Tragicomedia with comic Brian Karem on saying goodbye

comedian Brian KaremWe need to say goodbye early on by listening and loving more. This and more as Brian Karem – comedian and musician speaks with memory artist, Nancy Gershman about the moving things he’s seen as an Emmy-nominated, national award winning television producer, reporter, newspaper editor and best-selling author (in particular, Innocent Victims and Marked for Death).

Deaths that are Stupid + Horrifying = Funny
Do one small human thing to show the world isn’t inhuman
Deal with the cards you’re dealt, not the dice
Return to the Land of the Living with super human powers
Business owners scared of terminal illness will likely negotiate
Never bet against a terminal patient’s lifespan
If you own a phone, you can say goodbye to the dying
What goes into the casket stays there
Don’t give away a Dead Man’s brand new merchandise 
Your To Do List

Deaths that are Stupid + Horrifying = Funny

“I have covered wars as a reporter. I’ve seen people die firsthand … buried my father and my little brother. I’ve seen a lot of stupid stuff too. Like the instructor who tried to explain the compression safety on his pistol and instead blew his brains out, shocking a crowd of 100-150 people. Look, I can even put this gun to my head and pull the trigger …  He didn’t understand the notion of a compression safety.

It’s very hard to deal with some of the things I’ve seen, without having a real macabre sense of humor. Otherwise I’d just sit and cry. As a comedian, you want bring your audience into your confidence, and let them see that they can laugh at the stuff that otherwise would cause pain … that it’s OK to laugh at the stupidity and the horror of this life.

What you don’t do is you don’t let them take you down the path of regret and anger filled with grim facts and statistics. Instead, you take them down your path – in this room, in the here and now.”

Do one small human thing to show the world isn’t inhuman

“Heidi Seemens was 9 years old in San Antonio, walking home from school with a friend of hers, when she turned a corner a block from her house and nobody saw her alive again. Rumors, and two weeks later, her desiccated corpse was found in a field in South Texas.  I covered that story every day for two weeks. And that was the only time I cried on air. I had met her parents and helped search for her. They lived not too far from me.

I remember asking them how they were doing. If there was anything I could do for them. I told them how much I felt what they were going through. John Walsh and I had this conversation once, and he said, ‘Brian, I’m part of a club that nobody wants to be part of. And we don’t want any members.’

There’s no way you can tell these parents everything is going to be OK. You can let them know you care which lets them know that the world isn’t filled with man’s inhumanity to man. The smallest thing you can do to help is to offer to help.”

Deal with the cards you’re dealt, not the dice

“I think people use ‘you only are dealt as much as you can take’ to ameliorate their own pain. Life happens, and you have to deal with it. Oh, So and So can handle two deaths and a birth this week. That’s a crock of shit. It’s just the luck of the draw. Whatever cards you’re dealt, play them.

People can’t handle, by and large, most tragedies but they may act like they have, forever. Facing their last days, most of the dying haven’t really lived yet. So they lean on religion as an excuse for that. How one comes to grips with death, I believe, is the same way you come to grips with life. You have to live well to die well.  Most people don’t live well. The number of people with all these regrets! Most are just sleepwalking through life, from day to day.  That’s one of the reasons why dying is exceptionally hard to face. People have all these regrets. Things they’ve never been able to do. They never got to live on their own terms.

What I tell my kids is that grief, disgust, really all emotions, can take you out of the moment. So the more you can apply logic to the situation and take yourself out of the equation the better off you’re going to be.

Look at it from another angle. We were at my dad’s funeral. ‘Brian,’ my Mom said. ‘You don’t know how tough this is for me.’  ‘Like hell, I don’t,’ I told her. ‘Think how tough this is for Dad!’ What a statement. She was so wrapped up in her head about her own suffering that she didn’t see the larger picture.

When I go, I want the biggest fucking party there is. I want you tell bad jokes, have some fun. I don’t want anyone crying.”

Return to the Land of the Living with super human powers

“Years ago, I worked for America’s Most Wanted and interviewed two families. Three teenage girls were killed and I interviewed the mothers. I’ll tell you about our conversation, and see if you can tell which mother was in complete denial and had not moved on.

The first mom showed me the bedrooms of her two daughters. She had not changed the bedrooms since they died – and she had two life-size posters of her daughters standing by each bed. She appeared pretty calm and looked at me and said: “They say after something like this, you have to move on. But my girls are still with me.”

