Few events will raise this thorny question as powerfully as a funeral.
Who spoke and what did they say about the deceased?
I spent an hour Thursday morning at the funeral of the 91-year-old woman who shared a wall with us for 17 years. We didn’t know her well. We knew her name, and that she was a local, and that she had several adult daughters in town.
She was always friendly, but deeply private.
I learned a lot about her and her life — widowed at 44 with four daughters — when I listened to the eulogy.
The pews were filled with friends and neighbors, children and grand-children, including a very small baby.
This time last year, we attended a funeral for a much beloved and eccentric New York Times colleague, who worked, literally, side by side for eight years with my husband Jose. They weathered the storm of the crash of 2008, fought, made up, laughed and became close.
Zvi, who played tennis every week into his 70s and was lean and fit, was hit by a rare and aggressive cancer and dead within months of his diagnosis. Jose was asked to give the eulogy.
When you sit in the pews attending someone’s funeral, it’s natural to wonder what those left behind would say of you and how you chose to live your life.
Did you give back?
Were you generous and kind?
Did you laugh often?
Did you mentor?
If you don’t have children or close younger relatives — and I do not — this question of legacy is a real and pressing one, and only grows with every year I’m still alive.
Am I leaving a good life behind?
Am I doing enough for others?
Legacy isn’t only about your family or your work or whatever financial assets are left in your estate.
Nor need you be wealthy enough to be an official philanthropist or have your name on a building, as most of us never will.
In the past few months, three famous people have died, two of whose deaths widely elicited public scorn, derision and relief: Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, former Toronto mayor (and admitted drug user while in office) Rob Ford.
The late Pritzker Award-winning architect Zaha Hadid was by all accounts a brilliant tough cookie — who one acquaintance of mine immediately dismissed as a woman who only created properties for the world’s wealthiest.
I wonder about the wisdom of this.
I asked a friend in her 30s what she thought, a fellow journalist, a thoughtful person.
“They’re celebrities. They don’t feel like real people to us.”
I wonder about this as well.
There are people — serial killers, perpetrators of terrorism and genocide — whose deaths, natural or murdered, we don’t grieve. Those boundaries seem clear enough to me.
There are people within our own families, people who perpetrated sexual, physical and/or emotional abuse, whose deaths we might also greet with a sigh of relief.
I attended a funeral about a decade ago, of a man whose widow and adult daughter share an apartment hallway with us. We have never socialized and likely never will; we’re very different sorts of people. We say hello in the hallway and parking lot.
But when their father and husband was dying a horrible death of cancer, we helped them connect with a hospice and, when he died, we went to his funeral.
I was stunned to see how empty it was. I doubt more than a dozen people were there, and this for a local man.
I wondered, then as now, why so few people cared enough to come and pay their respects; I’ve attended funerals that were practically standing room only, filled with people utterly distraught at their loss.
Why did this man’s death go so un-mourned? What had he said or done (or left unsaid or un-done?)
For public figures like Scalia, Ford and Hadid, we have access to reams of information about them and their work, their public behavior and accomplishments, sometimes their struggles.
Those who knew them best might not feel comfortable sharing more intimate details, so we’re left with broad outlines.
Many people loathed Scalia and Ford for their misogyny and for holding power over so many lives while espousing values they disagreed with.
They were also human.
They left behind people who loved them deeply and respected them.
A few days ago, we attended a memorial service in suburban Maryland for a family friend of my husband’s, a handsome, distinguished architect whose work spanned New York City and Detroit and who helped design JFK Airport.
I never had the pleasure of meeting him, but what a glorious service!
What a powerful reminder of the complicated, messy, loving lives we lead.
How we are often both reticent and expressive, if perhaps not when, where and how others might most have needed or wished for.
How our smallest words and deeds can, unwittingly, leave a lasting mark.
How much we crave connection, even as we blunder and stagger and do it so imperfectly that forgiveness is sometimes the greatest gift we are given.
