And Somewhere There Is LaughterBy Slade Ham
March 30, 2010
If you ever want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
Woody Allen said it originally, but it’s my dad’s voice I hear when it echoes in my head. It was December of 2007, five days before Christmas. My father was going in for heart surgery the next morning and I was headed to our nation’s capital to tape a special for XM Radio. I called him from the balcony of my Los Angeles apartment. I shivered in the cold and smoked a cigarette as we talked.
“I have the flights all booked,” I said proudly. “I go to DC for the shows this weekend and then I’ll be in Texas on Sunday in plenty of time for Christmas.” My itinerary was perfect. “No,” I told him. “I can’t stay for New Year’s. I’m meeting Titus in Oakland and then we’re driving back to L.A. from there. I have it all figured out.”
“If you ever want to make God laugh…” he said.
“Yeah, yeah,” I said, laughing. “Everything’s going to be fine. I’ll call you when I get to DC and see how the surgery went.”
“I love you, son,” he said.
* * *
My father and I had our ups and downs through most of my life. Some of my earliest memories were the sounds of my parents fighting loudly as I tried to sleep. When I was almost nine they divorced, and I can still remember sitting in my dad’s little blue truck when he told me. The black, plastic, fake leather seats were cracked and smelled like cigarette smoke. The engine idled as we sat in the parking lot that evening after soccer practice. I was too young to know what he meant when he said that he wasn’t going to be living with us anymore.
I went from eight to thirty quickly, and our relationship swung drastically throughout those 22 years. Some memories are stronger than others, but most are just flashes of moments, captured in still life like Polaroids.
I’m nine. I’m walking the top row of the bleachers like a high wire artist. My dad is at the bottom talking to the woman that would eventually become my step mom. I’m eleven. Willie Nelson and Ray Charles sing Seven Spanish Angels in the living room as my dad adjusts the knobs on his new stereo and I lay on the floor. I’m thirteen. I tell him that I’m not going with him when he comes to pick up me and my brothers for the weekend. “I hate your stupid church,” was the excuse I gave before running back inside. I grew up a lot after that.
There are pictures in my mind with no dates on them. I could have been twelve, or twenty. He had dogs, one after the other. Fritchie, Beignet, Max. There was a kitchen table with a bench on one side. I ripped my finger open on the lid from a can of Pringles at that table. You can still see the scar. The ceiling of the game room upstairs was covered in models I had made, painstakingly painting them and straightening the decals. Airplanes of every sort hung like icicles over the pool table.
When I was twenty-one, my grandmother went into the hospital. My dad paced the halls there waiting on the inevitable bad news from the doctors. I couldn’t imagine how he was strong enough to face the death of a parent.
* * *
I landed in DC and made my way to the hotel. My phone rang as I unlocked the door to my room. “Dad’s in a coma,” my brother told me. “He never came around after surgery.”
“I have a flight in the morning,” I told him, then hung up the phone in silence. I slid down the wall onto the floor of the hallway, staring blankly in front of me. I had a show in two hours.
The club was packed with people when I walked in, and I hated every single one of them. I had spent my entire life mocking the general population, with their real jobs and their fluorescent lighting and their boring offices. That night I wanted desperately to hide in a cubicle, to peck away at some keyboard with no one staring at me. This was the trade off, I learned. Now, not only did I have to pretend to be happy myself, I had to make other people happy on top of it.
My grandmother, long before I ever started doing comedy, used to say how amazing it was that Jack Benny was able to perform while his son was dying. I understand it now. I stayed on stage for an hour and a half, somehow removed from, but still aware of, my sadness and fear. To this day the stage remains the one place that I still feel completely in my element, regardless of what is going on around me. Jack Benny must have gotten that.
I walked off stage that night and back into the dark reality that was now my life. I started canceling my 2008 dates before I even got on the plane the next day. I was going to stay in Houston indefinitely.
* * *
It was Christmas Eve, three days later. I had sent my brother home to spend the evening with his wife and daughter. I sat huddled in the lobby between visitation periods, aimlessly surfing the web on my laptop and waiting for the next opportunity to stare down at my father and hope for a response. I walked into the cafeteria late, hoping for something to eat.
“How are you today?” the lady behind the counter asked.
