The DPC (Dead Parents Club): Or, In Defense of Gallows Humor

Jordan was first.

When my close friend Jordan – husband of my best friend Erin – told me his dad had shot himself, the whole world changed for all of us.  My mom was sick at the time, in the second year of her ultimately three-year battle with ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”).  So it’s not like the mortality of parents wasn’t a topic more or less permanently on my mind.  I had just barely worked myself into a place where I could comprehend that parents were fallible; I hadn’t quite got around to fully comprehending that, at a certain point, they will eventually die.

When you think about it, this reflects a certain amount of naivete on my part.  Both my parents had lost parents when they weren’t terribly older than I am now – my mom’s father, Grandpa Sal, died before I was born, while Mom was pregnant with Catherine.  I never met him.  I do remember my Grammy Lydia, my dad’s mother, a little, although she died when I was very small and now I’m at that place where I’m never quite sure if my memories of her are real or from photographs . . . but at any rate, I knew intellectually – from my family’s own experience – that parents don’t live forever.  But I hadn’t internalized it.  So Jordan’s dad . . . that was a shock.

Jordan’s dad Merle had pretty much every health problem you can get by refusing to take care of yourself – heart problems, lung problems, diabetes, etc. He was also virtually bankrupt, and sporadically in trouble with the law. Jordan was the glue that held his family together, the oldest kid and the Man of the House.  The Smith family is like something straight out of an Arthur Miller play – sons and fathers, depression and suicide, alcohol and illness and disappointed dreams, and one lone character left standing at the end who has a chance to build a new life, in a happy marriage, if he can only make a clean break and get some distance.

As long as I’ve known Jordan, he’s had an almost flippant attitude towards the inevitable phone call that his dad’s dropped dead of a heart attack, that he was driving drunk and crashed into a tree, that he went into a diabetic coma from OD’ing on crappy food. But when the call came that Merle had shot himself, no one was ready for that. Least of all Jordan and Erin, who were in the process of packing up their lives to move to Indiana and had to take four days they couldn’t spare out of the packing week in order to fly home to Boise for the funeral.

It was Jordan’s sister that found him. She lives at home with her baby, and had just come back from a walk and gone into the garage. She has to live with what she’s seen, which is a burden that no 22-year-old should ever have to live with. And Jordan’s mom, despite years of exhaustion and suffering from having to bail Merle out of scrape after scrape, was haunted by memories of the man he used to be and imagined that she felt ghosts in the house. But Jordan’s the one I know. Jordan’s the only one whose change I could see. You can’t go through something like that and not be changed. You can’t lose a parent in that violent, sudden, selfish way and not start to think, what makes a person do that? Is that in me? Is it hereditary? Is it part of human nature? How do you go from being the merry, loving, blustery dad of someone’s childhood home videos to being someone who can carefully and meticulously assemble a device to shoot yourself in the head with a shotgun?

Erin called me to tell me the news. I was on the bus and she was cutting in and out. Her voice was calm by that point, having delivered the news so many times.

ERIN: Jordan [something something] killed himself.

CLAIRE: WHAT?!?!?!

ERIN: He shot himself. This morning. Sarah found him.

CLAIRE: I didn’t know Sarah was in town.

ERIN: What?

CLAIRE: He shot himself?

ERIN: Yeah.

CLAIRE: Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Are you okay?

ERIN: Oh yeah. I’m fine.

CLAIRE: I can’t believe it. I can’t believe it. Seriously? He killed himself?

ERIN: Yeah. (This goes back and forth for about five minutes with us totally not on the same page and talking about two different things, in a way that would be funny if it was anything else we were talking about)

CLAIRE: Is he . . . there? With you? (Meaning, in my mind, is she standing in the same room as her husband’s dead body and calmly talking to me on the phone)

ERIN: Yeah, he’s right here, you want to talk to him? (Sudden horrible visual image, which I can still conjure up at a moment’s notice, of Erin, basically numb from shock, holding her cell phone down to the mouth of a dead body, blank and numb like a crazy person)

CLAIRE: Erin! Erin, is Jordan – is he – are you sure he’s dead?

ERIN: Wait, what? No, Jordan’s DAD.

CLAIRE: What?

ERIN: Jordan’s DAD killed himself. Jordan’s fine.

CLAIRE: Oh, thank God. I mean, not – you know – obviously not “thank God” but –

ERIN: No, no, I know what you meant.

CLAIRE: Sorry.

ERIN: No, you’re fine. In fact, actually, thank you, for reminding me of the only thing that could possibly have been worse.

