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Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Pre-Funeral Notes

It should not be strange that I found this story because I was googling a phrase my old professor used. I left graduate school in 1999 and finished my degree from DC. I didn't know he was ill until about two years after I moved away. I got word again when he died through an email exchange that went around through the former students.

The author of the essay, his friend, Amitav Ghosh, wrote about an exchange he had with my professor before he died:
I heard him thumbing through his engagement book and then suddenly he said: “Oh dear. I can’t see a thing.” There was a brief pause and then he added: “I hope this doesn’t mean that I’m dying …”

Although Shahid and I had talked a great deal over the last many weeks, I had never before heard him touch on the subject of death. I did not know how to respond: his voice was completely at odds with the content of what he had just said, light to the point of jocularity. I mumbled something innocuous: “No Shahid—of course not. You’ll be fine.” He cut me short. In a tone of voice that was at once quizzical and direct, he said: “When it happens I hope you’ll write something about me.”
Because isn't that how we truly live on?

Should I write something about him?

The second night of the first year of grad school, I went to a party at Steve's house. Steve once worked in Hollywood, gave up his career to get an MFA in Massachusetts. He owned a Victorian house in Northampton on the next street over from Smith College. We all said that he lived there so he could watch the undergraduates.

I was standing on Steve's porch, unsure of how I was going to get home from the party, when my professor stumbled out from the kitchen surrounded by a few poetry students. He was drunk. We all were at the party. He pointed at me and said, "you are a naughty girl. Naughty, naughty. That is what I will call you. Naughty, naughty."

"Me?" I asked. "What did I do?"

"I can tell," he laughed. "You are naughty, naughty."

The name stuck for my remaining time in graduate school. People who know me from that era still call me that.

I loved being blessed with a nickname from him.

That probably wasn't what he meant when he asked his friend to write about him.

When I read that essay, I thought about the power we have--every blogger--to write about another person, send it out there, leave an imprint of their existence on the Internet. You do not need to be a novelist anymore. A magazine writer or a journalist. Anyone can own a blog. Anyone can sit down and record another person's life. And when they are gone, even if you delete the post, it still lives on, cached somewhere in the endless nooks and crannies of the dark blogosphere.

I love the thought behind my old professor's words: it wasn't enough that he was a writer himself. He wanted someone to write about him. Isn't that how we really know ourselves? When we hear how others remember us?

I feel like I need to give you a better story about a person.

I'll give you a story about my grandfather.

The night before I left for Israel, I was scared to go. I had traveled to Norway the summer before to go on a camping trip with a friend. When I got there, I started to feel more uncomfortable with the hike. The morning we were to leave, we went yarn shopping so I could crochet while at the site. We stood near a fountain in front of the store and I told my friend, "I really don't think I can go."

He was angry and disappointed and packed hastily when we got back to his apartment. He gave me the keys, directions to the local grocery store, and told me he'd return in a week. I walked down to Vigeland's Park and sat by the Monolith until it was getting cold. I walked back and bought two potatoes from a street vendor that were coated in dirt. I cried all night.

I didn't want to go to Israel because I was afraid that once I got overseas, I would feel that same terror from being so far from home. It didn't matter that I was going with a cousin to see other cousins.

He couldn't sleep that night and came into the living room to sit in his chair. His legs hurt when he would lie in bed. He asked me what I was worried about and I told him. He promised me that it wouldn't be that way. That I was a different person from the girl who went on the trip.

He told me to carry a picture of myself that was taken during a time when I felt brave. I tucked one into my journal. I replaced it with a photo that was taken on the trip.

I still always carry a photo of myself as a reminder whenever I travel.

The only point of all of this: a reminder. That we all want someone to write about us. Kind words.

I realized around 5 in the morning, when I was up for an hour and a half for my daily morning worry, that I never came back to the reason for the title. I think it's such a shame that he waited to write about him until after he was gone and that my professor never got to read the essay. In the vein of a Secret Ode Day, how amazing would it be to get to read the funeral notes and essays before you die?


Mrs. Spit said...

Thank you. Those were beautiful. Rememberence is sacred.

Jess said...

Your stories were funny AND sentimental today. I love it!

Don't ever worry that you won't be written about. You are well loved, and rightfully so.


Antigone said...

I think you were brave to stay behind, alone, in Oslo.

