Marriage jokes about her late husband’s snoring. Widow jokes about their one-sided conversations. This and more when memory artist, Nancy Gershman talks with standup comedian and attorney, Anita Milner about roasting beloved partners who die. Anita works with many widowed men and women – from the well-adjusted to the lonely hearts. Visit Anita on www.anitamilner.com.Passing away quickly? Throw a Good Bye party Roast your late husband (only if your complaints are universal) The terminally ill are naturals at physical comedy A dead spouse can be more attentive than a live one If you’re making a shrine, stick to dignified ceremonial objects Some widowers really need a pep talk about general hygiene Your To Do List
“I was born in Illinois. All my people were Missourians. By the time I was 7, my father couldn’t stand another Missouri winter and we moved to San Diego County.
My own first “winter” was when I was 67. My late husband Morris (we called him Bud) died at 69 of neoblastoma. Incurable and inoperable. He never suffered except mentally. It took all of 7 weeks, and he passed away quickly. We knew he wasn’t going to live, but we had time. We got to sit and talk. The first thing we did when he got the diagnosis was talk about what he would like to do in the time we had left – things that he hadn’t done before. Then we realized we’d done everything we’d ever really wanted. The one sure thing about our lives: family was always in the picture.
Even though we didn’t quite make it to our 50th anniversary, in two weeks our daughters planned an amazing anniversary party. It was wonderful, like a goodbye party where you get to see all your friends and relatives. One thing for sure: our guests just didn’t talk about death or dying. What we did talk about was the good ole days. Nobody made speeches. We talked and joked about and with Bud the whole time – for one, because he looked so good and two, because he was still part of our lives.
There were decorations but no signs like, “May there be 50 more!”and not a lot of flowers, so it wouldn’t look like a funeral home.”
“Five years after my late husband died, I felt I wanted to give comedy a try again. Things were clicking. Was it because I was older? Because I was a widow with a better perspective? Who knows. All I did know was that I was having a lot of fun. Comedy gives you something out of the ordinary. Think about most seniors: they have a set routine. What comedy does is break up that normal life, but in a good way.
When I used to do presentations as a humorist, all stories had to have a point. With standup, nobody wants to sit and listen to stories, unless they have several punch lines along the way. The only point is to keep people laughing.
Some of the stories I tell might seem cruel on the surface, and it took a while before I could joke about my husband being dead. This was definitely odd humor. But it was all based on fact. For starters, I did a joke about Bud’s snoring. The most common complaint in all marriages is snoring. I’ll tell the audience I used to fantasize about killing my husband because of his snoring. I didn’t get a decent night’s sleep for 49 years! The only way I could get through the night was to fantasize about dropping Kraft miniature marshmallows into his mouth – one at a time – until the snoring would get less and less, and finally stop. Sometimes after that fantasy I had to smoke a cigarette …
That’s the one joke everybody remembers.
Later on, I added a joke about his sleep apnea. Why not? I say that what made it even worse was that his breathing would stop for several moments at a time. Really scary stuff. I’d always wonder: What if he’s really dead this time? Well, then I could use a good night’s sleep. I could always call 911 in the morning …
I had a friend who performs standup and who had heard my act several times. Recently, she said, ‘I just realized you really did love your husband!’ Of course, I loved Bud dearly. I think the fact I can joke about my marriage and the things we did is because I don’t feel guilty about any of it. I had a good marriage. And because it was good, I didn’t feel guilt. Even Bud would enjoy my act.”
“Mentally, Bud slowly got worse and worse. We didn’t have to care for him very long. He never became a burden. Hospice was a godsend. But there was no denying it: his illness made him do funny things. He would go into the bathroom and unroll the whole roll of toilet paper. We dealt with that by flipping it in the opposite direction. Another time he went out to the front yard to go # 1 and I said, ‘Honey you can’t do that,’ and he said, ‘But I have to.’ He also urinated in odd places inside the house, including my box of copy machine paper, but at least it wasn’t out in the open where the neighbors could see.”
