The thing they don’t tell you about writing an obituary is that it doesn’t have much of anything to do with death.
When my dad asked me to write one for my mom, a few days before she died three weeks ago, I froze. I can’t do that, I thought. At the time the only communication she could muster, as she lay in a hospice after suffering a stroke, was the occasional squeeze of my hand.
What did I know about what she was going through? Even the neurologist had told us that medicine doesn’t quite comprehend the workings of the brain, so he couldn’t say how hers might repair itself, or not.
On the pressing matter of death, the doctors were even more evasive. It’s not their department, they seemed to be saying.
Well it surely isn’t mine, I thought. Watching your mother die is to be made aware of how clueless you are. About your own relationship to the woman who birthed you. But also about the most universal of human experiences.
For instance, nobody told me that the “skin organ,” as the nurses called it, is the herald of death. About a day after she stopped squeezing my hand, my mom’s skin, soft and electric, transformed to a crinkly parchment, like vellum.
“That means she’s near,” the nurse said.
The rest was mysterious, part biological breakdown and part soul-departing spirituality. The nurses insisted she could hear us to the end. My dad, ever the scientist, was skeptical. But you can’t risk being wrong in that situation, so we persisted in telling her the family news and that we loved her, as well as playing Chopin on the wireless speaker.
In a panic about her obituary, I did what reporters do best: I shifted the focus to others. I spent her last days carrying around a notebook and quizzing any relative or friend who stopped by.
What was she like? What were her passions, her dreams? To a person they hesitated, and then out came the stories, sometimes right in front of her as she lay on her own death bed.
Could she hear? We had no idea. But if she could, she may have noticed we weren’t obsessing as much over her vital signs anymore.
It was just dad and me there the night she died. Here’s another thing they don’t prepare you for — you go from clutching your mom’s hand like your life depends on it to turning her body over to a stranger, a death delivery man, who wheels her off into the night with all the ceremony of distributing a package.
Then you go out to the empty parking lot at one in the morning and … do what? The question could fill the rest of your days.
What I did, despite the late hour, is go sit at the computer and in 30 minutes bang out a 700-word inkling of my mother’s story, that ran in my hometown Ohio newspaper. That thing I thought I couldn’t write ended up pouring out with sweet relief.
Here’s how it began:
“Helen Westneat was a lifelong teacher and librarian who taught thousands of students in schools from elementary age to college how to find just the right information.
“But she is recalled as well for something decidedly less academic: giggling.”
My favorite part was a story from my dad, about how she hunted the “spring ephemeral” wildflowers like a bounty hunter. Spring ephemeral: That phrase, with the promise in the first word and the fleeting in the second, says it all.
“She had in her head the blooming schedules of a whole host of wildflowers,” he said. “Hepatica in the earliest spring, then blue bells, then the trillium came out. She pursued these flowers to all corners of the Glen. It was her way of coming alive after the winter.”
The writer Joan Didion said that we tell ourselves stories in order to live. I always felt this line was overwrought. But now that I’m facing Mother’s Day as a new member of a vast tribe, the motherless daughters and sons, it feels like the truest sentence ever written.
The obituary, from the Latin root “obitus,” for death, seems misnamed. It should be called a “vituary.” My mom’s turned out to be a life raft — for me.
Leaving my dad in his home, now alone, was harder even than watching my mom die. I check in on him and he says he’s been consumed with planning her memorial. It’s a chance now for him to tell her story.
“I can’t remember being this busy,” he said the other day.
They don’t tell you this either, but that’s the whole life-affirming point.