DEATH AND DYING, AND APRIL FOOLS

By: Brandon C. Lay

April Fools’ day is the worst “holiday” that has ever weaseled its way into the collective consciousness. I should start by saying I’m prejudice towards prank humor. I’ve never found it particularly funny. I also don’t usually like humor built around the cultivating of fake facts to stump the gullible.

It doesn’t help that my mom died on April 1st of 2014. It was the only time I wished that someone was playing an elaborate prank on me. I was really looking forward to punching someone in the mouth and saying “wow, man you’re a dick but you got me good.” There was no one to punch in the face. There was a Coroner. There were two police officers. There was my roommate, Steven, and my best friend, Phil. There’s was my Cousin Mark who’d found my mom dead of a brain aneurism at 51. There was the lifeless corpse that once housed the living being that was my mother. None of these people were viable options to punch in the face. All of them would have been willing to take that hit had it meant it would bring my mom back. What terrible person wouldn’t be willing to take a punch in the face if it meant bringing someone’s mom back to life. Hell, I’d take a punch to the face from Jason Statham, Mike Tyson, Thor and/or Chuck Norris (Okay maybe not Thor or Chuck Norris…I’m not looking to lose my head over this… the deal isn’t I’ll trade my life so someone else can have their mom back) if it meant bringing pretty much anyone’s mom back to life. Literally anyone… I’d be willing take a punch to the face from anyone for anyone’s mom. Child molesters included. No one deserves not having a mom. I mean I wouldn’t do it if it meant that they’d come back as a Zombie or some other equally demonic form.  I’m saying that a punch to the face equals one mom. Here is the basic breakdown:

Punch in the Face from Anyone (excluding mythological beings/creatures or other superhuman entities) = One genuine 100% mom brought back to life.

Humor is one of my defense mechanisms. So is smoking cigarettes, which I had successfully quit and been without all year and I promptly took up again for approximately two weeks upon her death before quitting again. April 15th 2015 we’ll call one year of straight sobriety when it comes to cigarettes. A pretty standard defense mechanism is seeking out one’s parents. That meant my dad, whom I’ve always been incredibly close with. Unfortunately he had to move to Washington State for financial reasons. It had been a year and a half since we’d seen each other. My roommates and my best friend all chipped in to fly him back to PA. I couldn’t be without both my parents. My greatest and most positive of my defense mechanisms is creative expression but that wasn’t going to help me in the near future.

That's me as a baby. I broke records at the hospital when I popped out. 11.9 pounds and 23 inches according to the paperwork. Damn my mom was a superhero. Something depressing to add... this might be the only picture I have of just me and my parents in it.

That’s me as a baby. I broke records at the hospital when I popped out. 11.9 pounds and 23 inches according to the paperwork. Damn my mom was a superhero. Something depressing to add… this might be the only picture I have of just me and my parents in it.

This is from one of my high school scrapbooks. That's my mom at her birthday, I believe.

This is from one of my high school scrapbooks. That’s my mom at her birthday, I believe.

Truth is, when you are twenty-eight-years old with three roommates and still basically live paycheck to paycheck and you don’t have financially stable friends or family members at the ready, and an emergency and/or tragedy occurs—You’re Fucked. Utterly. Car breaks down? Better get used to taking the bus and wasting hours upon hours of your life or beg friends for rides—which means putting strain on your friendship (doesn’t matter how good of a friend that person is–giving rides to someone regularly for long enough periods puts strain on the relationship.  I’ve been on both sides of it) You get injured or get diagnosed with something? Enjoy medical bills for the rest of your life. If you lose your job? Oh, brotha you better get another one fast because the amount you get from unemployment does not cut it if you were already living paycheck to paycheck. If you’re 51 year old mom dies out of nowhere and she didn’t have life insurance be prepared for debt.  Another quick aside:

The second you have kids—unless you are independently wealthy GET LIFE INSURANCE! If your goal is for your children to have a better life then you did, then do not risk dumping debt onto their lap during the prime of their lives because of an unforeseen tragedy. This is not greed speaking; this should be a genuine concern of all parents. Not only can your untimely death be crippling emotionally, it can be crippling financially as well.

