The email from my cousin brought news I didn’t want. My aunt, Marie Paulson, had unplugged her oxygen and crawled into bed, declaring that, after nine years of ovarian cancer, she had had enough.
Petite and cheerful, with an easy smile and deep reservoirs of empathy, my aunt had forged a special bond with me. When the astrology craze hit in the late 1960s, she was quick to point out that, with our February birthdays, we were fellow Aquarians. “We’re beautiful people,” she told me, with certainty. “We understand each other.”
Before I was old enough for school, my aunt had brought me to her kindergarten class for a day. I recall that her students kept hugging her. She was a five-foot superhero — part teacher, part mom, part nurse, part friend, and all love.
But now her light, at least the physical part, was dimming.
My cousin eventually persuaded my aunt to reattach her oxygen. When her son-in-law and nephew visited, she perked up. By the afternoon, she was drinking wine and watching Wimbledon. Later, it was Jimmy Fallon.
But somewhere between tennis and “The Tonight Show,” my aunt wrote down her “wishes” — one of which was that I write her obituary. She said I would “do her justice.”
I am a copywriter. For more than 30 years, I have been slinging words for all kinds of clients — in annual reports, websites, radio spots, print ads, email blasts, you name it. I tell people I can write anything.
But this was different. I was flattered that my aunt thought I could do her justice with the obituary. But can any death notice do that?
I knew the pitfalls from experience. After my father’s sudden death 21 years ago, I wrote his obituary in haste at the kitchen table before leaving for the funeral home to make arrangements. How could I have forgotten his master’s degree in English from Penn? Why did I use the slangy “frosh” instead of the more correct “freshmen” in referencing the state-champion basketball team he had coached?
Oversights and errors weren’t the only things I was wary of. Obituaries have a just-the-facts curtness about them, which I welcomed — purple prose valedictions only deepen the sadness for me. Still, in summarizing my aunt’s life in nine column inches, I knew a lot would have to be left out.
I noted her academic accomplishments, but not the exhilaration and trepidation she must have felt leaving her immigrant parents’ home to attend the University of Rhode Island in 1946.
I referenced her 49-year marriage to my uncle, but not the detail about them going to Moonstone — the nude beach — when they were dating in college. (“We had so much fun,” she had told me, with a you-don’t-even-know look.)
I cited her 23 years as a teacher in Providence, but not that she taught in tough schools during turbulent times and that, in the midst of integration, her love was a godsend to the 5- and 6-year-olds in her class.
I listed by name her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, as well as her three sisters, all gone now, but included nothing about the laughter and music that once filled her beach house during big family parties.
My aunt reviewed my draft and said it was “to the point.” I’m sure she meant it as a compliment. It was also an accurate criticism.
News of her death came at dawn on a Tuesday. I went downstairs, made coffee, and paced around the kitchen. The obituary, especially what it didn’t say, nagged at me.
I knew what I had to do.
Four days later, as sunlight streamed into St. Pius Church at my aunt’s funeral Mass, I stepped into the pulpit: “Good morning. Marie was ‘Auntie Marie’ to me, and I’ll always be grateful for that …”
And then came the words that were missing from my aunt’s obituary — less to the point and more to the person.
I hope my eulogy did her justice.