DEAR READER: Writing life stories is a lesson in humility

Friday, November 15, 2013 | 12:00 p.m. CST; updated 1:33 p.m. CST, Saturday, November 16, 2013

Three things happened last week:

  1. I wrote an obituary that I really didn't want to write;
  2. A friend posted an old This I Believe essay about going to funerals on Facebook; and
  3. Friday, Nov. 8, was the third anniversary of my cousin's death.

I don't enjoy writing life stories. It's so awkward to call the grieving family. I don't find it difficult to listen; I don't find it difficult to be sympathetic. But I don't think life stories are a public service and aren't journalists supposed to serve the public? I sat in the newsroom, waiting for family members to call me back, and complained to a colleague about the assignment. Photo Editor Greg Kendall-Ball overheard me.

"Look at it this way, Hannah," he said. "We're interlopers. We're here for two years to get our master's degrees, then we're leaving. But for the members of the community, the people who actually live in Columbia, it is a service. It's community service."

None of the sources called back. When I called the deceased woman's husband, he was in tears and on his way to the burial. He didn't want to talk. All I wrote was an obituary.

But I've been mulling the assignment over all week. In the Cross-Cultural Journalism class where I am a teaching assistant, Dr. Ernest Perry's mantra is, "It's not about you!" His point is that journalism is about the story, the subject. It's not about the journalist's ego.

Last week, a friend posted a link to a This I Believe essay entitled "Always Go to the Funeral." The essay was published and recorded several years ago, way back before I started college. I can't remember if I listened to it on Wisconsin Public Radio during breakfast, which is when I heard all the other essays.

In the essay, the writer discusses how her parents instilled the belief in going to funerals in her. Throughout her childhood, her parents took her to funerals but, at 16, she had to attend her former fifth grade teacher's funeral alone. Her teacher's parents never forgot that she showed up. The essay concludes:

"On a cold April night three years ago, my father died a quiet death from cancer. His funeral was on a Wednesday, middle of the workweek. I had been numb for days when, for some reason, during the funeral, I turned and looked back at the folks in the church. The memory of it still takes my breath away. The most human, powerful and humbling thing I've ever seen was a church at 3:00 on a Wednesday full of inconvenienced people who believe in going to the funeral."

Saturday, Nov. 8, was the third anniversary of my cousin Will Hick's death. Will died of an aggressive brain cancer when he was 26. Doctors found and operated on the first tumor in January 2010. Will and his fiancee married at Chicago's city hall a few weeks later. Then, in July, they married for a second time in a big Catholic ceremony and reception in the Chicago Botanical Garden. A week after the wedding, the tumor came back. Will died on Nov. 8, 2010.

And I remember how much it meant to me to see a thousand names in the guestbook at the wake. To see the church filled with hundreds of people. I remember that it didn't matter that the weather was cold. It didn't matter that I sat in a car with my uncle's new wife, his former mistress, on the way to the cemetery.

What mattered was how hard my aunt and cousins and Will's wife cried when they lowered the coffin into the ground.

What matters now is that my Missourian colleague Crystal Thomas, who attended high school with my cousins, interviewed Will's family the week after he died.

What matters is that people showed up, that his family told the story and that, at every annual American Brain Tumor Association 5K, they are still telling Will's story.

Life stories might be the newspaper equivalent of showing up to the funeral. Writing them isn't a public service the way keeping tabs on the government or alerting people to road closings is, but it is about allowing a family to tell stories to their community about someone they loved. It's about community service.

Hannah Baldwin is a reporter for the Columbia Missourian.

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