Parkland Press

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Living the Vintage Years

Thursday, January 24, 2013 by BONNIE LEE STRUNK Special to The Press in Opinion

Don't judge a life by its obituary

I read an obituary in a newspaper last night. It took me all of four seconds.

Just 12 words long, this final tribute, so to speak, listed only the man's name, age, most recent town of residence and date of death. It told us nothing about the person.

Whenever I see one of those tiny obits, especially on a page with others that take up an entire column or two, I feel sad.

Although the little obits at the bottom of the page may be sparse, they speak volumes.

Perhaps they tell us no one cared enough about the deceased to pay him or her proper tribute.

Perhaps these terse obits speak of poverty; no one in the family could afford to pay for a standard obituary. Perhaps there is no family. Or anyone.

Even if a person lived a simple life, he had parents. Maybe he had siblings or children.

Was he local? Where was he born and raised?

Where did he work? Who was he?

This man in the 12-word obit had spent more than six decades on earth. He deserves to be remembered.

Didn't he leave a mark somewhere, on someone?

The answer is yes. This man left a permanent mark on me.

The subject of a Press photo story more than two years ago, Al was a homeless man my husband and I slowly befriended during our volunteer work in an Allentown cemetery.

For most hours of most days, Al lived in the cemetery. But although he was homeless, Al was not a bum.

He asked for nothing. Not once. He appreciated everything, from a piece of fruit to a quarter.

He was bright. He completed crossword puzzles in ink, much faster than I could in pencil.

He was more polite than anyone I typically encounter on the city streets.

As we got to know Al, we learned his complex story.

His alcoholic father started him drinking at age 12.

Al came home from school one day to find that his father had sold his pet for booze money.

Al worked as a commercial truck driver and more recently at a local candy manufacturer. Unemployment checks had kept him afloat when he was laid off from his last job.

When the checks ran out, so did rent money, leaving him homeless.

He had both biological and stepchildren, but little contact with them.

We learned Al had been sleeping in unlocked cars and on park benches. In winter he froze and his toes had to be amputated.

Yet this pleasant man never complained or pitied himself.

His story touched a surprising number of readers. Just recently I was asked how "cemetery Al" is doing.

After his story ran, Al was connected to the right social services, leading to disability income and shelter.

He called once in a while to chat. We saw him occasionally and introduced him to his first Italian ice milkshake on his birthday.

His most recent calls were to wish us a happy Thanksgiving and then, a few weeks later, to tell us he was in the hospital with a terminal disease.

We visited him in the hospital and a week later in a skilled nursing facility.

I played Christmas carols for him on my baroque recorder, or my wooden flute, as he called it.

And then he was gone.

He will not be forgotten. Nor should he be. I greet him every time I pass "his" bench in the cemetery.

Al's life told a story, as I'm sure the lives of all the people meriting only barebones obituaries (or none at all) do.

Whenever I see such an obit, I recall the words of a pastor who performed a funeral service for a homeless man who burned to death.

The clergyman reminded the small gathering that in God's eyes, where it truly matters, we are all equal, whether we live in a mansion or in the woods.

As my mother often says, "We're all God's children."

Every person's life has meaning and purpose.

Remember that the next time you encounter a 12-word obituary.