The second mom was literally pulling her hair out as I spoke to her. She told me “that there are times when I can still smell my daughter.” And, well, it was this mother and not the calm one who was getting the pain out.

That’s the key to everything. Turn, turn, there’s a season. Grieve and then you have to take one step forward. At the end of the day, you’ve got to step back into the Land of the Living. Do something positive. Go out to the movies or watch the sun set. Get prodded by someone in your life who loves you. Or stay away from so-called loved ones who are sucking the life out of you.  Make the effort.

The worst thing is to stay continually in the same place, getting in that grieving rut. It becomes a valley you can’t get out of.  It’s all in your head really. If you don’t want to be cheered up, nothing can help. If you want to be cheered up, than anything people do will help.

Sometimes there aren’t any ways back. You see couples that die within a week of one another. They agreed long ago to give up and die. What is the trigger that brings me back to the living? When I remind myself that I owe it to my wife, my three sons and myself to put grief aside.

Honestly, looking at myself in the mirror when my dad died – I said to myself: This is the crucible through which I will be born. I felt completely overwhelmed at the time, but I was aware of having to rise above it. Put it in whatever terms you want – like a fiction writer who creates a mythological being – I saw that I would have to rise above this shit if life were to go on.

It was tough.” 

Business owners scared of terminal illness will likely negotiate

“Even as he was dying Dad had a great sense of humor. I remember his older sister came up to the hospital and thought she was doing the right thing by telling him straight into his ear, “It’s ok to go.” Dad was still with it, and he turned to me and said  “Tell the angel of death I’m not ready to go!”

Another time we went to buy tires when he was still quite ill. And we pull into this tire and battery store and they point at the merchandise and say, “Here’s the price.” Dad proceeds to tell them, “You mean I’m dying of cancer and you’re going to screw me out of $50?  No, no – we’re not going to pay that. “And he shows what we’re proposing to pay. He was a salesman and a haggler to the end.”

Never bet against a terminal patient’s lifespan

“My favorite story about my father, a heavy smoker, was when he was in the hospital about a year and a half after being diagnosed with lung cancer. I had come down to Texas to visit him and he was in terrible shape. I hadn’t seen him in a month. Before I went into the hospital room to see him the doctor took me aside and said, ‘Your father’s cancer has spread everywhere in his body, but not his brain or heart. We don’t think he’ll last more than a couple of weeks.’

So, knowing my dad, the comedian in me asked the doctor, ‘Have you told him that? The doctor said he hadn’t. I said ‘Well, don’t you think you should?’

The doctor agreed, but only on the condition I’d go in with him, which I did.

We both walked into the room and I was shocked. Dad looked like a skeleton, lying there on the bed with his eyes shut. As soon as that doctor began to speak: ‘Mr. Karem: from what we understand the cancer has spread all over your body. It’s everywhere but in your brain and heart and I’m sorry but we don’t think you have more than a few weeks to live.’

Dad immediately opened his eyes, sat straight up in his hospital bed, flipped him the bird and said ‘Fuck you!’ The doctor looked at me and asked, ‘What does this mean?’ I said I’m betting on the guy who says ‘fuck you!’ That was December. I packed Dad up and he moved in with me and the family in Maryland. He lived another year.

It was a great year, too. Never bet against people who want to live. Besides I knew Pop wasn’t going anywhere. My wife was pregnant with our third son. We named him Wyatt and his middle name is James – named after my father. I think one of his biggest joys was staying around to see our third son.

The moral is, not only is it horrible to tell somebody how long they’re going to live, but it doesn’t work on people who won’t have anybody telling them how to live or how to die.”

If you own a phone, you can say goodbye to the dying

“I remember a story I covered in San Antonio years ago – a guy crushed by a train. He was caught in the coupling of the train – and while the train remained coupled he was nominally alive. As soon as they uncoupled the train he would die. Anyway, he wanted to say goodbye to his family before they freed his body from the wreck. Even though it was painful, it was the right thing to do if that’s the last time you’re going to see each other. He died within 60 seconds – his heart stopped. Right before they released the train they had a priest give him his last rites and ask him ‘Do you have any regrets?’ The man said ‘I wish I hadn’t stepped in front of the train.’  His crew was coupling the trains together yet no one knew he was there.  It was a fuck-up.

