Of a Great Person

About a month ago, the world lost a soul. Not a celebrity; no one famous. One of thousands who die daily for no reason other than it was their time to go. It was no global catastrophe, no tragic demise; simply the passing of someone who lived their life simply, selflessly, and straight to the very end.

Death is oddly easy to come by, yet so far from easy for the people who knew the deceased. Funerals, wakes, memorials and services and wreaths and tombstones … all these efforts are done not for the person no longer with us, but for the people left behind. And it kind of sucks, because the last thing you want to do when you lose someone is worry about funeral arrangements and burial costs. Mounting bills and gathering family last-minute hardly fills the void left by the departed in your heart, but these processes perhaps hold some value, because they’re a painful reminder that in the dead’s absence, life goes on. The world doesn’t stop turning. Work gives you a few days off, and then it’s back to the grind.

So before I discuss what I think was important about the departed, I need to recognize my wife’s strength, resilience, competence and willfulness as she laid her father to rest. She mourned and wept, and amidst it all simply made shit happen. No one asked her to, and she didn’t need to be asked; there was little doubt as to who would bear the heaviest burden of actually giving her father the rest he deserved in the best way possible. Her family attended what she arranged.

This strength didn’t grow in a vacuum. My wife has led a difficult, troubled and at times traumatic life, but her strength grew from the person who raised her: her father. For whatever suffering she’s dealt with, her father almost certainly dealt with just as much. From a lonely childhood to war service and the mental breakdown of his wife early in their marriage, he suffered and fought for fairness and justice like no one I’ve ever known, and he did it entirely for his children – his legacy.

You see, whenever someone dies, you can’t help contemplate their importance; you can’t help but wonder what impact they left on the world, and if their life really mattered much – or at all. These are – on the surface – easy questions to answer when said deceased was known to the world at large; the world is immeasurably worse off for the loss of Robin Williams, or Chester Bennington, or [insert celebrity here], because of course these people made an impact on our psyches and left indelible impressions in our emotions. We miss what these people could have brought to the world, and reminisce about what they left behind. We feel like we know these people, and their deaths definitely leave a void behind.

But what about the residual importance of those deaths that are a little closer to home? What about when our father, or our brother – uncle, or grandparent – dies? What if they spent their life toiling in a factory making communications circuitry? What if they sacrificed any possibility of renown for the happiness of their own children? What if they were, ultimately, forgettable to all but their closest family?

I say this makes them not less important, but all the more so.

This argument, of course, comes down to how one chooses to measure the importance of a person’s life, but I think it’s fair to say that an individual’s significance can be told by the impact they made on others – the influence they had on the people who knew them. And in this argument, I believe that the true measure of influence is in its quality, not its quantity. It doesn’t matter that Robin Williams made millions of people passingly happy, whilst my father-in-law might have done so for fewer than a dozen folk in his life, because the depth of influence is immeasurably greater on the latter.

My wife’s father was quiet, humble and generally inconspicuous, and if you never had the chance to talk to him and get to know him, you would never guess the tragedy and trauma hidden behind his soft brown eyes. Many other men, I believe, would have walked away from similar circumstances given half a chance, and yet he spent years balancing a tenuous living and desperately fighting through courts to win his children back after their mother suffered a nervous breakdown early in their life. He abandoned career ambitions and sacrificed his personal life entirely to ensure that his children had the best life he could provide for them.

And that life he gave them formed the person who is now my wife. For as long as I’ve known her she’s idolized her father; looked up to him as an example of virtue and strength of character. She’s modeled her own life on many of his characteristics, and the upbringing of our son is a testament to his own work in raising her. He was her mentor, her confidant, her advisor and friend.

So in looking back on his life, does it matter that he was wounded in the Korean War saving others’ lives? Or that he build the communications systems that sent men to the moon? Does it matter that he was disowned by his Jewish family for marrying a Catholic woman? Or does it matter that, when the odds were stacked against him and the chips were down, he soldiered through to protect his children, because their own happiness was the only thing that mattered to him?

I like to think that the measure of a person’s importance is not in whether they influenced a million people or only one; it isn’t in whether a person goes down in history or is forgotten to the annals of time. It’s in the subtle influence they leave on those closest to them, and whether that influence was to their benefit or detriment. And in considering my father-in-law, the influence and legacy he left behind is in the person my wife became, and her siblings, and his grandchildren, and – perhaps one day – theirs.

And so I suggest that he was as great a person as any out there. He didn’t write books that changed the world; he didn’t leave behind a canon of film or music or scientific achievements. He left behind, quite simply, a strong, virtuous woman, who will remember him with love for the remainder of her own life. He changed her world, and I think that’s at least as important as any other.

He used to say that he just wanted to be remembered and thought of. I don’t know how he wanted to be remembered, or by whom, but I remember one thing clearly. A few years ago I had the opportunity to talk to him one-on-one, and I asked him simply what he wanted. What, I said, would make him happy?

His answer was to see his children happy. Nothing more, and nothing less. The same driving motivation to keep his children happy never wavered from the moment they were born until the moment he died.

If that isn’t a worthwhile legacy, I don’t know what is.

Thought of the Week: Her (A Memoir)

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9780805096538_custom-23ea9dcbbd6c95e517d5b756b350ec37ea1b8833-s6-c30Well, I managed to achieve one of my New Year’s resolutions already, and read an entire book to myself. Perhaps if I continue to read this year, I can start a new blog series of reviews! How about that?

Like the best books, I downloaded a copy of Her: A Memoir at the behest of a good friend, Alexandra Corinth. You can read her review of the book here, if you want. She has her opinions of the book (rather glowing, all told), and I have mine. They may intersect.

