Early fall, a Sunday morning.
I sit at the dining-room table and read page after page of obituaries at the back of the Business section of the newspaper. In truth, this is not an uncommon weekend activity, it’s something I remember doing even as a young person: examining the arc of a life lived, looking for clues in the tracks left behind. This morning, the details so please me that I can’t stop myself from reporting tidbits to my spouse, who is working on his laptop at the table nearby.
“When are you making the pancakes, Dad?” a child enters and asks.
“When I’m done checking this section …” he says.
“Listen to this!” I insist: A lawyer whose obituary takes up an entire column, in which is included the hole-in-one he once shot at a famous golf course in Scotland—“Of all the things, why include that?”
“St. Andrews? If I did that, I’d want it in my obituary!”
The pages are full of nonagenarians. “Anecdotal data suggests many shared a common habit,” I say.
“Gardening! Good news for you. Bad news for me.”
A woman is remembered for teaching her children to identify and draw wildflowers. “Draw them?” Kevin lifts his head. “Yeah, that’s what it says,” I say. And we’re silent. I think perhaps, like me, he’s imagining sitting with a child before a patch of wildflowers, pencil and notebook on knee: the planning the task would take, the concentration and care.
The satisfaction of an obituary is its closed circle—it begins and ends with the person who has died. This is the convention of the form, a spotlight trained onto a single subject, who stands alone.
Unspoken, unmentioned, unacknowledged: the sins and secrets of inheritance, power and advantage, trauma and loss, passed down through invisible systems, through generations untold. It isn’t that an obituary is context-free, but context doesn’t seem to be its point. No accounting, just summation: a list of cultural markers, connections we’ve agreed matter, broadly speaking. Not what I’m looking for.
But then, the details sneak in, sparkling like salt, and rescue the form from itself.
This is not a story about the pandemic, but that is its context, its moment in history, its setting: cramped. Interior, hairy, limited. Six of us and a dog living on top of each other, indefinitely, in ways we’ve not experienced previously. I haven’t been alone in the house since March, and the person I see reflected in the eyes of my children (ages 19, 17, 15, and 12) is a humbled woman, her flaws magnified, fraught with anxieties, foolish in her little vanities, quick to criticize; she does the drudge work around the house, and snaps when interrupted at her desk.
I am not the person I appeared to be in other contexts; here, at home, I am expert on nothing, insignificant, irritating, a fount of irrelevant and out of touch information.
Oddly, I know they love me, and they’re listening, despite revealing and counting out my voluminous flaws.
Our time together has not been in any way terrible, or even unpleasant. Yes, it’s caused discomfort. But it is revelatory, significant. Through my children’s eyes, I see myself in ways I resisted noticing before. In detailed relief. On such a small scale, with such small stakes, there is time to catch my breath, to breathe, assess a moment of flaring anger or fluttering fear, determine its attachment, recalibrate, test out a new response.
I slump. I notice. I change my shape.
Does that sound like too small a scope for a life of activism?
Wait, did I say activism? Is it an activist’s life I’m seeking to occupy, or an artist’s? Is there a point at which a person decides, or will it be told to her at the end: you were this and not that. And by the way, you’ve run out of time.
“I don’t think I’ve done enough for you to write me a good obituary,” I tell Kevin.
He says, “Don’t worry, I won’t be writing it.”
“Who would write it? The kids?”
“I don’t know, I’ll be dead.”
“But you’re the gardener, not me!”
Another silence. Perhaps we’re thinking about who will die first, and whether the other might follow soon after, a phenomenon I’ve noted on these very pages. Or maybe that’s just me, just my thoughts and projections, because he says again, “Don’t worry, obituaries only put the good bits in.”
“Listen to this—”
Our time is short, these lives say, even the longest ones.
The man just shy of 100, who never spoke of his experiences in WWII, but returned from the war carrying certain habits, new and unrelenting, which are reported in his obituary like clues: He shaved every day, ate his lunch at noon, and his supper at 6PM. He kept his family punctual.
What does it mean? Is a minute counted a minute spent, or unspent?
