Editor's post: An ear to all: obituaries mark endings - and possible new outlooks
Gary King | Editor | Jan. 23/2014
As we complete the first month of 2014, many of us are still searching for a sign of optimism - pointing us towards an enlightened path we’re meant to be on.
Some have already found that path - or believe they have.
Others are aiming toward resolutions for the new year - and asking questions.
How am I doing? Am I impacting anything or anyone … or just taking up space? And how do I know?
Sometimes you don’t. Your life ends and is summed up in a 300-word brief. And unless you write it ahead of time, you don’t get to read it.
Probably more than 10,000 obituaries have come across my desk during my tenure as editor here. Some are fascinating, others not so much. Over the years I’ve found that it takes a rare talent to capture the real truth of a person.
Facebook - that billboard of usually positive but trivial observations, pop culture and opinion - dealt some serious and devastating news last week with the announcement of funeral services for someone I considered a true friend and the closest thing to a lifetime friend I will ever have. It shook me but I can’t imagine the profound affect it had on his family and those who knew him best.
John died on a Sunday evening at his home near Boston and in keeping with technology, the social site entries covered it, from his dying hours to his funeral arrangements to an online obituary, all within 48 hours. And I was thankful for that as I attempted to trace the chain of events. Not that it matters.
I knew John was ill, but he was just 56. Our last communication, a few months ago, seemed hopeful, as he didn’t quite reveal all the facts but admitted to needing new kidneys. I offered one of mine with the disclaimer that my Scottish kidney might pillage his Irish organs.
His obituary spelled out the rest. Renal failure, heart disease and prostrate cancer. An unforgiving combination.
“That he survived as long as he did is a mighty testament to his strength and fortitude,” his obituary said in part.
John was in his early 20s when we met - a Bronx native from Long Island, N.Y., he somehow ended up tending bar at a restaurant in Hayward, Wis., a summer job he blindly took while earning his bachelors degree in business from the University of Minnesota - Minneapolis.
Like Army buddies who survived the horrors of war, we kept in touch over the years, including re-visiting the restaurant owned by a Turkish family for over 70 years. We lived in a cabin on a river owned by the family and sometimes launched road trips and adventures immediately after our shifts were over - at 2 a.m.
We were in the early stages of collaborating on a book/screenplay about the restaurant and those experiences.
Following his graduation from the U of M, John set aside his business degree to go to vocational school where he learned to repair musical instruments.
“I cut violins in half to make planters,” he once joked about the detour during one of our life update exchanges years ago.
From there it was overseas to marry his Irish bride and then back to the Boston area where he put his business education to work as a team member of The Big Dig, the $15 billion project that transformed that city’s transportation system.
Our friendship was one of many he developed easily, I’m sure, and among thousands of footnotes that could fill in the blanks of his life as with many last testaments.
Humor was always on John’s mind. He had the gift of delivering a funny line while being totally expressionless, one that made you laugh in the moment - and years later while remembering the moment. That wasn’t mentioned in the obituary, but it no doubt will be part of everyone’s memory of the man.
I knew he was a “gracious and sincere spirit,” and that he wrote and recorded full-length albums, including children’s music, and that he performed at nursing homes and churches, many times with worship teams.
He also worked with the homeless, according to his obituary.
Perhaps the best tribute John’s obituary offered was this:
“He was always an ear to all, burden to none.”
How perfect a summation for someone so deserving of those words.
And therein lies the gem to this obituary and the life it described.
After thousands of obituaries written and edited I found one, at the start of another year when we traditionally take stock of one's life, that dealt a blow to my heart while inspiring me be a better person.
But then John had already done that for me.
Perhaps I just needed the obituary to remind me.