But sometimes you can’t get down there in time. Jimmy, my brother, was 43 years old when he died of a massive heart attack. He was out of shape, worked himself to death and collapsed when he came back from cleanup crew one night. He told his two boys, “I’ll lay down and take a nap.”  He encouraged his kids to order from a pizza delivery place for lunch. He went to sleep and never woke up.

A couple of weeks before his fatal heart attack, I think he knew it was coming because he talked to my mother about taking custody of the kids (he had a somewhat similar episode a couple of weeks earlier).  After he passed out at work that first time I was lucky enough to talk to him and tell him that I loved him and missed him – we hadn’t spoken in a couple of weeks. He talked about getting a new computer so we could at least chat online – but we never got that chance.

My younger sister – she still feels really bad she couldn’t say goodbye and tell her brother she loved him. Saying goodbye helps the grieving process so you don’t have that on your conscience.  But you have to be open to being around the dying on their terms. The hour my Pop died, I made sure I called my two sisters, my brother, his sister, and my mother to let them all say goodbye to him on the phone. Part of my sister feels that she has to beat herself up for it. I know her well enough; she did the same thing with our Dad. I was there with Pop when he died. She’s told me many times ‘I could not have done that. Thank you.’

Even with his voice cracking, he was so happy to tell people, for the last time, that he loved them, and in turn, everyone’s last memories of Pop were good ones. It was the right thing to do because if he could have dialed the phone himself, he would have.

He also talked to his mother who was 90-something at the time. I don’t think she ever recovered from my dad’s death. It’s hard to bury your own son and she went pretty much downhill after that.”

What goes into the casket stays there

“Pop was in the funeral home, readied for the memorial service. Makers Mark bourbon was his favorite, so in the casket, I put a bottle in the crook of his arm.  When Uncle David walked over and saw that (he was a state legislator), he took me aside and whispered that I probably should remove the bottle of bourbon because some state dignitaries would stop by to pay their respects.

‘Maybe you should take it out,’ he said.

‘David,’ I said, ‘If you want to, then you take it from his arm.”

He looked at me and shook his head, ‘No. I’m not going to.’

Hell no! We both knew Dad might rise up in a fury, so the bourbon stayed where it was.”

Don’t give away a Dead Man’s brand new merchandise  

“Every year, no matter where we are in the world, we get together and come back home for a family Christmas party. We play poker, We listen to sound recordings, videotapes from past Christmases. We tell stories.

Until Dad was dying, I didn’t know he was a big Buddy Holly fan. I was a big Buddy Holly fan and always thought Dad was an Elvis fan. All those years and we never shared something we had in common! I just didn’t know. So we started talking about music.

One day my Uncle Pete was visiting Dad in the hospital, and telling all these stories about Pop when he was a kid: that he liked raising hell, getting into fights. Apparently, one night when they were both teenagers they drove to the state capitol just to piss on the Capitol steps. Another night they took my grandfather’s car (a 1953 Mercury)- and entered into and won a drag race. They had detached the odometer (which you could do back then) so their dad wouldn’t know how many miles they’d driven. When they tried to reattach the odometer they accidentally set the car on fire!

So Pete is telling this story and nudges Dad and asks him if he remembers this. And what did my 55-year-old dad say?

‘We can’t talk about that. Dad will kick our ass.’

I love hearing those teenage stories.

When he died, I decided to keep this shirt of my dad’s. It’s a blue grey, button down shirt. He bought it shortly before he died. I just didn’t feel right giving it away. When he comes back, at least he’ll something to wear. He never really got a chance to wear it.”

Your To Do List

Are you still holding onto a piece of merchandise that your loved one bought in their last days on earth?  Of course, you can let it gather dust, give it away or toss it. But first, think about these options:

  1. If it’s your size, wear it. (Who has to know? Or conversely, what a great conversation starter.)
  2. If you feel that it’s a damn shame they never got to show off that brand new shirt, hire a memory artist to “dress” your darling digitally, so you can tell them how great they look. (A great way to continue the bond.)
  3.  If you’d rather make their shirt into a display-able object (or an objet d’art to keep privately), visit the website and get inspired. These are a special breed of artists who specialize in transforming belongings into everything from jewelry and multi-media pieces, to home decor and custom urns.

Needless to say, solutions #1-3 eliminate any possibility for future remorse.