Coincidentally, many years after my inquiry, I found myself in a seminar led by Maryann V. Piotrowski, author of Effective Business Writing: A Guide for Those Who Write on the Job. Maryann said that for examples of outstanding writing, one need look no further than the New York Times (NYT) obituary section. (Although I’m fairly certain that my parents read the obituaries out of morbid curiosity, rather than for the elegiac prose.)
A recent NYT piece by Margaret Sullivan quoted Dean Baquet, NYT managing editor for news about the recent front-page obituaries trend. Baquet replied, “The Times is blessed with a strong obituaries department, with three editors, a news assistant and seven writers, including the Pulitzer Prize winner Robert D. McFadden, who works strictly on advance obituaries… The best New York Times obituaries are really terrific feature stories,” he said. It is a largely unspoken truth that if ones obituary appears in the New York Times, that person was either famous… or infamous. Ironically, the individual who is “honored” with an obituary can never bask in the bestowed glory. Like my parents before me, I began to read the obituaries, too.
What, you might wonder, does a column dedicated to autism, have to do with obituaries? Well, in my narcissistic, egotistical mind, an obituary and autism go hand in hand — for me, anyway. In the course of one week, I came across two diametrically opposite obituaries online, both of which caused extreme visceral reactions for very different reasons.
The first obituary about a Nevada mother (whose name I chose to change to protect the decedent’s family’s anonymity), has since been removed from its host site.
“Jane Doe… is survived by her 6 of 8 children whom she spent her lifetime torturing in every way possible. While she neglected and abused her small children, she refused to allow anyone else to care or show compassion towards them. When they became adults she stalked and tortured anyone they dared to love. Everyone she met, adult or child was tortured by her cruelty and exposure to violence, criminal activity, vulgarity and hatred of the gentle or kind human spirit.
"On behalf of her children whom she so abrasively exposed to her evil and violent life, we celebrate her passing from this earth and hope she lives in the afterlife reliving each gesture of violence, cruelty and shame that she delivered on her children. Her surviving children will now live the rest of their lives with the peace of knowing their nightmare finally has some form of closure. Most of us have found peace in helping those who have been exposed to child abuse and hope this message of her final passing can revive our message that abusing children is unforgivable, shameless and should not be tolerated in a 'humane society.'
"Our greatest wish now, is to stimulate a national movement that mandates a purposeful and dedicated war against child abuse in the United States of America.”
The second obituary (truncated for space consideration), about a Wisconsin mother/grandmother, appeared on Legacy.com.
“If you're about to throw away an old pair of pantyhose, stop. Consider Mary Agnes Mullaney (you probably knew her as 'Pink') who entered eternal life on Sunday, September 1, 2013. Her six children, 17 grandchildren, three surviving siblings in New 'Joisey', and an extended family of relations and friends from every walk of life carry on her spirit. We were blessed to learn many valuable lessons from Pink during her 85 years, among them: Never throw away old pantyhose. Use the old ones to tie gutters, childproof cabinets, tie toilet flappers, or hang Christmas ornaments.
"Also: If a possum takes up residence in your shed, grab a barbecue brush to coax him out. If he doesn't leave, brush him for 20 minutes and let him stay. Let a dog (or two or three) share your bed. Say the rosary while you walk them. Go to church with a chicken sandwich in your purse. Cry at the consecration, every time. Give the chicken sandwich to your homeless friend after Mass.
"Go to a nursing home and kiss everyone. When you learn someone's name, share their patron saint's story, and their feast day, so they can celebrate. Invite new friends to Thanksgiving dinner. If they are from another country and you have trouble understanding them, learn to 'listen with an accent.' Never say mean things about anybody, they are 'poor souls to pray for.'
"Put picky-eating children in the box at the bottom of the laundry chute, tell them they are hungry lions in a cage, and feed them veggies through the slats. Correspond with the imprisoned and have lunch with the cognitively challenged. Do the Jumble every morning.
"Keep the car keys under the front seat so they don't get lost. Make the car dance by lightly tapping the brakes to the beat of songs on the radio. Offer rides to people carrying a big load or caught in the rain or summer heat. Believe the hitchhiker you pick up who says he is a landscaper and his name is 'Peat Moss.' Help anyone struggling to get his or her kids into a car or shopping cart or across a parking lot.
"Give to every charity that asks. Choose to believe the best about what they do with your money, no matter what your children say they discovered online. Allow the homeless to keep warm in your car while you are at Mass. Take magazines you've already read to your doctors' office for others to enjoy. Do not tear off the mailing label, ‘Because if someone wants to contact me, that would be nice.’
"In her lifetime, Pink made contact time after time. Those who've taken her lessons to heart will continue to ensure that a cold drink will be left for the overheated garbage collector and mail carrier, every baby will be kissed, every nursing home resident will be visited, the hungry will have a sandwich, the guest will have a warm bed and soft nightlight and the encroaching possum will know the soothing sensation of a barbecue brush upon its back.
"Above all, Pink wrote — to everyone, about everything. You may read this and recall a letter from her that touched your heart, tickled your funny bone or maybe made you say ‘huh?’
"She is survived by her children and grandchildren whose photos she would share with prospective friends in the checkout line… Friends (and strangers she would love to have met) can visit with Pink's family… Dress comfortably with a splash of pink if you have it.”
Again, you might wonder, what does a column dedicated to autism have to do with obituaries? Jack Roosevelt "Jackie" Robinson, the first African American to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier once said, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” In the cases of Jane and Pink, their lives had a tremendous impact on others — one for evil and one for virtue, respectively — for generations.
I am neither famous nor infamous. I haven’t cured the common cold. I’ll never land on the moon. (Although some could argue I’m from Mars.) I will never write the next great novel, opera or symphony. I am not Jane Doe. I am not Mary Agnes Mullaney. I’ll never be in the New York Times obituary section. What I am, however, is a loving wife... a doting and attentive mother… someone who puts the needs of others before herself… a person who tries to bring a modicum of humor to every situation (however immature, inappropriate and irreverent that humor might be.)
Most of all, when my time comes, I would like to be remembered as a regular person who, through tenacity and naiveté, did everything in her power to help (and educate people about) her son Ethan and the tens of thousands like him with autism and special needs. That means more to me than anything the New York Times could write. But just in case, please make sure my obituary goes on page 1A — above the crease.
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