The Obituary We All Need (To Write)

January 27, 2022 § 17 Comments

By Jeanne Bonner

When my father died last month, I had just enough room in his obituary to say he was a masterful gardener, had had four children, and once worked as an engineer on the Apollo space missions. But there wasn’t nearly enough room to reflect how he lived. I couldn’t mention that he was born on the kitchen table of his family’s home or that he chided me for not seeing the movie Schindler’s List, which he hissed was “seminal.” Not to mention his vast repertoire of sounds – clicking, clucking, whistling – used to express, “Here I am,” “not now” or “that’s enough.”

And it got me thinking that each individual life contains so many facets and experiences. To survive life on Earth for 85 years, as he did – or even many fewer years – you deserve more than a few lines about where you worked and how you died. You deserve a proper tribute.

What’s more, if you’re someone who’s survived the death of a loved one and you do any kind of writing, you have an acute need to use that skill to honor the person lost. And the form of writing known as an obituary is familiar to almost everyone. So I began to write the obit I thought my father deserved, and it challenged me, as a memoirist, to figure out what was unique about him – but also what’s worthy about each person.

I also had to understand why I so desperately wanted to write it.

I returned to the 250 words I’d written for the local paper, which seemed so few. An actual obituary, I concluded, isn’t for what makes someone unique. It’s quite standard. Not that the newspaper dictates rules, but you feel obliged to simply list one’s profession, loved ones and a few accomplishments. So I’d omitted that when I was growing up, the youngest of four daughters, he could rule by voice alone, using it to entertain, to instruct, to praise – or to chastise and spar.

No mention of his devilish sense of humor, shaped by comedians like Jonathan Winters, or that he dared me to wear two different shoes to school for a week when I was in 6th grade.

Plus, the standard obituary allows for no nuance. The person you’re eulogizing in print has been transformed into a saint.

That was frustrating — and I think now I know why. The exercise wasn’t long enough – or authentic enough — to assuage the grief. The act of contemplating his life’s achievements (and his idiosyncrasies, good or bad) through writing is deeply satisfying. It’s like the written version of the Catholic wake, and it reminds me why certain types of family memoirs are so popular.

Writing about loss – in my diary or on Facebook – feels useful. It’s also revealed a tribe of grievers that has become my own. Some of them lost parents or other family members at the dawn of the Covid era, and weren’t able to properly mourn. And they are desperate to memorialize their loved ones, but perhaps not in the habit of writing, which could offer solace. Hence my obsession with re-writing this obit.

Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden, “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” Right now, I’d amend that statement to read, “I should not talk so much about my father if there were anybody else whom I’d studied so much.”

And I wanted the obit to reflect the full shape of those studies – not just the marquee moments. The experience of witnessing his decline brought into fine relief tiny things, as if the specter of death sharpened my skills of observation. Like in the final year of his life when words only trickled out of him, I found even his cough sounded distinctive. After a lifetime of hearing him conduct vigorous discussions and hum old tunes on the stairs (he especially liked, “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore”), it was all I had of his voice.

Did you know your father’s cough – or your mother’s – is unique?

If I am honest, I wanted that original obituary to make up for what went unsaid. And so much went unsaid, long before he languished for a year under the pall of end-stage blood cancer. I am mindful of his favorite play, Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night,” about the saga of an Irish-American family during one hot day in 1912 where the grieving wife notes “the things life has done to us we cannot excuse or explain.”

I believe he thought a lot about what life does to us. Is that unique or special?

No. Not special enough to merit the kind of long, lavish obit you read about octogenarian starlets and Nobel Laureates.

But there is something special here, and it’s how I feel about him.

What looms large isn’t the specificity of his life – that he was an engineer by vocation as well as occupation or that he gardened religiously – but rather what looms large is his importance to me.

In my mind, he’s akin to Gabriel Conroy’s father from James Joyce’s “The Dead,” an unseen presence whose influence is powerfully felt. Indeed, I could quote my father all day, like he’s some mashup of Jesus, William Shakespeare, JFK and Humphrey Bogart. Which probably says more about me than about him.

When he fell ill last year and my mother struggled to care for him, I had the belated realization that my parents had been superheroes all of my life – in other words, at the exact moment their super powers had begun to wane. Not because they were perfect parents but because they were the architects of nearly everything I am.

Writing has given me a way to express this revelation. And it’s the real reason I need to rewrite his obit here. I dare say I am not alone. Because our parents – and perhaps grandparents or other caregivers – are the headliners of our lives. They are famous, maybe only to us, but that feels real, doesn’t it? And it means everyone’s parent deserves a long, full, detailed obituary, in an attempt to get at the enormity behind this primal relationship.

I think of Paul Auster’s memoir of his father, The Invention of Solitude; much about his father’s life wasn’t special. In fact, Auster was gripped not by conventional grief when he learned of his loss, but rather “the realization that my father had left no traces.”

