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August 17, 2022

Laughter through Tears: What I learned on the Worst of All Days in that Awful Room.

There is a line from “Steel Magnolias” that every woman my age knows.

It’s spoken at Shelby’s grave when Sally Field, the strong maternal character of the movie, finally breaks down with her girlfriends over the death of her daughter. One of the women interrupts the meltdown by encouraging Fields’ character to hit Weezer, the raunchy, sarcastic friend of the group.

After a few tense moments, they all start laughing. Dolly Parton’s character then says, with the sweetness that can only come from Dolly’s voice:

“Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

My friend Tasha knew the day she would die.

I’ll elaborate, of course, but that sentence alone is hellacious. She woke up in the hospital one morning after battling cancer for months while her family was in the midst of trying to coordinate hospice to learn they wouldn’t be getting that far.

That morning, her doctor said to her: “Today is it; you will die today.” We all knew it was coming, but not like that. Who has ever heard of a doctor announcing, while you were awake and cognizant, that this would be your final day? To a young woman? Imagine that.

This is your last day. We’ll pump you up with as many drugs as we can, but this is it. You simply have too much fluid in your lungs to make it more than 24 hours.

Her hospital room was already full of flowers, balloons, photographs, and countless kids’ drawings. She was a beloved young mother, teacher, daughter, wife, cousin, niece, and friend. And when I say friend, I mean friend as in she was the kind of friend every woman cherishes. Funny, quick-witted, snarky, and would rip the shirt off her back and stand there naked if she needed to help you.

She was like one of the women in that band of friends from “Steel Magnolias,” as I think about it now. She was a small piece of all of them. And I had the honor of being in that band with her.

The level of conversations a young woman has with her best friend in the months she’s battling what everyone knows (even if they won’t acknowledge it) is terminal cancer are profound. But to then pinpoint that down to a day, to hours—well, there’s no pretense of propriety left, no words that can be held back, no reason to soften the blow or dance around where we are.

This is it—all of life, death, and everything in between punched into hours. Those moments, those conversations, those pieces of insights or tiny intervals where life rips out your soul become who we are. And when one of the people you’ve loved most in the world asks people to leave the room, grabs your hand, and says “I don’t want this to happen…” the foundation of everything around you is rocked.

I’m an estates and trusts attorney and have attended actual, literal legal education seminars on what they call “dying with dignity.” I get such a kick out of that phrase.  We toss phrases around like that and write it in legal brochures without thinking goddamn, do you know what that means? Do you know what it means to be told that you will die today and, because of that, all of your family members and friends are going to stand around you in a tacky, poorly lit hospital room while machines beep and they will awkwardly stare at you while you lay in one of those god-awful gowns, struggling to breath, wondering what to say.

Do you know what it means to want to share some fanciful, picture-perfect, meaningful, beautiful, profound moment with your pre-school-aged daughter on this, your last day, but frankly she’d rather be in the other room coloring and playing with her cousins and friends than be surrounded by the weirdness that is a tense hospital room with your mom gasping a bit, teary, drugged up, and formidably hiding any signs of what could only be described by any human as terror of the unknown while everyone looks at you all day long (as they have been for months…) with deep, unabashedly sad, longing eyes?

Dying with dignity. Most people are fortunate to have no idea what this actually means.

It was transcendental. My conversations with her that day were transcendental. The room itself was transcendental. Watching her mother selflessly take on the day like a warrior was transcendental. Transcendental is defined as: relating to a spiritual or nonphysical realm. And the look in her eyes that day was raw transcendentalism.

She had the most incredible eyes anyway, and I won’t belie that the morphine was a factor too, but they were clear blue to the core. You could see her soul at moments in those huge, blue, slightly teary eyes.

We all plan days that we know will shape our lives and change our futures, that we will remember forever—but none like that day. There is no plan for that.

So many of those I care about will carry that day forever. And I hope with all that I am that someday there will be a day that I am having a glass of wine (several) with her daughter, who is my goddaughter, and perhaps Tasha’s mother too, and I can let it all out—straight into those same blue eyes staring at me from another young woman who I cherish. But until then, I will live knowing that I saw the closest thing to God I’ll ever see right as this angel was heading to meet him, on that transcendental day.

The look in her eyes. The powerful resonance of our fleeting, quick conversations and comments on faith in those hours. All that is good, pure, holy, gracious, and real was present that day—that worst of all days in that awful room.

And what happened there in that room between two friends on that final day was was laughter through tears.

I have no idea how many times Tasha and I watched “Steel Magnolias” together—surely 10 times, but if I add late nights, laying around on couches, flipping through channels when we’d catch clips or just scenes, 10 is not even close. I loved the Sally Field character because her strength reminded me of my mother. For Tasha, it was always Weezer (of course it was).

I could hear Dolly Parton’s sweet voice running through my head in that hospital room, almost singing, “Laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

That transcendental day was the best and worst of all emotions, and while I’d never wish it on anyone, maybe in some ways it was the closest I’ve ever felt to anyone. While laughing through the most harrowing kind of tears.

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