There’s been a lot of talk about death lately. Of course Saturday was Dis De Los Muertos or All Souls Day. The Catholic Church makes a big production out of the holiday. There are churches who coax people into purchasing a resurrection lily for their friend or loved one. The Mexicans go all out and have a party, putting trinkets, booze, and other items on the graves of their loved ones. Gypsies do the same upon burial. If you go to a gypsy cemetery you actually see a lot of packs of cigarettes because gypsies smoke like chimneys. Then the cigarettes disappear. Gypsy superstition says it’s the dead. I think it’s the living, jonesing and knowing smoking is an expensive habit.
Then there is the talk about Brittany Maynard. Yes, the Right to Die chick. She had cancer. She got seizures. To die legally she had to move to Oregon. It seems like a lot of shit to have to go through to die. The government is involved already. On top of that, you have to live somewhere else to die. Everyone is so into being puckered and self-righteous they don’t see the irony in this at all. Then as a whole we are supposed to mourn this woman we didn’t know. I support her choice, but what if she was a real wench? What if she was one of those people what if you met her you said, “Fuck this bitch! I hope she gets a flesh eating virus the nasty cunt rag!!!” What if she stole money from the collection basket in church? That is the strange thing about death. Everyone becomes a damn saint. But maybe Brittany was a nice person. She would understand if she were here, trust me.
Of course death is extremely final, so maybe it’s the only way people can understand it. In middle school I had a childhood friend pass away from a brain tumor, Karen Moorehouse. We got a bench in her honor. Granted, I had been to the funerals of a lot of people that were older, but she was the first that was my age. Her family had gone to my church, and her brothers had played football with Wendell. Karen had been sick since she was a baby, and while it was a relief, it also made me cry. I didn’t cry at the funeral home but rather on the way home. Karen was gone. She wasn’t coming back to health class in one of her crazy chemo wigs she interchanged like a 14 year old would. Karen wasn’t cracking dirty jokes during sex ed. There would be no more buying her Seventeen Magazines and make up kits for the hospital visits she endured during her suffering life. Yes, this was permanent.
I had another kid from my high school drown at the end of junior year, Arick Harmon. His sister Jackie knew my brother. It was a freak accident, and the weird thing was I had only seen him two weeks before making fun of our math teacher. Sure, it was kind of disrespectful. But Arick was funny. Jackie has always been very serene about her brother’s death stating that she believes no matter what happened that day, it was her brother’s time. Confident in her faith, Jackie believes he is in a better place. Is he? What’s on the other side? Do we know?
In college death hit me again on a personal level. My breakfast buddy and first year scene study partner Spenser Kimbrough died of a freak heart attack in his sleep. I still hear his velvety voice, a more melodious version of James Earl Jones. We had a theatre poetry slam in his honor, and someone said this was to celebrate this life. Yes, he was only nineteen, but Spenser could bring color and levity to any and all situations. Sometimes, when I see Angels in America and see the drag queen, I think of my friend. So that being said, maybe it is wrong to cry when someone dies. Maybe the best thing to do is to celebrate the way they lived.
Of course what gets me are all the superstitions about death some have. My dad’s side of the family is Irish, and in Ireland they say the banshees come and get you when you die. Their crying and screaming can be heard for miles apparently. My dad’s family asserts that when the clocks stop or one’s watch ceases to work, it means they are getting ready to enter the next world. It all started with the death of my dad’s dad, whom I never met. A master machinist in the mill, he had been experiencing back aches and attributed to his heavy workload. His watch was broken, and he figured it was old. So he went to sleep never to wake up. My dad’s family members suspected his mother-my great grandmother-who died years before came to take her son. Apparently, her watch stopped as well.
The same thing happened when my Aunt Margaret died. She was in the hospital with advanced cancer, and was attempting to get on the waitlist at Sloan Kettering. A lifelong nurse who’s patients attended her funeral, she had cared for others but had been slow to get treatment for herself. In the hospital, Aunt Meg told my Aunt Marie her watch was broken and that she needed a new one. Like my grandfather, she went to sleep never to wake up, to die peacefully. As Aunt Marie explained, “Daddy came to get her.”
My aunt’s funeral was beautiful, and my dad delivered a eulogy with no dry eye in the house. My cousin Robbie played “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” on his trumpet. When we got home, the grandfather clock in our living room stopped. My mother believes it was my aunt telling us she appreciated her send off, and thanked us. Or maybe my family has lousy luck with time keeping devices. Hell if I know.
My mom was very close to her maternal grandparents, and they were also her Godparents. Apparently, they were funny, good spirited people. She insists sometimes they appear in her dreams to guide her. Sometimes, my mother will call me saying, “Your dead relatives appeared to me in a dream warning me about…..” Sometimes the dead relatives are a little vague, sometimes they are spot on. Does my mother have a pathway into another world or is she just nuts? I can’t say for certain.
