You probably saw, as I did, the obituary of Seattle author Jane Catharine Lotter, who died of cancer on July 18 at the age of 60. When her obituary was published on July 28 in the Seattle Times, it quickly went viral, presumably because it was so eloquent, witty, wise and moving, and because she wrote it herself.
Jane had written a weekly humor column called “Jane Explains” as well as a comic novel “The Bette Davis Club”. A number of journalists and bloggers discussed Jane’s unusual obituary, most of them quoting the first sentence: “One of the few advantages of dying from Grade 3, Stage IIIC endometrial cancer…is that you have time to write your own obituary.”
I printed out and saved it, because I’ve always intended to write my own obituary, (my kids asked me to—I guess so THEY wouldn’t have to do it) and since I’m now 72, that’s on my “To Do Sometime” list. But I never, until now, considered writing it in the first person, like a letter.
Here is my favorite part of Jane’s obit, near the end:
“Bobby M., I love you up to the sky. Thank you for all the laughter and the love and for standing by me at the end. Tessa and Riley, I love you so much, and I’m so proud of you. I wish you such good things. May you, every day, connect with the brilliance of your own spirit. And may you always remember that obstacles in the path are not obstacles, they ARE the path.
“I believe we are each of us connected to every person and everything on this Earth, that we are in fact one divine organism having an infinite spiritual existence. Of course, we may not always comprehend that. And really, that’s a discussion for another time. So let’s cut to the chase.
“I was given the gift of life, and now I have to give it back. This is hard. But I was a lucky woman, who led a lucky existence, and for this I am grateful. I first got sick in January 2010. When the cancer recurred last year and was terminal, I decided to be joyful about having had a full life, rather than sad about having to die. Amazingly, this outlook worked for me. (Well, you know, most of the time.) Meditation and the study of Buddhist philosophy also helped me accept what I could not change. At any rate, I am at peace. And on that upbeat note, I take my mortal leave of this rollicking, revolving world—this sun, that moon, that walk around Green Lake, that stroll through the Pike Place Market, the memory of a child’s hand in mine.”
No wonder that obituary went viral, I thought, Jane Catherine Lotter was a brilliant writer.
Then, yesterday, I was reading old newspapers because I had been out of the country during July, and in the weekly “Grafton News”, published in my tiny New England village, I found another obituary written in the first person—this one by a nurse named Laura Jean Bassett Toomey Whiting, who also died of cancer at age 60 and wrote an obituary that was as eloquent and moving as Jane Lotter’s. (The obit was also printed in the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.) To my amazement, Laura died on July 19-- one day after Jane Lotter-- so her obit couldn’t have been inspired by Jane’s, as I first assumed. Both the obituaries were published in late July.
Unlike Jane, Laura Whiting did not say she was at peace with dying:
“It is with great sadness that I leave you…Although my cancer is incompatible with life, I am not prepared or ready to go. There is still so much I want to do. I want to grow old with my best friend and husband, Larry…I want to watch my children and grandchildren grow up…But I am so happy to have lived to help plan my daughter’s wedding on July 20, 2013 [the day after Laura died—and they did go through with it.] I am amazed that my desire to participate in this wonderful celebration somehow gave me the strength to do so.”
Laura writes that, in 1970, when she was in nursing school, she contracted Hodgkin’s Disease but was cured.
“Being cured of cancer also allowed me my greatest achievement: to have five beautiful, wonderful and healthy children.”
At the end, having recounted her life, Laura says: “I am a 43-year survivor of cancer, not a victim. Despite the fact that I again have cancer, my long survival is miraculous. Cancer certainly challenges a person, their family and their friends…but it also gives us a chance to think about what is important…It allows you to say ‘I love you’ to a wider circle of friends, and to say ‘I love you’ more often to family. Many friends and family have gone to great effort to gather to celebrate life with me…What a gift!...Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away. Thank you for those moments, those gifts. I love you.
“I have chosen to donate my body to the University of Massachusetts Medical School in recognition of the importance of studying the human body in the education of medical students, with the expectation that they will use what they learn from me to help relieve human suffering.”
Reading Laura’s obituary inspired many Massachusetts readers who did not know her to sign into her on-line guest book, saying what a remarkable woman she must have been. And here is a comment from Joyce Leoleis, who did know her:
“I am lucky to be one of the Memorial Hospital screeners who got to see and enjoy Laura almost every day... Her incredible approach to life, both before and during her illness, will always be an inspiration to us all. A wise woman once told me that a mother’s job when her children are young is to teach them how to live. When they are older, a mother’s job is to teach her children how to die. Laura did both with a quiet dignity and grace that will never be forgotten.”
I’ve added Laura’s obituary to my file of inspiration for the day when I sit down to write my own obituary—a task I have to stop putting off.