Gentle epitaphs for lives interrupted

The "Portraits of Grief" in the New York Times give us a chance to be loved ones to complete, and wrongfully dead, strangers.

Published October 12, 2001 7:11PM (EDT)

I wait to read the page until I am on the subway, when I am surrounded but completely alone. I wait to read it until I've read everything else, except I don't read everything else, I read the headlines. It's like what manic-depressive author Kay Redfield Jamison said it was like to be taking too much lithium -- at the moment I can't read anything that requires academic engagement, linear thought or understanding. Not unless I have to.

But I can read these. And I do. All of them. I go in order of how the pictures hit me. I might start with a strapping trader who is shining -- he's glistening -- in a photo obviously taken at his wedding. ("He loved telling jokes, and he was not above stealing other people's anecdotes and improving them.") Then I might move on to the mother of four whose snap was taken on the fly, maybe at a special occasion in a restaurant, maybe by her eldest son. ("The boys knew that malingering in bed beyond that signal, unless you were really, truly sick, would not be wise.")

The obituaries in the Nation Challenged section of the New York Times used to be called "The Missing and the Dead." Now they are "Portraits of Grief." But this isn't what they are, or at least it isn't the only thing they are. They are the little baby books of grownups, paragraphs that remind me of the disparate facts, figures and hanks of hair that parents place in silk-covered journals to get a handle on the giddiness of new life, and the fear of the unknown. It is an exercise in getting it down on paper: the first word, weight at birth, the first smile that wasn't gas. But these entries -- produced in column inches by a battalion of eloquent journalists -- hold the details of adults, some barely out of youth, and they mean to diffuse the terrific sadness of new death, the fear of forgetting:

"At home in Danbury, Conn., where he was born and raised, he was rebuilding a Volkswagen bug and learning to play the bagpipes."

"Their favorite food, Mr. Klein said, is salmon -- the same as their mother's."

"Mr. McGinley was known for singing at every party, which he attended or gave, with 'Danny Boy' his most requested number."

"His wife said he had a distinct relationship with each of his children but a single message for all: 'Stop fighting.'"

"'All his cousins wanted to be as cool as he was,' Mrs. Gazzini said."

It doesn't matter how dry, how seemingly absent of sentiment these details might be; they constitute, like the facts and figures of the baby book, information that is adorable, intimate or hilarious. This is the found poetry of tiny non sequiturs gathered in haste. There is little for the record books, but volumes for aching strangers:

"She was the defiant one who returned from a Cancun vacation with a tattoo on her lower back."

"At Mr. Broghammer's 40th birthday party, he allowed himself to be dressed in alpine shorts and lederhosen, as 15 couples roasted him to the strains of 'The Sound of Music.'"

"'Steve could not be quiet,' said Jim Hughes, his brother-in-law."

"As a boy of 9 or 10, young Ramzi dug a hole in the backyard for a terrible report card and put a stone on top. 'He said it was dead and buried,' said his sister, Dina Doany Azzam."

"At family dinners he always sat at the head of the table."

It all adds up. The big story is sadness, as it would have to be, but the subplots are myriad: the secret lives of people in their 20s ("There was a little romance, on New Year's Eve 2000, with a scuba diving instructor at Club Med Martinique, but Ms. Hague was thinking she would like to meet a Southern guy, move back home to Parkersburg, W. Va., and have a dog."); the truth about firefighters ("Off duty, he went to art museums, and watched Sister Wendy's art lectures on TV."); the enduring myth of New York ("It was the life he dreamed of -- no need for a car, a party on every corner and a job with overnight hours that came with one irresistible perk: He could work and watch the 11 p.m. edition of SportsCenter without interruption."); the cruelty of happenstance ("They had an appointment with a fertility doctor for this week.").

There is too much sweetness to mention, especially in the discovery by survivors that the people they loved were not entirely what they seemed. They were better. "Every time someone calls, I say, 'I didn't know that,'" said Mary Mercado, mother of Steve, a 38-year-old firefighter. Said Joyce Boland of son Vincent, "His friends are telling me that he was funny. I didn't know that."

These are the stories behind the homemade missing posters, the captions of hastily Xeroxed snapshots that gave us early hints about our losses and telegraphed the enormity of grief. But now there is more to know and there is so much more to worry about, so much more to mourn. With knowledge of who they were, with clues about what they planned to do, with evidence of their plans for later, we begin to imagine the scary resonance of these people's sudden disappearances. It feels important and unfathomable: Scott Hazelcorn is not going to buy an ice cream truck. Yvette Anderson will not open her dream restaurant. Charles Henry Karczewski will not be hiking in the Grand Canyon. Soccer coaches, football coaches, family chefs, a guy who was going to have a summer camp for needy kids -- they are gone.

It is not hard to think about this as you might think about the extinction of a certain frog or a tree or a flower. Karen Joyce Klitzman once lived in Macao in a house wedged between a pig farm and a brothel. She escaped to Hong Kong on the weekends and then she taught English in Beijing, where she lived in a hovel with a suspicious landlady. She was an energy specialist. She played a crackerjack tennis game. Michael Asher kissed his wife, Diana, goodbye every morning while she was still asleep. Andrew Fisher, on his way to Kennedy airport, pulled over and made his family get out of the car because his newly married sister was still holding her bridal bouquet and he wanted some photos of her tossing it. They are gone, so are thousands of others, their ghosts drifting from the twisted heap as welders do their business. There are huge holes in our atmosphere, now stuffed with fresh spirits. What will we do without them?

Maybe this is the reason that it is tempting to cut these stories out of the paper or at least circle words, underline phrases, keep a tidy stack that will never be recycled. These are beautifully written, vivid documents, not bland farewells. They are not obits meant for us to scan in an attempt to feel safe or young or immortal. Instead there is easy recognition and no fear in finding ourselves in these stories. Perhaps the reason is more grim than we imagined. Our new vulnerability tells us that these people -- happy, interrupted, not close to done -- represent the vanguard of an open-ended tragedy: The only difference between us and them is that they went first.

By Jennifer Foote Sweeney

Jennifer Foote Sweeney, CMT, formerly a Salon editor, is a massage therapist in northern California, practicing on staff at the Institutes for Health and Healing in San Francisco and Larkspur, and on the campuses of the Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley.

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