Yesterday nine women--eight students and one instructor, all over the age of sixty--squeezed around an oval table in a pleasantly decorated room at the local center for senior citizens and took turns reading aloud to each other. It was the last class of our six-week session of Life Writing, and we were reading the homework that had been assigned at the end of the previous class: to write our own obituaries. Does that sound like fun?
You can't imagine how much fun it was. For one thing, we had snacks, brought from home to celebrate the completion of our writing course. We filled Halloween-themed paper plates with hummus and carrots, crackers and dip, caramel popcorn and fun-sized candy bars, then we chomped and chewed through eight recitations of death notices and the boiled-down biographies that accompanied them.
I think most, if not all, of us approached the assignment reluctantly, and, judging by the end results, we each approached it from a unique perspective. There were basic similarities, of course--names, dates, and lists of survivors--but there was so much more than that. The collection of readings ranged from poignant to humorous, from brief to expansive. There were burial instructions, last wishes, expressions of faith and love, and even some softly sung phrases from favorite funeral hymns. The experience we'd expected to be morbid turned out to be beautiful.
In between the readings, we talked. We talked about mortality, our own and that of loved ones, about special moments we'd personally experienced at funerals, about final gestures of love for the deceased. We spoke of the ridiculously high cost of publishing obituaries in the newspapers. We laughed about how squeamish our adult children are when it comes to discussing death and the decisions to be made in its aftermath. Somehow, in the years that have passed since we were their ages, we've begun to make peace with the inevitable. It was freeing to discuss end-of-life issues and ideas openly, to bat them around with no greater sentiment than if we were discussing plans for an upcoming ladies' luncheon.
The six-week Life Writing course that ended yesterday was the second session I've attended, the third for some, the first for others. Our instructor drives a long way to and from each class, but she keeps coming back, keeps urging us to dig deeper, write more, go into detail, tell our truths so that those who come after us can learn who we were and how we lived. And we do. We write about things that matter to us; in that way we get to know each other better and faster than we might if we were to meet under other circumstances. We write, we read, and along the way we build trust and friendship.
We're all different, the nine of us, and it's those differences that keep our stories fresh and interesting. What's most important about our stories, though, what makes us care about them and their writers, is that they remind us of the countless ways in which we're all the same.
Yesterday's class was reminiscent of the time just after a funeral's over, when family members and close friends gather at home, pull off their neckties or kick off their high-heeled shoes, eat comfort food from covered dishes delivered by thoughtful neighbors, and swap favorite anecdotes about the dear departed. They know there'll be plenty more crying in the days to come, but right at that moment it feels so darned good to laugh again.