Laurie Kilmartin on Life, Death, and the Jokes That See Us Through
by Parent Co.January 08, 2017
In 2014 when Laurie Kilmartin’s father was dying from stage IV lung cancer, the stand-up comedian and Emmy-nominated writer for CONAN, did what she does best: she cracked jokes. Laurie documented her father’s decline by writing 140-character bits of observational comedy – dark, raw, visceral, and hilarious - tweeting them out into the ether for her followers to capture and read.
And read we did, laughing and crying our way through Laurie’s loss. Or maybe more accurately, through our own losses, uncovered by Laurie’s words, her play-by-play on death and dying granting us permission to – perhaps at long last – examine our own grief.
Laurie’s new comedy special, 45 Jokes About My Dead Dad, now streaming on Seeso, offers a documentary-style backstory – including interviews with Patton Oswalt, Andy Kindler, Conan O’Brien, and Cheryl Holliday – followed by Laurie’s cathartic stand-up.I had the opportunity to speak with Laurie about the experience of losing a parent while also raising a young son.When you were tweeting about your dad – I'm sure so many people have said this to you – but it really hit home, having lost both my mom and dad, and having survived so much of it by laughing with my brother. Oh, I’m sorry to hear about your parents. Thank you, I'm sorry about your dad. It’s such a loss. And you’re a parent yourself. Really – authentically – how are you? I'm okay now. It's weird how the first year is really surreal, and then you kind of get used to the new order. It's a year of firsts.Yeah. There are still times where I miss my dad intensely but the intervals are further apart, and I also feel like I grieved him properly. I think about him a lot and – this sounds incredibly trite – but he has a permanent place in my heart, and I feel like I can remember him and access him all the time. That makes me happy.How old was your son when your father was dying? How did you weave him into – and/or protect him from – the experience of this loss?He was seven when my dad died and I know he has memories of my dad, but when I look back on being seven, I don't remember anything. It's all from photos that I've seen. I've really tried to mention my dad a lot and say, "Grandpa would love that." and, "Grandpa would think that was so cool." as a way to keep my dad a living thing in his life. I guess my son’s primary memory will be how important my dad was to me. That's how he'll be important to him.I think, much like yours, my father was central to my life. He died when I was pregnant and I'm always remembering him to my son. It feels like a sort of oral tradition. It does. It's odd though, I think our dads are the last generation whose every move is not completely recorded. They're the last unknown people in a way, and they're going to exist only from a few old photographs and what we say about them. What would you say to people trying to raise young kids while also caring for sick parents and coping with death?It's about how you talk to your kid about death. And it's weird – just talking about death in general – when the person you're talking to hasn't lost a parent yet, they’re frozen in fear. It's almost like you have this contagious thing and they don't know what to say. And, really, that's fine. I was the same way when my parents were both alive and people would say, "My dad died." I'd be like, "How can you even say that?" I almost thought, "No, they can't die. They didn’t die. That doesn’t happen.” It happens. It's an emotional river and, once you cross over, you have an empathy that you won't get until it happens, so you can't fake it. With my kid, I don't think he understood when it was happening. He knew I was sad, and I'm not super religious, really, so I didn't have a thing to say like, "Oh Grandpa's going (wherever) now." But after my dad died, my sister noticed there was just one mourning dove at the house – and mourning doves travel in pairs – and my son said, "That's Grandpa." It was profound. Until the other dove showed up and we were like, "He's already found a new girlfriend."Oh, great. Now we have a wicked step-dove. Exactly.Do you feel like you hear your dad’s voice in your head?
I guess I hear his laugh more than anything, and I can see his eyes crinkling. Especially when my son does something funny, I know my dad would have this kind of high, loud laugh. I keep that in mind.
And I have a lot of my dad's stuff. I took his drafting table, and I refinished it. He had it for 50 years and now that's my desk, so I think about him all the time. I just like seeing it and knowing that he touched it.What was the the most surprising thing for you about watching your dad die?Besides actually losing him?With hospice – and I did jokes about this in the special – but when they tell you you can’t call an ambulance – that's so shocking. You just have to let this thing happen. They make you sign something. It's like I even can't believe this is legal.It's so counter-intuitive. Basically, death is counter-intuitive. I think you summed it up perfectly.Thanks! I guess we’re done here since I just nailed it. I'm going to put that one in the bold – quote my own self. You should. Give me an assist on that one, but that's you. That's all you.Once your dad was gone, what was surprising about life without him?That everyone else goes on the next day as if my father didn't die. You go to the store and people are shopping and they're not upset, they're not sad. Everything just goes on. I'm in this horrific despair and no one else seems to give a shit. My friends do, but the rest of the world doesn't care and that's so weird. My mom wanted my dad's cell phone number for sentimental reasons and I had to go to Verizon to transfer all the stuff over and I remember walking into the store after we’d been crying for three or four days straight. And people are working and cheerful and I felt like, "Guys, the greatest man who ever lived just died. How can you even be at work right now?"Yeah. Go home.
Right. Why are you here? Why are flags not at half mast? But then, you think about it, it's kind of comforting. You probably wouldn't want everyone else crying and mourning and apocalyptic. We need somebody to be in control here.
It just makes you realize – when you're out at Safeway or wherever – there's probably someone in the store who's really horribly upset about something and this is a surreal day for them.A hospice nurse told me that sometimes people need permission to go. One of your tweets describes your dad's nurse saying something similar. Did you have that experience?
Yeah, I was like, "No. You do not have my permission."
When he was just shutting down, and he knew he was shutting down, he seemed content, as much as he could be. I remember my cousin Kathleen called – she couldn't be there – but she called him and said, "Well, Ron, you did it. Everyone's healthy. You have two daughters, you have grandchildren, you did it."
My dad's one of those guys that worried about everything possible thing happening all the time – a terrorist attack, all the calamities that can befall humanity or the family. So, I remember watching him take that information in and going, "Yeah.”He could feel like, “I did it.”Yeah – he did it, he delivered us as far as he could, and we’re okay.When it was all happening, did you feel more like you were losing your dad, or that your son was losing his grandfather, or a combination of both? Oh yeah. I was really upset that my son was losing his grandfather.No one loves you like your grandparents. Grandparents love grandchildren – I think – more than their own children. As much as my mom drives me crazy, my son has never had the sort of devoted love that he gets from my mom. You cannot replicate it, you cannot find another alternative. It only exists as long as the grandparent's alive, you know? It's a unique, special bond, and it really sucks when it ends early. How many times a day do you look at your son and think, "I wish my dad was here to see that."
My son's funny, and my dad would have just enjoyed him so much. Also, my son apparently has the math gene that my dad had. It skipped me. He would be so excited my son's doing well in math. He never had a son, so a grandson was just exactly what he loved.
What was the darkest moment?The night he died, I was in his office, and being around his things knowing he was never going to touch them again. It felt like there had been movement in the air when my dad was alive, and now that he was gone, even the air was still. There was this stillness, and just knowing it would not be broken up by my dad walking in again. It was really devastating. Then I just started screaming, really loudly. I did that for a while, until I was out of screams.Yeah. I know that feeling. It’s not a choice. It's very primal, very animalistic.It's totally primal. It's beyond your brain and it connects you to every single person alive and it connects you to the stars and it connects you to everything.Here’s to the dads.Yeah. Here’s to the dads.