My question was a simple one, and the words fell out of my exhausted lips like leaves from a dying tree. “How late are you open?”
She repeated herself. “HOW are YOU today?”
“How LATE are you open?” I tried again.
“I asked how you were today.”
“I am in the hospital on Christmas motherfucking Eve,” I said, bouncing my tray loudly on the metal rails. “How late… are you… fucking open?”
“Sir, you don’t have to use –“
“Maybe you should just slosh some mashed potatoes on the plate next to my chicken fried steak, pick up your minimum wage based check, and take your soulless body away from people that could not care less how fucking chipper you pretend to be around the holidays.”
My phone rang as I walk away. It was her. “Merry Christmas,” she said, and I thought to myself how much my dad would have liked her.
* * *
Days rolled by, and I spent every one in that very same lobby. It was a waiting game. Just wait. There are no other options. You can wait, or you can wait. For twenty minutes at a time, five times a day, seven days a week. Nothing you can do can change the situation. Friends call. “I’m sorry,” they say, but they don’t know.
My youngest brother was still in Hawaii. He had moved there on a whim, with one bag and nowhere to stay. He had gotten off a plane in Honolulu two months before and carved out a niche for himself there somehow. He wanted to come back now to be involved but he didn’t have a plan. My car was still at my apartment in Los Angeles, and the goal became to find a way to get him there so he could drive it back for me.
Coordinating a trip for that particular brother has always been like playing Plinko. No matter how much planning you try to do, that little plastic disc is just going to end up wherever the hell it wants to go. We sorted out his flight and I arranged to have him picked up in L.A. I had everything arranged actually – a place to stay, my car keys, and enough cash to get him back to Texas. All he had to do was get on the plane. Whether he got distracted by a shiny object or simply got lost I don’t know, but he missed his flight. To his credit he did try to come up with an alternative plan. “I can catch a flight into San Francisco instead,” he said.
“Of course,” I told him. “Go right ahead. It’s only seven hours from L.A. Great job, Magellan.” Eventually he did make it back, though I’ve never managed to find out exactly how. I was actually worried more about my vehicle than I was him. Not that I didn’t love him, but I had two other brothers; that was my only car.
* * *
Days turned into weeks, and the diagnosis grew more and more grim. There had been a series of strokes and brain activity was virtually nonexistent. On January 17, the decision was made. Family was gathered in the small, now private room. Goodbyes were said, tears were shed, and the breathing machine removed. He was gone. The tension hung like humidity in the air, thick and suffocating. My brother and I turned to each other and embraced, heads buried in each other’s shoulders.
I felt something move as we stood there – a vibration – down my upper leg. It was awkward as we both held each other.
“Tell me that was your phone,” he said.
“God, I hope so,” I replied, and in the most unlikely of places, we laughed hysterically.
* * *
I was getting dressed on the morning of the funeral. How am I supposed to get through this? I’m the oldest; I’m supposed to be an example. I don’t want to do this, I told myself over and over again. My phone rang. Who would possibly call me on a day like this? Moments later my voicemail beeped. My friend Kevin’s voice came through the speaker as I checked the message. His father had passed away a few years before. “You are the strongest son,” I heard him say. “You’re going to be okay.”
I smiled. I hope you’re right, I thought. I’m going to have to be today.
* * *
It’s been over two years now, and some things have faded. Sometimes I get disappointed in myself when I realize that I’ve let more than a day or two pass without thinking of him. How could I forget? Then, out of the blue, a day or so later, I’ll pick up the phone to call him. I’ll stop myself as I scroll down to the D’s. “Damn. He really would have gotten a kick out of that story,” I’ll tell myself.
Or maybe he will flash into my head over a bowl of cookies and cream ice cream covered in chocolate syrup. I use to eat it at his house on Saturday nights after everyone had gone to bed. Just me, sitting on his living room floor watching Star Trek: The Next Generation… God, I was such a nerd.
The comfort is there now though. I don’t have to carry it every day. The memory has disappeared and resurfaced enough times now that I know it will never go away for good. It seems like an eternity since I stood on that balcony with my big plans for the future. I was going to take over the world, and he was going to have his heart fixed. I’ve had to readjust my plans now though, to compensate.
And somewhere, I’m sure, there is laughter.