“Even before his death, he had been absent,” he writes.

Yet Auster is still immediately moved to write about his father because our parents – even in their absence – leave such a deep impression.

“The past is radiant,” Patricia Hampl writes. “It sheds the light of the lived life.”

And now, the past that included my father seems especially radiant, as I long for anything that will shed light on the life he lived. Attempting to write the obit I thought he deserved – both here and in my diary — has allowed me to bask in that radiant past and has performed a sacred, necessary task: Taking stock of who he was, with the hope of sharing these thoughts with others.

Which means we all need to find ways to write remembrances of our lost loved ones, if writing is to help us make sense of the human condition.

As a writer and a teacher of writing, I embrace the practices of writing regularly and maintaining a record of one’s thoughts, ideally through a journal.

From what I’ve observed of the tribe of grievers that took me in, this message is so critical for anyone experiencing grief.
___

Jeanne Bonner is a writer and literary translator whose essays have been published by The New York Times, Catapult, Longreads, Literary Hub and CNN Travel. She’s won a 2022 NEA translation grant for a collection of Italian short stories she’s translating. You can read her blog at http://ciambellina.blogspot.com.

A Review of Catharine H. Murray’s Now You See the Sky

February 7, 2019 § Leave a comment

nowe you seeBy Emily Webber

In the summer of 2012, I attended the Tin House Summer Workshop where Ann Hood read from, Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, her memoir about her daughter’s sudden death at age five. It was a hot summer night and people fidgeted endlessly to get comfortable. Hood’s words, so full of sadness but a testimony to love and hope, hushed the crowd. In the opening pages of Comfort, Hood provides rebuttals to all the well-meaning things people say to help someone deal with grief. Her friends give her other stories of loss and Hood says: “But none of them lost Grace. They do not know what it is to lose Grace.” Hood understands the power of telling one’s own story. Her new imprint, Gracie Belle, from Akashic Books focuses on stories of grief, loss, and recovery. The debut book, Catharine H. Murray’s memoir Now You See the Sky, delivers a gorgeously written memoir that burrows deep into the heart.

From the start, the reader knows that this family will suffer the loss of a child. However, the opening part of the book is about how Murray ends up in Thailand, finds love, and builds a life there. The beginning pages are filled with marriage, births, jobs worked, houses built, meals shared, prayers and rituals performed, leaving the reader feeling safe with the idea that we have complete control over our lives. Then there’s the diagnosis that Murray’s son, Chan, has terminal leukemia. It hits harder, just having read about all the life that has been conducted, and it serves as a powerful reminder that everything can change in a moment.

This is not an easy book, and not just because it concerns the death of a child, but entire sections spare no detail on the suffering and mental anguish that comes with cancer. Murray puts everything on the page—the physical suffering, the exhaustion of being a caregiver, the frustration of not knowing what to do, the ways in which siblings sacrifice, the emotional burden. It is one of the most open, honest, and raw accounts I have read, and Murray offers us her thoughts uncensored:

Because I was holding a small, crying skeleton of a boy all day, the healthy, happy boys were a double delight to me, if not to Chan, who cried when he watched little Than run joyfully as fast as his thick legs could carry him. And in some terrible way, they offered me a kind of assurance. Well, if Chan dies, I will be left with these very healthy boys.

The reality is that there is no clear, direct path when making decisions about the fate of another person, especially a child. Murray brings these struggles to light with no sugar coating. She agonizes over whether she should tell Chan that he is dying. She wonders if she should have given in to the treatment plan prescribed by the hospitals, which is to say his goodbyes and go on morphine until he dies. Murray’s courage in taking care of her child away from doctors and hospitals is tremendous. She does this to give him a chance at living with his family, on the land he loves, and to leave open the door that there is a possibility he can also heal:

Fresh, tender fiddleheads gathered from the edge of the stream below her sprawling garden; wild pennywort, glossy green faces like giant shamrocks, the plant we pressed to make the bitter juice that Chan had learned to swallow, believing what we hoped, that it might beat back the cancer; balls of sweetened sticky rice stuffed with black bean paste and coated with flakes of coconut, all raised and harvested by Tong and Cam from the land they worked and loved.

Coming from a western sensibility of how we handle terminal illness and death, there are parts of this book that initially were hard to understand. In the United States, elderly go into nursing homes, the sick go to die in hospitals and doctors oversee their last days, our funerals are structured and packaged affairs that seem to try to distance us from death. Chan dies at home in the arms of both parents. The family gathers and stays with the body for days, moving to the temple for cremation. Then they collect some of Chan’s ashes and pieces of small bones. There is a communion with the body and spirit, and intimacy with death and a recognition of what has passed that forms a natural pathway to acceptance and healing.

Dtaw and I untied the plain cotton cloth that held the ashes, poured the bone shards from the jar onto them, and covered it all with the flower petals. Cody and Tahn and Jew helped Dtaw and Cam and me lift the bundle over the side to tilt the last tangible elements of their brother into the swirling brown water. The gray dust of his ashes floated and shimmered in the sun on the surface before the water swallowed them.