Her: A Memoir is the story of twin sisters torn apart by violence, rape, drug abuse and eventually death (the blurb makes no secret of this, so it’s hardly a spoiler). This ought to have given me some clue as to what I was getting myself into reading this book, but I plunged ahead anyway. I also made the rather severe mistake of reading a number of reviews of the book before I’d finished myself, which means my own opinion may now be influenced.

Her: A Memoir is for the most part a gut-wrenching, harrowing, painful book to read. Christa Parravani doesn’t ease into the story, with the opening line:

“I used to be an identical twin.”

We are torn from there through the twins’ childhood, growing up in a broken home, learning to mistrust men, and within a few chapters we read of Cara’s rape in her own words (an interesting touch; interspersed throughout the book are Cara’s own writing, from journals and diary extracts). We learn of the addiction to prescription drugs, the move to heroin, and soon enough, Cara’s fatal overdose.

The first part of the book is haunting, certainly, but it was the second part, wherein Christa very nearly destroys her own life following her sister’s death, that I found particularly difficult to read. It’s here that we learn what it meant to Christa to be a twin, and what it meant to become ‘twinless’. We follow her through marital infidelity, more prescription drugs, mental institutions, and finally—finally—a form of salvation in her new husband and newborn child.

What did I think of Christa’s account of her life? It’s hard to say. I’ve read reviews, both raving and scathing. Some have likened her writing to poetry; I disagree. The more negative reviews tend to focus on the selfish, narcissistic and thoroughly inconsiderate nature of the two twins, mentioning that the art of memoir is to make the people likable. I also disagree. People are selfish, they do horrible things to each other, and to Christa’s credit she doesn’t try to rationalize the things she did; she simply paints the picture as she recalls it.

Personally, I think that Christa may have written this memoir too soon. She is still only in her thirties now, and though the book does end with the hope that, with her child, things will be better, there’s a lot of life still left for Christa to go through. I suspect there’s a lot of mental and emotional trouble that she will have to deal with as he continues to grow.

There are times in the book where Christa appears to speak for all twins in the context of her relationship with her own sister, but I think that between the lines there is an awareness that their relationship went beyond sibling love. Several times she writes as if she was Cara. Several times she writes of her doubts over her own individuality. Before and after her sister died, there are times when she seems to fail to recognize the difference between the two of them. It strikes me that this, in itself, is something worth seeking professional help for.

Ultimately, Her: A Memoir is the story of Christa’s struggle to survive, first with her twin and then without. All such struggles are deeply personal, and what one person weathers can kill another. I know people who have suffered far worse tragedies; there are, of course, people who kill themselves over far lesser ones. I don’t mean to belittle what Christa went through—I can hardly imagine her pain—but I would have liked to see a slightly greater distance from the events that are described. I would have liked to see what Christa learned. I would have liked to see a wider context. Perhaps if Christa had written this memoir five or ten years later, we would have seen that.

Stylistically, the writing could have been better. It jumps; it freezes. Short sentences move on from one another with sometimes very little flow. Dashes of poeticism glare out of context. Sometimes there are descriptions and details that fail to show their relevance. Does this detract from this book? Not really—I recognize many of these faults in my own writing. Writing is words in order, and the story is told; I wasn’t looking for poetic beauty on every page. But the occasional disjointedness does stand out.

I did not enjoy the book; I am nonetheless glad to have read it. I was tense, stressed and worried on every page. I felt deeply for Christa and Cara. I will probably be worried about them for some time to come. I hope that Christa will have a happy life with her new husband and daughter. I hope that she can retain the hope she finishes the book with. I hope she can find peace.

My; this is a terrible review. More a train of thought than anything. Sigh. If you’ve read Her: A Memoir, what did you think?

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

Featured image from http://therumpus.net/2013/07/her-by-christa-parravani/.

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Thought of the Week: You Will Be Missed

On Wednesday last week, we received the news that you had died. Any death in the family is hard to process, and it has been especially difficult coming to terms with your parting, for we had not seen or spoken to you in almost two years.

We were heartbroken, of course, that day when we parted ways; you would not leave England, your home for all your life, and we could not stay. Our son – you remember him, I’m sure – cried awful tears when we had to leave, and you should know he cried the same when we learned you were now gone. We never stopped caring.

You were always there; through the tough times, all the fights and the stresses and the endless moving houses, you were always there for us. It felt at the time that you often had little to say, but I realize now that you didn’t need to. You were wise, and trusted us to figure things out – to make it work. And you know what? We did. All these years later, and we’re still a family. You’d be proud of us.

I have so many fond memories of you; we all do. Your wit was second to none, and I recall seeing, in your youth, your agility that would put an acrobat to shame. You were beautiful, always, even as you grew older; I never told you, but I always thought your beard (yes, you had a beard!) was pretty darn cute. Even in spite of your solitary nature, in spite of your natural aloofness, you were always open to a hug and a cuddle, just when it was needed. So many times I was forlorn, and your company would pull me from the depths.

I have missed you over these past few years, and even though I knew I might not see you again, there was always a hope – and it is the loss of that hope that hurts more than anything. In your old age, I wanted to see you one last time, sat warm before the fire, dozing. I wanted to look into your eyes and learn from your wisdom, your intelligence born from a childhood on the streets.

And now, I will never get that chance. You will live forever in our memories, but we will have now only the photographs to remember you by. I would have you know, friend, that every moment with you was a joy, and we could not have asked for a better relative. You will be missed, and never replaced.

We love you.

R.I.P. Shelby W.
1996 – 2012