JORDAN (in the background): What did she say?

ERIN (to Jordan): She thought I said YOU killed yourself, and she freaked out. (Muffled conversation, laughter. To me) Jordan says to tell you, thank you. That was the first he’s laughed all day.

To this day, I have nightmares about that conversation, and that horrible sick feeling I had in the pit of my stomach when I thought I’d lost my friend.  But in a weird way, the most lasting lesson of that whole day is this – sometimes, even in the midst of horrible gut-wrenching trauma, the only thing you can do is laugh.  And the only person who could possibly understand why you’re not sick, demented or crazy for laughing at this stuff is someone else who’s been through it.

Thus was born the DPC.

DPC stands for “Dead Parents Club.”  The name was Jordan’s idea.  In its most concentrated form, the DPC refers to me, Jordan, and Jordan’s friend Christen (who lost her mom on the one-year anniversary of Jordan’s dad’s death, in a particularly twisted piece of irony).  However, the term has since been expanded (by me, anyway) to encompass the total of EIGHT parents lost by us and our friends in just over one year.  2008, Jordan and I decided, was The Worst Year Ever.

Members of the DPC include:

Merle Smith – July 24, 2007 (Jordan’s dad)

Nancy McCrea – November 1, 2007 (mother of my friend Henry, who was in middle school at the time)

Theresa Willett – March 18, 2008 (my mother)

Dave Gettling – March 31, 2008 (father of my college housemate Erin)

Ted Baxendale – May 25, 2008 (father of Abi, a close friend of my brother’s)

Shauna McCurdy – July 23, 2008 (mother of Jordan’s friend Christen)

Steve Naylor – August 13, 2008 (father of my friend Amanda, uncle of my college housemate Evan, and practically family to all of Evan’s friends)

Joe Kollman – November 22, 2008 (stepfather to Sean, one of my high schoolers, and a family I’ve known all my life)

Levels of participation in the DPC vary from person to person.  I learned pretty quickly, for example, that some families just really and truly do not want to talk about it, or think about it, or acknowledge that it’s there; others remember every anniversary – yours and theirs – and like talking about their memories.  It’s a deeply personal thing, how you cope with losing a parent.  Over the three years of my mom’s illness I used to get really irritated with people who told me I was “so much more serious than you used to be!”  Yes.  I know I used to be more fun than this.  I also used to be able to sleep without nightmares and watch Mother’s Day television ads without feeling nauseous.  I used to love holidays unreservedly.  (There is a tiny, postmodern part of my brain which believes that I am finally a normal 20-something woman, now that I’m seeing a therapist and Christmas stresses me out.  It’s like a rite of passage.)  But I try to be careful about not inflicting my own particular way of handling things on someone else.

This is where Jordan comes in handy.  The weird, dark, twisted gallows humor of that conversation I had on the phone with Erin is weirdly typical of our whole relationship.  I’m sorry, there’s some stuff about losing a parent that actually IS funny.  Not all of it, obviously – I’m not a sociopath – and not at the time.  But looking back, I’m desperately relieved that I have at least one friend to whom I could begin a conversation, “The funniest thing happened at my mom’s funeral reception . . . ” without the response being “GOOD GOD!  What is WRONG with you?”  Last time Jordan was in town, we called a meeting of the DPC at our favorite bar, Huber’s, and we drank their legendary Spanish coffee while eating buffalo wings and sharing horror stories only grieving people could understand.  Like, how I told a friend about losing Mom, and he responded that he could totally feel my pain because he remembered how sad he was when his girlfriend’s cat died.  Or how people keep bringing you casseroles long past the point of any freezer on earth being able to accomodate them, so you end up re-gifting Pyrex dishes of lasagna to everyone you know or else they’ll go bad (blessings and kudos to our friends who brought over food in its own cooler so we could just leave it on the porch).  Or the following conversation I had with my friend Jesse, wherein I called him, said “My mom died,” burst into tears for like five minutes, and then said, ” . . . Oh.  By the way, this is Claire.”   Or how people your mom or dad never, ever liked all of a sudden start acting like they lost their best friend, and it’s all so sad, and Heaven has another angel, and I’ll miss her so much, etc. etc., leading you to spend an unhealthy amount of time visualizing what it would be like to wire a bomb to their car.  Or how all anyone ever says to you, for MONTHS after, is “How are you doing?” with the accent on the last word and the sympathetic head-tilt that indicate that they know EXACTLY how you’re doing, and they either want to hear all about it or just want you to say “fine,” but you can’t always tell, so you perfect a little how-I’m-doing speech that you find yourself delivering verbatim because it’s so exhausting constantly, endlessly being asked.  Over drinks at meetings of the DPC, sometimes Christen and Jordan and I would recite our I’m-fine speeches to each other.  (Mine won raves.)

