There’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes in your local newspaper. Your writers have stories you might never know, and that can make it easy to see that person in a less human way when they write about something you don’t agree with. In spite of that, it’s important to remember that we are every bit as human as our readers. It would be foolhardy to assume we are so different from anyone else. Take this post as an example.
The above title is taken from an Old English poem called “The Lament of Deor,” which I had to translate for a class during my Master’s education. It translates roughly, “That has passed, so shall this.” It’s become a sort of power phrase for me.
It has been a rough year for a lot of people I know. I’ve taken more vacation time for funerals this year than I care to add up, and it seems like a lot of people I know can easily make the same boast.
I’m a news writer. That job comes with certain expectations. The most important, most difficult and least natural of these expectations is the expectation that our writing should be filtered and maybe dehumanized just a bit, so that we do not include ourselves, particularly our biases, in our writing. I’m not always good at that, but my editor and fellow writers keep an eye out. Some stories are easier to clean up, some harder. For example, how do you do that when you write a memorial for a friend?
Meet Michael. I knew Mike since I was in about grade 9 at Pine River-Backus High School. I spent a lot of my time then at his next door neighbor’s house, and have since become sort of an adopted grandson there. Mike always got along with his neighbor, so I would fairly regularly chat with him about this or that. He was always brimming with story ideas for the paper, sometimes out of our coverage area. Mike was a good man.
Maybe a month ago now Mike went to the hospital for scheduled surgery on his heart. I talked to him just before he went. He actually seemed somewhat excited, because it might help him feel less winded when he was walking around and doing things in his yard (you won’t find this in the paper). I wished him the best, and we went our separate ways. While he was in recovery in the hospital I messaged him to tell him while I mowed his neighbor’s yard, I saw that a dead tree in his yard was sprouting oyster mushrooms again. I asked if he would like me to pick some and save them for him (I didn’t get around to picking them because they grew too high up). I didn’t hear back from him until he had returned, and then it was just a message in Facebook that read “I’m home!” (You won’t find that in the paper either).
As is common among pretty much everyone I know, this summer was pretty busy, so I didn’t get around to stopping in to visit. Chatting with his neighbor, she said Mike had developed a fever and returned to the hospital. A few days later, Mike had passed away.
Now, Mike was not some unknown individual in our area. Mike was very well known, especially during wintertime. He looked the part of St. Nick all 365 days of the year, but when December rolled around, he had a red suit to put the icing on the cake. He was also an avid volunteer for the Backus Cornfest (our city’s summer festival), a nearby food shelf and for various pet projects (http://www.pineandlakes.com/content/good-samaritan-residents-get-big-furry-visitor-and-his-dog-too). Mike’s passing will undoubtedly leave a big gap. Considering that, I wrote a memorial for our paper (http://www.pineandlakes.com/content/balloon-launch-planned-memory-backus-cornfest-volunteer).
I’ve done a few memorial stories in the past. This was maybe the hardest. It always feels awkward asking people questions for a memorial story. I can’t help but feel in some tiny way, I’m torturing them so soon after someone they cared about has passed away, but I do it because these people should not fade away unnoticed. This time was worse, because I know many of the people Mike knew. I interviewed these people before. How do you keep it together when you know the deceased person, and the person you are interviewing, and they break down? It’s not easy, but I guess that is part of the curse behind working at a small town newspaper.
This year so far, I’ve said goodbye to “Cousin” George, a friend from college named Kasandra, and now Mike. To top things off, the night before George’s funeral one of our dogs also died. As I said, this seems to be par for course this year for so many people I know, so maybe I might be able to offer just a tiny bit of comfort.
When hard times come one after another, it can be hard to remember that there are good times. You almost forget what it was like just a little while ago when your brother/sister/niece/best friend had a baby/got married, and everything was so happy. It almost feels like you should keep an eye out for the next big tragedy, because surely at this rate things are only going to keep getting worse, right? But you can’t look at it that way.
Old English Poet Deor wrote his lament which recounts historic and legendary tragedies visited upon famous heroes of his time. and after each tragedy, he reminds the reader “þæs ofereode, þisses swa mæg”, this is similar to the Isreali folktale often ascribed to Solomon (often erroneously to the Bible) about the ring that has the power to make the wearer humble in good times and comforted in hard times. It read “Gam zeh ya’avor” or This Too Shall Pass.
The point is, all pains dull with time. Good times will pass, but so too will the bad times. Though we don’t want to think of it this way, we will eventually be relieved, at least in part, of our mourning. While the mourning lasts we must do what we can to keep moving on (such as writing a memorial) and keep reminding ourselves that good things are coming. Even when it doesn’t seem evident.
In the case of Mike, it helps to remember what he seemed to enjoy doing best. He was Santa, he was the go to guy for the Cornfest, he helped bring food to those who needed it in Hackensack, and he brought a big, fluffy and affectionate dog to people who in all likelihood probably needed to see him the most. He did it all because he liked it when people felt good and felt happy. It is normal to feel sad and to mourn, but there is no doubt, Mike wants that sadness to fade. He would never be so selfish as to expect anyone to hold on to grieving in his memory. The same was true of George and Kasandra.
So, in closing, don’t feel ashamed to mourn for as long as you need, but don’t forget that the person you mourn likely would expect you to feel better eventually. They would want you to always remember, that this too shall pass.