death, hope, love

Death to Comedy: Gurgle to Laughter

I am literally sitting next to a death bed. There is a certain smell to the room, quiet talk by those still around for the night, and a very, very slow IV drip. I’ve been to the hospital chapel, because frankly, it seemed wrong not to go in. That and the hope that stepping into a holy place (a place set aside) would do what my voice could not: speak the anguish. I’ve been told that He can hear us. I’ve been told that the dying man in front of us can hear us. Yet, all I seem to know is that the sound of death is gurgling.

I cannot stand an academic trivializing death or sterilizing humanity for the sake of a scholarly epiphany. This is emphatically what I am trying to avoid. What I cannot avoid is: the man who once smiled large is now virtually catatonic. I cannot avoid the warping of the voice. The constant gurgle, from a man who once laughed loud and hard, cannot be escaped. In a very real sense, this is a living nightmare.

While watching death in full control of a human, I have two answers for the family. For my family. I have to have answers, after all, I’m the one with theological training. I don’t have the choice to volunteer to act as chaplain, it is assumed. But at least I have two answers, answers I like because I think they’re good, beautiful, and true.

The most utterly bizarre juxtaposition I’ve ever experienced occurred in this hospital room. While the gurgle is incessant and dominating, there is laughter from memories and little jokes. He loved little toys. There are two voices in this room: death’s and grace’s. The grace — the pure gift — of divine redemption active in the people in the room speaks to the presence of grace: they are here, and here not at each others’ throats, but taking care of each other. They are at least reconciled enough to one another, knowingly or unknowingly, to live within this gift that makes the presence of God known. Therefore, they can laugh. Indeed, they do laugh.

What is it about love and hope that turns the gurgling to laughter? This juxtaposition is crucial: despite the work of death, hope lives. This is not a hope that looks for a miraculous recovery, but a hope that death does not have the last word. Death will not defeat the love of God. It is this love that stimulates the laughter in the room. And it is this laughter that reminds us of both the dying man’s laughter and divine laughter.

Jensen was wrong. The end is not music, it is laughter.


5 thoughts on “Death to Comedy: Gurgle to Laughter

  1. stephencrose says:

    I am told and have noticed that at the end there is a phenomenon called chain breathing which is a series of very slow, audible breaths. It was in the case of my dad his last breaths.

  2. Huh. This breathing was different. His lungs were filling up from fluid and the kidneys failed. But I understand the gurgling was more from his glands producing quite a lot of saliva and his inability to speak/swallow/etc. Apparently this is common for some stroke patients, like him.

  3. Anne says:

    My own heart let me have more have pity on; let
    Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
    Charitable; not live this tormented mind
    With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
    I cast for comfort I can no more get
    By groping round my comfortless, than blind
    Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
    Thirst ’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.

    Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
    You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
    Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
    At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
    ’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather—as skies
    Betweenpie mountains—lights a lovely mile.

    – G.M. Hopkins

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