How, for some fathers, their children are their greatest joy.
What did his friends, children, grandchildren and colleagues remember?
— He baked bread in clay flowerpots
— His amazing home-made pizza
— He loved classical music — and Rodrigo’s exquisite Concierto de Aranjuez was part of the service, played simply and beautifully on a gleaming black grand piano. A lone trumpet also played the Navy Anthem and My Funny Valentine.
— His service in WWII, inspiring a young seaman, a grandson in his medal-beribboned uniform, to tell us that’s what inspired him to join the Navy as well
— His midnight rescue, done calmly and gently, of his niece — out on a first date — who had locked the car keys in his borrowed car, with the engine running
— The day, as a Columbia School of Architecture student, he discovered that Frank Lloyd Wright was visiting New York City, staying at the Plaza Hotel. He jumped into a car, drove downtown to the Plaza — and, with no formal introduction, invited Wright back to campus for their 4:00 ritual tea. Wright, who then was paid $30,000 per lecture and had a New York Times interview scheduled that day, spontaneously agreed. (Now that’s chutzpah!)
— His three marriages; (as one female relative said, to loving laughter, “I kept hoping…”)
My husband clutched the late man’s brother’s hand, our dear friend, while I held Jose’s, knitting a fierce rope of love, something rough and strong to hold fast to.
We exited the church into brilliant fall sunshine to discover a raft of cellphone messages from Texas; my husband’s own half-brother, a man 24 years his senior, had suffered a major stroke and would likely not survive. He died a few hours later.
This, barely three days after Pratt Institute, where I now teach two classes, lost a female student to suicide, on campus.
It has been a week of death, of mourning, of loss, of remembrance.
Of our impossible, inevitable, inescapable fragility.
There is a woman in our apartment building whose husband will soon die, at the absurd and frighteningly young age of 54. Maybe it’s 52.
All I can do is think of him, and pray for him and her and hope his death is as gentle as it can be.
He is not 16 or 25 or 40, true.
But he is young — and he is dying from a brain tumor and he was a lovely, smart, hard-working man who will soon leave behind a grieving younger wife and a teenage daughter from his first marriage.
We were not close friends, which is why I did not visit his bedside and got the news of his imminent demise from a neighbor.
He and I served on our co-op board together, a true test of character and grace under pressure!
And when my second book came out and I was struggling with some personal attacks, he explained to me — he, being a lawyer — what an ad hominem attack was and, more essentially, how to fight one effectively.
His compassion and wisdom touched me deeply.
And all I can think of is that — through nothing more than the shittiest fortune imaginable — his death soon transforms his wife into a widow.
Three weeks later, I stood in a large warehouse, watching two men push a gurney towards me with a large cardboard casket on top. I wanted to see Kaz one more time. They wheeled the gurney before me, so I could see the word “Smith” written on top. Then they removed the cover.
I stared at him for a long time. His eyes were closed, and he was wearing the clothes I had given the men who picked him up ten days earlier, on May 3, 2011. He had all the same tattoos. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was looking at someone else. The Kaz I knew and loved was not in that box. I didn’t know where he was.
“Goodbye, babe. I love you.”
The men replaced the cover, opened the furnace door with gloved hands, and pushed him inside. The room suddenly felt warmer, and I sat down, lightheaded.
There is no good way I know of to lose the man (or woman) you adore. To whom you once said — praying it wouldn’t happen any time soon — “til death do us part.”
Just cherish the hell out of them while you have them.
I had dinner recently with my friend G, a fellow writer. As we settled into a local restaurant for dinner — the music way too loud for comfortable conversation — we both kept saying “That music is too loud!”
Getting older is a bitch, kids.
What we really were talking about was how to handle the indignities and annoyances of aging.
We’re not that old, but we’re past 40, and things do start to look a lot different by then; friends have died far too young, parents are starting to become frail or ill and the endless mountain ranges of ambition we always planned to keep scaling are starting to just look exhausting.
