I Cried at Erma’s Bombeck's Grave

Nov 16, 2022 by Amber McClain Shaw
I went to my first writer’s conference and it was a life-changing, supportive, encouraging and fun environment. I traveled to Dayton, Ohio for the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop and I am still marinating in all the energy and creativity. I made new friends, and I laughed more over the weekend than I thought possible. It was incredibly inspiring to be surrounded by so much talent and energy and to learn from so many generous speakers and teachers. I went to every session I could, listened to every speaker, and even went on a field trip to see Erma Bombeck’s grave. I met two of her children and a grandson.  I filled up a whole notebook with notes and ideas. I was so tired yet so energized that I didn’t sleep much. I don’t think I’ve ever been in such a large group of people with whom I had so much in common. 

It was all exciting. But when I visited Erma’s grave, something totally unexpected happened. I started crying. 

I stood amongst the trees in colorful fall splendor, with tears streaming down my cheeks. They were not tears of laughter. What was wrong with me? I had no idea why I was so emotional. I didn’t even know Erma! I never met her. Good grief, she died 26 years ago! Her grown children were there at the grave, and they weren’t crying. No one else was getting choked up at her grave, just me. I felt a little embarrassed, but I was feeling some strong feelings. This was more than being overstimulated and tired from the Workshop.

I had been talking to Colleen, another workshop attendee I had just met as we got on the shuttle to the gravesite. She asked me how I found out about the conference and why I came. I told her my story and when she saw I was getting emotional, she pulled me aside and said, “This is important. There is a reason you are here.” She had every right to make fun of me for crying at Erma's grave, but she didn't. Instead, Colleen guided me over the bench with Erma’s name on it, next to the grave, sat me down and said, "Give me your phone." She said I’d want to have a photo. She was right. I’m grateful. 

I wish there was something funny about why I cried at Erma’s grave. That it was something poignant she wrote or said. But my emotional response was about something Erma did not say, and kept secret for most of her life: a lifetime of living with disease. A disease I am very familiar with. Erma had polycystic kidney disease (PKD), was diagnosed at the age of 20, and endured daily dialysis for years before undergoing a kidney transplant at 69 years old. She died from complications of the transplant surgery.

I know a lot about PKD. I know how devastating the disease is. I know more than I care to know about dialysis and how time-consuming it is, how people can be on the transplant list for years, and how sick you have to be to get on the transplant list. I don’t have PKD, but my close friend Lynley does. Like Erma, Lynley needed a transplant. So I also know a lot about the kidney transplant process because I donated one of mine to Lynley six years ago.

Erma wrote about many details of her life that feel intimate and relatable to her readers. But she never shared her experience with her illness, dialysis, or the transplant process. I wonder why she kept silent? What would Erma would have said about her disease? Did she keep it secret because she failed to find anything amusing about it? Erma endured a lot while she raised her family and made us laugh, but we didn’t see the suffering. She didn’t want us to know.

For several years, Lynley and I have talked about writing our story of friendship and the transplant process. That day, visiting Erma’s grave, I realized how much I need to write this story, and how thankful I am that our transplant process was successful. I wish Erma could have given me a little guidance on how to find a bit of humor in such a serious topic. I’m not sure how much humor I can find in the situation. I will follow the advice I got in Alan Zweibel’s workshop at the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Conference: write the story, and then hang the humor on like decorations. Yes, I’ll start with writing the story, because I think Erma would want me to. She did not get a chance to write kidney jokes after her transplant.
Lovely words from Erma at her grave.