Memory artist Nancy Gershman launches “Tragicomedia” – her new oral history series about loss and regrets, meaning-making and memory – by sitting down with David Himmel, Chicago-based comedian, author (of the book, A Camp Story) and playwright. David is also managing editor of Chicago Health magazine and serves as Associate Board President of Gilda’s Club Chicago. David describes himself as “thin but with the strength of ten Egyptian slaves.” Visit David on www.Himmelink.com.
What is Happiness?
Photos of my deceased dog vs. beloved dead relatives
My earliest misconceptions about death
The dead miss all the stuff going on
How I want to be remembered
The trouble with tribute videos
Mysteries about the dead belong to the living
My earliest misconceptions about death
A footnote to dead Uncle Harry
A ghost I hang with in my dreams
Regrets I don’t want to have Your To Do list
“In the play I’m writing, a 6-year old therapist says, happiness is a mood that comes or goes. Sometimes you’re sad – then you watch a movie and you’re happy again. It’s that fleeting moment between Disappointment and Frustration. We’re always setting ourselves up for constant disappointment! The truth is that not everything is great. It’s an American entitlement based on the whole pursuit of happiness thing in the Declaration of Independence. We have to remain at the top; we should have everything we want at all times.
Anyway, the protagonist ends up befriending this 6-year old who has the answers he’s been looking for. Children see things in simple ways, whereas adults tend to over-complicate. So I’m saying stop acting like an adult. Think like a child and things will be so much simpler.
“I was sad when Max, my Brittany Spaniel died. Plenty of photographs of Max are hanging on my wall right now. I’ve got some others that stay in scrapbooks and still others on my computer.
How you feel when you see a photo of your dead pet (or dead person) I think depends on what mood you’re in. It also has to do with the fact that pets never intentionally hurt you (or exact vengeance). They never talk back. Even your parents, as much as they love you, sometimes do things just to stick it to you. Cats may actually be assholes, but that’s another story …
Didn’t Max chew my shoes? Crap on my living room? Didn’t he run away and make me worry when he didn’t come back after 3 hours? But that was not to cause me trouble. Dogs are always happy to see you. A dog will never say “Not in the mood” or “I’ll call you back when I’m not busy.”
“The thing about death and remembering a person – you never really get over that person’s death. At least for me, it’s always there: the missing, the hurt. It’s a constant leakage over the years. There are moments when I’m thinking about them. Then there are the parts of my life when I realize they’re missing this. That’s the root of the pain. People die. And it sucks.“
“I would like to be remembered, period. I think most people would say “I remember him as a good friend,” or “He was someone who gave back to the community. “ But I would just like to be remembered, hopefully in positive ways. Most likely each person will remember me in a different way. With one person I was “charitable with my time.” For another I was a sarcastic asshole. But all of those things are me.
After someone is dead, the eulogy gives you a chance to be a little more honest and reflect. At the same time there’s this outpouring of sentimentality, so it’s a contradiction. It causes people to go back to those moments that they shared with the dead. When James Gandolfini passed away, they wrote all over Facebook: Tony Soprano rest in peace! Tony Soprano is not dead! Because that day I was watching Tony Soprano on TV. And he went off the air like five years ago. But that’s ok. They remember the way that Tony Soprano made them feel. In my case, Jim and I traded fruit roll ups. That becomes the memory – how I felt trading fruit roll ups with Jim.”
“When Grandpa Pete died in November, I went down to the funeral “parlor” which was putting together a tribute video. They set all our photos of Grandpa to Elevator music of Amazing Grace and the thing played on a TV screen at the funeral, looping every 15 minutes. On top of that I couldn’t help noticing that there were these weird transitions in between photos with stock images of hunting. I get it: they asked what did your grandfather enjoy doing? And we answered that in his younger days he liked hunting and old style beer. But then why was this video so stupid, so infuriating?
I think it is because they’re trying to cram an entire lifetime into a 15-minute video. (And yes, probably because stock photos are stock photos and not our own.) It’s a business. You have to put your loved one – all your feelings and the community’s feelings – into one $3,000 package that includes A, B, C, and D. How can you possibly fit 82 years of Grandpa Pete’s life into a tribute video, with him lying in a casket just a few feet away?”
“Right after my other grandfather, Poppy, died there was this polite looting of his stuff. Grandma is asking: Who wants his socks, ties and sweaters? I ended up with his gym socks. But the most important thing was I got the couch that used to be in his study. It’s late 60’s; very Mad Men-looking. But it’s such a perfect match in my home office. It even smells like Poppy (he smoked a pipe).
But a year later, we find a check in his top dresser drawer, and what do you know? It’s an un-cashed check Poppy’s father made out to Poppy to cover his wedding expenses, dated February 10, 1946 for $5,000. Full of mystery. My grandmother didn’t even know about it. Here we all are thinking: why didn’t Poppy ever cash it? There are so many answers we won’t ever get.
Lately Grandma Nonny is always saying, Don’t buy anything. Poppy had stacks of yellow legal pads. I took one look and Nonny said, Please. Take them all. I probably have enough for another four years. But the funny thing about it: on some of these legal pads there are notes on the pages because Poppy kept a “loose” diary wherever he went. Like the one about that two dollar and fifty cent hamburger he got at the A&W stand driving through Illinois. When I flip a page and find these notes, I laugh. Someday in my writing I may need a story line like that… These pads will maybe make their way as an homage to my grandfather; so hidden and deep. But to me those pages are huge.”
