Sunday, May 23, 2010
I'm an obituary reader. Have been for as long as I can remember. Starting in childhood with the local once-a-week newspaper where I searched for familiar names and indulged fantasies of what my own story would be.
Obits are little biographies, people's lives summed up in a few lines, written out of grief yet mostly devoid of emotion – stories that leave much to the reader's imagination.
I'm never completely clear why I'm so compelled to read these small stories. Sometimes I look for interesting names. Sometimes I study the path of a particularly long life and search for meaning. Sometimes I wonder how a family can go on when the life being noted was so very short.
The writer in me loves the variety and mystery of so many life stories. The mortal in me marvels that an entire life can be reduced to a mere handful of words in newsprint. The core of me wonders about the last moments of each of the lives, transformed beyond our knowing at the moment of death.
I've lived in Southwest Washington for over three decades now, so it's not unusual for me to see a familiar face or to recognize a name when I'm reading our local daily paper. However, even the familiarity holds some distance – the people I read about are never ones who have lived in my heart. Although my life has seen its fair share of loss, surprisingly little of it has been in the form of death. Which allows my reading of obituaries to be a cushioned, slightly distant experience.
Until last week.
The picture of the smiling woman looked familiar. Then I saw her name. I looked at the picture again, and there she was.
When I knew her, she wasn't one much for smiling. We met over quilting, bonded over long heart-felt conversations, shared a belief in the healing power of shining light in every dark corner of our hearts. I believed I'd met a soulmate in the survival of suffering. Our friendship felt to me like a gift meant to carry us both to the ends of our days.
We had little in common beyond our wounds and quilting. It turned out she was not as inspired by our heart-to-hearts as I was, and she had no interest in working through our differences to find common ground. She wrote me a letter saying she didn't want to be friends any more. And that was that.
I was stunned to be broken up with, it felt so junior high. But I also admired her courage and clarity about what she was willing to live with. We saw each other at quilting events for a while after, and it was awkward, but eventually I moved away from that world and sort of forgot about her.
A few months ago my neighbor, who is still a part of that quilting group, mentioned this woman had just been diagnosed with cancer. Occasional updates would reveal that treatments weren't working well, but then I didn't hear anything for a long time. Until I saw the obituary.
It was a pretty short story for a life that spanned just over six decades. She wasn't that much older than me. Reading it, I found no surprises, no revealed secrets, no evidence that her decision to end our friendship touched her life in any way at all. Married to the same man for 40 years. A veteran. Worked at the same desk job for 20 years. A brother in California. The quilt group was mentioned – the only hint of softness at all.
I marveled at all the obituary didn't say, and the fact that there was no one to write a truer story of her life. A practical woman of short hair, no makeup and comfortable clothes, she was vain about her fingernails. Would never miss an appointment to have them done, and if one came off, would change plans to go in and get it glued back on. She drove three hours every week to see a beloved counselor, the only person she trusted completely. Her quilts were works of art, blankets of beauty and color and softness. She loved to shop. Hugs made her uncomfortable, but she hugged back hard.
She didn't believe in God. While she'd listen with interest to my yearning and questions and seeking, she had no interest in a spiritual life of her own. I believed it was part of the reason we were together, that I could help her feel safe enough to trust in faith.
I wonder if, at the end, she was satisfied with her life and met death with acceptance and hope. I wonder what her life meant and hope deeply it was much more than those few facts in the newspaper. I wonder what mine means. I'm determined to live a life worthy of a powerful, compelling and love-filled story at the end. And I hope I'll meet death without fear or regret.