Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Feeling check: obituaries make me sad but oftentimes happy

This week I was tasked with writing an obituary for my newspaper and, as of Monday, I was really amped you guys. It may sound sick, but for a journalist, I think it can be a very honorable assignment and very humbling in that it can stifle the brio typically associated with a reporter's work. So I was pleased that I was chosen to write it, even though I knew it was handed to me because no one else wanted to do it.

But then I found out who my subject was. I was not to write about the journey of a lengthy, dignified life and the peaceful passing on into the great unknown, thus solidifying the legacy of an old person. Nope. He was a successful lawyer in his late thirties with two kids aged three and five. The man had cancer, and found out he may have less than two years left to live--he didn't make it. His wife was a strong, generous and kind woman who, just less than a week after her husband's death, was joking with me on the phone about this man's biting wit and zeal for insulting his co-workers.

I had a difficult time researching his life and talking to his wife while holding back the tears. I think I was holding up pretty well until I saw a picture of him on a boating expedition, his arms outstretched, glaciers in the distance. The picture screamed, "I'm embracing life, here I am!" But here I was, telling the story of where he wasn't. Talking to those who missed him. It was awful.

But in the end it wasn't, and I did feel good about myself, for helping to keep a man's memory alive. I've begun reading obitiuaries in order to be mindful of what I have, and in order to further honor the memories of others.

A friend of mine, a manager at City Lights books, would come into the bar/restaurant I worked at in North Beach always with a newspaper in hand. He told me that he always read the obituaries first, because he wanted to be mindful of those souls who no longer had the privilege of watching the news of the world unfold along with him.

It's actually kind of refreshing to read obituaries, because it instills the idea that an unknown, "little" person can still be considered a hero, even if only through a beautifully-written obituary. One that I came across from last week's SF Chronicle describes the remarkable life of Mary Ellen Lear Sherry, the first female reporter to cover state politics in Sacramento. If it wasn't for her passing and subsequent obit, I may have never known about this astounding, inspiring life.

That being said, I still think it isn't without tact to satirize the lives of the recently deceased. Upon hearing about William F. Buckley, I began to research some of the books he wrote and am highly intrigued by his series of spy novels. It seems Mr. Buckley fancied himself a writer like Ian Fleming, with the great all-American version of Bond called "Blackford Oakes." In one book, not even the Queen of England is immune to Oakes' charms. He shags her baby, shags her rotten! I hope to provide excerpts from Buckley's series here in the future.


Sean Wraight said...

Just this week I found myself drawn to the words of an obituary notice. It made me wonder if my lifetime could be summarized in three neat and tidy paragraphs. Then I wondered if it could be reduced to a single sentence; 'if brevity be the soul of wit' after all.

Excellent post Amity. You made me think and that is truly what its all about.

Tessa said...

Dooode. This post made me sad, and happy, and sad.