“The most impactful moment I had encountering death had to do with my Uncle Harry, my great-great uncle. I was in 2nd grade. Our family owned a fur store for 100-some years and Uncle Harry was President. He used to always ask me What’s my name? and I’d say Uncle Harry. I don’t know if he was forgetful or if I was.
Anyway on most visits, I‘d get candy from all the secretaries and then I’d go visit the furriers upstairs. This day Uncle Harry was up there. After he went back downstairs, Mom said to my dad that he looks sick. That one little nugget I hung on to. Old people who are sick usually die. Shortly after that, my parents told me Uncle Harry had a brain tumor. Mom said “It’s like a plant growing in your brain.” That’s what I think about now when I think about cancer. This explains why I have such a brown thumb: God, I don’t want any plant to kill me!
When I learned that he died, I remember putting my head down on my desk and trying really hard to cry. I knew people did that. Next day there was a closed casket. My parents walked me up there and I remember hugging somebody and saying, I’m sorry for your loss, and hearing them say, Uncle Harry would be so happy that you’re here. I’m thinking to myself: how could he possibly be happy that I’m here, when he’s dead? As a 7 year old that made absolutely no sense to me. I would have loved to see my face at that moment.”
I don’t want to have a funeral. I don’t want to die. That was my thinking then. So if I have to die, I don’t want people to say “David would always want us to laugh, let’s laugh. “ Instead, they should say “Let’s stay home and drink and be sad that David is not around to make our life more enjoyable.“ If I’m not there anymore, who’s going to be as funny? You’ll probably never laugh again.”
“Shortly after the funeral thing, I got into a fight with my parents. It was nighttime and I’m running away. As I make the turn there’s no streetlights and it’s becoming pretty dark, and I’m still thinking, I hate my parents. Suddenly there’s this green orb floating in the darkness. I just hit the breaks. I felt this thing inside of me that said, Turn around and go home. That was the ghost of my Uncle Harry. Well, I assumed it was. He was the only relative I knew who’d died. My 7 year old brain could not relate to someone I did not have an emotional connection with …
I don’t think I was ever that scared since.”
“My best friend Mike died in 2009. Every now and again I have these dreams where Mike is in the house with me. We both know that he’s dead. First dream, we’re in my house in Las Vegas. Mike died in that house. I’m there with another friend of ours. We’re eating Subway sandwiches. Mike comes in and he’s crying and apologizing to me. What the hell? I flew all the way from Thornton, he’s saying. That was stupid. I’m so sorry. I know what he is talking about. A month or two later I dream I’m driving his car, the one he died in (because ghosts don’t drive). He’s throwing me the keys, saying, Let’s go. You drive. A sweet simple gesture he did years ago when he brought home his fancy new car. Only in this dream I’m asking, Is this is the only way I still get to hang out with you? and he says Yeah – this will have to do. I can take his death and feel better because he’s visiting me through my dreams.”
“If I were to have regrets it would be that I never said what I wanted to say, and that I never got to do such and such.
See, I don’t want to die before I’m done. I’ve got things I want to do and succeed at and I don’t mind dying. That’s kind of out of our hands. I can look both ways across the street. I can get cancer and be dead in four weeks. I’m more obsessed with time –there’s never enough of it! If I’m not creating something, I’m getting closer to the end. Part of it is fear that someone else will do these things first. So I don’t want to be too busy thinking about it and not doing it. That’s why I don’t waste a ton of time with TV – it’s fear that I will miss an opportunity — or I’ll be dead before I do it.
My wall is covered in Post-It notes. I found this old note that says “Poppy’s 80th roast.” Ugh, we never did that roast! I never followed through! I was so pissed at myself. I put it on my wall, adding another sticky, NEVER WASTE ANOTHER IDEA, EVER. I found that note a year after he died. Eight years after I should have thrown the damn party …
That unknowing, that fear of losing something, regretting something, not having a chance to make up for something to complete something – it’s painful. That and the torture of being a writer, creating something, and the work is never done. You’re happy with the manuscript, and then you’re thinking: I could have written that better. So not sure writing will ever be therapeutic for me. I will always be concerned with the not completing …
You want to hear a regret? It’s when I think about my friend Mike and all of the stuff he was working on at the time of his death. He was a writer like I am. Well, ghosts can’t type. Or finish their manuscripts. And they don’t get to be talking heads on TV. (I’m assuming he can’t do this stuff where he is now.)
When I was much younger, I remember asking my mother once what happens after you’re dead. She said, “When you’re dead, that’s it.” And I said, “Dead is dead?” And she said, “Yep. That’s about it.”
- Plan a roast for each grandparent while they’re alive! Get ideas for invitations, posters or portraits created from personal photos, memories and family lore by visiting the gallery pages of a digital artist who specializes in “royal” portraiture.
- If your grandparent is deceased, invite a memory artist trained in personal history collection to talk with family members. This way your artist can get the best visual ideas for a custom-created portrait that can be used as the basis for a framable print, memorial poster (at the funeral), or thank you note (post-funeral).