Angel Excerpt of the Day: Obituaries

As Stuart talked about his thoughts for the service, Paul thought about obituaries. When a person you love dies, the obituary takes on an outsized importance. It is the community record that this person lived; she was here; her life did not pass without notice. Yet obituaries are also almost always flat and disappointing. They consist of a dry list of job titles and accomplishments and official connections. But what about the unofficial connections we have in life? Where are the teachers who changed our whole perspective; the mistresses; the dear, dear friends; the ones who worshiped us with unrequited love? What about the ones who got away? The ones we pined for who never returned our affections? Where do they fit?

Obituaries are written in shorthand, sketching out a biography but leaving out all of the context that creates a full life. Marital status is a shorthand, but a misleading one. You can be a devoted spouse or a disinterested spouse, an abusive spouse or a supportive spouse. You might have married for love or social status. It is all marriage. Career titles are a shorthand. The deceased held a job, but was it his main sense of pride and identity, or something he dragged himself to every day to pay the bills? You will never know from a death notice.

Even seemingly straightforward words like “mother,” “father,” “daughter,” and “son” are shorthand. Was your brother “like a brother” to you, or were you distant or rivals? Was your father the constant presence who taught you to play baseball and took you to Cub Scouts, or was he the man who had sex with your mother and disappeared? Was your relationship with your mother loving or strained and difficult?

The shorthand of obituaries is meaningful to those already in the know—but then, they don’t really need the biography. Our obituaries, and our biographies in general, are a show for those who know us the least. Paul thought he had stumbled onto the very definition of what it means to be intimate, to know someone well. It is to understand the meaning of those shorthand words for a particular individual, to understand the ambiguities of a life, the parts that do not fit neatly into boxes.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011

Angel Excerpt of the Day: “Special Friend”

When Mary Adams died at age eighty-one, it came as a surprise to no one. The end came after years of slow decline that took her motor skills, memories, and sanity. Then there was the long death watch. She held on, uncomprehending and in pain, for weeks. She finally slipped into a welcome unconsciousness, where she remained for several days before finally letting go. “At least she is not suffering anymore,” people usually said.

Through all of it, Stuart Briggs was at Mary’s side. Mary was Stuart’s first and only love. They had met in high school and hit it off right away, but for whatever reason, Mary never was attracted to him. They never dated. Stuart waited in the background as she dated other boys. He was a guest at her wedding to another man. When her first husband had died, Stuart was there, hoping for his chance, but it never came. He waited through a second marriage, which ended in divorce.

After that, Mary came to rely on Stuart’s constancy. He was the person she called when she needed someone to go with her to the movies, to help her with an errand, or just to talk. They became regular companions, but as far as anyone could tell, they never had a physical relationship and it was never a romance, at least not for her.

When Mary became ill, it was Stuart who cared for her. He took her to church on Sundays, pushing her in her wheelchair even as walking became a challenge for him. He was calm and patient with her confusion and mood swings. He visited her daily in the nursing home long after she had forgotten his name. He stayed with her every day she was in the hospital and then in hospice. He was there when she died, holding her hand. Now he was making the funeral arrangements because Mary’s children were scattered across the country in California and Colorado.

He now sat before Paul holding a small scrap of newsprint. It was Mary’s obituary, a short notice mentioning her career as a teacher and her long membership in the church. It named her first husband (“pre-deceased by….”) and said she was survived by her two children and their families. Stuart was identified only as “special friend.” He had loved Mary longer than her husband; longer than anybody. The center of his world was gone, and yet he had no official title to acknowledge his status. When someone says, “I lost my wife,” everyone understands the magnitude of that loss. “I lost my friend” is different. Unless you know the person well, it has no meaning at all.

-Excerpt from the novel Angel by Laura Lee published by Itineris Press, release date September 27, 2011

The Vocabulary of Love: What are “Lovers?”

CoupleWhile looking up something else I came across a blog by Kate Trgovac which featured an article on “The Subtext of Stock Photography.”

In it Kate describes how images of a loving same-sex couple (pictured here) appeared in her search for images to illustrate an article on furnaces.  Gay couples apparently show up when you search for the term “heat.”

“Seriously?” she wrote, “Maybe two scantily clothed men making out in front of the fireplace.  But two gay stockbrokers with their chihuahua?  Hardly… why is it that ‘gay’ in all of its forms implies a licentiousness or luridness?”

I was reminded of a quote by Yale professor John Boswell who described some of the pitfalls of translating terms for emotionally charged vocabulary related to love, relationships and marriage.

“Modern English has no standard term for same-sex partners in a permanent, committed relationship, so it is virtually impossible to translate ancient terms for this (of which there were many) accurately into contemporary English,” he wrote.  “Probably the most common word in contemporary English is ‘lover,’ but it is quite misleading… A heterosexual ‘lover’ is generally not the equivalent of a spouse: it is either someone to whom a heterosexual is not married (or not yet married) or a love interest in addition to a spouse, seen on the side and usually clandestine… these associations are not apposite to ‘lover’ as applied to same-sex couples, for whom the world almost always designates the primary and exclusive focus of erotic life, usually intended to remain so permanently.  Using ‘lover’ for same-sex partners implicitly suggests that all same-sex unions are illicit relationships, comparable to what passes between a heterosexually married male and his mistress rather than to the man’s union with his wife.”