Excerpted from my essay collection, Things You Can’t Un-see
For as long as I can remember, every morning my father made my mother coffee. Contrary to stereotype, my mother was completely inept with everything in the kitchen, including the coffee maker as old as their marriage. That coffee pot symbolized to me everything a good marriage should be, but it was also the source of a long summer of “gallows humor” jokes.
“Who will make you coffee when I’m gone?” Dad would ask, half teasing but mostly serious, shortly after we learned he was dying of cancer. Mom’s response was without hesitation: “I’ll just replace you with a Keurig.”
It sounds callous, and yet for my parents, “gallows humor” was what enabled them to make the most of their remaining months together. We just had to take Dad’s lead on when the timing was appropriate for it. Only the one on the gallows can make the jokes; it’s cruel when spectators do it. And even then, only the one facing the proverbial noose is capable of seeing any humor in it, if there is any to be found. Somehow, Dad always did.
My father was always an optimist: just one reason I wonder how in the world we are possibly related. Aside from his facial features and thick, curly hair, I didn’t seem to inherit anything else from him: not his naturally cheerful spirit, his “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” attitude, and certainly not his ability to find humor in almost any situation. He could laugh at himself like no one else I knew. If he had any anxiety at all, he hid it well.
If it were me who was actively dying, I doubt I could even fake having any peace, much less crack jokes about my deteriorating condition. I couldn’t dance in the kitchen for as long as my mobility remained intact, singing Billy Joel’s Only the Good Die Young into a wooden cooking spoon. I couldn’t say during dinner, “You know, the doctors thought I was gonna die a year and a half ago, but I survived. I already beat that motherfucker.” And yet, somehow, I was able to laugh with Dad, at least for a while. In a bizarre way, cancer brought out the qualities everyone loved most in my father. He was himself, amplified.
Only during his last year of life did we cultivate a tradition of breakfast at one of our favorite local joints, Yours Truly. The restaurant existed for as long as we lived in Hudson—seventeen years, and then some—and I’d always order the exact same thing. Dad, the “I’ll try anything once” guy, loved their pancakes, but this time decided on trying something different. “Might as well, while I still can,” he said with a wink.
I tried to wink back, but it felt like a wince. Probably because it was.
After placing our order, something changed in his expression. He had far more experience with being blunt about death with Mom, who knew the disease would take him long before the kids: my brother and I. I tried to keep up, for his sake, but my forced humor was as unconvincing as the so-called well-intentioned “Everything happens for a reason” trope.
Taking an uncharacteristic turn for the serious, he asked me if there were any of his possessions that I wanted. His class ring? A favorite Father’s Day tie?
I couldn’t pretend anymore. Tears pricked the sides of my eyes like hot pokers, but I forced myself to laugh anyway. “Pollen is the worst this season,” I sputtered. Pollen? Really? Spontaneous humor was his gift, not mine.
Dad didn’t bother hiding his tears, either. “The worst,” he admitted.
We knew he likely wouldn’t live long enough to walk me down the aisle at my wedding. Though barely able to walk at that point, we talked him into coming to a dress fitting so he could have a vision of what I would look like on the big day, even though the skirt was still two feet too long. I emerged from the dressing room suite, holding up the long train, and will never forget the look of pride that swelled on his face.
That was where we had our father-daughter dance. Sur- rounded by tear-stained employees, we danced to Pachelbel’s Canon from Mom’s phone. Dad had lost so much weight that I was practically holding him up, but the energy in his smile weighed in tons.
“I’m so happy right now, I could just die,” he told me.
Our final summer was a last-ditch effort to relive the best moments of my childhood, excluding all the times my brother and I were carried up the stairs to bed until we were nearly teenagers, and the way we’d crawl over him as he held a plank position, singing London Bridge is Falling Down before he tackled us at the end, and we laughed ourselves to pieces. We were so easy to entertain back then.
Instead, I reverted back to my childhood way of jumping in bed with Mom and Dad to say goodnight, where I would obnoxiously ask them to tell me stories about their childhoods and how they met. It felt appropriate to start that “tradition” again, as the patriarch of my childhood slowly began slipping away.
