the last, best stories

by bam

there is a semi-infamous story of me, told once in a while in the murk of the newsroom. it’s from back when i was a just-off-the-truck nurse-pretending-to-be-newsgirl.
i, like every starter-outer, got assigned to the obits one morning. back then, there were pages to fill and obits to fill them. i was handed a name, told to get digging.
so, dutiful and just a little bit scared, i made rounds of telephone calls, tried not to bother too much the newly bereaved. i dug and i dug. sad truth was, not much newsworthy on the poor chap who died. best i got was: “he was a darn nice guy.”
so that’s what i wrote for the big kaboom of the obit: joe so-and-so, “a darn nice guy,” died blah blah blah.
a crusty old city editor looked over my shoulder, barked in my ear, “you might want to kill that before anyone sees it.”
that’s news talk for: “get out the eraser, sweetheart, your big job’s on the line.”
oops. seems, in their book, darn nice didn’t cut it. didn’t make for an obit to fill up the pages. even back then when the pages had room, and folks simply died to get in.
i didn’t say it’s a hilarious story. it’s just one of those stories they tell to get a big yuck out of me.
but really, i think, when the giggles die down, when we get back to business, it’s the reason i am at my hummingest when i’m writing an obit. the whole lot of them, to my ear, are the nuggets of gold buried there in the news of the day.
the fact of the matter is, there are in a newsroom many stories to tell. we spend our days and our nights and our years telling all sorts of tales.
but right up there, up there where it’s poetry, gospel and epistle, all rolled into one, it’s the obit, high and almighty.
it’s the talking to souls fresh to the news that someone they love, or at least spent some long years with, has just died. the probing beyond all the tears and the heartache back to the glory. back to the stories that capture the essence, the glint, of who someone was.
one of my favorite ways to get at the glint goes like this: close your eyes, i tell them, paint me a picture of the person you see, tell me the story that captures that someone in one single snapshot.
sometimes i hear hemming and hawing. sometimes, a laugh, then a launch into story. time after time, though, i get a picture that neither they nor i will ever forget. i know i won’t.
it’s a job, every time, that gives me the goosebumps. it is, in some ways, like being a nurse, or a doc in an ER. you can’t be blinded or bound by the sorrow there in the room, you must get to work, clear a path, to get to the heart of the story.
the best part is when the ones telling the story forget that you’re there in the first place. they get to laughing, telling stories, remembering one thing that leads to another.
pretty soon, the notebook is full. and so is the room. and not with just tears.
the whole point of the obit, the page some wise guy once cracked was the first thing he checked in the morning, to make sure he wasn’t yet there, so he could get on with his day, is to move beyond death, into the crux of the matter, into the thick of the life.
to mine for the stories that will be remembered, held up like crystal to shafts of the sunlight, forever.
it is to trace back to the forks in the road, to study who and what are the forces that shaped not just one life, but all of the lives that changed, or became, just from that one.
it is to hear, often through tears, the very best that a soul had to offer.
and for the one listening, the one probing, it is, guaranteed, a spine-tingler every time. like so much of life when you’re listening, when you’re paying attention, you wind up there in the desk at the front of the classroom, frantically scribbling some very fine notes.
it is, many a day, the one page of the newspaper that i find worth not only reading but studying rather intently. and not just due to my irish.
mostly, because it’s an exercise in condensing the broth. boiling down to the best of the essence.
if we are, each of us, a composite of molecules, dreams and deep aspirations worth understanding, a great place to start is the lives of the recently died.
it’s why many a funeral, i think, is really an uplifting thing. you gather and listen to what in the world made this one imperfect creature such a show-stopping story.
the point here, of course, is not to drape us in black this fine day, nor to hang us with tangles of crepe.
the point here is that there at the back of the news, there in the lines of tiny gray type, is in fact one of the quietest ways to get wise, to pick up a few tricks that might nudge us along on the path to nirvana.
we are, all of us, lessons in living. we have soft spots and bruises. we’re dinged and we’re messy. but really, deep down inside, we each are that snapshot that won’t be forgotten.
sad thing is, too often, we don’t even know it.
and that’s where the obit comes in. it is the gift of the dearly departed. and i would propose that to partake of that gift is to sift through a life, to mine and collect and absorb. take in, chapter and verse, the story of who we all are at the best of ourselves.
too often, it seems, we don’t realize the whole of the people around us. don’t realize, even, the best of ourselves. don’t understand, not till too late, there are lessons to teach and stories to tell that will change us.
ah, but that need not be so.
the point of an obit, the page of the paper that gathers the dead, is to pause, and to take in the story, before it is buried away.

oh, geez, hope i didn’t just cast a pall on your day. maybe it’s just that i’m thick in the midst of writing an obit, remembering how sacred it is to sift through the whole of a life, and pull out the parts that are lasting. that will make us never forget the ones who once walked among us. the ones whose heroics, the everyday moments that reach for and grab the divine, can shine quite a light on our trails. do you find yourself making a study of what’s there in the obits? or, can you think of stories of someone you didn’t learn, didn’t fully realize, till after that someone was no longer among us? there is of course a fine way to learn before it’s time for the obit, and that is to gather the stories, to look at a someone and think: what is the snapshot id’ carry forever? not a bad way to fill up your back pocket, or your heart for that matter. would you agree that we might do well to practice the art of getting at the best of our essence–and that of those around us–before it’s too late? to live with the snapshot, rather than clutch it after someone we love is no longer?