Friday, October 12, 2007

Not just the facts, ma'am!

I never know what to expect when I talk to my Mom. She is constantly surprising me. Then there are other times I can see it coming. Recently, one call went like this:
“Hey, Mom. Guess what? I just wrote my obituary!”
“Did you hear me? I just wrote my obituary!”
After another pause, Mom said in that voice of hers (the one in which I can sense an imminent maternal lecture), “Now, Carol...I think you should leave your brain to medical science.” In effect, she thought I was nuts.

Well, maybe I am. But writing my own obituary was an enlightening experience. I wanted to save my family the chore of creating one when the time comes and they are in fresh grief. So I did it myself.

A friend of mine, though, had another experience with obituaries. She said that when her father died, her mother and the immediate family sat down together to write his obituary, and the occasion was emotionally helpful for them, as fond memories brought them a measure of comfort. I thought that was sweet, and I can see her point.

However, I don’t think my family could reconstruct my life to my satisfaction even now, much less later, without some prompting. So I sat down a couple of weeks ago and reflected on my life thus far. (One always has to have that disclaimer, of course. My life is hopefully far from over. I am reminded of Matthew, when he first saw the movie “Hook.” As he exited the theater, he gushed, “That’s the best movie I’ve ever seen in my life so far!”) What do I want to be remembered for? What things would I prefer to omit? What things should be described that may seem inconsequential to others but are important to me? I don’t want just the facts...I want my story to be personal - something that validates my existence as a unique human being in a world of millions of other human beings.

Ed and I are reading a biography of John Adams, and we came across an interesting fact about Thomas Jefferson. This is from the Monticello web site:
It was Jefferson's wish that his tomb stone reflect the things that he had given the people, not the things that the people had given to him. It is for this reason that Thomas Jefferson's epitaph reads:

BORN APRIL 2, 1743 O.S.
DIED JULY 4. 1826

No mention of his being the President of the United States, a glaring and deliberate omission. This was Jefferson's last chance to summarize the importance of his own accomplishments in his own opinion, and only his opinion. This was, in a way, his last act of control.

Of course, I’m not writing my epitaph; I’m writing my obituary. I am, however, fortunate to live in a small town in Maine, where obituaries are usually long and detailed, some even listing the deceased’s hobbies, pets, and favorite teams. I am not limited to a short list of my alma mater, church affiliation, occupation, and survivors. I can be lengthy and altogether boring, but I don’t care. It’s my obituary, after all. It’s my last chance to leave a written summary of my legacy, such as it is.

As I looked over my life, detailing the events that I deemed worthy of remembrance, I was shocked to discover how important music has always been to me. That shouldn’t come as a surprise, since I was the daughter of a choir director, took piano lessons and then organ lessons, planned to major in music in college, as an adult sang in several church choirs, then took up the Celtic harp after I moved to Maine. But somehow it was a poignant moment for me to realize its prominence, probably because music has fallen by the wayside in my life right now for various reasons. Writing your obituary is helpful in that way - you examine your life (so far!), and you make discoveries about the occasions and hobbies and people who have enriched your life, or at least given you a unique identity. The process will make you cry and laugh and wonder if you ever will live long enough to accomplish the things that are important to you. You can stand back and observe how you have evolved.

I’ll also tell you what writing your obituary won’t do. It won’t be bad luck, it won’t change the past, and it probably won’t make your Mom very happy. On the other hand, it will give you some important introspection, a feeling that your life did matter in many ways, and a feeling of gratitude that you ever got to go on the journey of life - your life so far, that is!

There is a lot more for me to experience, and I'm sure by the time I pass away, I'll have many edits and additions and rewrites. The story has yet to be finished. Oh, and regardless of my mother's comment, I really don't need to leave the world my brain. I'd rather leave it music, some silly poems, handmade quilts, pretty cross-stitch, amazing kids and grandkids - and a doozy of an obituary!

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