"It's as if a great bird lives inside the stone of our days and since no sculptor can free it, it has to wait for the elements to wear us down, till it is free to fly." Mark Nepo

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Reading Obituaries

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.


Shelia said...

Wow! You wrote her a lovely obituary and you knew her well in spite of her break up with you. This made me sad about the break ups I've endured with people who inspired me, but I evidently wasn't worth their time. It's painful business, this friendship thing, but the beauty of the relationships that last make it all worth the risk of engaging with those we are drawn to for whatever reason.

As someone who has met you in person and read your writing, I can attest to the beauty and love-filled life you embrace daily, and I love the "mentoring" I receive from you every time I come here.

Love you so much!

Unspoken said...

Wow. Wow. I hope mine is written by someone who "KNEW" me. How sad these short summaries can be.

Wanda said...

I read obits, too.

Wonder what mine will say? Want to write it for me?

Carrie Wilson Link said...

Wow - what a post. Don't know what to comment on first. Guess it's the fact that you thought you'd be best friends with this woman, who is so your opposite.

So well done, Deb, all of it!

Jessica Nelson said...

A life without faith is hard to comprehend. Most people have some sort of faith, even if it's a vague type of thing.
I'm sorry about the letter. It's always hard to feel like you connect with someone but they don't connect back. Makes me wonder who's felt that way with me and I didn't know it?
Beautiful, lovely post.


I'm sorry she broke up with you. I have a feeling she would have learned a lot about herself and you had she hung in there.
I thought friends just drifted away, without a formal "I'm done with you."
But, you healed and moved on.
You gave her a nice obit.(I too read obits and find my imagination kicking in, adding more than is there - ummm, guess that's a writer for you).
Always enjoy your posts.
Keep writing!

Midlife Roadtripper said...

"And I hope I'll meet death without fear or regret."

Me, too. This is a beautiful piece. I am also a reader of the obituary pages. You have written here what often I feel as I study the lives of others, noting a name, or a short life, or a free spirit of living beyond the norm.

Odd, too, to see a familiar face. Sometimes to discover how much of them we didn't know. I'm not certain what I will want my obituar to say, other than I lived life fully. I guess that fullness might be of my own choosing though. If that makes sense.

Anonymous said...

So much to say about this piece Deb, but I can sum it up with one word - stunning. I loved every word.Like a dappled path, you think it's going to take you on a short walk, but it leads to a great view. "I read obituaries"..."Oh yes" I thought "so do I..." and I was prepared to comment as such. By the time I had finished your piece, which draws the reader subtly and closer to deeper issues,I with you,began to ponder deeper questions,including the very nature of dying, the legacy we leave, and the complexities of friendship.
Although I like the concept from Herodutus (5th C BC) that death "is a delightful hiding place for the weary", the following has always appealed to me, so please forgive my overly-long comment to quote it:
"When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home.
Chief Aupumut
Mohican, 1725."
I enjoy your writing so much.x

Anonymous said...

I want to write something but have no idea of what to say. I've been struggling with my own mortality of late. Wondering what is the point of any of this. There must be a point, right?

Mark Lyons said...

I'll bet the family of your friend wishes that you could have shared a eulogoy for her. I mourn at your loss (both recent and past-with the letter ending your friendship) and marvel at your love. Oh, that we could all have friends like you...I'm glad that I do!


Gammary said...

Hi Deb
Actually drove up Lewisville Hwy yesterday afternoon after a long trip to Vegas...huh? Anyway, was visiting with my daughter, about to have another baby..

Love this piece...I read obits too and wonder similar things. That you feel your motality and the wonderment of a legacy is where I go alot. You've written it so well. I'm thinking a graceful exit may just be in sneaking out, quietly latching the door behind me, and hoping no one notices. Maybe I'll just tiptoe back into Lewisville Park for an eternity or two...that would be lovely.

You are truly a wonderful and dedicated writer and documentor of this living "deal".


kario said...

I am always frustrated by obituaries for those exact reasons. I love that you take the time to wonder about the details they left out. Such a consummate storyteller, you are.


Amber said...

You ARE love. Not only loved. And you have made my life sweeter and and better. So, I know it has been full of meaning all over the place, probably for countless people.

I'm sorry for this loss, then and now. She was too young.


Jerri said...

So much fascinating detail in this piece.

Your writing is like your heart, Deb: wide open and full, wise and questioning. A delight.

Wander to the Wayside said...

This is so beautifully written. I, too, read the obituaries - there is such a fascination there, like trying to peak into the windows at dusk as you drive thru a neighborhood to see what their furniture looks like, but all you have time to catch a glimpse of is the back of a couch!