“I’m going to be such a bitch when I’m older,” she said calmly. Me, too.
Because you’re running out of time, energy, strength and the endless determination to bounce back — from illness, divorce, a crappy betrayal, a crummy job.
Because, for better and worse, you simply have less stamina, physically and emotionally, for bullshit. If someone is petty or cruel or stupid or deceptive, in the old days I would have fake-smiled and sucked it up. Today? You’re gone!
You don’t have to kiss as many butts as in your gogogogogogogogogo 20s and 30s, when you’re desperate to get into the right college/grad school/jobs/marriage.
What’s going on, I think, is the path-diverging choices that come with growing up. The thirties aren’t wildly different from your twenties, except for the part where the stakes feel so much higher. The carefree feeling of going out every night is replaced with a nagging voice that now reminds you of the repercussions, of what you should really be doing instead, and of the choices that may be slipping away, whether they are career, family, or fun. You are suddenly, irrevocably unable to waste time in the same way without chastising yourself.
By the time you’re in your 40s and beyond, you’ve done much of that, often several times (see: jobs, marriages.)
And we’re learning (resentfully!) that our energy has limits — even as she and I admitted to sitting at our computers for 10 hours a day when we write a major story.
I still, (thank God), can read without needing glasses. I still head off to jazz dance class and kick as high as some of the praying-mantis-thin chicks in their 30s. I plan to be back on the softball field this summer, after a three-year absence due to injury, surgery and recovery.
I’m also finally happy to see that my retirement savings — mine alone, even as a freelancer in a recession — have hit a number that actually makes all those years of scrimping feel worthwhile.I’d so much rather be in Paris/wear Manolos/drive a new car, but that growing number is deeply comforting.
My role model is a woman on our floor, soon to turn 98. She recently fell, off the toilet, cutting her cheek and shoulder so badly she needed stitches. Her live-in nurse, who I see often, said, in awe: “She’s so strong!”
That’s what you need as you age. Strength: of character, of mind, body and spirit. A network of solid, loving friends. As much cash in the bank, and/or income, as you can possibly scrimp, scrape and save — start now, young ‘uns!
Aging also means less patience for whining or negativity. If you’re healthy, solvent and alive you’re way ahead of a lot of others starting their days with an IV in their arm or wondering when to finish making out their will or wincing in pain with every step.
By the time you’ve done a few decades, you start to feel like a grateful survivor, because you are.
The other night, for fun, I decided to Google a former beau, one of the most fun people I ever knew, a journalist-turned lawyer who fought hard for the rights of workers who’d been screwed over by their employers. Instead, to my shock, I found his obituary — dead of cancer at 57. It feels unimaginable.
Without question, I am over him. I no longer love him. I haven’t for a long time. I do not hate him. It would not bother me in the least if I never spoke to or saw him again. (Of course, this can’t happen (and I won’t allow it to happen), because we have Z and M.)
What I am not over is how much he hurt me. He’s not only hurt me, he’s hurt me in such a way as to have a long-term impact on any and all relationships I may have. He’s hurt me in such a way as to have a long-term impact on any and all relationships I already have.
When I need to talk to or just be in the presence of someone the most, I can’t bear the thought of it. I can’t bear the thought of confiding in someone else.
The depth of the pain is too much to bear.
The writer is a Canadian, a mother of two small children, whose husband cheated on her.
Keening for seven years? Maybe she’s “ultra sensitive”, as this blogger describes herself.
And here’s a married, white, employed writer complaining in The New York Times that she is living in a friend’s ratty old house, at no cost:
I remind myself to have faith in something larger than the petty irritations of an old house. It’s been, as Dan has said, an “unconventional” way to take over a house.
That would be rent and mortage free, an opportunity millions of Americans would be happy to tackle.
My impatience with whining is colored by my own experiences, and those of friends and family, who have coped from early childhood with serious illness, partners’ or parents’ premature death, mental illness, alcoholism, sexual abuse, repeated job loss, natural disasters.