Even readers who have been fortunate enough not to suffer a devastating loss like Murray will still learn much from her story. After reading, I revisited my thoughts on what is a good death, how we treat the dying, and the importance of our memories. I also learned about a sweet, little boy who lived in the mountains of Thailand and loved horses. Chan’s mother still feels his presence and remembers him. This reader now carries Chan’s story too, and it is an honor. I’m thankful that Catharine H. Murray had the courage to tell her powerful and illuminating story and that Ann Hood gave it a way to reach others.
___

Emily Webber was born and raised in South Florida where she currently lives with her husband and son. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Writer, Five PointsMaudlin HouseFourth & Sycamore, and elsewhere. She’s the author of a chapbook of flash fiction, Macerated, from Paper Nautilus Press.

 

So the Was Turns to Is

September 25, 2014 § 6 Comments

Lynette D’Amico on the origin of her essay Faithful, found in the newest issue of Brevity:

So the was turns to is, in whatever one writes.—Marianne Boruch

Lynette D'Amico

Lynette D’Amico

When a dear friend’s mother was in hospice at home, dying of ovarian cancer, she asked me to come. We are both daughters of Italian mothers. Of course I came. This was in late summer. We mark our friendship by cigarettes: the years of sneaking around with cigarettes, the years we smoked together, the years since we quit smoking. Her parents’ house was out in the dense oak and hickory woods of Jefferson County, Missouri, out of cell phone range. We took the night shift, staying up all night with her mother as she diminished further and farther. The progression toward death is already disorienting, add to that: disconnection from the outside world, our exhaustion, the Italian propensity to express grief in anger and blame: sad-mad, mad-sad—we were out of our minds. We ate handfuls of black licorice during the long nights, both of us wanting a cigarette, the bitter-sweet bite of licorice a solace on the tongue.

My own Italian mother would be dead by spring. I talked to my mother every day. If I missed her call, she would leave me long, chatty messages, often multiple messages. After her death I realized I still had all these saved messages from her, more immediate than photographs, as effective at transporting me into her presence as the nearly empty bottle of  Jean Naté cologne I kept on my bedside table.

I’m primarily a fiction writer, but I get a little bored by plot, narrative: this happened and then this happened. I’m a sucker for language, image, the rhythm of a phrase. At first draft, meaning, if any, is secondary, not the point. The point is bald, gasping beauty. Like Annie Dillard says, “I wanted beauty bare of import; I liked language in strips like pennants.” With “Faithful,” I started with the phone: the disconnected phone during the dying of my friend’s mother, no cell phone service, the saved phone messages from my mother.

Because I’m a writer, how I try to make sense of the world is through words. Of course, words are completely inadequate to make sense of grief, to make sense of the terrible loss of our Italian mothers. But I had to try anyway. In earlier drafts I went through the three stages of memoir, what poet and memoirist Rigoberto Gonzalez refers to as “the sentimentality of nostalgia, … the low-emotion in anecdote, and … the frivolousness of crowd-pleasing storytelling.”

I remembered a line from Maira Kalman’s wonderful book that illustrates a year in her life, The Principles of Uncertainty, about the death of her own mother: “She is no longer alive, and it is impossible to bear.” What more needed to be said? That line became a version of the refrain in “Faithful”:

“The impossibility that she is dead.”

“How impossible it is that she is dead.”

“It is impossible that she is dead.”

“The impossibility of her dead.”

I transcribed my mother’s phone messages. She died in April, ten days after Easter. There were still Easter cuccidate she had made in the freezer.

Like the slipperiness of grief itself—expanding, contracting, laying low, and then wham! You think you can go to the grocery store and walk by the escarole, the green and purple grapes, and not think of your mother’s table? I couldn’t come to a resting place with this piece, not to an end point, but a pause point: stop here for a little while, look around, go for a walk, wash a dish. Sentences, paragraphs, went on and on. There would be no end to it. No relief. Punctuation marks stabbed me. The white space on the page was a gaping hole I fell into again and again. Every time I came to the page my friend’s mother, my mother was dying over and over again.

In James Longenbach’s brilliant essay, “All Changed,” about the effect of tense shifts in poetry and prose, from his book The Virtues of Poetry, he says in regard to the poem “Easter, 1916” by William Butler Yeats:

…the simple present tense produces a timeless presence. …the poem is looking at events that occurred in the past, but something is happening right now, in the time it takes to speak the words of the poem.

In my own clumsy way, I wanted to try narrating a past event from present tense, or the intrusion of the present tense into a past tense narrative, so the phone is still ringing in the last line. It is happening right now. Do you hear it?

___

Lynette D’Amico earned her MFA in fiction at the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She has published work previously in Brevity and The Gettysburg Review. She is the content editor for howlround.com.

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