The woman whose age, at her death, is not given as 102, but as “three months and six days before her 103rd birthday”; as if she expired just shy of a personal goal, not quite there yet: Was she the one keeping track, or was someone else?
(Curious isn’t it: There is always someone else, recounting these stories, but rarely is their identity revealed.)
We move through history and are bound to it, though history, mostly, does not notice us. We accumulate time in our bodies and become who we are, despite ourselves; raw material becoming and becoming and becoming, and done.
The clues are in the details, on a small scale. She loved her forever dogs. At harvest, he gave away sweet dried oregano and bushels of zucchini grown in his backyard.
“This woman belonged to a National Embroidery Guild. Did you know there was such a thing?”
I want to notice my own pain, so I won’t use it to wound others.
When I say that I read the obituaries for clues, it’s just as true that I read for the clues I’ll never find, too.
The woman married seventy years with no children; what heartache did she suffer? The nun who came to her calling at the age of 56—what caused her to shift course, to step so completely from her former life, the details of which are left unmentioned?
I read into the spaces, the gaps between the lines.
What did this woman die of so suddenly, at home, surrounded by family? And the dear lifelong friend of an unmarried, beloved, and now departed uncle—was he more than a friend, and would he have written a different obituary altogether, given the chance?
It is difficult to listen when one is in pain, but pain is a condition that most listeners have known.
I’ve been writing fiction since childhood, and it comes as naturally as breathing. I wouldn’t even call it work. When I write fiction, I like to think I step out of the frame, a witness to a character’s experience of reality.
I want to give to the people around me what’s so easy to give to my fictional characters: attention, care, love.
What happens, where do I go, do I step out of time when I step from the frame to watch, listen, wait, draw forth a story that belongs to someone else? Can I stand aside, released from fear, and notice something much larger going on here, of which I’m just a molecule, or an atom, or a drop in a deep ocean? A breath in a long long sweep of time, inhale, exhale, gone.
Where does my restlessness go?
Does it go?
“There are so many obituaries this weekend!” I lament, as if it’s become my job to absorb each one. “I don’t know if I can read them all!”
“I believe in you,” says Kevin, getting up to mix pancakes for the child, who’s been waiting. (Why does he make the pancakes, Carrie, when you claimed to be the one who does all the drudge work?
Because I didn’t include breakfast in my accounting. Because this story may contain gaps, holes, clues like salt.)
In any case, he makes pancakes with chocolate chips, as requested.
And I gut through, all the way to the last page, which, to be clear, no one has asked me to do at all. The story of my life. Strange. I don’t want to come to this conclusion, but it seems apparent and obvious when I arrive. What to make of this human being, sitting in the spotlight?
Close the newspaper, push back the chair, stand.
She makes things up, invents tasks. She does what pleases her, in service of her own private goals, needs and wants. Even the acts in her life that may appear to others as sacrifice (staying home to care for four children) have been in fact no sacrifice at all and exactly what she wants to do.
The pain that she feels when she tells herself this story is pain of her own making. (Selfish, useless, unworthy, who would want to be your friend?)
She slumps. She notices. She changes her shape.
She gathers up two notebooks, pencils, and her youngest son, who isn’t thrilled about the idea, who has to be wheedled and coerced and only participates as a favour, and they go outside and find a flower (it isn’t wild, but there’s a bee on it) and they sit together and draw.
The ground is damp from a soaking rain last night.
The plant’s roots look like hair, pushing it out from the dirt, and she spends too much time trying to get them right—roots, hair, unsatisfying scribbles.
Done, they show each other what they’ve made. Her son has drawn his flower being visited by the bee, even though the real bee has flown away, and she likes that, very much. She hasn’t thought to include the bee, distracted by trying to draw exactly what’s before her.
“Will we do this again, do you think?”
He doesn’t think so, probably not.
But she isn’t deflated; the opposite. She’s glad to have tried it: to have found and followed a clue—out of curiosity, because she wants to know, to see what it would be like, and later, maybe, she will write about it. Everything she does, she might write about. She might turn it into something else. Or pin it to the wall. Or learn a little something, something very very small.
—That the flower is a Marigold. Tagetes erecta.—
And something else. But what is it, what is it, that tiny fragment of hope buzzing between the lines?