09 November 2009

When someone great is gone

As my wife’s relatives sat around a dining room table and discussed what to include in her grandfather’s obituary, I looked down to see a copy of the days newspaper open to that particular page. It was a mixture of tiny text and smaller photos of happy-looking people, gazing out to the world with all of the wonder and delight their faces could muster. It was, I thought, the end result of the discussion the relatives were having at that particular moment.
It had been a good day up until I got the message. The sun was out, the winds were warm, and I faced the prospect of a birthday party that night for all of the family members who were having birthdays in November. I knew that Julian, my wife’s grandfather, would not be there that night, but from what we’d heard, the knee surgery he’d undergone earlier in the week had proceeded smoothly. After getting home from church and laying my daughter down for a nap, I happened to look at my phone. I saw there was a message.
“Hi, Joe, this is Kitty (my wife’s aunt). I’m sure you’ve already heard, but Julian passed away this morning…”
The November birthday party was still on, she assured me, because we’d all need to convene and figure out what we’d do regarding the funeral arrangements. I saved the message, and put the phone down. The silence in the house was startling. My wife, whom I presumed did not know about her grandfather passing away, was at dance rehearsals. I called her several times, and finally told her the bad news.
I never realized this before, but every single obituary on a typical newspaper page is a product of the same resonating bad news. It starts at a main source, and spreads like a ripple in the family waters, reaching ever-distant shores, inspiring the same reactions of sadness and disbelief. It’s also a reminder of our own precious mortality, which never seems as vital or fleeting as it does when someone who was always there before now isn’t.
I wasn’t terribly close to Julian, but I knew him well enough to say that he had a long and fruitful life. In fact, many of the people on the obituary page seemed to have had that much in common. As a writer, it raises a serious question: how do you summarize someone’s life, with all of its joys, slings and arrows, in a single paragraph? It seems an impossible task – yet it is done hundreds of thousands of times every day.
I will never look at the obituary page the same way again.

“The worst is all the lovely weather,
I'm stunned, it's not raining.
The coffee isn't even bitter,
Because, what's the difference?
There's all the work that needs to be done,
It's late, for revision.
There's all the time and all the planning,
And songs, to be finished.”

-LCD Soundsystem, “Someone Great”

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