However, in my mom’s family there is a superstition that her maternal grandfather sometimes comes to parties in spirit. This was said to happen when doors would fly open by themselves. One time, we were hosting Christmas at my house as a kid. The Florida room door flew open out of no where. My mom and her siblings said, “Why hello, Grandpa Young.” Maybe it was my great-grandfather, or maybe they left the window open. I leave room for either side either way.
Still, there are times when I can feel the spirits of my deceased friends around me. It feels kind of weird saying it. But as my mother explains, energy can neither be created nor destroyed. Several Fridays ago, I appeared on Wendy Williams. It was the anniversary of my friend Chacho’s passing. The shade throwing ball queen had lost his battle with addiction, and towards the end of his life we were not on speaking terms. Yes, the man who once told me he didn’t smoke because it was “disgusting” but was apt to get booty bumps filled with crystal meth and have lots of sex with strangers. He makes me laugh now, but I was pissed with him towards the end of his life. I feel a lot of guilt still about not being there for him towards the end of his life, and not telling him that I loved him but not his drug habit. I try not to remember the anniversary of his passing because it puts me in a rotten place. Just to let you know though, Chacho was the ultimate Wendy fan. Do I think my appearance on there was a coincidence, maybe? Or do I think it was my deceased friend giving me a present, my third time on a nationally syndicated show making me a semi-regular, so I wouldn’t cry buckets? Depends on what you believe.
Of course there is my friend Joe who got me to write again. Yes, the one who got me to write my book. I spoke to him through Thomas John, dead talker, several years ago when a friend booked him as a guest for a radio show. I still remember the experience being breath taking, because either Thomas John was that good or I was speaking to Joe. Either way, it made me feel better. There have been two book events, one that took place on Joe’s birthday and another on his death date. I didn’t plan this. It was the time the venue had available, and only did someone mention this afterwards to me. I wish I could say I was that morbid and somehow figured it out but I am not that sophisticated. Is it an eerie coincidence or does my buddy still have my back?
Or even Otto Petersen, a ventriloquist with a dirty sense of humor that was kind to me has maybe sent me messages from beyond. I was having panic attacks about performing at a theatre and I got a group text where someone sent me a photo of George, his ventriloquist figure. Seeing the picture of George calmed me down. I am open to saying the timing was coincidence. Yet the calming effect was unreal. Maybe it was one of my comedy heroes gently telling me what he did in life, “Stop being such a fucking hack and calm down, April.”
We have dead talkers and Ouija Boards where people are desperate to speak to those that passed on. Do they work? Just as we want to speak to those that have departed, do they want to speak to us? Every theatre and some of the comedy clubs in NYC have a ghost or two. I was interviewing with the booker of one venue when the lights just turned on by themselves. The booker smiled and said, “These are friendly ghosts. Don’t mind them.” And laughed.
Perhaps they are. Perhaps the ghosts who live in some of the theatres are performers who used to dawn the stage, and pop in to make sure those who are losing their mind show night make sure to remember to have fun. Maybe these same spirits want to send love to those performing who often question whether or not the journey is worth it because of all the hardships one must endure, letting them know it’s going to be alright. Maybe those same spirits also lend a laugh when the punchline falls short lending their empathy because they have been there. Maybe, that is, assuming there is an afterlife at all.
Then I remember as I think of the ghosts in the comedy clubs, how there are times I could relay messages to certain people who have moved on. I want to tell Chacho he’s a pain in the ass but I still love him. I want to tell Joe about my writing success. Then I wish my Nunni and Pop Pop could see all the cool things I was doing, and them along with Otto Petersen could see the DVD I dedicated to them. And I wish Aunt Margaret could read my book. I would also want my friend Scott, yes Scott who I lost touch with for several years that lost his battle to cancer, that I wish I could have said goodbye and known he was ill. I would also want to tell Spenser than you for telling me I am funny, and I am making people laugh like you told me I should be. Then I would want Mrs. Telles, my high school musical director, to know about all the things I was doing. Same with my high school history teacher Mr. Williamson, who was one of my original fans from the beginning. The list goes on….
Of course, this blog was inspired by a conversation I had with another original fan of mine. A young woman who has followed me from the beginning, she recently had the misfortune of burying her grandmother. Sad and distraught, during our convo I assured her that her grandmother’s spirit was around her. I did this because part of me believes it, or would like to, but also because it’s what people say.
So what is the next stop? Is it heaven or hell depending on how you behave? Or do we sail down the River Styx, meeting the sullen boatman headed to Hades, the one stop shop for everyone? Does your loved one come back as someone else or a botfly depending on how they were in the first life? Or are they gas that melts into the ether? Or are they just fertilizer? Or maybe the afterlife is somewhere that we cannot fathom because it is so beautiful, terrifying, and awesome at the same time.
The only way to know for sure is to die. We never know when that time comes, so treat those you care about with the upmost love and kindness, even when they piss you off. Just as you know not when your time comes, you don’t know when their time comes either. The only way not to fear death is to embrace life, so that when the next step comes there are no regrets.
So to all my friends and loved ones no longer with us, just know that here on Earth, “Everyone says hi.”