Character is created by encountering and overcoming failure. In this absorbing and important book, Tough explains why American children from both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum are missing out on these essential experiences. The offspring of affluent parents are insulated from adversity, beginning with their baby-proofed nurseries and continuing well into their parentally financed young adulthoods. And while poor children face no end of challenges — from inadequate nutrition and medical care to dysfunctional schools and neighborhoods — there is often little support to help them turn these omnipresent obstacles into character-enhancing triumphs.
Jose and I, in our professional work as journalists, have witnessed horrific violence, death, war and fear for our own lives. People who choose our field know that working to tight deadlines against ferocious competitors means no one has time to coddle you, and insisting on it is a career-damaging choice.
When New York Times reporter Anthony Shadid died of an asthma attack while covering a story in Syria, his accompanying photographer Tyler Hicks carried his dead body into Turkey. Jose spent Christmas of 1995 in bitterly cold Bosnia, sleeping in an unheated metal cargo container, his holiday meal a packet of chicken soup, all he could find in the post-war madness there while working as a news photographer. He couldn’t shower for five weeks.
I faced my mother’s manic breakdown when I was 14, in Mexico, with very little help, and had to take care of a visiting friend, a girl my age who spoke no Spanish, while we figured it all out.
No one trains or prepares you for such moments.
I recently had a long conversation with a new friend, a woman whose life has handed her a tremendous amount of personal stress, fear and worry, some of which is out of her control and ongoing. Yet she is chic, funny, smart, tough and resolutely un-whiny.
Clutching and sobbing tends to make me sigh and withdraw.
Near the house I’m sitting in Vermont is a town with a small graveyard with some early stones. Early, of course, is a relative term in a nation as young as the United States.
I wandered there at sunset, the sun low and pearly in the sky. I was sweaty and sore from a major workout at the gym, feeling as alive and strong as I have in years. What better time to contemplate one’s mortality?
I always notice the same things in graveyards dating from the 18th. or 17th. century here — people who died at, then especially, a ripe old age in their 80s or 90s, but a large number of young wives in their early 20s and their tiny babies, some dead within a few days or weeks of their birth.
How must have life, and death, felt like then?
Women died in childbirth. Their babies died of a host of diseases for which modern medicines were far distant in the future: smallpox, scarlet fever, diphtheria, pneumonia, influenza. Doctors, if one even lived anywhere nearby, arrived at whatever speed their horse and muddy, icy or snowy roads allowed them — after being hastily summoned by someone riding, rowing or running at top speed to find them. Even then, they had only a limited armamentarium in their black leather bag.
Husbands might — as one man did in this cemetery I visited — have three or four wives in their lifetime.
How much more familiar and intimate the spectre of (early) death must have been.
Where I live, in a northern suburb of New York City, I was for many years puzzled by many small graveyards I’d spy as I turned back onto the highway. They’re shaded by thick, old trees, bordered with stone walls and a wrought-iron gate. I wrote a New York Times story about them, (how I often satisfy my curiosity about something), and discovered these had once been on family farmland, long since sold off, the graves left behind.
It’s so easy to forget who came before us and what their lives, and landscapes, were like. Early graveyards are a useful reminder.
Their marker stones are often very beautiful, with a skull or an angel, and deep incised script in red sandstone or white marble.
My husband is a Buddhist and wants me to cremate him and spread his ashes at our favorite lake in Quebec. I should choose the same method as, with no kids, I can’t see anyone going to kneel at my grave. My ashes, similarly, are probably best scattered into a Canadian lake from the back of a canoe, to the haunting cry of a loon.
If my husband dies before I do, who will even take care of my disposal and estate? Serious stuff I still have to decide and write into a longer and much more detailed will.
I have no idea where my grandfathers are buried, or my paternal grandmother. My maternal grandmother, a grande dame who squandered much of her considerable wealth, was cremated. My mother buried her ashes in a silver Russian tea caddy (what else? where else?) in a Toronto park. Yes, illegally. I have no idea where exactly…but I wave to her whenever the subway car passes through the Rosedale station, nearest to the park.
