I am preoccupied with death, and the words that surround death. Not in a morbid way, or because I have cancer or something. I just am.
As a journalist, I generally believed the most important thing I could ever write would be someone’s obituary. Other journalism is easy. To capture someone’s life in a few hundred words? To make them sound as important and as vital and as interesting as they were, to those who loved them? That is hard.
So I still read obituaries of complete strangers, and I still find myself moved. Sometimes, if they’re well-crafted, the obituaries make me cry, a bit.
As a lawyer, my gaze would almost always wander towards those places where law and death intersect. Despite that, I never got to participate in the trial of a murder, or even a coroner’s inquest. But as a court reporter, after law school, I laboured mightily to capture what I heard and saw at those murder trials or coroner’s inquests, presided over by other lawyers. I wanted what I wrote, and the dead, to be remembered.
So I would file a 1,200-word testimonial, trying to pay homage to the ones who were gone. And then my editors would cut it down to paragraph or two, because they said there wasn’t enough space. It would become: “Court heard that 33-year-old John Smith, of Main Street, succumbed to stabbing wounds. The trial continues.”
I quit journalism after that.
Unlike just about everyone else I know, I do not regard suicide as a sin or an indication of mental illness. It is simply a way to die, one of many. I prefer it to the other ways, because it permits one a measure of control, and it actually encourages the writing of one’s own obituary. “This is why I did it,” and so on.
I’m candid about it. This worries my wife a great deal, and it sometimes upsets her. But she knows that – unless I am dispatched by a truck or a train or something – I am not opposed to ending my own life one day, partly because it affords me the opportunity to try and put it in my own words.
You will therefore not be surprised to learn that, for someone like me, funerals are pretty important. After my grandfather’s, I quickly left the funeral and got on the bus and wrote a short story, a not bad one. At the time of another funeral I attended – more recently, for a friend from university who was an addict, and who had committed a kind of long form suicide – I was compelled to write something that would give comfort to his widow and children. So I did, and they quoted a line of it in his official obituary. That was more important to me than writing a bestselling book, which I have been lucky enough to do a few times.
I shouldn’t be judgmental about these things, I know, but I am. How people behave at a funeral – and, most critically, if they attend a funeral – takes on a tremendous amount of significance, to me. None more so than at my father’s funeral in 2004.
One long-time friend didn’t come, so I discarded him like he was expired milk. I poured him down the sink, and wouldn’t speak to him for a decade. Goodbye.
I relented only when he called me from jail late one night, weeping. He had been put there on an allegation from an ex-wife that turned out to be false. But he started out by saying: “I’m sorry I didn’t go to his funeral, Warren.” It was a decade later, but he knew. I forgave him.
Jean Chretien was at my Dad’s funeral, as were other important men. I wrote about that afterwards, too, to try and express how wonderful that was for me and my mother and my brothers. Later on, when I would get mad at something that the Liberal Party had done or was doing, Chretien would quote to me the final line of my Dad’s obituary: “Proud member of the Liberal Party of Canada.” When Chretien would do that, he would calm me down, like a faith healer who had successfully laid hands on a burning brow. He knows me.
Justin Trudeau didn’t come to the funeral, but he sent along beautiful white flowers. Before that, he wrote to me, and gave me some good advice. For a while, I accordingly thought he was a good friend. Any of my subsequent lack of enthusiasm for him, ironically enough, wasn’t related to politics or policy or any of the usual things. It arose out of my suspicion – and then my conviction – that he hadn’t meant the words he’d written. I thereafter deleted what he wrote. Goodbye.
Being false about dying words, and words about dying, is one of the worst things you can do. To me, at least.
Why I am writing all of this? I don’t know, but I think it is because I am 55. I can feel my body changing, and I know that it is less able to do the things it once did. It is breaking down, like a machine does. I am at the age when people around me start to die, too.
The words remain elusive.
I have written books, and made records, and painted paintings and done some of the other things that people do to remain immortal. But there remains nothing quite so eternal, to me, than the words deployed to describe a life and a life’s end. There’s nothing as important as that.
So, until I shuffle off in the direction of that undiscovered country, I will endeavour to do various drafts of my obituary about my life.
My hope is that I will get it right before I reach the end of both.