As a friend fights on in the ICU at Seton Hospital, I’ve been thinking about our lives and how they get summed up in many ways when we were gone. If you are a loyal reader, you might remember an entry from last June about my great interest in obituaries and how, not counting an inactive Facebook page, they may be the only retrievable source of information about our stay on Earth — at least for the non-famous among us.
Some find obituaries rather boring, as most follow a standard format including where and when a person was born, their marriages, offspring, professions, along with hobbies and pets and devotion to church. [Speaking of which, I’m convinced that religion is bad for your health. Too many devotees have succumbed to all kinds of accidents and illnesses.]
But it is possible to find much richness — whether we knew the deceased or not — when a family member (or the person himself) tries to communicate the true essence of who the person in six column inches of newsprint.
Over the years, I’ve saved a few that have hit the mark in humanizing an individual in a way that a list of dates, places, and credentials will never do. And there are some that simply put words together in beautiful ways. I’ll pass on some that were simply too good to let them go the way of their subject.
Richard Ballard, who died in 2009, was described this way: “Dick was a quietly honorable man who thoroughly embraced his passions: his family, the practice of medicine and the search for a great bottle of wine at a reasonable price.”
And how interesting it was to read of Wylma Louise “Cassie” Castelberry O’Connell Ruelke, of whom it was said, “Three things changed her life: the opening of a public library branch in the basement of her Houston elementary school that introduced her to a love of novels; her friendship with elementary school classmates Barbara Tierney and Shirley Jones who convinced her to join them in a pact to one day become nurses; and a high school job at the Piggly Wiggly deli counter that introduced her to such exotic fare as Camembert cheese and herring roll mops.”
While I’ll never rue my non-introduction to roll mops, I’m sorry I never met Mimi Segal after reading her obituary. She was a pilot for the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) program and after the war, she continued flying for North American Aviation. Mimi met her future husband B. on a blind date, and if “truth be known, she was smitten not so much by the dashing pilot from Louisiana, but by his co-pilot, a handsome cocker spaniel named ‘Tufy Tailspin.’ It only took B. seven years to turn on final approach and ground the lady ace long enough to say ‘I do’ on May 23, 1950.” [I must note that I am curious about B.’s real name, which was never revealed. I’m now waiting for his obituary.]
In September, 1996, this was said about Robert Carnes who worked for the FBI:
“The harness required by his occupation was frequently at odds with his tender heart and elfin sense of humor. He was intensely moral and honest, fair and kind. Had he been otherwise, he may have accumulated more of what the world had to offer, but he fervently believed the real score was tallied on a different plane . . . He was a man, and that is the worst that can be said. He was a man who lived a code of honor that required much, and that is how we recommend him to his God. He will be sorely missed, but that is beside the real point of his life. It is more accurate to say he will be well remembered.”
As for published poet Susan Fay Bush, she was reported as being “especially pissed off that her body would not allow her to stay around long enough to 1) see her grandchildren grow up, 2) attend her own memorial services, and 3) vote for Barack Obama.” It was also wished that in lieu of flowers, we “eat a cheeseburger and drink some wine in Susan’s honor. Or make a donation in her memory to Planned Parenthood or Hospice Austin. Most importantly, vote early and often!” (As you can see, a mention of wine goes a long way with me!)
And beyond the obituary, there are wonderful writings in funeral programs or memorial handouts. I am reminded of the bookmark at Eileen [Mason] Orton’s memorial service. On the bookmark was a poem, written by a family friend, Carl Gregory, that read, “To Eileen, dancing was life, and life was a glorious dance. It was not her profession, nor her great talent, but was the heart of her spirit. Her world was somehow always lighter, and her outlook brighter, than the one the rest of us lived in. She lit a candle in everyone who knew her, and we are not darker for her passing but radiant for her having been with us.” I still see that light in her daughters, Carl.
And finally, another poem recently appeared in a funeral program, written by Spencer Reid years before he was sick and found in one of his personal journals after he died. “In my soul there are many songs; But not being a minstrel to sing them, I alone hear; I dance to their melodies. Unheard and unsung, they will go with me to my grave; And as the dirt smothers their music, people will say, ‘What a stranger! He danced when there was no drummer and he cheered when there was no music.’ They will never know what a symphony my life really was.”
All of us, I know, have symphonies and dances inside of us. What we don’t all have are family members with a talent for words, or friends to write poems about our luminous spirits. Spencer, albeit unknowing, put his own life to music and words, to be remembered for years to come.
On this second morning of spring, outside my window, the birds wake up the day with their music, singing as if their lives depended on it. And I wonder whether my sons will write a rap song for my memorial.
P.S. Keep up the fight, Sherry!