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Al Batt: A stampeding storm of Yosemite Sams in the obits

Tales from Exit 22 by Al Batt

Awwww.

I heard it while I was working in the basement.

My wife was upstairs, seated at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of coffee and reading the newspaper. I knew that sound. I’ve heard it often during our married life. It wasn’t an “aww” that expressed delight as in, “Aww. What a cute baby.” It wasn’t the “aww” that expressed mild disappointment as when a pitcher walks the first batter. It was a word that was a hybrid between “oh” and “aww.” I’m unsure of the spelling, but it was a sound dripping in sadness and let me know that someone we knew had died.

I read a newspaper or few every day. I go through each publication in an orderly front-to-back fashion with proper folding. That means I typically read the obituaries early in the perusing process. Each necrology serves as a reminder of good lives and the fragility of each. 

I am inexplicably drawn to the obits. I remember when I read the police reports before I read the obituaries. That was because I knew more people who were getting speeding tickets than dying.

An elder in my family read the obituaries aloud whenever the knuckle-headed whippersnappers in her care became rambunctious. It worked. It was difficult to tear around like a swarm of Yosemite Sams when we heard the story of 94-year-old Abner who had died of natural causes and was survived by his loving wife of 71 years. We paused our horseplay and bowed our heads as the reader slowed the pace of the spoken words reliving the past. She slackened her recital speed to lengthen our good behavior.

She held up the obit with a photo for our enlightenment. The black-and-white image of Abner showed a somber man with an open-toed beard. One of those where only the chin was shaved.

I’m not certain when a human ripens, but Abner lived to a ripe old age. He’d had a good run and had found a safe harbor. I asked what had killed him. I was told it was the dreaded old man’s disease.

Several eons ago, someone suggested it was a good idea to read the comics in the newspaper before reading the obituaries. Funny pages first, then the funeral home notices. That someone was me. Now I read the comics after I read the obituaries because I need cheering.

I cry. I laugh. I keep reading.

Every day should be a celebration. Life is a combination merry-go-round and rollercoaster. An obituary is filled with what-ifs and proof that moments matter. I find reasons for gratitude when I read an obituary. It’s because I am grateful that person had been in my life.

I talked to a cancer survivor at a big clinic one memorable day. He was improving, but had some lingering medical miseries. I knew him just well enough to confess I’d just pulled a push door — trying to make a poor door go where it didn’t want to go. I asked him how he was doing. That can be a loaded question. He told me he’d wet his pants twice in the past week. I can’t imagine that gave him a warm feeling, but he added it was a record for him since he’d started wearing long pants. I suspect what happened to him is similar to making a complete fool of yourself (my specialty) — you can’t truly accomplish that when you’re alone. I stumbled over my words, hoping to make some dance appropriately in response. He smiled and said, “Everyone has to go.”

In the movie “Animal Crackers,” Groucho Marx sang, “Hello, I must be going, I cannot stay, I came to say, I must be going. I’m glad I came, but just the same, I must be going.”

We’re all going. Obituaries remind us of that fact. They are life stories and they are death stories.

I read the obits to make sure I’m still here. Maybe that’s how we know when we’ve bought the farm, cashed in our chips, fell off the perch, kicked the bucket, bit the dust, joined the choir invisible or shook hands with Elvis. We read about it in the paper. It’s a Twilight Zone episode.

I read the obituary that had caused my wife to make the odd but familiar sound. I knew the deceased who had died much too young. She was one of the good ones.

I swim in gratitude because I knew her and because I know you.

Time passes quickly.

Please, don’t you do the same.

Al Batt’s columns appear in the Tribune every Wednesday.