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Laughter and grief belong together [Commentary]

Eighty-three-year old Ron Kilmartin was in a hospice, dying of lung cancer. His daughter was at his bedside, cracking jokes about it. Here's one:

"Last week, Dad coughed and said, 'choking.' I tried to give him water but he just wanted me to turn off the men's Olympic hockey game."

Cracking jokes is what Laurie Kilmartin does for a living. She's a standup comic and an Emmy-nominated writer for Conan O'Brien. In February, she was also a daughter losing her dad. And as he slipped toward transition, she went with what she knew, live-tweeting her father's death under the handle @anylaurie16. The result: a running, 140 characters or less commentary that was, by turns, painful, profane and profound, but almost always funny.

"Good luck getting an answer to the question, 'Did I give you too much morphine?"

"Dad is not incoherent, we discovered while gossiping about his side of the family in front of him."

"The pain my Dad is in I would totally wish on my worst enemy."

People noticed. Her following jumped from just under 15,000 to more than 42,000. Media outlets from New York to New Zealand to Canada to the United Kingdom wrote about what she was doing.

They were of different worlds, the conservative Catholic war vet and his liberal, atheist daughter. And this, too, became grist for the daughter's mill.

"Hacked Dad's email. Unsubscribed him from a Tea Party newsletter. The reason, they asked? 'I finally figured out you people are crackpots.'"

"How I check that I've put Dad's hearing aids in correctly. Whisper, 'testing, testing, Obama is a Muslim,' then look for the thumbs up."

"Dad just let me turn on MSNBC during a Fox News commercial break. Time for Last Rites."

And isn't it interesting that these things that matter so much in life, things we argue about, labels that define and divide us in the years when our eyes are bright and horizons endless, matter so little when death arrives? Maybe that's the biggest joke of all.

Some people might find what she did to be in bad taste. Kilmartin herself tweeted that she was in denial. But perhaps the best word for it is simply this: human. Ineffably, impudently and inspirationally, human.

What, after all, is more human than laughter? It is one of the ways we shake our fists at heaven, thumb our noses at the cruelties of fate. That's what Smokey Robinson was getting at when he sang "Tears of a Clown." It was the prime directive of Alan Alda's Hawkeye on "M-A-S-H," the thesis statement of Roberto Benigni's movie "Life Is Beautiful": Sometimes we laugh to keep from crying. Sometimes we do both simultaneously.

There is an aphorism that says: Tragedy plus time equals comedy. Kilmartin's peculiar genius was to remove time from that equation, to seek the funny inside the pain not two years from now when the pain has dulled but right now, when it is still fresh and raw.

Ron Kilmartin died last week. Comedian Norm MacDonald reached out by Twitter and helped his daughter find Bible verses for his funeral.

"I just want to hug my Dad again," she told him.

"I hope you will one day," he replied.

"Me too," she wrote.

"I'm just an idiot, Laurie," wrote MacDonald, "but I found when I embraced the pain as tightly as I could it became love. I pray for you."

That exchange was poignant and wise -- more so, perhaps, than Kilmartin could handle. A day later, she was back in more familiar territory:

"Do they fact check obits? I want to say my dad played bass for the Stones."

And that denial of pain was funny but was also recognizably -- that word again -- human. Yes, sometimes things hurt too much for laughing.

But sometimes, they hurt too much not to.

Leonard Pitts is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His email is lpitts@miamiherald.com.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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