Dying with Laughter


Bud's eyes overflowed often while metastatic colon cancer slowly crept through his body. When we were together, my eyes often teared too.

But I enjoyed being with Bud--because every tear we shared overflowed from a well of contagious laughter. He showed absolutely no fear of death. And while we laughed, he taught me how to die.

I'm a surgeon accustomed to dealing tenderly and soberly with dying patients. But Bud wasn't like the other patients. He enjoyed a rock solid peace within and what he called tumor humor.

For example, a sweet young voice on the phone offered him "a deal for you on a magazine subscription for one year." "No thanks, I only have six months to live."

He announced, "I just bought a one-way ticket to an underground parking garage." And after a hearty lunch together he yawned, "I feel like taking a dirt nap" while mischievously scouring my face for a reaction.

Once I noticed his cheeks getting a little puffy. "Are you gaining weight?"

"One nice thing about having cancer is you don't have to worry about fat and cholesterol."

Not a perfect man, Bud's flashes of impatience initially caused me to keep my emotional distance. But his extreme honesty about his faux pas and quick wit gradually drew me toward him. When we'd meet for lunch, with or without our wives, we expected each other to show up armed with at least one new joke. Bud usually had more, and better ones. To signal that we'd heard the joke before, we'd cock our glasses at a grotesque angle. Bud had to get his glass frames fixed.

Happily married to my wonderful wife, Ruth, since our youth and with five children, I'm one of those guys who never felt the need for a close male friend. But Bud became a true friend. One day, while recovering from knee replacement surgery, my misery drifted toward the sour zone and I told Ruth, "I need a Bud fix." So my faithful buddy came with his liver and lung metastases to cheer me up with some of his tumor humor.

Although Bud had a flippant, loose-cannon side, he was an intelligent, intense and successful businessman. He organized, designed and built another business location while his health declined.

And when thirsty, he was thrifty. "Big Gulp Diet Coke with no ice, please." Thus he'd get more coke and not frozen water. While driving, he'd keep the container and at the next bathroom stop get a reduced-price refill.

Most of his acquaintances were amazed at how he accomplished running a large business, dealing with his cancer and still had so much energy left for humor. Our pastor asked him to share his secret with our church. He did. I asked for a copy of his notes. A summary:

"Are you looking forward to heaven? I am. When my doctors told me that my cancer had spread to my lungs, I thought I'd be in heaven soon. But the Lord has His own timetable and purposes. Years ago He made it clear to me that I needed to repent of my sins and invite Him to take control of my life. I did. He graciously gives peace that surpasses all comprehension. Mary and I experience it daily. We face the future with confidence because we know that He will take care of us and that nothing touches us that does not first go through His loving hands. He has removed the fear of death. At the end of my life, I want to be able to say what Christ said just hours before the cross: 'I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do.'" (John 17:4)

True to form, he and Mary went to pick out his casket. They walked into the casket place and were greeted by, "Is it for your...parent?" "No, I'm the croaker!"

His constantly making light of his dying began to irritate Mary, so she asked, "What would you do if I was the one with six months to live?" "We'd make love often."

During his last summer, although our homes were then separated by hundreds of miles, we attended a conference and spent most of one day alone. Judging by his latest medical prognosis, we both knew this was probably our last day together, but neither could bring ourselves to mouth the words.

He mentioned his meeting with an attorney to finalize things for Mary and their two young sons who were being groomed for their business on a fast track.

Bud did most of the talking--much more than usual. He launched into stories of his dark past he'd never told me, tales from what he called his "misspent drinking and gutter days." Although he didn't admit to much pain, by now his lung mets caused episodes of coughing, wheezing and spitting blood--primarily from laughing too hard, which we did often.

Between his stories I lapsed into melancholy. This was probably my last Bud fix.

As he persisted in peeling back the layers of his past, I gradually understood his purpose in choosing his past misadventures as the topic for our last day together. He was reminding both of us of the dramatic change in his life after becoming a Christian and that his peace with God was so certain and sure that he was free to laugh in the face of death.

During his last three months, still separated by several states, we kept in touch--usually with a dismal medical report--followed by the mandatory joke. Our last conversation was complicated by brain mets, which added a barely intelligible slur to his speech. I called from a New York area hotel. I barely understood his first sentence--an emotional sledgehammer.

"My doctor told me that Mary would face winter alone." I couldn't say anything.

Then he started a long spiel, I presumed a joke, mostly unintelligible, but I listened in silence, straining to understand. He paused. Nothing from me. Then I barely undersood, "Wow, that waz a wip-woaring success." And we both roared. For the last time. Almost.

When Mary's inevitable phone call came, she told of his dramatic but peaceful transition to heaven. He fulfilled his wish for the end of his life, "My work on this earth is over." But for his last words he barely whispered, "Cheap casket."

Bud's funeral "just happened" to be on the only free day in my consultant travel schedule, my birthday. As I appeared at Mary's side, she was managing remarkably well, and before long she asked, "May I tell you a joke?" Now? Standing by Bud's humorless shell?

I became suspicious as to why she would choose that moment to tell me a joke. I was right. As he'd hung up after the New York call, Bud asked her to tell me the joke when she saw me. She did. I felt weird, but I laughed; he'd expect me to.

His self-designed funeral service repeated the principles he had shared in church, which made clear why a man losing everything that most of us tend to hold so close could be so content and fearless of death. We heard what made him tick, and why he ticked so well when his time on this earth was running out. A powerful birthday present.

But life goes on.

I placed a photo on my dresser of Bud holding his only grandson and plunged back into my hectic travel schedule, consulting in hospitals around the country. I returned from my next trip fatigued and frustrated. And, as always, faced a tall stack of mainly bills and junk mail. But flipping through it I saw a card from Mary and quickly ripped it open.

She wrote, "Bud picked out this card for your birthday and asked me to mail it." The card featured a cartoon of "Big Bob's Ball Bearings, Bananas, Roller Skates and Floor Wax, Inc."--chaos with folks tumbling everywhere. I could see him picking it out and belly laughing until wheezing and coughing brought him to tears. It brought Bud back for just an instant. And for that moment all my frustrations vanished.

The card seemed like Bud's final message to me. He'd shown me how to die. But he also reminded me how to live.

If Bud's faith in God allowed him to keep his tumor humor while cancer slowly stole his life, surely my faith can help me keep God's perspective while dealing with my everyday entanglements. And maybe keep some humor without a tumor.