by Linda Escalera Price
When my Grandfather was 89, he sat down on the back deck of his Napa Valley home, watched the setting sun cast shadows across the vineyards, sipped a glass of 18 year-old Glenlivet and breathed his last breath. You could almost see the credits roll at the end of a long, exciting and satisfying life. (I tell you this so that you’ll know that while his death – like all death – was sad, it was not “tragic”. My hope is that you won’t think us callous as the next scene unfolds.)
At the funeral home a few days later, my siblings, my mom and I gathered for a private viewing. We hadn’t been together in years, so we were catching up with each other the way family does, while sharing stories about Grandfather. He grabbed the first shirt and first pair of pants he came across in the morning and, regardless of the color and pattern combination, wore them. My brother Dick and I kept sneaking glances at his navy and forest plaid shirt wondering what pants he had paired with it. Bright yellow? Blue seersucker? Or perhaps red and blue madras? (He was a golfer, after all.) Finally when Dick couldn’t stand it any longer, he peeked under the blanket covering the lower half of the body. Shocker! Navy blue. I think it was the first time my Grandfather had matched since my Grandmother’s death a decade before. I started giggling as we ripped the blanket off to check his socks. Surely they would be . . . navy blue, as well. My other brother realized what we were doing and before we knew it the four of us were guffawing. The funeral director actually came in – twice – to ask us to keep it down. After all, he reminded us, there were people grieving. That scene was the impetus for the one-act play Parting Words, a comedy about 4 siblings at their grandfather’s funeral.
When I first started to think about how I handle death in my writing, I thought, I don’t write about death. Okay, Silent Heroes opens just after a death, and we have to wait with the characters to discover who is a widow. Oh, and Who’s Margaret? features a coffin – complete with dead body – center stage for most of the play. Harps & Harmonicas takes place a few months after the death of the lead character’s husband. The August Jinx ends with a death in the final black out. And . . . well you get the point. Nearly everything I have written, deals with death. And most of them are comedies.
I don’t write about the person dying, I write about the people left behind. The way we grieve, the way we move forward, the way that death changes us and our world. And I do it with humor.
My son died 24 years ago. It was the least funny thing that has ever happened to me. And yet, since crying and laughing are opposite sides of the same coin, I found the line between the two so narrow I would easily slip back and forth between emotions. And I discovered my writing doing the same. Most of my comedies have sad, touching moments. Most of my dramas have moments of laughter. Just like life – where you can find yourself crying through your laughter or laughing through your tears.
For me, writing comedy means taking real situations and pushing them just far enough to be absurd. It’s a fine line between mourning over a dead body and checking out the socks on that same dead body. Earlier I wrote that we “ripped the blanket off” when in reality we carefully untucked the blanket from the bottom. In real life, we were aware of the societal norm of treating both a dead body and your grandparents with respect. On paper – onstage – I pushed right past that. An act that might have seemed inappropriate suddenly becomes funny.
But writing that fine line is like walking down the dividing line on a busy highway – it’s a good place to take a hit. Sometimes it can fall flat and border on insensitive or cruel. But when it works, it works well. When my friend’s Uncle Sal drove around all night with his wife coffin in his car because he couldn’t bear the thought of burying her, it was a sad, poignant and touching story. When character Art takes his wife’s coffin for a joyride before unloading her into the living room, it’s an entirely different story.
If part of the reason I write is to reflect on the human condition, I have to address death. And, if part of the reason I write is to entertain, I want to make it interesting and bearable and accessible. As a person, I think if we can laugh, we can get through it – whatever “it” is. As a writer, I want to make that true for you. So the next time you’re at a viewing, if you smile wondering what socks the person is wearing, I’ve done my job. Just don’t start ripping any blankets off!