Far too many people, in my opinion, don’t appreciate the full and incredible power of humour in its capacity to support and to heal. As a comedy writer, I’ve always been aware of it on a level; but as a mum whose son recently passed away, I finally see it in the way that I think I always needed to. I see it anew; it's importance to my own road to recovery not least at the forefront of my wish to bring it to you today.
Seven years ago I met the most amazing man on Twitter called Hywel Jones. Hywel was dying of cancer, and what led us to very quickly become friends was a trait that we shared in equal measure - his gallows humour. Hywel was quite literally laughing in the face of death and I was in awe of, and thoroughly inspired by him. Hywel is the reason I began to write novels. My first book, THE NEW MRS D, is dedicated to him. What he taught me in the sadly short period I had to know him was that I should stop wasting my time waiting for permission to let loose with my imagination. I was forty-one, and had always, always wanted to be a writer yet never believed I had talent enough to give it a shot. Hywel used to call me 'The Wonder Girl'. He made me believe I could do it and that there was not enough time not to try.
Fast forward to today, as I enter the fourth month since my son, Ryan, died, I am looking at the world again through a new and much improved pair of glasses. Sunglasses, even. Because in those cripplingly painful early days I would have told you that when my son died, my sun died. Yet neither of those things actually happened. He isn’t gone, he’s just moved away for the rest of my life. And only this morning I found my sun very much alive and well, washing my face with gold as I sat on a bench in the garden drinking coffee. Okay, blinding me a little bit is closer to what really happened...
On the 25th of December, 2018, my youngest son, Kyle and I were together alone, experiencing the saddest Christmas morning of our lives. I've raised five children, and am one of six; so have enjoyed forty-seven years of busy, family Christmases. This one was a day I only wanted to see over and done with. No presents were exchanged that morning between Kyle and I. Neither of us was looking forward to lunch with my sister's family, not because of the kindly offered company, but because we were as far from being in a festive mood as Theresa May is from being loved and adored by the nation today. Yet here we are, in a photo Kyle took of us together that morning. My eyes are wet from tears, and are indeed puffy from a fortnight of crying and sleeplessness. However, these particular tears were from laughter. We had both been in hysterics.
He posted the photo on his Facebook page on Mother’s Day, with this message:
This picture was taken on the most difficult Christmas morning either of us have had to face. We couldn’t get my phone out of the charging dock so we just took the photo from inside a cupboard and it made us both laugh despite everything. There is always a reason to smile and the person I learned that from is my Mum.
Laughter has indeed been a survival mechanism, shared between myself and my children, often played out in front of a world that doesn’t always understand it. We understand and embrace it, completely.
Ryan was diagnosed diabetic at the age of two, and we spent too many days and nights together in hospital; me at his bedside and him strapped to infusions looking like death while at times being precariously close to it. Yet we were often found laughing like drains at the most banal things throughout - in the middle of an acute, critical care setting. Nurses and doctors have at many times walked by frowning at us; shaking their heads with looks that said, ‘Don’t they realise how serious this all is?’ Of course we realised how serious it all was. We had years of experience and were frequently shattered by it all. But it was still funny when a rather elderly nurse let out a small, barely audible fart as she bent to write the result of Ryan's blood pressure check in her notes one day. My son was in diabetic ketoacidosis, with the odds stacked against him - and helpless with laughter after she scuttled away looking mightily embarrassed. I, a worried and terrified mother at his bedside, almost wet my pants.
Ryan was a drag queen with a love of Disney films, his favourite being Beauty and The Beast. A few weeks prior to his death he had managed to buy himself the Belle dress, and while my youngest daughter, Luci and I sat discussing what we should dress him in for the funeral – which was to be a cremation - she suggested the Belle dress.
‘But it’s brand new!’ I said, before our eyes met and we both fell about in a fit of giggles. Why? Because we had the same thought at the same time in one form or another: it was okay to burn Ryan, but not the dress. When I relayed the story to the rest of the kids later, they all laughed. People outside of our family might not be able to grasp this alien concept - how on earth can you laugh at a time and a thing like that?
Because that’s who we are, who we’ve always been, and who we’re always going to be. It’s how Ryan was. He would tell you, as Kyle told his Facebook buddies, that it’s what I (inadvertently, I might add) instilled in him.
