Writing obituaries sometimes feels like an exercise in loss and regret. The subject has died, of course, and so I lack the opportunity to interview this person. Instead I must gather details of her or his life from colleagues, family, and friends.
But these individuals whom I am compelled to interview are often gob-smacked by grief and so I question with caution then must form an impression of my subject’s character based on their reminiscences and any relevant biographical material they lend me.
Loss: the absence of my subject.
Regret: I have never met them.
Sometimes there is a diary or memoir, such as with my most recent obituary of Dr. Edmond Boyd. The richness of his life seeped from the pages begging to be shared and I felt grateful to have them. But even with this first-hand record I ran into problems.
Dr. Boyd hated his father. The first words of his diary begin with this declaration. And so in my obituary I called his father imperious, suggesting he held onto his family like a dictatorial patriarch.
But his children remembered their grandfather differently: consumed by his work as a Harley Street physician but otherwise a warm man, protecting his son from a doting and possibly oppressive mother. They would have liked to have known him better.
With the obituary I am currently writing about James Pon I have encountered a similar problem. Loss, yes, and regret.
In researching Mr. Pon I have been generously given access to an oral history done a few years ago: 50 pages of articulate questions concerning his life as Chinese-Canadian immigrant who came to Canada at age five and was burdened by the financial weight of a head tax.
His grandfather was one of navvies who built the CPR line, risking his life to unite the country according to Prime Minister John A. MacDonald‘s national dream.
But there is a different issue for me in reading this transcript and it saddens me.
This 95 year-old man sounds incredibly sweet, generous with his time, and in-all-ways he is doing is best during this interview.
But his memory is fading. His responses seem almost by rote, like he’d been asked them time-a-plenty by journalists. Sometimes he seems to be led, or pressured, and at times he is even slightly teased or cajoled.
This assumed inauthenticity makes it difficult to mine the gold of his life.
One of the interviewers suggests frequent breaks; she is sensitive to the strain. But Mr. Pon allows for few of them. He plows ahead with his stories and he is wearying and now he is gone.
My article will honour him, and this is good, but he won’t know it.