shins or setting brush fires, but beyond that, it's your cope, so cope your way.
I will note that, just before she died, my mother came out of a coma long enough to look around the room and remark to the nurse who was there, "I don't know whether to shit or fly to Miami." The nurse reported it to my father later in tones of horror, and was horrified when Dad cracked up. It's the punchline to an old family joke about being stuck in a holding pattern not of one's own making. Those were the last words Mom spoke; she lapsed back into the coma and was gone within 24 hours.
I hope my last words are as to-the-point and ridiculous as hers.
I'd been meaning to tell you this... a few weeks ago I dreamed I was in the Dealer room at some convention or other and decided it would be a good place to pick up a Sympathy Card for your family. I saw you so I went up and said I wanted to get this card, but I wanted to be sure it was something you liked. You said, "There are these Australians who have some great cards, but some people think the cards are... rude." We walked to the table of Australians and spent the rest of the dream reading Rude Australian Sympathy cards and laughing our butts off. I wish I could remember what the cards said.
I know I would flinch to hear you tell that joke, just because I'm acculturated to think that laughing = treating something as trivial and oh my god that's not okay for this -- but I also agree 100% that if you find it funny, then rock on with your gallows humour. I'd rather know you're laughing.
The humour thing reminds me of an article I read recently about an American oncologist who did a stint in the UK. She found that every single patient who was given a dire diagnosis made a joke about it, along the lines of "At least it's not serious". Initally she was horrified. "No, no!" she would protest wondering why so many people had such poor comprehension skills. "It is serious!" Eventually, she became used to the fact that the British will make a joke about absolutely anything, a tendency some Americans do find a little unnerving. (Being British-born, I thought the ham joke was stellar.)
A few years ago my doctor said something very like "If you agree to stop making me laugh while I'm burning something off your back, I'll agree not to sign my name there with the cautery pencil." This was right after I'd said "Do you smell something burning, or is that just me?"
I would prefer that my funeral, whenever it eventually comes, involves more than a bit of black humor. I have spent much of my life fighting the dark moments with darker jokes, and I would hate to think that would be lost when I leave it.