I was busy at my computer working on “Resting in Peace”—the last chapter of the book I’m currently writing, “Hotel Chemo: Learning to Laugh through Breast Cancer and Infidelity.” Getting breast cancer for the second time had been a sharp reminder that I wasn’t a permanent resident on planet Earth. My rental lease here had an expiration date. I had no way of knowing if it would be soon or decades away. So how would I plan for my death, and possibly the afterlife? As a Jewish-Buddhist-Taoist agnostic with a Protestant Ethic upbringing, my religious leanings were confused.
People hate mentioning the word death. It’s so blunt, scary and final—like a rude sexual swear word. Both death and sex are surrounded by taboos; there are numerous euphemisms for both subjects. Sex probably wins in terms of quantity, but Wikipedia lists well over 100 expressions related to death.
Several of these euphemisms were immortalized in Monty Python’s Dead Parrot Sketch. John Cleese re-worked some of the lines from it in his eulogy to fellow Python comedian Graham Chapman at Chapman’s memorial service in 1989. I decided that I wanted the same thing done for me. I didn’t need money wasted on a fancy funeral, just a Monty Python-themed eulogy and a jolly good party afterwards.
As I was pondering my plans for a Dead Parrot funeral, I was distracted by a loud “Thwump!” Something had hit the patio door and I turned to look. A lovebird parrot had flown into the glass and lay feet upwards on the ground. One wing quivered for a second and then it was still. I’ve always been squeamish about dead animals, so I instructed my boyfriend to take a closer look. Without realizing that we were doing it, we began paraphrasing the Dead Parrot Sketch script. “Is it really dead?” I asked, “Or just stunned?” “Stone dead, no signs of life,” he replied, and unceremoniously scooped the bird up into a paper bag that he put into the trash. He was right—it was bereft of life, but I still had visions of the poor thing regaining consciousness inside the trash can and flailing about trying to get out.
Later on I had an epiphany. My life was turning into the Dead Parrot Sketch. It didn’t matter that it was a dead lovebird rather than Monty Python’s fictitious Norwegian Blue. At the very least, the irony of a dead parrot presenting itself to me just as I was writing about the Dead Parrot Sketch and my own memorial seemed a great subject for a blog. I told my boyfriend that I had missed the opportunity to take a photograph of the fallen lovebird. “I’m not taking it out of the trash for you!” was his blunt response, even though he was usually a helpful fellow.
Amazingly, another parrot photo op presented itself a few months later. After going shopping, I saw a lifeless lovebird lying on the sidewalk beside my car. “Why are all these parrots deciding to kill themselves around me?” I exclaimed. “Parrots don’t commit suicide,” my boyfriend replied, “They aren’t going around filled with angst contemplating ways to leave this cruel world. They just have accidents.”
I took a belated dead parrot photo but decided that the tiny corpse in glorious Technicolor was too unpleasant an image for my blog. Instead I found a perfect photograph on Wikimedia—Michael Palin and John Cleese performing the Dead Parrot Sketch live at the 2014 “Monty Python Live (Mostly)” show at the O2 Arena in London. I should know because I was there. I had bought tickets more than six months earlier, as soon as they went on sale. It was the first time in more than thirty years that the five remaining Monty Python cast members were on stage together and the event had been billed as their farewell performance.
A few weeks before the Python Reunion was to take place, I got my second diagnosis of breast cancer. So I had my surgery done right away and persuaded my oncologist in California to postpone chemotherapy to give me time to go to England for the performance. I knew what my priorities were. I wouldn’t let cancer force me to give up Monty Python. So far, my treatment appears to have been successful. At least at the time of writing this, I can quote that immortal line from the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail and proclaim, “I’m not dead yet!”