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Reading the Obits

by Mark Peres

December 3,2004

I read the paper today and stopped on the obituaries. It’s not something I normally do. The temperature is dropping. Leaves are falling. Bare branches are showing. Winter can catch you in its chill, as faces of the dead can do off a page.

Here and there are short little biographies, entire lives condensed to a paragraph or two. Marriages and careers, awards and recognitions, all reduced to an economic report, making sure to mention the names of the predeceased and the surviving, and where to send the flowers. Each obituary a headstone, the headstones together a cemetery, the cemetery as impermanent as newsprint, as tomorrow’s run is prepared.

We see the photographs. Young and old. Black and white. Women and men. Death is democratic, embracing the whole of our body politic, leaving no one behind. Who chooses the last image? The last image that says more in a final glance than any word? The last image reminding us of our own inevitable fate.

So what to do with this life?

It’s the stuff of shaman and rabbis, of high priests and street-corner prophets. It’s the stuff of kings and midwives, of architects and existentialists. It is, ultimately, the stuff of art, of objects and time, and the creative destruction of the seasons.

Do all you can with what you have in this time and place. So we join the Chamber, we love our children, and we balance the books. Live for the moment. Tomorrow is not guaranteed. So we buy the new car, we write our novel, and we cross state lines. If we do it right, by some measure, we get special mention in the paper, with a testimonial from a long-standing friend.

My dad died five years ago. He was 82. He traveled the world and spoke several languages. He was an immigrant and salesman of this and that. He laughed and cried and struggled. He was married for 45 years and raised five children. He could weave stories about Zionism, the Brazilian rainforest, and the rise and fall of the Roman empire. I don’t remember reading his obituary, and I’m not sure I would found any reflection of him in one if I had.

I see my daughter and her friends in grade school. They wheel backpacks that are out-of-scale and wear uniforms of blue and white. A century of wonder and electrons, of space travel and terror, is front of them. My daughter is so present in the moment. I see photos of her at her birth, and ask where the days have gone.

I look in the mirror and see a mish-mosh of genetic code, and the creative destruction of the seasons. So what to do with this life? What legacy will it be? Will it be a disconnect or some walk toward truth? Will it be a missed opportunity or will a light shine from within?

I live in this town of finance and clean streets. Money flows, civility reigns and gardens are kept up. The town is forward thinking, optimistic and temperate in all things. As middle as middle can be, with a gleam and a shine, and history as important as yesterday’s newsprint. There is, in it, a yearning to matter. To make something of today at yesterday’s expense, to impart convention as a beauty, the norm as an ideal.

It is tempting to personify the city, to reduce her to a paragraph or two, to see in her a life a future of awards and recognition. At the end of days, what will her obituary say? She earned a handsome living and she went to church. Will it say much else? Will it say she did all she could do with what she had in her time and place? Will it say she moved toward the light of art, exploring objects and time?

The opportunity as citizens is in choosing our last image.

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