My wife Toni knew Helen as “Jo.”
For more than seven years Toni provided respite care on Tuesdays so Jo’s daughter Kathy could shop, visit the library or see friends.
I only met Jo a couple of times. That was in the earlier stages of the Alzheimer’s that claimed her life at 87. Even in those years, it was clear that she suffered a serious loss of memory, the ability to think.
Jo died at home. Toni was there to comfort Kathy during an evening that ended a long and heartbreaking chapter in the life of a good person.
The obituary didn’t give us much of a glimpse of Jo’s life beyond her job and her family. It might have seemed such an ordinary life. Not so.
At the funeral service, Toni spoke up to note that Kathy’s devotion to her mother gave eloquent testimony of the mother. Here the daughter committed a big chunk of her life to caring daily for her mother, a woman so special she aroused such love from her daughter.
I saw such devotion when Toni’s mother also was afflicted with Alzheimer’s. She and her sisters acted as “The Committee” to see that Marge, who developed the disease in her 50s, had the best of care in nursing homes, with regular visits and vocal complaints if those were called for.
Just days after Jo died, an old friend, also in her 80s, passed away. Sally had been one of my first wife’s best friends. Jo had two children. Sally had six. A daughter-in-law is the daughter of my barber of maybe forty years.
Once again, Alzheimer’s enters the picture, not only for Sally, then in the early stages, but also her husband Jack who no longer knows his family. Like the obituary for Jo, Sally’s gave us the minimum of details, listing children, grandchildren and 14 grandchildren. I’m was happy to see the obituary cited her volunteer work as a chaplain at the county jail.
You just about have to be a prominent person to rate a detailed obituary. You might be a local judge, a former mayor, a congressman or, maybe, a minister. Prominent. My mom, like Toni’s, Jo and Sally, battled Alzheimer’s. Mom died at 91. The obituary didn’t tell us about her genius at bridge, her golf, how she ran an office for a judge, for attorneys, for an accounting firm.
We don’t learn of her mischievous sense of humor, her legendary people skills, her empathy for others. We don’t learn of how she took care of Dad at home for three years as he suffered from colon cancer.
I read the obituary section of the paper first every day. Usually I don’t know any of the people whose death is noted there. But I’m curious about people’s lives. So this gentleman loved to fish, although there’s no mention of the 8-pound bass he caught trolling at midnight in a lake north of the city. I mentally fill in what’s missing.
If the deceased is an elderly woman who devoted a part of her long life to making quilts, you probably don’t discover that she had filled two bedrooms with quilt material or that she was devoted to the dog she had trained to do tricks when he was just a puppy. I can imagine such a life.
Once or twice a week, I’ll read an obituary of a young person. The obit doesn’t say he died in the hospital or a car accident. It doesn’t say to send memorial gifts to a foundation that raises money for leukemia or some other disease that might strike the young. Then I think the death might have been by suicide. That conclusion, no more than a guess, can lead me to sad thoughts. Now I’m reading the name of somebody with great personal troubles, likely major depression, with a loss of hope.
Mostly in obituaries, we get a person’s name, age, a list of names of spouse and of family members, maybe his or her job, sometimes a hobby. It’s not much. We deserve more. We all know there’s more.
For that, loved ones, family and friends must depend on the memories the person left. That’s the person’s legacy. The daily obituary column is for the public record and accomplishes little else.
I don’t believe the circumstances of the person’s death is the most important thing. The ravages of disease? An auto accident? A suicide? A murder? A war? That person’s death so often seems so wrong, so unfair. Especially that of a child. Yet everyone has made a mark, touched the lives of others, did some good – often much good. That good can linger for generations.
The sadness we feel at a person’s death speaks to the value we place on every person’s life. That value is profound. Remembering those who have died reminds us to care for those who are living. We’re all so precious.