Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Gone Dark

There are two kinds of people in the world. Those who get and appreciate dark humor (gallows humor, if you prefer), and people who can't breathe without proper instruction. I'm kidding. Maybe. Not really. (They're certainly stifled.) I am most definitely of the Dark Humor Peoples, and proudly so. Humor has been the one constant in my life. It has taken me through everything and has been my friend when all else is lost. Dark humor is my way of whistling past the graveyard. It isn't that I don't take things seriously. I take too much too seriously. Dark humor is the mechanism that allows me to cope with it in a way that keeps me getting out of bed every morning.

I've always known that I tend toward the shadow side of humor. As a kid, friends would give me the sideways glance when I'd joke about certain things. Growing into adulthood, my attempts at humor were often met with a polite, "Heh..." and a face that looked as though someone farted in the elevator. All of which convinced me that there was something wrong with me, that I was too off-center for anyone to understand me. I was a stranger in my own world, making my smart ass comments and laughing to myself. For a long time I kept my mouth shut. The only problem with that was trying to explain to others why I was laughing at inappropriate moments. "Oh, nothing... just had a thought..."

Then, in the Autumn of 1994, I learned that I possessed a great gift - one that kept me from completely losing my shit and wallowing in it.

I was a nanny back then. I had started with the family in 1987 when the youngest boy was barely 2 years old and the eldest nearly 7 years old. A few years later when the youngest began kindergarten, I started the search for employment elsewhere, as they really didn't need a full time nanny. But, just as I was sending out resumes, their mother, Cindy (who had become a dear friend by then), was diagnosed with breast cancer. The cancer almost immediately metastasized to her spine, causing mobility issues. So, I ended up staying on to help with her care.

During what was to be the last summer of her life, the older of the two boys (Jon) went to a party and returned home with a bag full of party favors. Among the various tchotchkes in the bag was a battery operated pen that squiggled when switched on. We all had great fun with it, trying to write legible notes and draw faces. If you're having trouble picturing it, let me put it bluntly. It was, for all intents and purposes, a vibrator with a pen on one end. I don't know what innocent soul thought this was good swag for a child's party, but I imagine Cindy and I weren't the only adults to bite down on our lips to smother a giggle after giving the apparatus and each other knowing looks.

A couple of months later, the ravages of the disease and chemo treatments left Cindy completely bedridden and unable to perform even the most basic human functions. The first time I had to change her diaper, I fought hard against the tears that threatened to blind me. All I could think was that as much as I was feeling, how much more could she be feeling? I imagined her humiliation, this proud beautiful warrior, at having me, the woman who'd been hired to change her baby's diapers now changing hers. I rolled her on her side and held the warm washcloth in my hand, hesitating. Finally, I gulped back the tremendous lump in my throat and said gently, "Please pardon my familiarity..." Without hesitation, she replied, "That's okay... as long as you're not holding Jonathan's pen." I snorted out laughter through my tears so hard that snot flew onto her hip. I wheezed out, "Oh, grossss... I'm so sorry!" But she was laughing too hard to care. I finished cleaning her up and getting her settled again, both of us laughing hysterically the entire time.

It's one of the best laughs I've ever had at one of the darkest times in my life. It was a moment that defined me. I realized in that moment that what I carried within me was a gift and one of life's finest. If there was humor in that dark moment, there was humor everywhere. And, let me qualify this here, humor isn't always funny - sometimes its sole purpose serves to be a momentary breath, a pause to face what is. After all, how many times do we hear or see something "funny", yet we don't laugh. Instead, we nod in recognition - the ol' "ah, somebody out there gets it."

Humor, dark humor especially, opens up a conduit that allows us to acknowledge the most horrific stuff in our lives. More importantly, it's a gigantic "fuck you" to that horrific stuff. It says, "You have not beaten me. I am still here. I may be wiping my own snot and tears off a dying woman's ass, but I'll be able to walk away from this and I'll keep going. And I'll be stronger for it."

It's no surprise that the people closest to me are those who also willingly go the depths. I admire fellow humans who are willing to walk through the dark and see it for what it is - a place where any light thrown becomes a spotlight that reveals the true nature of a thing.


  1. I love this essay SO MUCH, Barb. Humor in the face of anguish is one of humanity's noble coping tools, I believe. Laughter, even of the darkest kind, is the antidote to darkness itself.

  2. Barb, this one sure hits home, but for me it was about channeling that humour; for a long time I used it to hide myself and my real feelings and had to learn that it was okay NOT to laugh off certain things...I still consider my twisted sense of humour one of my greatest assets, especially now that it's no longer used as a barrier. Your pen story is a perfect example of dark humour lighting up an even darker time.