I’m an only child.  My mom was divorced and I was the only next of kin. This means paperwork, this means sympathy letters–which were always graciously appreciated and often had financial assistance—never much but always, ALWAYS a help… financially. That being said the last thing you want when you are grieving is a bunch of people telling you how great your mother was. At least I didn’t. I started getting that sensation you have as a kid when you start looking for the check without reading the sentiments from your Grandma—

“You’re my favorite man, sugar bumps”

I don’t know why I went with sugar bumps.  Suddenly I’m flashing back to the 1989 Tim Burton’s Batman as Jack Palance says nervously in the dark of his office “That you, Sugar bumps?” And Jack Nicolson as the Joker (who Palance thought was dead) in silhouette in the doorway tasting every syllable as he says “It’s me… Sugar bumps.” This is where my mind goes. Anybody else? No? For the record my grandma has never uttered the words sugar and bumps in sequence in her entire life, at least not to me. I mean she may have to someone… *shudder*

Sugar Bumps - "You're life won't be worth spit!"  "I've been dead already. It's very liberating. You should consider it... therapy."

Sugar Bumps – “You’re life won’t be worth spit!”
“I’ve been dead already. It’s very liberating. You should consider it… therapy.”

Any well trained child lets the cash or check plop in their laps unsuspectingly when they open the card and they read the sweet little message as they tabulate all the action figures, dolls, video games and/or candy they’ll be purchasing with said newly acquired loot—ten dollars? Ten dollars!? It’s not my fault my birthday is four days after Christmas! Come out of pocket a little bit grandma, sheesh! Author’s Note: Nana if you are reading this, I totally apologize and this is absolutely not true, I just needed it for flavor text because an entire blog about my deceased mom (your deceased daughter) would be really depressing without the balance of some identifiable humor. You are a wonderful Nana (See I don’t even call my mom’s mom, Grandma—I call her Nana). You are one of my favorite people, and I love you.

We had the funeral for my Nana. My Aunt Helene asked me outright, “Is this what YOU want.” Nothing about the situation was what I wanted, but she was referring specifically to the funeral. The most basic package was nearly $3,500 all in all. It was explained to us that it would be a small room, where my mom could be viewed and that my Nana and I would go in first. My aunt was willing to spend the money if it was what I wanted. I told her it was. It wasn’t. In a way it was.  I wanted what my Nana wanted—no not wanted, needed. I wanted her to have what she needed. So I lied. I lied to my Aunt and told her it was what I wanted. In return I forced her to agree to let me pay it back in full. Aside from student loans it was the largest debt I’d ever taken on. Assuming no further emergencies transpire,  I should have the last of it paid back by the end of the month, which even the anticipation of doing fills me with pride.

From right to left. My Nana, me (at I'd say somewhere between 8-11). my mom (that would mean between 30-34), my cousin Krystle, and finally my Aunt Helene. I love this picture-- the only things I don't like about it is that my Nana isn't smiling and my double chin (seriously why couldn't I have been born with my Aunt Helene's jaw structure?). I wish that my Aunt still looked that happy, my cousin and I were still that young, and that my mom was still alive-- you know standard wishes of those looking at old family photos.

From right to left. My Nana, me (at I’d say somewhere between 8-11). my mom (that would mean between 30-34), my cousin Krystle, and finally my Aunt Helene. I love this picture– the only things I don’t like about it is that my Nana isn’t smiling and my double chin (seriously why couldn’t I have been born with my Aunt Helene’s jaw structure?). I wish that my Aunt still looked that happy, my cousin and I were still that young, and that my mom was still alive– you know standard wishes of those looking at old family photos.

What I bought with this debt? A disaster. I was told it would be a small viewing for a few family members. I invited about ten people. When we arrived the room was huge and had seats available for closer to forty people. My mom looked like Robin Williams—a fact that I pointed out to a few of my friends.  This was a lot funnier at the time because it was before he’d killed himself. You would think it wouldn’t have been funny to me because it was after all MY MOM, but truthfully, by then, it wasn’t my mom.

