The Loss of Laughter

What do you remember most about a person when they are gone?  The Petchary recently lost two friends, and they had several things in common.  One of them was laughter.

Both A and B were a full plate of life.  All the helpings you could cram onto one plate, with the gravy dripping over the edge.  Too much, sometimes.  Like my grandmother’s cooking, where there were some old chewy bits of meat you could have left out and some parts (vegetables) over-cooked; but the flavor took over, and the plateful left you feeling satisfied – and sometimes even asking for more.

Now those plates are empty, washed and stacked up in the drainer, never to be filled again.

I worked with both these women for over twenty years in total, sitting right next to them at our desks in busy offices in London and Kingston, Jamaica.  We called out to each other – sometimes about work matters, sometimes about our everyday lives – the usual fragmented, often unfinished conversations about this and that.  We sat in meetings together, we had disagreements, we supported each other, we shared jokes.  And yes, we laughed, a great deal.  Laughter was a daily indulgence that we easily shared, and with those around us.

B died several weeks ago now, and very suddenly.  At first the Petchary refused to believe in the emptiness that was next to her desk.  No, she was still on leave.  No, she couldn’t just leave us like that.  No, I just heard her fingers tapping on her keyboard, her papers rustling, her murmurs as she moved from one task to the next.  No, all her things are there, her scrawled post-it notes, her photos pinned uncomfortably on the cubicle wall, her chair spun around as if she had just left it, shifting waves of papers on her famously untidy desk.

There was much grief in the office – sudden bursts of tears, quiet groups of two or three talking aimlessly, hugs, flowers and sympathetic workers passing through to see how we were “holding up”.  A bereavement counselor came and left us with a small candle.  But the silence continued.  She really was gone.

Her cubicle is now bare, and the silence is something we are growing accustomed to.  It’s like a hole in the floor, in the middle of the office, which we have all agreed we will just step around, tiptoe around.  We don’t want to fix it, because it’s there.  We would rather have it as a reminder, although it does not benefit us in any way.  We might as well cover it up, and walk over it, but we can’t do that.  So, it’s just there.  Not a cloud or a shadow, just an empty spot.

A had been struggling endlessly with cancer for the past several years, with a courage and humor that we found hard to conceive.  Could we have been as brave as B?  Surely it was impossible to endure the steady decline of one’s health, one’s internal organs, one’s “normal” life with a husband and grown-up children; all of it falling away.  How did one continue, day after day?  A was living in her native London, and we had not seen her much recently, but kept in touch.  The last time we spoke, she joked about her bald head, and in the most matter of fact way told us that her biggest operation, one of a series, was coming up, that the cancer had spread and that a part of her stomach was to be removed.

This was to be her last operation.  She died two weeks ago.

A’s voice was huskier than B’s; her laugh was deeper.  But both carried around with them a kind of force field, a quirky energy that rarely rested.  B was a “private person”; A, on the other hand, would share the most intimate anecdotes about her family, her husband’s idiosyncrasies, his failings as well as his strengths.  But love was what mattered to them the most of all.  Simply love.

After someone leaves this difficult place called Earth for a while, we feel the echo of their voice, and the laughter especially.  B’s laughter was loud and all-embracing, sometimes covering something that was not so amusing but nevertheless including everything.  It drew everything and everyone in to itself.  A’s humor was ironic, very “British,” often risque and at times even unkind.  She would also start giggling until her face flushed completely red.  That was infectious, too.

We went to A’s wedding in the East End of London.  We carefully avoided the jellied eels and whelks, drank a lot and danced too much.  And the Petchary recalls sharing grief with B – the death of her beloved brother, and the sad family group that awaited the arrival of the priest (B was religious; A was irreverent and wary of priests).

Now I don’t hear their laughter in this world.  But I am sure that A’s knowing chuckle, and B’s peals of hilarity are ringing through the Universe.  And I know it won’t be long before they will be, in the words of Jimi Hendrix, “looking through their bellybutton windows” before they come back down again.  After all, someone else deserves to hear that laughter, those comments wry and humorous, again soon.

In another time, in another place.

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