As anyone who has experienced the death of someone close will know, there are many administrative tasks that have to be undertaken in the days that follow. For me, one of those was a visit to the hospital mortuary for Ryan’s belongings and a medical certificate that would allow me to register his death. Accompanied by Ryan’s dad, his wife, Kyle, my eldest daughter, Becki and her partner, I arrived at Glasgow’s humongous Queen Elizabeth University Hospital. Feeling lost, we all gathered round a map of the building and it wasn’t long before a friendly passerby, no doubt noticing our puzzled looks and the scratching of heads, walked up and asked if he could help us. His bright, wide smile fell as Kyle replied,
‘Yes, can you tell us where the mortuary is, please?’
The poor man bumbled a reply, looking extremely uncomfortable, before taking off as fast as his legs could carry him. As we headed in the direction we’d been sent, Kyle, with a wry smile, said quietly to us:
‘Yeah, can you tell us where all the dead people are?’
We all erupted in laughter, despite the misery of that God-awful day.
Humour can help us all - adults and children alike. Perhaps, children especially. Just ask my grandson, Jaydon, who was treated to a pile of books from me on his birthday, including educationally-important titles such as, I Need A New Bum by Dawn McMillan.
My six year-old nephew, Charlie, is a bright, beautiful, blonde-haired, blue-eyed hurricane.
He is such a meltdown-prone, angry child at times as was his mother when she was his age. I laughingly remind her of this when she’s embroiled in one of her many exhausting battles with him. One day, while my sister and I were taking him and his brother, George for a day out, we found ourselves stuck in traffic. Charlie and George predictably seized upon this moment to have one of their sibling spats.
‘Oh, you’ve got anger issues!’ George finally huffed, throwing his arms up in frustration as Charlie went in to full on devil-child mode. I turned round in my seat and grabbed Charlie’s foot to inspect it.
‘You’ve got angry shoes?’ I said; releasing the foot before throwing him my best puzzled-amazed face. Both boys erupted into laughter; anger abated, fight over. Now every time the boys come to stay, as Charlie throws one of his famous and colossal strops, I fix him with a stern stare and say,
‘Are you wearing your angry shoes again?’
He’ll fold his arms, purse his lips tightly and stomp off to the bedroom so I can’t see that he’s dying to laugh. A few moments later he will appear back, repeating the angry shoes joke to all like it was his. He can have that one. God, I love that stroppy little fella. And I have an inkling he loves his bat-shit crazy Auntie Heather. And those bloody angry shoes.
I should put a quote in here about the many medicinal benefits of laughter, but I think it's best demonstrated by the sheer strength I managed to find today to be able to write this post at all. It's my first post in a year that has been fraught with more difficulties than the one that put every minute of it into perspective: the death of my beloved eldest son. Nothing can ever top the sea of pain I've fought to hold my head up in since I experienced first-hand that life-altering moment every parent dreads: the day a policeman arrived at my door to tell me my child had died.
If you search Google for inspirational quotes that offer an excuse - not that I personally believe you need one - for frivolity in the face of pain, you'll come across: 'A good laugh heals a lot of hurts', 'A smile is a curve that sets everything straight,' and 'Laughter is God's medicine.' When you feel, as I have at times, like the sunshine disappeared from your life, these might be the last things you want to read. You're probably going to want to tell all those do-gooders that wrote them to fuck off, to be frank. But I'm here on the page today to tell you that they speak the truth, and I should know.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, 'earth laughs in flowers.' My favourite flower on this earth is the sunflower. The sight of them reminds me that the sunshine is still very much there in my life, as is my son. I'll see him later.
We only live once and as each of us live, it doesn't hurt to be aware that we're simultaneously on our way to die. Let's die laughing.
**This post is dedicated to my son. I love you, Ryan. Today, tomorrow and always xx
PS that little nurse farting was funny.
Two years ago I wrote a book about bereavement, and if you'd like to give my coffers a boost by paying the writer, I'd sincerely appreciate the download. You'll find it here: I HATE THAT YOU BLOODY LEFT ME.
Need another laughter in the face of adversity blog post? I once fell off a treadmill - do enjoy my humiliation: WHO'S LAUGHING NOW?