Wednesday, December 27, 2017

thoughtlessness and responsibility and the power of names

In the summer of 1986, I was the reporting intern at my hometown paper in Kentucky, The Gleaner. It was between my sophomore and junior year at university. I was so proud to have that job. I worked mostly the afternoon/evening shift, when the newsroom was all abuzz and all of the sports scores, front page news and obituaries were put together for the next day's paper (note: that shift no longer exists - the Indiana company that owns the paper now has pretty much closed The Gleaner, except the name, and won't take Henderson news after 5 p.m... but that's another blog...).

Small town newspapers were HUGELY important back then. This was where the community was documented for what we liked to pretend was forever, and in one, central place. Not only did everyone's day start by reading the newspaper, to be named in the newspaper was an incredible affirmation of a person's existence. That was true of everything in the newspaper back then, but it was true tenfold for obituaries.

I was in charge of the obituaries that summer. The funeral homes would call about an hour before I was off-shift and read information over the phone - there was no email nor fax machines. And usually, I would read what I had written down back to the person calling, to make sure I got it right before I handed it off to be put in the paper for the next day. But sometimes, I was lazy, and I didn't read it back. And one day, that laziness caught up with me: I got an obituary wrong. I got the last name wrong. It meant that the deceased and most of the family members were listed in the newspaper with the wrong last name.

The reprimand I got from the editor the next day was something I'll never forget. I remember all of his words: about how an obituary is a person's LAST story, that the person never, ever gets another chance to be profiled in the newspaper, it may be the ONLY time a person is ever named in the paper, and it's often the first and last time the entire family will be named, altogether, in the newspaper. He told me how the family looked to an obituary as the public affirmation of their tribe, their existence, their value - a moment when their family matters, because the family members are there, together, in print, for all to see. And he pointed out in oh-so-starkly terms that I had denied this family that, and that even with a correction a day later, they were still denied an experience that they were owed and could never get back.

I cried a lot over my mistake - in the bathroom at work and later at home. I felt horrible. I felt the anger and sadness of that family that I'd never met even though I never heard what they said to the editor. I also didn't think they were over-reacting, or that they shouldn't be THAT upset, or that they should just get over it. I never denied what they were feeling and their right to feel that way. I fully accepted responsibility and that I was the cause of it. I also felt deep regret at my thoughtlessness. I wish I had written that family a letter of apology, even if they had torn it up and thrown it back in my face.

That experience more than 30 years ago hit me like a ton of bricks this morning: my name was left out of my grandmother's obituary in The Gleaner. A first name is there, one spelled exactly like mine, but the last name is one I've never had, that I've never used, that I've never said and that I've never written. But someone in my family gave this incorrect last name, per just as much thoughtlessness I had back in 1986. Because of that thoughtlessness, I'm not there, and that can never be changed. And the pain of not being there is real. It's shattering.

And I am not wrong, or over-reacting, at feeling this upset.

I had decided a few days ago not to fly home for the funeral, to be sensible rather than emotional: I was just there, I spent two wonderful mornings with my grandmother just last month, all of the arrangements are made and my help isn't needed, I have reservations somewhere for Friday and Saturday, it's crazy to fly at this time of year, I might get stuck at an airport rather than even make it back to Kentucky... it means not having to fight through holiday air or car traffic, not having to sit on a plan or an airport for 10 hours one way, not having to rent a car, not having to miss out on very special plans I made with my husband...

It also means not having arms around me over and over from people in my hometown, saying how sorry they are, how they can see this or that from my grandmother in me, it means not being together as a family at a very visible, important moment, it means not going through a ritual that helps me so deeply. It means feeling very, very alone.

And now, it feels even more so.

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