Sunday, January 4, 2009

Everybody Does It

I had intended to do a blog on the habit that I find common to most people I know: the reading of obituaries. I had not meant for it to be an introduction to the year 2009, but it has fallen out that way. I have not had a happy new year. I spent that day itself in the emergency room for the second time that week. It started with a cold, and since I was all involved in celebrating Chris mas with a caroling party and a trip to the Boar's Head Feast in Cleveland, instead of hunkering down with chicken soup, garlic and herbal tea, it soon evolved into pleurisy and bronchitis, both of which are not good when one has asthmatic lungs anyway.

My doctor always takes the holidays off, so the ER is the only recourse. They are very kind and very thorough, which is why it usually takes hours before you can get out of there. I told them I had pleurisy, having had it a few times. But no, we must check the kidneys because they are in the same general area, and we must check the heart because, well, it's in your chest and all. I have pleurisy, I insisted. Yes, yes, but for a woman of your age - !!WHAT??!! - we can't be too careful. (I have a tendency to be in denial about the fact that 81 means I am a really old person.) So there were Xrays, cat scans, heart monitors, a urinalysis?!!! and thumping about the ribs, I was coughing like a bastard, which hurt like a bastard, causing me to take the Name of the Lord in vain and all.

John had snagged an old People magazine for me, which diverted me until I realized that I had no idea who any of those people were, except of course, Angelina and Brad (you can't get away from them) so I soon got bored with that. It was interesting to listen to the people in the next treatment rooms. The first time I was there, the patient was a very old (probably 75 or so) man who seemed to be on his way out. His family members and the staff were so kind, talking gently to him, even though he couldn't respond. There was something very sweet about it. I heard that he was going to a hospice when he left. Sad, but good to know that he had a loving family with him.

The next time, there was a baby who had apparently almost severed a finger in a door. He was very sad and his mother sang to him in such a sweet voice. He would coo and then cry, and then laugh a little as she played pat-a-cake with him; since he had an injured hand I wasn't sure how that went, but everyone who worked with him seemed to be enchanted with him. I wish I could have seen him.

The final patient next door, after the baby left, was a woman who appeared to have something wrong with her nose. It was not too clear, but she kept whingeing non-specifically about her nose, until the man with her exclaimed loudly and irritably,""It's probably just a bunch of SNOT!!" Well, this put me in mind of that wonderful line in "A Great Day for Bananafish", or one of Salinger's Glass family stories, where Seymour hears a woman say, as he gets off an elevator "....and to think they took a pint of pus out of that beautiful young body." Polly was always dropping "pint of pus" lines with friends as they walked past strangers, hoping to leave them puzzled and intrigued. Well, that "bunch of SNOT" line in the ER did have me interested but I left before I could take a peek at the snot victim.

They finally told me I have pleurisy and sent me home with all sorts of drugs and I still feel crappy, but I think I am getting better. I just want to breathe without thinking about it. At least I felt well enough today to wash my hair and put clean sheets on my bed of pain - which is gone, the pain. Been reading about Machiavelli. He wasn't such a bad dude, after all.

The picture above is based on one of my favorite parts of "Huckleberry Finn" where Huck is staying in this house and observes these mourning pictures done in black crayon by a 15 year old girl who had died. They had titles like "To Think I Shall See Thee No More Alas." One involves a dead bird, feet in the air: "I Shall Never Hear Thy Sweet Chirrup More Alas." Whether they expressed these sentiments or not, mourning pictures were common among those families which had a talented and morbid artist handy in the Victorian times. Some of the grimmer ones were made of the decease's hair.

In the old scrapbooks I am scanning for the Historical Society, the obituaries (and some books are filled with nothing but) have certain customs: the young women were always pure and noble and loved by the entire community; the town leaders were generous, kind to the help, and made the community what it is today. They were blunt about the causes of death - cancer of the liver, apoplexy, mangled by train or auto accident, suicide. They are written in a very flowery manner, however, with personal testimonials from family and friends. Suffering is noted and sympathized with.

Obits today, in our area, almost always start by telling us that so and so has gone to meet Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, or has gone home to be with the Lord. No one just dies, except for a person I only knew slightly: Her Name. She died. That was it; a list of survivors and a private burial. There was no one I could ask. Her daughter, who had been a friend many years ago had also died and I didn't know anyone else in the family. It's one way to get yourself remembered though. She died.

There seems to be a trend in obituaries these days to tell the stories of the deceased, some columns long. Many of the ones for young people are very short, and I wonder what their story is. Too sad to think about. Most are cut and dried: , family, education, work, community service. Hobbies are noted. If they were WWII vets there are tales of brave deeds. If they are women over 70, their expertise with pies and lasagna, sewing and church work are noted. Grandchildren and their names for the deceased (Nana, Poppa, Yaya) are lovingly listed. Pets are frequently listed, at least I think survivors with names like Pipi, Fluff, and Sport are pets of some sort.

This past year, the family of an Akron woman I would like to have known wrote one of the best obituaries ever. Cause of death was listed as complications from raising a family. She claimed to have worked undercover for the CIA. She loved traveling especially to Greenwich, Connecticut, where she enjoyed stalking Peter Jennings and Jack Black. In her retirement years she liked spending time with children, yelling at them from her back porch to get out of her yard, and throwing rocks at them. It seems that she and her sons had decided to celebrate her life and memory with humor and wit and an amazing number of people read and appreciated what they wrote. Way better than She died.

I guess obituary reading is something many of us do, young and old. How many who died this time were my age? I don't know why we do this, except for the occasional interesting story perhaps. Was it Mark Twain or Groucho Marx who said he read them to see if he was among them?


floribunda said...

I love today's post, and hope you're feeling better! Keep writing, please.

SallyB said...

I love reading obits particularly to find out where the deceased was born. It tells you a lot about historical migration patterns. for example, when reading the obit of an elderly black person in the Akron newspaper, there is always some nickname, like "Pooky" or some such similar thing.

The place of birth is invariably someplace like Milledgeville, GA or Union Springs, AL or some other southern place, more typically Alabama than just about any other southern state, meaning they no doubt came north with the "Great Migration" of southern blacks seeking work in northern mills.

Most Italians in Akron were born somewhere around Carovilli, Italy. I can't say I know where that is, but it seems to be where the majority of Akron's Italian population hails from. Other white folks came from various Appalachian destinations, most commonly West Virginia, but also from places like Tennessee and Kentucky.

That's kind of what makes reading the obits fun and interesting. And yes, I LOVED the one about the lady who died of "complications of raising children"! That was a real hoot!