What Makes a Single Person’s Death Feel Large?*

4 Min read

2 Book recs, on writing and on jigsaws

Toolbox, the Eulogy

1 Elegy, What is Dying? for the bereaved

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Four friends died recently and three were my age: one from acute liver failure, one from Lou Gehrig’s Disease (ALS), one from a brain tumor. The fourth was my friend’s father, who had struggled with various health challenges, but whose mind was sharp till the end, succumbing and going into hospice this April.

At the Immaculate Conception Church in Montclair, the husband spoke about his wife who died from ALS, charting the breadth of their relationship, with humor and eloquence. It showed me who she was because I hadn’t known her. My husband, another friend, and I sat in the pew behind the family, which included his two college-age children. Laughter and chuckles seemed at odds with the occasion, but guests did just that.

“Three things to know about ALS, they told us,” the husband said. “First don’t lose weight. Second have a good attitude. Third keep the faith. Well my wife said, I’m managing one of those! The first.” She had an appetite for food and life and learning, doing crosswords and Wordle, timing herself until the final days.

The eulogy was a masterpiece of storytelling because it was raw, candid, and well constructed, especially as he shared details of the deterioration over her six year struggle. It reminded me of an anecdote I had read.

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Vivian Gornick’s book, The Situation and the Story, engaged me from the first line when she wrote about a memorial service for a notable doctor. The beginning has stayed with me since I read it five years ago, recalling what Gornick shared, that after listening to a eulogy from a woman, not necessarily a fan and sometimes a critic of the deceased, the story stuck. Why? Here was a woman who had “a strong but vexing relationship” with the doctor, and she chose to share her experience with detail and nuance. In effect, she composed this story artfully and faithfully, and she had a very clear motive, that of the eulogist. Here are lines from the first page.

A pioneering doctor died and a large number of people spoke at her memorial service. Repeatedly it was said by colleagues, patients, activists in health care reform that the doctor had been tough, humane, brilliant; stimulating and dominant; a stern teacher, a dynamic researcher, an astonishing listener. I sat among the silent mourners. Each speaker provoked in me a measure of thoughtfulness, sentiment, even regret, but only one among them–a doctor in her forties who had been trained by the dead woman–moved me to that melancholy evocation of a world-and-self that makes a single person’s death feel large. . . Why? I wondered, even as I brushed away the tears. Why had these words made a difference? (The Situation and the Story, p. 3)

When Gornick wakes the next morning the question lingers and she sits bolt upright. The eulogy was in the air before her like a composition.

“That was it, I realized. It had been composed. That is what had made all the difference.”

And my friend that day in New Jersey, he had six years to tend to his dying wife. He had thought of each word, sentence, and story. He unfolded his notes from his breast pocket and he struggled with the final lines. This, Gornick writes, is shaping the language, the expressiveness, building up the texture. And the three of us in that pew who did not know the deceased well, came to know her through our friend, wiping the tears for his struggle and his loss, laughing through them at the comedy in his courtship and first dates. I am not sure I would have his strength to read a eulogy for my husband. If I can compose it ahead of time, maybe I could get through most of it and have my daughter stand next to me in case I got stuck.

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In a delightful and fascinating read–Margaret Drabble’s The Pattern in the Carpet: a Personal History with Jigsaws–I came across this parable, an elegy the author first hears when she attends her favorite aunt’s memorial service. Different versions may be found online, but this is the first time I came across it. I share it here for my friends and their families.

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What is dying?

I am standing on the sea shore. A ship sails and spreads her white sails to the morning breeze and starts for the ocean. She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her till at last she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says ’She is gone.’ Gone where? Gone from my sight, that is all; she is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her…The diminished size and loss of sight is in me, not in her, and just at that moment when someone at my side says ‘She is gone’, there are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout, ‘There she comes’ . . .

Bishop C. H. Brent

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May they rest in peace.

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FOOTNOTES

*The Situation and the Story, the Art of the Personal Narrative by Vivan Gornick, p. 3. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001)

*The Pattern in the Carpet, A Personal History with Jigsaws by Margaret Drabble, p. 29 (Mariner Books, 2009). This is Drabble’s version in this post and slighly different versions are available on line, titled as a funeral poem and The Ship. This is an elegy to her aunt who she spent many hours and days with doing jigsaws, and so begins an examination of the history of the puzzle and how folks use free time, to fill the tedium and boredom in their lives.)

May 5, 2023

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About the Author

Mylinh Shattan is a writer who has lived on three continents, served in the Army, worked in corporate America, and taught in college. She loves adventures, in the world and in the mind. Literature is relevant and learning is a lifelong pursuit, so you might as well have a bit of fun along the way.

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