Sometime in the late 90’s I started looking at the online edition of the St. Francois County Daily Journal several times a week. Mostly I just look at the obituaries.
The D.J. is the only daily in the county where I was born, where my 92-year old dad lives today and where he has lived the vast majority of his life. My Mom had 4 brothers and 2 sisters. If you don’t count time in the military, none of her siblings ever lived outside the county. The total population of St. Francois County, MO is about 65K.
I know very few people there. I went to grade school and junior college county. After dropping out of school, I got drunk most days. I broke several other laws for most of the next 18 months until I was drafted. I haven’t lived there in almost 50 years. But I skim the obits daily.
The county has 2 Wal-Mart Supercenters. If on a busy Saturday I should camp out at each store for 4 hours, on one of the benches by an exit, I doubt that the number of people I’d recognize, or who would recognize me, would reach double digits. Especially if you don’t count blood relatives. And I’m not sure that my 2nd cousins and I would even notice each other.
These days, and for the past 12 or 15 years, I check out the obits almost every day.
Primarily for conversation fodder.
And sometimes to feel grateful.
Today the conversations that the 10 or so obits elicit begin with me saying either : “Dad I see that __ __ died. She was 88….” or “Dad, did you know Frankie Weiss? Her dad was Les Weiss.”
Sometimes his answer will take up a good portion of our daily half-hour, give or take.
Other times, question and answer don’t combine for more than a minute.
Some times we’ve got other things to talk about and the topic of who died never comes up…especially during March when it’s basketball tournament time.
My Mom died July 1, 2013. She was 88. I miss her every day. But there were times when calling her could be a huge downer.
If a 16-ounce glass contained 8 ounces of liquid, mom wouldn’t call it half-full…she’d have it verging on being bone dry, especially the last 8 or 9 years.
She did have some health issues. A couple of heart attacks and bypass surgery. But Mom became a whiner…bigly. She could suck the air out of the room that I was calling from a thousand miles away and in a new york minute. “I don’t know why the Lord has done this to me? Why, oh why, oh why??
Mom didn’t have cancer; she wasn’t on dialysis; she didn’t liver failure. Her primary complaint was her back.
I became very good at starting phone calls with a word other than “how.”
Never “How are you?”
No “How are things in Doe Run?”
I decided that the obits would help the conversations become more enjoyable.
I’m a data driven dude. And this data would be fodder. The percentages.
Even after I started every call with something other than the “how” word, Mom would manage to bring up how awful God was treating her. I would quickly say something like this: “I looked at the 10 obituaries in the Journal earlier today, and only 1 of those people was older than you!”
Sometimes she would be older than all 10. It was rare that more than 30% of the 10 were older than her.
Confession: I can be a asshole with my words. I have been called “direct” and foul-mouthed. (Note: I have mellowed and lightened up with age. People will attest to that too.)
Sometimes at my worst (and her whiny worst too) I might spew: “Mom, 9 of the 10 people who are being covered with dirt were younger than you, and not one of them died from chronic back pain….”
But I always continued “…and we need to be thankful for and enjoy every day.”
After 2004, most of the times I said “we gotta enjoy every sandwich Mom…or every piece of pie that you bake!”
Mom would agree. We’d laugh. We’d say “I love you…talk to you tomorrow.”
So that’s the conversation element of checking out the obits.
The gratitude was two fold.
1. I was grateful that I could talk to my folks every day.
2. I was especially grateful when my comeback to Mom’s whining was “….and 4 of the people on the list of 10 were younger than me Mom!!”
Keep in mind that I started doing this many years ago. I wasn’t old enough to draw social security. And some of the 10 who had stopped breathing were younger than me.
I’d often just sit and think about the percentages.
And give thanks.
The local paper here in Springfield runs a grid most days of those who aren’t having a full “display obituary” published.
The data: Name, Age, Town/State, Death Date, Arrangements.
Today’s grid has 34 names.
My Dad is 92. 7 were older than him. 20.6%
I’m 70. 11 were younger than me. 32.4%
That makes me think. The percentages.
And give thanks.
There are countless songs about death and dying.
The title of this song by one of my favorite bands gets right to the point. The last four lines sum it all up:
“So try not to get upset
Everything is fine
Hey, it’s not that big a deal
We’re all gonna die”
Until then, you know what to do.
Enjoy the sandwich. Give lots of hugs. Lots & Lots of hugs.
And be Kind.