Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
–W.H. Auden, “Funeral Blues”
Apologies for the delay in posting – I’m still fighting off this cold and have been spending most of my non-work time sleeping! That’s about par for the course for mid-December, though, isn’t it?
Every other month, my college’s alumni magazine arrives in my mailbox. I’m not ashamed to say that I immediately flip to the back section, to the “Alumni Class Notes” and the obituaries. When we first graduated, the Class Notes section was the best place to see who had gotten married, who was in grad school, or who had dropped off the radar. As we’ve gotten older, the Class Notes have morphed into a laundry list of new babies, with a few marriages sprinkled in. It’s still tough to read about people I know – or remember vaguely – having their second, third, and fourth children in the time we’ve been trying for one, so I generally tend to skip to the obituaries.
That has not been a good solution.
Partly because I went to school with a bunch of overachieving freakshows, and partially because the more unique obits are the ones that get published, we end up with a lot of entries like this one:
[Scholar McScholarly] died at home on August 14, 2011 after a long period of illness. Scholar majored in Physics. After graduating with us in 1955, he attended the Washington University of St. Louis and Harvard Medical School, continuing his training at NYU. His first faculty position was at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he made several key scientific discoveries. He invented the Mixed Leukocyte Culture test that paved the way for assessing immune compatibility between individuals and thus allowed for the first human bone marrow transplant. Later in his career he was a leading voice cautioning against a rapid move to xenotransplanation because of uncertain infection risks, and was focused on the role of several mediators of inflammation. Scholar was also on the faculty of the University of Minnesota, Columbia, and Harvard Medical Schools, where his scientific contributions continued. In all, he published more than 800 scientific papers including more than 50 in Science, Nature, and the New England Journal of Medicine. He trained and mentored countless doctoral students and junior faculty members in whom he infused his indelible enthusiasm for scientific hypotheses and inquiry. He was a lover of classical music, travel, food, sailing, tennis, spy novels, and Sunday news shows. A beloved father, his three loving children, [Fluffy, Muffy, and Cottontail Rabbit], survive him. McScholarly’s life came full circle. He had his Austrian citizenship restored in 2004, and in 2005 he was awarded an honorary doctorate of Medicine from the University of Vienna where he had started a lab and was training young scientists.
Yeeeeeeah. It’s tough to compete, you know? Maybe it’s the season – with everything being so grey and rainy right now – but I find myself wondering what my obituary will say. Not about my career and things like that, but what about children? Most obits say something like “beloved mother of so-and-so, and devoted grandmother of such-and-such”. What do you write when you don’t have that? It seems off-kilter, somehow, to not think about having those lines in my obit. ” Mom and chew toy to Penny the puppy” doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.
On the other hand, I’ve been a vocal proponent of the Joss Whedon School of Thought Concerning Families of Choice. Does it matter if I don’t have “mother of so-and-so” if I can say “beloved friend of person A, and longtime snugglebuddy of Dr. J”? Would I take being a parent of an awful child (like that serial killer in Connecticut?) over the 30-years-and-counting best friend of an awesome person? I know that’s not a choice I’ll ever have to make, or should ever make, but it’s an interesting point of discussion.