My maternal great-grandfather, a prominent businessman in Chicago in the late 19th. century, has a gorgeous mausoleum I hoped to visit when I was there last year, but ran out of time. At least I know he’s still there.
Do you ever visit cemeteries to which you have no personal attachment?
His garage was next to mine, holding a red mid-size car. He was not a happy man, rarely smiling. His wife was frail. When we passed one another in the hallway or driveway, he almost never said hello.
Yesterday he dropped dead.
I came home just as the ambulance pulled up to our apartment building. I thought little of it, not because I’m callous, but because our building is filled with people in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. It’s not an uncommon sight and, thankfully, the resident is usually home again within a few days.
Last week a gorgeous husky dog, always out with his blond owner for walks on our winding, hilly suburban street also died suddenly and unexpectedly.
Which explained a circle of hushed women whispering yesterday in the hallway.
Our lives are shaped by pattern, routine, the known and familiar.
Faces become visual wallpaper, the normal everyday background to our lives. The ones we take for granted. The ones we can lose, as two of my neighbors just did, without warning, in minutes.
Today, two pieces of it — a beloved pet, a valued friend and husband — are gone, ripped away, leaving behind the shocked and mourning.
“Had he been in bed with a woman, this would not have happened,” said Lauren Felton, 21, of Warren. “He wouldn’t have been outed via an online broadcast and his privacy would have been respected and he might still have his life.”
Gay rights groups say Tyler Clementi’s suicide makes him a national example of a problem they are increasingly working to combat: young people who kill themselves after being tormented over their sexuality.
A lawyer for Clementi’s family confirmed Wednesday that he had jumped off the George Washington Bridge last week. Police recovered a man’s body Wednesday afternoon in the Hudson River just north of the bridge, and authorities were trying to determine if it was Clementi’s.
Clementi’s roommate, Dhraun Ravi, and fellow Rutgers freshman Molly Wei, both 18, have been charged with invading Clementi’s privacy. Middlesex County prosecutors say the pair used a webcam to surreptitiously transmit a live image of Clementi having sex on Sept. 19 and that Ravi tried to webcast a second encounter on Sept. 21, the day before Clementi’s suicide.
The death of a Rutgers University freshman stirred outrage and remorse on campus from classmates who wished they could have stopped the teen from jumping off a bridge last week after a recording of him having a sexual encounter with a man was broadcast online.
So turns out there a number of men who want their bodies or brains preserved after they die — so they can later be thawed out for a whole new life…later.
Is this weird? Is this what you plan?
My sweetie, being a devout Buddhist, thinks about death a lot and wants to be cremated and has told me where to spread his ashes. I live in terrified denial of mortality (see, can’t even type the words “my mortality” without my stomach hurting) and figure no one would visit my grave anyway so probably best not to have one and where would my ashes go? A favorite spot like…France. Or the Saks shoe department.
Premonitions of this problem can be found in the deepest reaches of cryonicist history, starting with the prime mover. Robert Ettinger is the father of cryonics, his 1964 book, “The Prospect of Immortality,” its founding text. “This is not a hobby or conversation piece,” he wrote in 1968, adding, “it is the struggle for survival. Drive a used car if the cost of a new one interferes. Divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.” Today, with just fewer than200 patients preserved within the two major cryonics facilities, the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute and the Arizona-based Alcor, and with 10 times as many signed up to be stored upon their legal deaths, cryonicists have created support networks with which to tackle marital strife. Cryonet, a mailing list on “cryonics-related issues,” takes as one of its issues the opposition of wives. (The ratio of men to women among living cyronicists is roughly three to one.) “She thinks the whole idea is sick, twisted and generally spooky,” wrote one man newly acquainted with the hostile-wife phenomenon. “She is more intelligent than me, insatiably curious and lovingly devoted to me and our 2-year-old daughter. So why is this happening?”