I spent the entire viewing getting asked by my Nana where everybody was… this is still the most lingering pain from that day. I didn’t invite all my mom’s coworkers, I didn’t put anything in the paper or spread the word because I was told it would be a SMALL VIEWING for about ten people. It was a viewing I didn’t even want to have, that my Aunt was currently paying for and my mom looked like FUCKING ROBIN WILLIAMS! It was easily one of the funniest moments of my life and had my mom been alive we’d have likely had a laughing fit together over it. Of all the things I’ve inherited from my mom, our rare uncontrollable laughing fits are probably my favorite.

This was one of my mom's and my favorite specials. We watched it so many times we could quote the entire skit to one another. The fact that both he and my mom died in the same year and that my mom looked like him at the funeral home is ridiculously coincidental-- some might say synchronistic.

This was one of my mom’s and my favorite specials. We watched it so many times we could quote the entire skit to one another. The fact that both he and my mom died in the same year and that my mom looked like him at the funeral home is ridiculously coincidental– some might say synchronistic.

I couldn’t laugh about it though, not when so many others were miserable. It was important to some people to see the body, even if it looked like Robin Williams. I already had the opportunity. I’d seen my mom’s body sprawled outside the bathroom into the hallway of the house I lived in.

Just two months earlier, my mom had moved in with me and my two roommates, Steven and Sue. It was an opportunity for her to get back on her feet financially. It ended up being an opportunity for us to spend time together before her death. The last two films we watched were 12 Years a Slave and Django Unchained. She wept through quite a bit of 12 Years a Slave—my mom was a big crier, especially when watching movies. She also enjoyed Django Unchained quite a bit actually. My mom had very open taste in films. I think I taught her that. She’d watch just about anything and it was one of the ways we connected. It’s one of the ways I connect with most people. The night before she died I’d shown her several different takes for a scene I was editing for my film Macie on a Good Day. The last time I saw my mom, she had exhausted herself to watch scenes from my film after working two jobs that day. We hugged and shared I-love-yous—admittedly something I didn’t feel the need or desire to do every night—and that was it.

Fast forward twelve hours you’re getting a call at work from your Cousin on April Fools’ Day being told your mom is dead. Fast forward an hour later and upon your own request you are looking at the lifeless purple mound that kinda sorta resembles an almost version of what might be someone you know.

“Looking back at her was a bruised Mr. Potato Head. A scrunched, shriveled assembly of facial features all blue and purple. Eyes shut swollen globs beneath stretched skin. Her tongue jutted from her maw, puffing outward looking as though it was one of her engorged lips; the prickles of her taste buds serving as the only contradiction to the assumption. The tongue too was purple. Purple as everything was a shade of blue or purple, likened best to a nearly ripen plum. Inanimate objects carry in them more character then this mound that once housed her mother. This was a thing, a bruised husk of flesh with her mother’s hair, which she stroked, sitting Indian style beside it. Stroking the only connection left to this otherwise sheer mockery of sight and there part of her remained forever weeping openly with no audience save the attendance of the coroner who stood head bowed and silent.”

This was the exact visual I had of seeing the body of my mother. I gave it to one of my characters because, as I said, creative expression is my go-to defense mechanism. When I first said I was going to write an article for Boomerang about not being able to “boomerang” back home, I was worried about repeating myself. I had delved into the subject on two occasions, a script for a film that has yet to be made and a novel I recently finished. I didn’t want to feel like I was capitalizing on my own mom’s death to plug my book. Independent artists are known for taking any opportunity, myself included. The truth is I can’t escape it because my work is so a part of me.  It’s unavoidable.

When I was given the news of my mother’s death I pictured myself being filmed. How I’d be framed in the shot. How I’d frame everyone else giving me the news. It’s how my mind coped with something previously unfathomable outside the scope of film. I didn’t talk to other people about my mom’s death, not really. Everything had an air of retrospect and detachment from it. Everyone complimented me on how strong I was being and how I was managing everything. Truth was my creative mind was already deconstructing every experience into something artistic. My compartmentalizing tendencies were shielding me from dealing with everything at once.

