Tuesday, March 29, 2011

you are what you leave us to read about you

my dear friend says that when she dies, she wants the following in her obit: her name (not her age), her funeral arrangements and her survivors. period. no mention of the fact that she knows how to castrate a bull — wearing her evening clothes under her coveralls if she has to — play a concerto and the showstopper from Mame with the same fervor, or though she dislikes most sports except fox hunting, she has been my cheerleader since the 8th grade.

i am a student of the obit. ever since i can remember — even before i became a journalist — i would scan the obits looking for interesting people. because in the paper, that's where they all are. not on the front page, not in the crime stories (however interesting those are) or on ET or any of those celebrity shows, but there, in the back of the B section, inked in black on gray paper that crinkles when you lean on it.

some days the obits make me chuckle. like one of my very favorite obits, which included the line: and she died with her favorite child at her side. Other parts of that now infamous obit include a father who was so distraught an invention of his had been stolen that he put his head in the oven on thanksgiving, ending his life. but the family ate the bird anyway. What. They were hungry. and this was not his obit, but his daughter's.

i remember being in the shower when my husband came upstairs and said: you have to hear this. (we are both obitophiles), and when I called AB to share it with her, she thought I had written it. (high praise indeed.) that one garnered what felt like dozens of letters to the editor, outrage at the newspaper for printing such a thing, (because the obit not so subtly implied that the unfavorite daughter was gallivanting around the globe while her mother took her last breath (really). other letters came from neighbors of the deceased, who knew her to be just the kind of woman who would poke fun at her own death, with the blessing of her children — favored or otherwise.

Sometimes the social announcements provide fuel for a chuckle, too. Like the couple who after 50 years of marriage, decided to renew their vowels. I saved that one because it spoke to me somehow. All those old vowels have gotten a pretty good workout over the centuries. It's about time somebody renewed them.

but in the obits, i have met some remarkable people. i wish i could tell you about them all. like the man who felt his lasting impression should be the fact that as a boy he got to view the car where bonnie & clyde were shot to death. or the seamstress who had made wedding gowns, setting every single seed pearl by hand.

just today, a woman named pearl was known for sending beautiful pressed flower cards to her friends. and barbara, bless her heart, made memorable icicle pickles. shades of aunt bea, (sort of)

last week, though, an obit touched me like no other i can remember. first of all, it was for a couple.

clem and mary crossland. self-described country mice, dr. crossland and his wife raised five children, among them the physician who would care for them in their end days. they died four days apart, dr. c, quite clearly, of a broken heart. the first line that struck me was this:

"they left as they lived — together, with the lady first."

well, that had me weeping.

and this: "they raised five healthy children whom they lived to see become educated and contributing adults, something that is denied to so many mothers and fathers."

about their mother: "throughout her life, our mother reminded us daily of the admonition from St. Luke: 'For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required: and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.'"

my mother never said these things directly to us, but she has lived it.

and then: about the good doctor:"he was an intellectually brilliant and personally humble man who was a superb diagnostician of conditions of both the body and soul."

well. but that is my father. plain and simple. beautifully said.

the obit ended with this:

"there are some debts that are so enormous that they can never be repaid in full, even in a small measure – and the devotion of one's family is one of those. In honor of our parents, we ask that each of you pay it forward by treating your own loved ones with dignity, kindness and compassionate care for as long as you have the strength and resources, for you will not regret a day that you do so."*

of course i was sobbing by then, handing the paper to my husband, who sat across the breakfast table from me, his eyes blinking. 

i found myself thinking all day, and the much of the next: what would my children have to say about me? 

dr and mrs crossland have not left me, not yet. i didn't know them, but i thank their children for giving me a chance to try.