Dead People

 

One from the archives: Nebraska, Spring 2011

One from the archives: Nebraska, Spring 2011

“What do you think would be worse: getting hit by lightning or dying of cancer?”

My coworker stares at me like I’ve lost my mind, but the question has been bouncing around in my head for the past hour, and I can’t contain it anymore.

“I don’t know,” she replies, obviously uncomfortable with the topic.

Ten minutes of probing later, she finally proclaims that she is uncomfortable with this line of questioning and would prefer not to think about death until it is imminent.

This gives me pause. Not think about death? What?!?

I have a post-it note on my desk titled “Dead People.” Under the header is a running list of in-progress obituaries I’m supposed to be writing. It’s a normal part of my week: write news stories, go to meetings, set up interviews… and make sure we have enough dead people to fill a page in the magazine.

The day I learned about death from a journalistic view stands out as one of the most memorable days of my time at the J-School. It was right there on the syllabus of my news reporting class. We would have a whole day devoted to the topic. And in a class that was set up as a three-hour block, an entire day was big shit.

I sat down in that class feeling curious and only mildly uncomfortable. I had attended my fair share of funerals, asked my parents all the normal “Is [dead dog/cat/horse du jour] in heaven?” to which they responded vaguely and would never quite commit to a firm yes or no. As a Catholic school attendee, I had even taken advantage of several funerals to volunteer as a server, thereby skipping class and usually getting to eat the “good funeral food” for lunch instead of the questionable chicken nuggets. (Chickens do not, have never and will never grow in the shape of a nugget. Nor do chickens emerge pre-breaded. Nor do they really flop around that much when you chop off their heads, but that’s a different story about death.)

So I was sitting in that college class, waiting to talk about the deceased and how to portray people after they have been done in. The professor, who until that particular day I had thought of as a semi-comatose, nearly retired guy, walked in, set down his books, looked around the room and said, “Life is like a parking meter: time expires.”

I burst into laughter and promptly named that class my favorite of the semester.

The next summer, I interned at another magazine and thought I was really big shit because a) I had my own cubicle and b) it was a bigger magazine, a bigger company and a bigger city than my first internship.

Sometime within the first few weeks, I hit a lull in my workload and went in search of something to fill a few hours like a good little intern. My managing editor handed me a folder of notes on people who had died and explained that they did not have a specific schedule for obits, and really, if I didn’t have time, I shouldn’t even worry about them.

But, like a good little intern, I dove in, anxious to make a good impression. I picked up the phone and dialed the number of a widow. She was lovely. Kind, caring, obviously devoted to her late husband. She cried. I cried. She explained that soon after her husband died, their top breeding stallion also passed away. We both cried some more and talked for a solid hour. A fellow good little intern at the cubicle next to me later asked me if I was okay and, I’m pretty sure, thought I was totally insane for a solid week after that.

Needless to say, when I found out that writing obits would be a regular part of my current job, I wasn’t fazed. Dead horses? Bring it on. Dead people? No problem.

And yet, occasionally one hits me harder than the others. The 24-year-old girl who died of cancer. The eventing horse who ruptured an aorta at fence 18. The woman who was still riding and competing in her 90s.

And there are others that hit me in a different way. The guy who had lost a leg while hang gliding and still rode horses, skied and danced, then finally died in a plane crash (he was flying, of course) in southern Colorado. Who can say that life was cut short? I want to be just like that when I grow up!

But the sadness is sometimes a little much. When the list gets long, I start to feel a bone-deep exhaustion that comes from too much emotion, too much pain.

But then I think, if I die tomorrow, what would I want my last day to be like? Would I want to be sad, upset and pissed off? Or would I want to be joyful, expressive, curious, adventurous and loving of everyone and everything around me?

I finish this obit (we conclude getting hit by lightning is both swift and relatively painless) and email it to my editor. After it’s been combed thoroughly, it will be printed and become a gem of history. It will become what, in ten years, someone might look at when they are trying to find something out about this person.

And on that “Dead People” sticky note on my desk, the name will be highlighted, signifying its completion, but not its end. People don’t get scribbled out when they die. Even though Gram Buffay in Friends dutifully updated the phone book, that’s not how life works. Once you’re gone, you might really be gone (I certainly don’t know—if I die tomorrow I’ll do my best to come back and let you know), but somewhere in humanity, you don’t get scribbled out. My job is to make sure you get highlighted instead.

This is a post I’ve wanted to write for months, but I could never quite figure it out. Thanks for reading all the way to the end.

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