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My father still laughed in the face of death

graham roumieu The Globe and Mail

I recently heard a laughologist (yes, there is such a thing) say that people have probably been laughing at each other since man first stood up on two legs and farted. My father loved fart jokes, the same way an eight-year-old boy does. To him there was nothing funnier.

I thought his easy laughter would end when, in his 90th year, lung cancer metastasized to his neck and doctors told him he'd run out of treatment options. He took the news well. He asked straightforward questions about his final days and accepted the doctors' answers that he would be well cared for and there would be no pain. That was really all he needed to hear. As for the laughter ending, I could not have been more mistaken.

His favourite palliative-care nurse was Dianna. Walking up the hall to his room, I would hear Dianna and my father in fits of contagious laughter.

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"What on earth is going on here?" I would ask as I rounded the corner into his room, already laughing.

"Ah, just giving Dianna a hard time, that's all," he'd say, then wink at Dianna and they'd both start laughing again. They weren't giving away any of their secrets¸ but I knew by the tone of his laughter that it was a fart joke.

I hadn't anticipated how hard it would be to leave my father, say goodbye to his dedicated caregivers and walk away from the hospice that last time.

While Dianna shared my father's keen sense of humour and tolerated the old man's jokes, she could dish it out too. More than once I heard him laugh - embarrassed - as she teased him about the farts he'd shared, up close and personal, as she'd bathed him.

Before my father was admitted to palliative care he insisted they install Internet service in his room. We knew why. Laugher was his drug of choice, and his computer was his most reliable source for jokes and his constant link to family.

The hospice didn't look like a hospital. It was sleek, with unobtrusive lighting in the corridors, pale hardwood covering the floors and paintings lining the walls - more like a small hotel. Doctors were on call 24/7 and nurses were just down the hall. There wasn't anything they wouldn't do for their patients.

Late one night, my father woke up and turned on his bedside light, thinking he would read for a while. Immediately a nurse came to see if there was something he needed.

"You know," he said, teasing, "I was dreaming about a toasted bacon and tomato sandwich."

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"Would you like one?"

My father told us later that the sandwich was so good he wondered if he'd died in his sleep.

One day, as Dianna changed his bandages and gave him his pills, my father asked her the date of her birthday.

"I don't like people making a big fuss over my birthday at work," she said. "The only way I'll tell you is if you can keep it a secret." My father agreed.

"Okay, it's May 6, but you've got to promise that when I come in to work that morning, the only way you'll acknowledge that it's my birthday is with a wink. A small, subtle wink. That's all. Agreed?"

In the end, my brother, sister and I sat vigil as the doctors placed my father in a medically induced coma. The cancer had invaded his throat. Dianna, too, was sad that Dad was about to leave us, but said how grateful she was to be able to look after him in his final hours. She laughed and told us how much fun he'd been as we thanked her for putting up with all his jokes.

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That morning, Dianna washed him, dressed him in soft clean pyjamas and even dabbed on his favourite Old Spice cologne. She gently combed his hair, then, using a little "spit for glue" the way a mother would, she slicked down my father's wayward cowlick. He was clean, comfortable and free from pain just as the doctors had promised. Moments later he inhaled deeply, then slowly exhaled. There was no struggle. No sound.

We all looked to Dianna standing at the end of the bed for confirmation that our father's life was actually over. She nodded, her eyes full of tears. Then she turned slowly, made her way around the bed, bent down close to my father's face and winked the most outlandish wink I've ever seen. It was May 6. The wink was just for him, and there was nothing subtle about it. He had expected to be the one winking at her that day, but it was such a tender moment to watch in the midst of a very sad day. She kissed his cheek and said farewell as we all smiled through our tears.

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Dianna slipped from the room and gave us time alone with Dad, returning eventually to tend to the living.

I hadn't anticipated how hard it would be to leave my father, say goodbye to his dedicated caregivers and walk away from the hospice that last time.

She helped us gather his things, and rather than allowing us to walk the long corridor alone that last time, she walked us to the door, her arms protectively wrapped around us. On the steps, she hugged each of us goodbye, told us we'd done a good job and that our father would be proud, and wished us well.

As we drove out of the parking lot, I turned back to wave my thanks one more time. When our eyes met she winked at me.

It's been six years since my father died. I've been trying to teach my own grandchildren how to wink. Six-year-old Abby has got it down pat. "Watch Nannie," she says as she tries so hard that her wink is over the top. "I can do it with both eyes!"

Her five-year-old brother is indignant. "I can do it too you know!" Joshua's version is to hold his eyelid down. Either way, it brings a laugh, and that's the part my father would have loved. And Joshua loves fart jokes too.

Lynda Murtha lives in Toronto.

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