We are absolutely delighted to have the opportunity to share with you that Brenda Elsagher, a member of Triage Cancer’s Speakers Bureau has just released another book!
Your Glasses Are on Top of Your Head, takes a look at aging from many different perspectives. The stories are funny, hopeful, and often self-mocking, yet inspirational, adventurous, and full of wisdom. Make sure to keep reading for an excerpt…
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“Growing old is not for sissies!” said the salty 102-year-old woman as she rolled her walker into my salon. She was the fourth generation of a family I had known for twenty-five years. I had cut hair for the other three generations, and now I was getting to know the matriarch. Her daughter, now in her seventies, had been a funny woman until a botched surgery left her with unrelenting facial pain. I felt it was a personal challenge to get these two women to laugh out loud during my interactions with them, even if only for a short time.
Somehow early on in my life I found that humor could help distract one from pain, whether it was physical or emotional, and later I found it could even distract from spiritual pain, too. I experienced all those things myself, and could sense when it might be appropriate to attempt to make someone laugh, even in a very sad or uncomfortable time.
My dad modeled some of this intuition, as he always found a way to make a visiting friend of one of the eight kids feel welcome—especially the quiet ones. Dad would find a way to make her laugh, and ultimately our friend would relax a little, and then my dad might ask her questions about herself, and usually find something else to tease her about. This taught me a couple of things early on—tease people to set a level of comfort, and use humor to relax situations.
You can get people to endear to you if you ask them about their lives, and get to know them.
Those were invaluable tools I use to this day. Besides, I’m genuinely interested in learning about how others think, what is precious to them, or maybe what motivates them. Perhaps this is why this is my fourth anthology; I love collaborating with others.
Throughout my earlier career as a hairstylist, I found lots of opportunities to reduce my stress using humor, especially when I was running behind. “You are on time and I am not. I will reward your patience with a beautiful style just for you. Then prepare yourself. When you get home, your husband won’t be able to resist you and your hair will most likely be tousled.”
During the last ten years of owning my second hair salon, I was also learning to write comedy, and perform in comedy clubs. One thing led to another, and I was putting less time in the salon, and instead traveling a couple times a month to speak. It took about six years for me to realize speaking was a serious path to explore; then I made a new business card offering to speak.
I had been writing, and it was time to fully commit to the career based on humor, particularly focusing on humor through adversity. I used all the skills I had practiced and learned about communication and took them on the road, and began doing comedy and speaking for huge groups of people.
Laughing . . . as Death Announces Itself
One day a woman called and told me she had just read my first book, If the Battle Is Over, Why am I Still in Uniform? She said she could relate a lot to what I went through as a colon cancer survivor, except with one difference: her diagnosis was terminal. She was a couple years younger than me, and our kids were similar in age. When she asked me to speak at her support group close to my home, I didn’t hesitate.
The first person I met in the group said, “I don’t know how I can possibly laugh at anything about colon cancer. I lost my beautiful daughter to it last year.”
I knew this might be difficult, but I did the best I could, and he thanked me afterward for helping him see he could laugh at awful things, and that cancer wouldn’t have so much power over him anymore. He said he wished his wife had come with him.
Teresa, the woman who had asked me to speak, wanted to keep in touch, and so we made plans for lunch at her favorite Mexican restaurant nearby. A couple months went by; she invited me to visit and showed me her scrapbooking room, and I learned how dedicated she was to this hobby. She had been making huge scrapbooks for everyone in her family, and they were beautiful. I learned she had several trips planned for each of her children. She allowed them to take one day off a month from school to hang out with her and was doing a lot of fun things, creating happy memories while she still felt good, hoping beyond statistics that she would survive. She lived with purpose, also took trips with friends and sisters, living life with gusto and making more memory books from those trips.
When I ran into her at a craft boutique, we both celebrated that she was still alive. We set time for some margaritas, and again I enjoyed her company very much. I would call and tease her when she answered the phone, saying something charming like, “Well, you are still alive!” It sounds crass in writing, but it was the weird right thing for me to say, and for us to laugh about because it was her ultimate worry. It was a couple more months before I heard from her again.
“Brenda, I’ve got something to tell you, and then a favor to ask of you.”
“Okay friend, what is it?”
“We just got back from the doctors, and the cancer is now in my brain. I won’t have much time left, months only, and there’s something I want to discuss. I want you to give the eulogy at my funeral.”
“Wow, Teresa, I know the cancer must have really gone to your brain. You want someone from your family who’s known you for a long time to do this at your funeral, not a friend you barely know. We’ve only seen each other a few times and there’s a lot I don’t know about you. I’m honored, but I don’t think I am the right person.”
“Brenda, I’ve been thinking about this for a long time. I knew this time was coming. This is why I know this is a big favor. You will have to spend some time with my family and me, getting to know me. I want people to laugh at my funeral, so I want you to do this because you are funny, and I know you’ll send them away with a special gift.”
“What’s that, Teresa?”
“I want you to tell them how important it is for them to get their colonoscopies. You and I were unusual because we were diagnosed so young. As you said in your talk at the support group, it is your mission to educate people on this. You’ve got to urge them to follow through as a last word from me. Can you do this? Will you do this for me?”
“How can I refuse? Are you sure?”
“You will give the perfect eulogy, I know it.”
“Okay, when shall I come over?”
Over the next couple months, I went to Teresa’s quite a bit, met her kids, got to know her husband, saw the projects she had done over the years, looked at all the scrapbooks she had made, talked about her things left undone so far, and talked about her funeral.
She had less and less energy, and had been sleeping for two days and not eating or drinking much when I sat by her bed. I wanted to say goodbye again, as I had some speeches to give out of town. Suddenly, she sat up in her bed, looked right at me, and said, “Brenda, have I done enough?”
I answered, “Oh my gosh girl, I would say so. You’ve packed in special days with your kids, you’ve traveled to many great places, you’ve scrapbooked everything that walked by—I think you’ve done enough.”
She smiled, and lay back down and went to sleep again. A couple days later she died, and the family called me. They even changed the funeral date to accommodate my schedule because they knew what Teresa wanted. I was honored to give her eulogy.
I prayed a lot for the right words on the day of her funeral. A mixture of funny stories and poignant moments about Teresa and her family described a life well lived. I knew as I delivered my eulogy, it was the most important talk I had given in my life. Over three hundred people were present, and the only ones I knew were her family: this eulogy was for them. Of course, I delivered her gift to everyone sitting there, and we laughed as we remembered Teresa. I was humbled to be at this solemn occasion using my gifts of curiosity, intuition, and humor in difficult situations.
Enjoying Our Life—Today
As I age, I realize the importance of good friends and family, and I must continue to meet my desires to travel and see new things. It’s okay to be adventurous and curious about people and places, and even to be downright silly at times. In so many ways, I feel like life is just beginning. I care less about what other people think about my choices in life, and more about using my hours on projects that are good for my character and my sense of joy and giving. I know it’s not too late to try things I have long put off.
At our wedding, our soloist sang a John Lennon song taken from the poem, “Grow Old Along with Me; the Best Is Yet to Be.” I had always interpreted those words to mean to age as a couple, and enjoy it more as you age—and it would be good. Perhaps it might mean I am responsible for myself as I get older, to make my own life the best it can be. Whether it’s volunteering my time with animals, trying out a new recipe, joining a book club, or gardening, it’s something to stimulate me, my brain, and my interactions with others.
I think it might be true that we must remain open and willing to challenge our thinking and try new things―after all, the best is yet to be.