“Waking up without him – well, I adjusted. A lot has to with the fact that I had family supporting me: my two daughters made it a point to see me and call me and generally stay in contact. Throughout, we always felt free to find things about which to laugh and joke. All four of our grandchildren were at the funeral service. One grandson gave a heartwarming talk about Grandpa. Another grandson sang Amazing Grace, with an instrumental accompaniment.
I make sure today that I continue to talk about Bud to his grandchildren. They all remember and respect him and the funny things he said and did.
I believe one day I will be with my husband. I believe in an afterlife. I still have conversations with him. Not long ones, and they’re one-sided, of course, but I enjoy talking to him this way. And I always get the last word … the only word!
I definitely still feel his presence, and I still sleep in our kingsized bed, but the cats now sleep on his side of the bed. I had the weirdest thought the other day. I thought, ‘If Bud came back today, I don’t know if I’d have room for him!’ Bizarre. But you do build a new life and fill up the empty spaces. He’s just going to have to wait up there until I’m ready. And I’m sure he’s fine with that.”
“There are wonderful pictures from that 50th anniversary party. I have one framed on display of the two of us. He looks so happy and healthy and you’d never know he was ill. Every time I glance at that photo, I get the warmest, nicest feeling and I feel so close to him.
I love having Bud’s memorabilia around me. He was in the Marines; so they gave him a military funeral. I have his flag in a case on the mantelpiece. It always reminds me that he was a patriot. His baseball cap with the Marine Corps logo that he wore so much — I put that on top of the triangular case holding the flag. Yeah: once a Marine, always a Marine. After the military tribute, the officer in charge showed me three of the twenty-one cartridges shot from guns during the salute. He then tucked those cartridges into the flag that I now have inside the case.
What it is the Marines do again? Three marines firing seven rounds or seven marines firing three rounds?? The man in charge handed me three spent bullets. I thought, as evidence? I didn’t laugh once that day.
On the other hand, my late husband died after 49 years of marriage – the only way he could escape. The coward!”
“I’m a lawyer, and I’m 78 now. I still work part time doing trusts and wills. I’m dealing so often with people putting their houses into trusts. Or one of the spouses has died. And I volunteer at three senior centers. In addition to working with people just like me, I meet lots and lots of widows, widowers … some of them very bitter, but most who have adjusted as I have, to a life without that beloved partner.
I think it can be very tough for men. Many are pretty lonely, and not used to coping on their own. Odd how seedy some of these older men look; not taking care of themselves very well. They’ll come to my shows by themselves.
Sometimes a man will come in and sit down in the audience and I can tell his hair needs washing. I’m thinking, How much trouble can it be to shampoo your hair in the shower? Other men are notable because they are so clean. With some, you can even smell their aftershave. (I think it’s charming.) With others, you want to take them aside and give them a pep talk!
To conclude on a lighter note—I read newspaper article about a shoplifter in Colorado, described as being very neat, clean, with a nice trimmed mustache and beard. Turns out he is shoplifting hair dye, teeth whiteners, and probiotics (they prevent flatulence). I couldn’t help but think, Now, here’s a man who really takes care of himself! Admirable – I think I’d like to meet him.”
You know that old adage, “Better put on clean underwear because you never know what might hit you”? I think Anita makes an excellent point. If you notice a lonely heart who has lost interest in personal hygiene ever since they lost a loved one to that proverbial milk truck, here’s a way to lead them back to the mirror.
Invite this person to take part in a group portrait. While they’re sensing a conspiracy-in-the-making, brief friends or relatives that you’re “prepping” a poor soul to scrub up for a photo shoot. If it’s thematic – say ‘Everyone come in Gilbert & Sullivan whites’ – use the photo shoot as an excuse for you to arrive before the event, and help them comb their closets for the right outfit.
Come early to give plenty of time for persuasion. But don’t waste a minute giving the air a good sniff-and-grimace as your friend opens the door. Naturally this will draw some kind of reaction. So apologize while you sheepishly confide that the odor ‘appears’ to be very close by.
Then work your magic. Skillfully introduce the idea of a good soaking and styling. And don’t forget to offer that shpritz of eau de cologne ‘you just happened to get in the mail’.