The Gift of Laughter: Photographing Symbols

Photogrief / Photogrief : Eleanor Haley

by Kara Phernetton 

At some point in the last few weeks of my uncle’s life I had stopped praying that he would be healed from the cancer that was taking his life, and started to pray that he would just fall asleep.

I knew at that point it was time for me to say my goodbye.

My uncle had been a Norbertine priest for the past 40 years. Funny, handsome, well loved and respected, my uncle was someone I was very proud of. People would treat you a little nicer when they learned you were related to Father Conrad and often our family’s Easter and Christmas dinners were pushed back until later in the day because everyone wanted him over at their house. He led people, but more importantly, he made them laugh. He taught them to never take themselves too seriously, and said that even their darkest moments can be illuminated for just a minute if they can just turn on old “I Love Lucy” reruns.

He had suffered a stroke a few years back and he lost most of his ability to speak. The talent that God gave him to lead people in faith left his body, and he never fully recovered. He struggled with finding the words, and then struggled with articulating them. One time he told me that he missed making people laugh.

When the time came for me to say my goodbye to him, I sat at his side in his room with my eldest maternal aunt. I took the hand that marked him for Christ in mine and whispered “well done good and faithful servant” and through tears I told him I loved him, but that he can go to sleep now.

I turned to leave, and this is when my aunt decided it was the perfect time to say “Oh, Kara, that’s a really pretty blouse on you. It’s a nice color.” 

I started to laugh.

This intimate and wildly vulnerable moment that I had just had with my uncle was stopped short  so my extremely sweet and loving aunt could tell me that I picked out a nice shirt.  I, of course, thanked her and blew one last kiss to my uncle.

I walked through the abbey where my uncle and I used to feed ducklings when I was small and I cried harder than I think I have ever cried in my entire life. He passed away later that night surrounded by his siblings, one of my older cousins, and his best friend.

It wasn’t until a few days after his funeral when I realized what those final moments really meant. The last thing he heard from me was my laugh. It was what he missed being able to do the most. That is a gift. For the both of us.

And it is a pretty blouse, isn’t it?

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