Friday, August 25, 2006

Drafting One's Own Obituary

In the annual four-week retreat prescribed for all Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola proposed that the first week be devoted to contemplation of the consequences of sin, including one's prospects after death. This came to mind to me as I began drafting my obituary.

What first will strike you, if you try it, is that you don't know when it will happen. You can't put at what age you died, or where, or what the cause of death was. Obvious, maybe, but try thinking of it.

Will you die at 59 as your father did, or at 90 as your grandfather? Will it be in your sleep or will your body be strapped to a dozen machines in some antiseptic room? Will it be near the familiar neighborhood in which you spent most of your life, or even perhaps where you grew up, or will it happen far, far away?

The second great unknown, particularly if you are famous only at your home dinner table, is what you might be noted for at the end of your life.

Will you be known for the job you held for 20-odd years? For some silly phrase you don't even know about? What if your most decisive act hasn't happened yet? Will you make some discovery, climb some mountain, achieve something that adds to the knowledge or collective experience of humankind in some mildly unique way of which you have yet to conceive?

For the better part of three decades I've written in inverted-pyramid style. The most important and foundational facts come first, then the details. It's classic news style.

But if you don't know the most important fact, then the hook of the whole story is missing.

If between now and the day you die you cure cancer, which you haven't a clue how to do today, whatever obit you draft today is useless. Granted, if you do discover a cure for cancer, every newspaper in the world will pay the best wordsmiths to eulogize and obituarize you.

For the more likely scenario, writing your own obituary is impossible. At best you can draft it, suggesting facts to be added by someone else.

But here's what strikes me as a third insight. Provided you are not bed-ridden (although Robert Louis Stevenson wrote Kidnapped! in bed), it is still possible to decide to bring about the fact or facts you would like to see in your obituary.

You still have a chance, one that day by day diminishes, to shoot for that obituary hoop. It's not a slam dunk in most instances.

Speaking for myself, I am highly unlikely to become President of the United States (although I do note that I am a -- corporate -- president in the United States). Cancer cure was already noted. No Olympic medal seems in my future.

Indeed, at my age, it is most likely that I have done everything of note that I will ever do.

Most people would refer to me as middle-aged, although it's not exactly certain that I have reached the chronological midpoint of my life. The oldest person alive I could find is MarĂ­a Capovilla of Ecuador, born on September 14, 1889, which at this writing makes her 116. By that standard, I still have a few years to go to the midpoint.

Of course, the actuarial odds are against me: women live longer than men. In any case, I can't imagine that I will have the capacity to write the Great American Novel in the next 20 years, especially since I haven't had it in the very much more vital 20 years past.

You might be younger, have a broader shot. My one warning: this game of life is played faster than you think.

The only thing you or I may be able to alter at this point is our private obituary. That's the obituary written in the hearts of those who knew us.

A few (how many?) will not mourn me at all, but actually rejoice. A few others may suddenly recall my name and wonder that I wasn't dead already. Many will never find out that I have died.

The hardy few who endured knowing me or those who, like my sons, can't avoid me, what will their obituary say?
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