As an obituary writer, I’m constantly challenged with the desire to be compassionate and the need to meet a deadline and write fine copy. People in grief need to talk, sometimes in excruciating detail, and I’m a stranger at the other end of the phone. I might be scheduling an interview, which would normally take a couple of minutes, but the call would last twenty minutes while my obituary subject’s son or daughter details her parent’s last months of illness, the false hopes, their courage in stumbling along in the increasing dark.
These mostly one-sided conversations are gushingly painful or abysmally dull. My reaction sometimes depends on what else I’m working on that day, the life pressures that pull my concentration away, other calls to make or sends to send. Sometimes their words disturb me and nudge me swiftly forward into the proverbial arms of my own mother or father who, in their early 80s and well-loved by their eight children, face their own risks simply in stepping out their door each day. Toronto ice threatens and even autumn leaves stew-up and slide around in the rain.
But still, I listen to the recounting of hospital visits, stories of failing kidneys, deathly tremors, fadings in-and-out of consciousness, last words, pale grimaces, and funeral arrangements. None of it goes into the published piece I write. But all of it flavours my underlying sensibility and infuses my writing with that press of affection expressed and experienced by the grieving child over this arguably brutal loss of life.
And here I’m only referring to the death of an elder. Sometimes I must interview parents about the death of their child; men and women over the loss of their partner–and along with this death, gone is the ambivalence; gone are the quirky little daily annoyances over who dried the dishes last, scooped dog shit from the back yard more often, clink more coppers in the family pot.
There are sudden deaths, lingering deaths, shocking deaths, and welcome deaths.
I let them talk.
They talk while I scratch my cat’s neck deep beneath his reflective collar, and then they finish. I hang up the phone only to pick it up again to make a date with my parents, or tell Heather to ride her bicycle safely home after work. Or I check in with my son Toto, who is in first year at university, reminding him that I hate rugby.