Confession

I have a fascination with obituaries. No, this isn’t a Halloween post. I go to newspapers online and read them regularly. Having grown up in the area, I recognize old family names and sometimes even the person. Sadly sometimes this has been the only way I’ve learned of the death of someone I knew.

Here are the things that fascinate me though.

The names. Obituaries run the whole gamut from plain John Doe to multi-hyphenated, multi-cultural, multi-syllable names. I’ll see a beautiful, unique name for a woman who died in her late 90s and wonder what the story was, how she got such an unusual name for the time period of her birth, what her parents were thinking, how much she was teased or envied in school. And what she thought. Did she wish for a change, was she proud or embarrassed?

The photos. Sometimes I wonder which family member was allowed to pick the obituary photo out. Some make me imagine the result was a huge knock-down all-out fight in the funeral home. Photos of an elderly person who died are rarely current, but most often of their early days. Why? Was someone ashamed of wrinkles? Photos of elderly people looking every inch their age, and every inch proud of it. The kind of old person you’d want to hang out with. Photos of young people that are heartbreaking – those hopeful expressions looking out on a whole life ahead of them.

The wording. A while back there was an obituary flying around social media that had been written by an elderly man before he died. Wish I could find that again as it was honest and hilarious. Some obituaries are stilted as if from a funeral home template. Someone just filled in the blanks. Some make the person sound so wonderful, kind, and perfect, that you want to gag. I’m sure, when reading those, that either the family member was severely biased or seriously hiding some deep dark secret. A secret I now want to know.

And finally, my greatest source of frustration: the cause of death. I see this person’s photo, I read their name, I read the testimony. I now feel connected in a small way. But I have no idea how they died. The story is incomplete. When the person is elderly you can assume simply old age. Although I remember the shock reading the obituary of a 89-year-old woman’s death from base jumping. I’m sure the family listed that cause of death out of pride. And rightly so.

Another place where the cause is rarely listed.

Another place where the cause is rarely listed.

When the piece, though, says ‘died unexpectedly’ I’m lost. Sometimes the obituary will say that in lieu of gifts donations can be made to a cancer society, or a mental health agency, and I have the clue I need to fill in that lost feeling. But it’s like reading a story with no ending. And then I find myself wondering, what’s the big secret? Was the person killed in an act of violence? An act of stupidity? An act of futility? I start imagining scenarios that might match the name, age, and photo. Heart attacks, fishing accidents, drug deals gone wrong, a sad, long illness, and so on.

And I don’t want something basic, like ‘died of a sudden heart attack’. I want something like ‘Died of a heart attack while climbing Mt. Ranier’. When there are no details I imagine the cause being ‘Died of a heart attack while eating a king size candy bar sitting in front of the TV.’ An obvious reason not to post the cause for the whole world to see.

I think what the fascination boils down to is reading tiny short stories. Little snippets of someone’s life. I end up with a brief moment of connection, empathy, loss for having never known the person, and loss that the stranger is now gone from the world.

And I end up with no end.

What's the story of this rather creepy angel?

What’s the story of this rather creepy angel?

Reality

It’s been snowing and raining all day and I have looked forward to this moment of getting home, getting the fire built up, warding off the damp and chill. Which I have now done. But here’s the thing. The wind followed me home and it sounds like Halloween out there. I can hear it blowing loud along the river channel, and up high on the ridge tops. I don’t think it knows I’m down here under the trees in a sturdy home. Well, home felt pretty sturdy until a few minutes ago when the coyotes joined the wind. They have an eerie sound at the best of times let alone on a breezy night when I’m home by myself. But I have to laugh. Because really, here I am with full kerosene lanterns, fresh batteries in the head lamp, a roaring fire, dogs at my feet, writing waiting, and a shotgun. What is there to fear from wind and snow and coyotes? Nothing. Which is why I locked the door.

Here’s what I meant to write about though. On the radio this evening a man talked about a rare disorder where a person feels like they have ceased to exist, that the things they see and touch are not real. It’s possible that something in the brain between our thoughts and our perceptions disconnects for these people. I found that so creepy. Which is the real reason I locked the door. One patient thought she was dead. Think about that.

And then think about how, in writing, the story world, the imagination, the dream, become so real.

This past December we went to Wallace Idaho. I wanted to get winter photos of Nine Mile Cemetery for possible cover art for The Memory Keeper sequel. While there, we wanted breakfast, and I suggested a particular café.

And then remembered that the café doesn’t exist outside of the story. Oh, I based it on a similar one that does exist, but in a different location. In those few moments, my reality was actually my story. It was quite disorientating. I had to actually pause to discern which was real.

The light side is when we fall in love with a story and become immersed in that world so deeply that our stresses and disagreements and worries disappear for a short while.

The dark side is when we forget which is real and which imaginary, when the story becomes the truth. I sometimes think that is what has happened to a young man who lives near here and carries on conversations with people who only exist in his mind. Yes, I know the medical diagnosis of his condition, but sometimes I watch him talking to them and have to wonder.

 Who decides what’s real?

 Okay, I’m very glad the door is locked. Wonder if my husband can leave work early…

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