You’ll Enjoy Reading If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name
“Looking at all the people at Matt Bell’s funeral was close to an out-of-body experience for me. I remained in my seat, but I felt as if I were high on the wall. I could see everyone clearly that way, and how we all fit together and how tightly we were all holding on to one another with otherwise invisible ropes. In school the children learn drownproofing skills ... (they) learn that the best way to survive if your skiff capsizes and sinks is to link arms in a circle and hold on tight. That’s what we were doing for the Bells that day.”
These words were written by Heather Lende in her book, If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name (p. 215). Heather is the obituary writer for her local newspaper. The title of Heather’s book leapt up at me from the shelf in our local library. “Read me,” it exclaimed.
Sometimes I read a book and say, “I can write one like that.” And I did, once. Other times I read a book and say, “I can’t write one like that.” Heather’s book falls into the second category. With such a book all you can do is read it and thank God there is someone who can put your feelings to words better than you can.
I’ve been in the situation Heather describes about young Matt Bell’s funeral. Eleven-year old Luke, a drowning victim in Cody, who gave his life trying to save another swimmer. Cole, also age eleven, who died in a car wreck. Five hundred people celebrated his life at his funeral, one of the hardest I ever performed. When it was over all I wanted was to go home so I could cry without anyone seeing me. There is a precious young child whose loving mother shares her ongoing conversation with her daughter on FB for family and friends to share in. And we will still remember Julia, Tori, Myranda, and Veronika, four high school sophomores we lost a few years ago.
In each of these and numerous other funerals I have attended or performed for young people and children, we were holding on to each other with invisible ropes, trying desperately to communicate love and support to families we love. We were consoling ourselves, too.
Since If You Lived Here was written by an obituary columnist there are, as you might expect, a number of stories about death and dying. They are not morbid. They are sensitively written and touch numerous fibers of your being: hope, sadness, laughter, grieving, purpose. You will do a lot of smiling and laughing as you journey through the book.
Lende says of her work,
“I love what I do. Being an obituary writer means I think a lot about loss, but more about love. Writing the obituaries of so many people I’ve known makes me acutely aware of death, but in a good way ...
My job helps me appreciate cookouts on clear summer evenings down on the beach, where friends lounge on driftwood seats and we eat salmon and salads by the fire while our children play a game of ball ... Most of all, though, writing about the dead helps me celebrate the living - my neighbors, friends, husband, and five children - and this place, which some would say is on the edge of no where, but for me is the center of everywhere.” (pp.8-9)
“This place” is Haines, AK, located about 75 miles north of Juneau, population 2,400. This little town is now high on my places to visit. I was privileged to speak in Anchorage two years ago, and will be in Homer in 2016. Maybe on that trip I’ll be able to visit Haines and pick up a signed copy of one of Heather’s newer books at the Babbling Book Store. Hope so.
Lende is right that she writes about love. She loves her town, her family, and the people she writes about. Writing obituaries isn’t a job for her; it is a spiritual service. And because it is, the author weaves spiritual reflection throughout, causing you to pause, ponder, and find some meaning in your own experiences. This isn’t the kind of book I can write, but it is a book I’m glad someone else wrote for me to read. I encourage you to read it, too.