It’s the little dumb things like this that you can only share with someone who’s been there.  I remember once calling Jordan, months after Mom died, and all I said was, “I feel too normal.”  He understood immediately – that push/pull between guilt and relief when things start to die down and the ordinary world begins to slide back into place, and you keep thinking, “No, this should change everything, my whole life should be different forever, how dare I still be able to enjoy Thai food or laugh at ‘The Office’?”  You feel like a traitor.  You can’t say that stuff to people with two healthy living parents who love them.  They don’t get it.

That’s why I would not have survived this year without the DPC.  It felt like a waking nightmare after my mom died, when every month or so it seemed like another person I loved had lost a parent.  And these, may I just say, were EXTRAORDINARY parents.  These were parents who loved their children, who were kind and generous.  You’d feel a certain kind of bitter karmic justice if they were all the kind of parents who beat their children or starved them or abandoned them in the streets.  But when it’s a fleet of happy, healthy, stable parents in their 50’s – parents who should have had another 30-40 good years left in them, years with family Christmases and happy retirements and grandchildren – well, people have certainly stopped believing in God with far less justification than that.  But there was something very affirming in the idea of being able to be there for someone else the way Jordan was there for me.

In my mind, the DPC is broken up into roughly two chunks.  I think of Jordan and my friend Henry as the sophomore class.  They’ve been doing this one full year longer than the rest of us, so they hit all the big landmarks first.  Both of them were heroic with things like handling the first Christmas and the first anniversary.  Henry’s in high school, and has been as mature and helpful and supportive as my friends twice his age.  Amazing kid.  Then there’s the freshman class, starting with the Willetts and ending with the stepfather of my friend Sean, another one of my high schoolers from youth ministry and a kid I completely adore.  In the freshman class, a sizable chunk of us are grouped close together; in fact, it was learning that her dad died like two weeks after my mom which brought me back into contact with my college roommate Erin.  And our whole family adopted Christopher’s friend Abi after she lost her dad the summer after Mom died; since then she’s become pretty much a long-distance Willett.  I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, but if it has to happen, I hope I can be there for someone else like my friends were there for me.  You can’t do this kind of stuff on your own.

In conclusion, I would just like to say that A) There is no experience in the whole of the human condition in which there is absolutely NOTHING funny, and B) You really have to be sure of your crowd before you begin a phrase, “The funniest thing happened at the funeral home . . .” , because, wow, awkward, if you play it wrong.

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4 thoughts on “The DPC (Dead Parents Club): Or, In Defense of Gallows Humor

  1. Wow Claire, what a great post. While not a member of the DPC, I am a member of the DSC (dead siblings club) and much of what you say resonates with my experiences. I always resort to humor in times of crisis/sadness, and many people look at me like I’m nuts.

  2. I remember sitting in the Applebee’s by Lloyd Center, cracking dark jokes and drinking huge, fruity drinks the evening after it happened…I think that’s the only thing that held J together!

  3. I’ve been a member for far too long. But, I’d like to add to the “The funniest thing that happened at the funeral was…” category. Two for my dad’s. First: at the cemetery, father sprinkled the holy water onto the casket. The 3 Walsh sisters, having been trained well by their father to NEVER let water settle on fine wood, moved simultaneously, to quickly remove the source of possible water spots. It was a move to be envied by any synchronized swim team. Second: Nordstroms, downtown. My sister, Eileen, had purchased a beautiful cashmere sweater for my dad for Christmas. As he died early in January, cashmere wasn’t exactly a high priority. So we thought it best to return it. Eileen: ” I bought this sweater for my dad, but I want to return it.” Clerk: “Is there anything wrong?” Eileen: ” Yes. He’s dead.” Clerk (stunned clerk): “Not a problem.We’ll take care of that right away.” Gotta love that Nordstrom customer service.
    My mother’s funeral: The cell phone of the woman playing the piano rang during the service. Again, all 3 Walsh girls, in unison, say a bit on the out loud side, “It’s Mom.”

  4. Right. Laughter and tears are so close, I have dissolved into both at the same time more than once. Our dead sweethearts probably have a better sense of humor than we do. Good job, dear Claire.

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