Saturday, April 24, 2004

Either That White House Goes, or I Do

I understand it will happen to all of us one day.
Actually it only makes sense; you get to a certain time in your life - you watch it happening to your older friends and relatives, you begin to acknowledge that it's inevitable, that eventually it will happen to everybody. Perhaps that's when you finally reach acceptance, cast aside your fears - and start reading the obituaries.
I however, have been an inveterate obit fan since I was in my twenties. I think I got my first fix leafing through a paper and being struck by a picture of a handsome young man in the 'In Memorium' section. It's always a shock, prior to your thirties - or prior to the death of someone you know - that young people actually die; I mean, you know they die (you're not a complete idiot... it is hoped...) but the idea of their realness, their complexity and the complexity of the relationships they necessarily leave behind is still pretty murky. If they're not a part (or even an extra, or a one or two-line principal) in the movie of your life, chances are their reality - and their loss - is no more than that of the faint, easily ignored ring of a distant bell. But we all know what happens when it tolls for thee...
But once hooked, it becomes as necessary a part of the day and the ritual of the paper as checking the front section, city section, weather, funnies and horoscope.
(When I'm out of town for a day or two or a week, I come back feeling mildly disorganised, a bit out of touch; heaven only knows what's happened in Doonesbury (Doonesbury, eh? Interesting his current controversial strip set in Iraq...) and truly heaven only really knows what I've missed in the obituaries.)
It's now become a bit of a duty - an anonymous salute and final (and first, really) farewell to people I've never met, and now will never know... though I'm surprised how often I recognise them a year or so later in the 'In Memorium' section.
And somehow the 'In Memorium' is more fundamentally moving than the original obituary notice. The part where it truly becomes human and personal - when beyond hearing of the accomplishments and the names of the relatives, as well as the age and whether or not they left 'suddenly', 'peacefully', 'after a heroic battle' or were 'passed into the hands of their Lord' - you are offered an insight into the true agony of the loved one's, loved one's loss. And though the picture portrait never changes, a year by year slide show of the life they will never have had; frozen in time, still 6, or 17, or 24, or even 85, as their mothers and fathers and husbands and children and wives remember them year after year.
It's an interesting concept really, the 'In Memorium'. I mean, the initial obituary is usually a necessary announcement-cum-resume, thanks to the nurses - rarely the doctors - family tree update, and invitation to the funeral.
The 'In Memorium' is a different kettle of worms altogether. And who is it for? The family knows the anniversary, close friends and relatives certainly do - God knows God knows - so for whom is it intended?
And what about the poetry? The worst, the most hackneyed, over-used, moon/June/spoon rhyming, faux Hallmark-at-it's-worst poetry. The worst, and so really, the most absolutely heartbreaking. I love that W H Auden poem so famously quoted in Four Weddings and a Funeral as much as anybody; but it really doesn't hold a handkerchief to the earnest, heart-wrenching sincerity of:
'If teardrops could build a stairway, And memory a lane, I'd walk the long road to reach, And bring her home again.' I'll love you forever, Ray.
'They say memories are golden, Well, maybe that is true, But we never wanted memories, We only wanted you.' (In memory of my dear mother who passed away April 24, 1992) sadly missed by son Norman.
'Your presence I miss, Your memory I treasure, Loving you always, Forgetting you never.' Forever, Yvonne.
After reading the longing for a mother gone 12 years, anything more sophisticated seems a pose.
I have decided the whole section is for me. (Wait 'til you see the movie of my life! See, I'm the centre of the universe, and everything revolves around me. I like it - I think it has legs... but we're still in negotiations.) And why not? I, who never knew these people, think about them - worry about the family left behind, imagine how they feel today, how much their loved one is missed and thought of. Could there be a deeper desire (beyond having their loved one back) than that their pain is heard and their loss is acknowledged and felt by someone... anyone? Memory is the only immortality us non-movers and shakers are ever likely to have.
Maybe it's why I feel a little empty when confronted with the sad death of Army Ranger Pat Tillman, who reportedly gave up a career and a contract worth millions to play in the NFL, in order to fight for his country. The papers, television and radio stations are full to the brim and overflowing with tributes from here to the White House. I want to feel something for him, but my feelings about the war, and my cynicism surrounding the various messages we receive filtered through press offices leave me feeling a little limp. It's awful that he died; horrible that he might have felt overwhelming pain and fear and perhaps a sudden absolutely shattering need for his mother that mercifully blotted everything else out at the end. Absolutely horrible. But no more horrible than the deaths and maimings of the other young men and women (of all origins and races) who have gone before in this insane war. And now, as a result of the upswing in popularity such a 'heroic' All-American 'one for the gipper' death will likely bring to the cause of the current US President and his supporters, the lives of so many others are at hellish risk. I can't believe that in his last moments Pat Tillman would have wanted that.
Because besides their closest friends and families, the only immortality those future dead soldiers will have to hope for is that someone like me will come along and come across their 'In Memorium' and feel something like the dreadful, empathetic sadness that America is now feeling for one of her more famous sons.

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