Truth was, I wasn’t ready to talk about it with anyone. I did sometimes to make someone else feel better. When a tragedy happens, the big thing you’ll notice is that people want to feel useful. They want to help. It isn’t meant to be selfish. I do the same thing when someone I know and/or care about is in trouble. So in turn I opened up for other people. I gave them the opportunity to feel useful. What I found in myself was that I was seeking the company of people I wasn’t particularly close to, women mostly. Not in a promiscuous sense, I’ve never been the type to pick up women—often to my chagrin. However I was certainly seeking a level of intimacy I didn’t want from my friends or my family. It’s been a year and still I haven’t truly fulfilled that need.

I funneled a lot of that same neediness and anger and grief and fear, longing etc. into my novel. By no means is that all the book has in it but it was a very positive manifestation of a lot of excess energy. This was no surprise to me, it has often been my method of dealing with complex thoughts and feelings. What I’d never experienced however was the profound feeling of hurt when others didn’t read my work. I offered the book to numerous people after completing it and the majority to date haven’t yet read it or at least haven’t contacted me about it. The hardest part about it is knowing that my feelings of betrayal are completely irrational. Their not reading one of the many things I’ve written/created is not meant as a personal affront and my logical mind completely understands that. My emotional mind however still reacts first as if I were being hurt intentionally. I never shared this feeling with many people because it wasn’t their transgression. They did nothing wrong. There was no obligation connected with the offering of my work, but because of the places I had to go in order to create it and the residual neediness after losing my mom, I was literally incapable of taking it any other way than personally. It likely comes from the desire of wanting something good to come out of it. I want something good to come out of my mother dying and the fact is nothing good actually can.

This is probably one of the most recent pictures of my mom, at least that I have access to. That ring she's wearing is on my key ring, I carry it everyday. If it weren't so girly I'd wear it on my finger... except it would only fit on my pinkie. I'm not the kind of guy that can pull off a pinkie ring, let alone a woman's pinkie ring-- are there guys that can pull off such things?

This is probably one of the most recent pictures of my mom, at least that I have access to. That ring she’s wearing is on my key ring, I carry it everyday. If it weren’t so girly I’d wear it on my finger… except it would only fit on my pinkie. I’m not the kind of guy that can pull off a pinkie ring, let alone a woman’s pinkie ring– are there guys that can pull off such things?

I can lose weight. I can quit cigarettes. I can write fifty novels. I can film hundreds of films. I can help other people who are going through the same thing. My mom is still dead. People take comfort in spirituality and sayings like “She’ll always be with you.” And those are beautiful thoughts, beliefs, opinions and sentiments. But she’s gone. All you really can do is live with it and the lamentation isn’t only of the loss of the person but it’s also the loss of who you were when they were in your life. These are pessimistic views perhaps, but no matter how you look at it, grief changes you. It must. Whether you change after it for the better or worse, you lament the person you were because it had the other person as a part of it. This doesn’t mean you can’t live well. I live as well as I possibly can on any given day. It only means that the sensation of losing oneself when you lose someone close to you is a real and palpable concern.

You not only need time to get used to the change in your life but also the change in yourself. I think the latter of these two challenges is often the one that not only takes longer but is often completely overlooked not just by the people in your life but by you, the person going through the loss. I think the ever present desire for normality urges us away from recognizing the changes in ourselves.

I realize my article just got very “Self Help Book”… the altruisms however are just as genuine as the pessimism seen above. I think both are equally necessary. I don’t think it’s possible to find the same normality you once had. I think it is possible to find balance to the new equilibrium that takes place after such a loss. I also don’t think it’s possible to hate April Fools’ Day more then I do—unless you too lost a loved one and also had something terrible happens on the 1st as well… like get diagnosed with a slow painful cancer.

Cancer + The death of a loved one… clearly worse and honestly if that’s your situation you can totally have bragging rights about hating April Fools’ Day more then I do. After all it isn’t a competition… jeez… lighten up.

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