If you’re at all like me, every so often you’ve watched coverage at the time or a documentary later about some great disaster, one that has taken many lives in horrific circumstances.
You might have wondered — I have, anyway — about how or whether families and friends ever found out what happened to some of the victims. If you think of Hiroshima, or the tsunami of March 11, 2011, or even the events of September 11, 2001, you suspect — no, know — that there are people who died whose fates will be forever unknown to anyone this side of the Pearly Gates.
There’s another, more insidious way that people are slipping from this life unbeknownst to those who normally would and should have known about it. Two phenomena are primarily responsible for this. The first is the death of local newspapers, which has been fitfully but unrelentingly underway for a while now. The second is the epidemiological event of the last two, now almost three, years.
For some reason that seems based on people meaning well but giving the thing no thought, there was no reporting of the names of persons who died of COVID-19, just the statistics. I do not know why this is. It implies that dying of the virus is somehow shameful. This kind of non-reporting became acceptable during the early years of the AIDS epidemic, which comes closer to making sense in that in most cases infection resulted from a person’s deliberate decision, acted upon. We did not see this in cases of, say, lung cancer, where the next sentence in the departed’s obituary likely as not began, “A lifelong smoker . . .” Some unhealthy actions must be trumpeted, while others may not be mentioned at all. Politics vs. science is not anything new, is it.
So during the pandemic, causes of death, even the fact of a death, slipped off the published page. Indeed, as noted, the published page itself has begun to disappear. In this situation, it’s well deserved. Some years ago it was decided that newspapers would charge money to publish obituaries, once done for free because the deaths of our neighbors is news.
(I remember working at a paper long ago which had imported a tabloid editor from England. I was the police reporter. The Brit — he was known by less complimentary characterizations — assigned me also to go through the obituaries and look for anything other than old people and, when I found them, phone the families and ask if the deceased had died of anything interesting we might want to write about. Always looking for scandal, he also assigned someone to go through the marriage license applications in search of something extraordinary. I refused in the former case and was not long in my employment there. The marriage muckraker, who probably needed the job more than I did, carried out the very unsavory assignment and at least one wedding was terribly disrupted as a result. Later, the British editor said the wrong thing to a local fireman. Having been called a very bad word, the fireman picked up the editor and, wielding him like a baseball bat, used him to bend the steel pipes beneath a few parking meters. The editor was fired before he was out of the hospital. The fireman was not charged; in fact, he was praised.)
Sorry — well, not really, but I should be — for the digression. My original point was that in the last few years the normal means of learning that people we knew had died have gotten attenuated almost to the point of extinction. And this came at a time when our backup method of learning such things, talking to each other, also had come to a halt. I do not know if it’s everyone’s experience, but in my case the lack of seeing other people in person did not bring about an increase in communication by other means. I used to keep up with local happenings by simply running into people, stopping and talking a bit. That’s the best way to do local reporting, not that local reporting is a salable skill anymore. This doesn’t translate to a time when all communication has to be electronic.
It sounds like an excuse but it’s not meant as such, at least not entirely. Like the surprised people rubbing their eyes as they left the dome at the end of “Logan’s Run,” I’m still emerging. It’s been months since I took a walk downtown and ran into anyone I knew. The circuits are far from reconnected.
That fact was underlined in an especially unhappy way last week, in an email exchange with the editor, publisher, animal keeper and advocate, horsewoman, and Appalachian farmer Gina McKnight. She mentioned our mutual friend, the remarkable Jody Smith. “I have a book to send to you,” she wrote. “It’s a collection of Jody Smith’s college essays and poems. She would enjoy you having a copy.”
“Oh, my,” I replied. “I haven’t seen Jody — hell, I haven’t seen anyone — since the before times. How is she doing? Give her my regards when you see her.”
I was not prepared for the reply. There’s little for which I was less prepared.
“Jody passed away Mother’s Day 2021. I miss her daily. Her memorial was in September. I am sorry you didn’t know.”
Jody Smith was 83 when she died, though that’s not what you would have noticed about her. Tiny and energetic, she was among the most alive people I ever met. If we didn’t have the word “feisty,” we would have had to invent it for her. She was married just shy of forever to the beloved local veterinarian Pete Smith, who was just as lively as her — when he died in 2010 at 71 it was due to injuries he received while cutting down a dangerous and troublesome tree. A big dead branch, appropriately known as a “widowmaker,” broke loose and fell, crushing him. So he was a lively guy, too, and by all accounts they were well matched.
I’d run into Jody all the time, and if I had an assignment, assignment be damned because we were going to talk for awhile. I was always happy to see her. She was, as I understand it, a high church Episcopalian. That’s how I was raised, though when the Episcopal Church got too exotic I converted to Roman Catholicism — and it was at the Catholic Church that I met Jody, who would drop in for Mass fairly often. I think we were similar in religion and simply happened to land on opposite sides of the line, but I could be wrong.
The fact that she had died made me very sad. The fact that it happened a year and a half ago and I was only now hearing about it was sad, but in a different way. It made me realize how quickly, when we’re not seeing each other in our community, we can effectively fall off the face of the earth — not Jody, who was loved and remembered all around, but me. It didn’t make me feel sorry for myself, but it made me feel small for my inattention to those around me. There’s got to be a better way, and I need to find it. (And when I do, I’ll let you know how it works.)
Fortunately, Jody is not lost to those who didn’t have the privilege of knowing her. Gina McKnight, who has built a fine publishing house called Monday Creek Publishing, has been gathering, sorting, and assembling Jody’s stories and poetry — did I mention Jody studied literature? She knew her way around the written word — and has released it as “All Things in Moderation,” the Aristotelian practice for which she was herself known. It’s optimistically labeled “Volume 1,” which makes me hope there will be more, though book publishing nowadays makes newspaper publishing seem straightforward. Gina sent me a copy, as she had mentioned in our email exchange.
It’s a small volume. Even so, I haven’t finished it. It is to be savored, the way one might an especially precious bottle of port. I intend to portion it out, a little each day. Though I knew the author a bit, I believe I’d feel the same way about the book if we’d never met. I think most people would love it, and I think they’d love reading about Jody on the page I’ve linked to the book, above.
I’m warmed by its existence, as indeed I was warmed by her presence in this life; as I am made poorer by her passing, late though I was in hearing about it.
It’s funny in a way that it is Jody’s death that makes me notice something important but to which I’ve paid insufficient attention, and to gently chide me to do better.
How very like her.