I've had a very strange day. I received an email with a pointer to the "In Memoriam" page on my college class web site. The name of one of my fraternity brothers, also a roommate for a year, appeared at the top of the list. The thing is, the last I had heard from him was a change-of-address post card that indicated that he was moving from Texas to Florida effective on September 1st, and the notice gave the date of his death as September 1st. My first thought was that this was a macabre clerical error, but within an hour I received confirmation that it wasn't. Within another hour I had sent out an email to a long list of my fraternity brothers to pass on the sad news. It was the first of many that were exchanged.
The unexpected first that I refer to in the title of this post is that I was asked by other officers of my class -- and I agreed -- to write an obituary for my classmate, brother, roommate and friend. I'm writing this post to help get my thoughts together about what to write in the obituary. I've never done anything like that. Never been asked. Never been in the position, really, to be asked. And even if I had been, this situation is different. My freind suffered from a terrible disease, bi-polar disorder, and he had battled it for years, but it finally took more from him than he had. He died by his own hand, but it was the disease and not his own will that controlled the hand. Obituaries often omit information like this, but I don't think that will be appropriate because I never knew my friend to hide who he was. He was gay, and he was honest about that. He was afflicted with mood disorders, and he was honest about that. It would not honor him to hide in his obituary what he didn't hide himself.
Fraternity brothers and roommates are not necessarily the closest friends, and that was definitely the case with us. Still, I know that he was intensely loyal to every friend, and he would always be one of the first there for me if I needed help. I hope he knew the same was true of me for him. As often happens, we had drifted far apart. In the past twenty years I had seen him just a handful of times. Geography played a part. Diverging interests and complicated lives played another. His disease sometimes made him seek out contact with old friends, and sometimes not. We've exchanged email more frequently over the past few years, but not that often. I know that he occasionally read my blog. A while back he sent me a copy of Fermat's Enigma because he remembered a conversation we had had once --- long forgotten by me -- in which I had mentioned Fermat's Last Theorem and he thought I would like the book. I did. Even if it was, as I tended to suspect, the disease that made him pick up on a detail of a conversation that had occurred a few years earlier and decide to send me a book, I still enjoyed it. And really, it wasn't all that out of character for him to do something like that,. I wouldn't have been surprised if, when we were in college, he had handed me a book to read because we had been talking about something a few days, weeks or even months before. It's exactly the sort of thing that he would do, so maybe it wasn't the disease in this case either. Maybe it was during one of the times when his real self was able to take control.
Unfortunately there weren't enough of those times.
1. Chris Whisonant12/13/2005 09:54:23 AM
Richard, sorry to hear of your loss... You'll come up with the right things to say.
2. Sean Burgess12/13/2005 03:39:44 PM
The best thing you can do for him is to become his Speaker for the Dead. If you are unfamiliar with that term, it comes from a book of the same title by Orson Scott Card. Here is a definition from the wikipedia:
Speakers for the Dead are the wandering representatives of a Humanist movement (not a religion, though they are treated with the respect due a priest or cleric); they research the dead person's life and give a speech that attempts to speak for them, describing the person's life as he or she lived it.
That is the best thing that an obituary can do....talk about how a person intended to live their and describe some of the reasons for the choices they made. It's not as easy as just listing the fact, but it is a lot more accurate. If you have a chance, peruse the book before to you write the obituary.
3. Richard Schwartz12/13/2005 04:12:43 PM
@Chris: Thanks so much.
@Sean: That sounds intriguing. I'll look into it. Thanks so much.
4. Mary Fairbanks12/16/2005 02:08:10 PM
Rich - Kent Arnold forwarded me the info - I am so sorry for the loss all of us feel. I wasn't out at the time I was in college, but always had a soft spot for Norman, anyway! He'd been in touch some by email, and I also got the news of the move... had no idea. He and I had a slightly common thread besides our sexual orientations, in that my significant other also struggles with Bipolar disorder, and has had equal difficulties getting stabilized on meds... Thanks for the memorialization - you've done a fine job. You can add me to Phi Tau lists if you like - and you're welcome to forward this note if appropriate. Mary