I can picture you so clearly in Frogner Park sitting on the stairs that surround the monolith of humanity.

Jaymee said...

a beautiful remembrance of people you love. truly, we are those millions of small moments. thank you for reminding us of this truth.

Kristin said...

Beautiful stories. Thank you.

Samantha said...

Great post and wonderful use of your blog.

Kymberli said...

Very true words, indeed.

loribeth said...

Yes, yes, yes!

Jill said...

What a cool post! I have this fear of being forgotten ( I have NO idea why) and now the knowledge that my words will always be somewhere makes me feel so much better...................

Thank you

Jendeis said...

How beautiful. I often think of how amazing you are, and how great and powerful you could become if you truly believed of yourself all that we feel for you. I think you would be Queen of the Universe. Much love dahlink!

VA Blondie said...

Thank you for this beautiful post. It gives me something to think about.

annacyclopedia said...

This beautiful post really touched my heart, Lolly. I think it's going to stay with me all day, and make me write about something I've never written about before. Gotta sit with all this stuff for a while, first...

Thank you.

Heather J. said...

We threw a surprise 60th b-day for my FIL a while back. There were 50+ people there and almost every one of them stood up to say a few things about him. We joked that it was like attending your own funeral. Then re realized how sad that really is, and how lucky my FIL was that we were doing this for him when he was around to enjoy it.

It's something that we plan to continue at future b-days and anniversaries.

Piccinigirl said...

yes, it's always nice to hear the nice things when you can. I believe it's those things that have kept me happy in my sad days, that people DO love me, even when I feel unlovable.

thank you for those stories, they were beautiful.

Patricia said...

The tone of your post does a much better job at what I tried to say in a post today. For a while now, I've been thinking about the blogprints we leave on one another's lives. Writing about them, speaking them aloud, is crucial. Thank you for so consistently doing just that.

Jen said...

I fully intend to come back and see what everyone said about me after I die.

I read a story once, about a man with cancer, who held his own wake before he died. They called it a retirement party or something, so not to freak everyone out, but he and his wife planned it as his wake and had everyone do the speeches and the memories like they would have done at a wake.

Julia said...

These are great stories. Thanks.

Ronda's Rants said...

Oh my goodness...I think of all the blogs I have read so far...this blog will always stay with me. Such very beautiful words and your grandfather is a treasure! Thank you for my daughter has decided to be a teacher...I could not be more proud!

sara said...

I think that we all have touched someone at some point - even the quietest most reserved ones of us. Even if someone doesn't write a book or a essay about each person - a story about them is already written in that other person's mind. That's even more permanent than all the nooks and crannies of the blogosphere :-) Beautiful post - you always say it so well!

JamieD said...

I agree - writing about someone is so powerful. Even just remembering them when they are gone.

I would love to hear what would be said at my funeral. I have friends and I know people like me, but I still have a feeling I would be surprised. But it would feel so good to know I touched at least one other person in a lasting way.

Mimi said...

It would be great to read, but then reading it would change it, no? This makes me think that if I like what they wrote then I'd probably accelerate the good stuff but if I didn't then I'd be working my butt off to change the lousy stuff!

But I'd still like to read it!

I love your grandfather's 'carry a photo' idea and have that one locked in for future use!

LisaS said...

the real moral of the story: never wait until after the person is gone to say how much they meant to you. written is immortal, or as close as we can get, but what matters is that they know it.

thanks for the reminder.

Bea said...

Beautiful post. And although this sounds much more trite: we leave it too long to say things sometimes.


Once A Mother said...

It would be interesting to know how others remembered us, and what they would write. I have noticed during this past year of grieving my daughter, that people will come out of the woodwork and say things like "you are strong, that's what I have always seen in you" and I think "really?" because I cant imagine that being someone's view of me. I really enjoyed this post and loved the story about your professor. I had a few nicknames in school, but never was called naughty by a professor. Thank you so much for sharing this post. When you said "Anyone can sit down and record another person's life. And when they are gone, even if you delete the post, it still lives on, cached somewhere in the endless nooks and crannies of the dark blogosphere." it gave me an odd sense of hope, that my child's life, recorded on my blog, will always live on somewhere in one of those endless nooks and crannies. I love blogger bingo, for bringing me back to posts like this one. Thank you Mel.