The door was closed that evening, not cracked like usual. I raised my fist to knock, and stopped when I heard, “Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
“You gonna miss me when I’m gone?”
“Even though my life insurance money will make you rich?”
I struggled to bite back a laugh and tears. This was so my father.
“Especially once that money makes me rich.”
“Thanks for keeping me around all these years. I really appreciate it.”
“Thanks for never pissing me off enough to drop you from my insurance policy.”
The silence that followed was so heavy. I quietly slipped back to my room.
Maybe it’s in my blood, but my parents’ dry gallows humor has seeped into my own marriage as well, even though neither Josh nor I have yet to face a certain death sentence (knocks on wood). I am now keenly aware that the people we love most are not guaranteed to stay in our lives forever—they could be taken by a sudden diagnosis, an accident, or God knows what. Therefore, I can’t afford to waste time in pent-up anger.
I get annoyed with Josh several times a week, and vice versa. On bad days I have to make a point of saying to him before bed, “Just so you know, I’m really pissed at you right now, but I love you.”
He’ll always respond with, “I know that, hon.” And I always sigh and say, “No, I mean I’d be absolutely devastated if something happened to you tomorrow and I’d never forgive myself for not telling you ‘I love you’ because I was mad at you.” I exhale it all in one breath, and finally, he smiles.
“Just don’t spend all my life insurance money in one place,” he’ll say with a grin. Either that, or “I know you love me. That’s why I feel safe sleeping next to you, knowing you won’t try and murder me for my life insurance.”
We understand each other perfectly.
I didn’t share many interests or hobbies with my father; that was my brother’s domain. As two adults, we had little to talk about, but as father and daughter, we had a smattering of little jokes we mostly can’t remember cultivating:
“You’re the bee’s knees, babe.” “Well, you’re the dog’s woof.” “Cat’s meow.”
The goal was to spit out answers in rapid succession, the first one to hesitate being the loser. The stress of time heightened our creativity.
“Spider’s bite,” he said somberly. Hangman’s noose.
Dad started slipping away in September, one month after the doctor’s projected death date. By our watered-down definition of victory, he had already won by defying the expectations of the oncologist, but optimism was harder to maintain the more aggressively his body shut down. Did he feel pressure to keep up the jokes and the sarcasm for our sake? Did we pressure him by laughing when we should have given him permission to break down and curse the world for its unfairness—that he’d die ten years younger than his father did, that he’d miss his firstborn’s wedding, and never meet his grandchildren?
I’ll never know how much of the pain my parents struggled to hide from me. I never felt comfortable asking how much of their joking was a front for having to face the inevitable.
When the pain overtook an otherwise sentimental dinner on the backyard deck, he attempted to stand up and collapsed in my mother’s arms, sobbing “I can’t do this anymore.” It’s one of the few times I’ve seen them both cry together, letting their guard down in front of their children.
“Pollen is the worst this time of year, isn’t it?” I offered weakly. They held on to each other, lost to themselves, unable to hear me.
He slipped into delirium, and then unconsciousness, just after the anniversary of 9/11, and died on September 25th: three days past the official start of fall, when the doctors predicted he wouldn’t make it through the summer. He got his final “screw you” to the cancer after all.
We don’t know how much he was able to hear or understand when we told him that we loved him; that he didn’t have to be strong anymore if it hurt too much; that it was okay to let go. There were slight chuckles when I said, “He doesn’t have my permission. I’m not telling him that,” but not even Caplin Gallows Humor could rectify the pain of losing a parent and husband. We had weathered so much as a family, and finally we allowed ourselves to curse, cry, and grieve like normal people.
My wedding was just two months away. Humor was dead. There was nothing funny to be found in this.
But there were smiles at the memorial service, as guests filtered in the synagogue to Billy Joel’s Angry Young Man. That was what he requested, and friends and relatives laughed through the tears. That was David Caplin. That was Dad: the man who faced the gallows and had the last laugh.