Finding a good

May 4, 2015 - table lamp

Editor’s Note: The following is an mention from a initial territory of Haines author Heather Lende’s new book, “Find a Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-town Obituary Writer,” published by Algonquin Books.

The Good News

Recently, we was asked to write a brief letter describing one square of knowledge to live by. we suspicion about it nonetheless did not have a brief, easy answer. we have done adequate mistakes in my life to fill a whole bookshelf of dos and don’ts. My crony John works as an questioner in a open defender’s bureau nonetheless is a poet. That is substantially given he managed to distill all his kind hopes and dreams into dual manners for his customarily child: “Be good to a dog and don’t do meth.” His son incited out kind, clear-eyed, and he graduated from a good college.

I didn’t have such purposeful haiku knowledge during a ready. As an necrology writer, we gaunt toward elegiac couplets, and we have 5 children, that also adds a lot some-more variables. One distance won’t fit all of them. we took another tack. we simulated we was on my deathbed. (I’m 54, have survived being run over by a truck, and we had a headache, that we disturbed competence be a mind tumor, so this was not such a large leap.) we illusory I’d already pronounced goodbye to my husband, children, grandchildren and all a great-grandchildren we hadn’t even met yet.

If indeed all a knowledge we had in my heart was to be summed adult in final difference and it was formidable to pronounce some-more than, say, three, what would we scrape before my essence flew adult a chimney?

Find a good.

I astounded myself with this flattering good notion. Find a good. That’s enough. That’s plenty. we could leave my family with that.

My “beat” during a internal journal is death, that is given we was asked to minister a letter in a initial place. Since we have created obituaries in Haines, Alaska (population about 2,000), a city where we live, for roughly 20 years, a journal’s editor insincere that we contingency know something about final difference and good lives. (After all, it is wrong to pronounce ill of a dead.) Turns out that we do. It usually took me a while to trust it, and even longer to contend it out loud.

Writing obituaries is my approach of transcending bad news. It has taught me a value of intentionally perplexing to find a good in people and situations, and that use — and we do trust that anticipating a good can be used — has done my life some-more meaningful. we start any necrology with a phone conversation, followed by a visit. For reasons I’m not certain of, nonetheless that one clergyman told me might be my calling, we am means to enter a lamentation household, lift adult a chair, sip some coffee, observe, listen, ask questions that (I hope) will palliate a pain, take notes, and commend a authentic lines when we hear them. Finding a good in this conditions is mostly challenging; it is not always obvious. If we combine and am patient, though, it will exhibit itself. This customarily involves a lot of caffeine.

After an elder who has been housebound and incapacitated by a cadence for 25 years dies, we find time to lay on a lounge and demeanour by family albums with his widow and admire how large he was in his World War II uniform and how happy they both looked on that beach vacation a year before he was stricken.

When 12-year-old twins remove their mom to cancer, we will quote their father praising them and tell how he skeleton to take them on a family expostulate opposite a nation to see their grandparents.

And maybe hardest of all, on a snowy winter morning when we accommodate with a relatives and siblings of a immature male who drank too many one night and shot himself, we write down how unequivocally many he had desired to boyant in a lake in front of their summer cabin.

I know given we might consider that what we do is depressing, nonetheless compared to front-page news, many obituaries are officious inspirational. People lead all kinds of engaging and fulfilling lives, nonetheless they all end. My assign is questioning a deeds, characteristics, occupations and commitments, all that he or she done of their “one furious and changed life,” as producer Mary Oliver has called it. He might have died mumbling and confused in a nursing home, nonetheless in his day he was a excellent actor, hastily host and bon vivant we would have desired personification charades with. She was a superb large sister, a daughter who always baked cookies for her dad, and had designed on attending an art college before she was killed in a automobile wreck. No one wants a final hour of her life to obscure a 17 years before it.

This might not be how a necrology writers during inhabitant newspapers work, nonetheless I’m traffic with people we know — my neighbors in a small, tighten village where my father owns a lumberyard, where we’ve lifted a family, where I’ve sat on a propagandize board, proffer for hospice, and am a unchanging during a Morning Muscles practice class. These relations change a approach we write. Before we harmonise an obituary, we ask myself what truths will continue a contribution of this person’s life, what needs to be in it nonetheless also what doesn’t.

Tom Morphet, my editor during a Chilkat Valley News, mostly disagrees with my choices and asks me to puncture a tiny deeper into a some-more formidable times in a person’s life. He warns me opposite often walking on a balmy side of a street.

Still, we leaned tighten to a radio recently when we listened a story about a investigate that valid confident women live longer. we called Tom right adult with a good news.

“At slightest we trust we will,” he replied.

Tom and we were both gratified with a approach a necrology of an aged miner unfolded. His widow and daughters wanted to be certain we enclosed a bad with a good. Rather than highway around his sinkholes, they told me to note that he had been a hard-drinking, hard-living, and some would even contend hard-hearted, male who was remade by a voice he listened in a snowstorm while pushing by a towering pass, revelation him to change his ways. He did, apropos a sober, tender, nursery-rhyme thespian as shortly as his initial grandbaby gripped his finger. He taught all his grandchildren to sing along when he played a guitar. If grandchildren can assistance an aged miner find a Lord on his severe highway to Damascus, what am we going to learn interjection to mine?

I consider about children initial when bad things happen. How can we reaffirm that there’s so many to applaud, even if they see zero estimable of an ovation? And afterwards we know. Whenever there is a tragedy, from a horrific propagandize sharpened in Newtown, Connecticut, to when a fisherman dies after slipping off a rug here in Haines, awful events are followed by dozens and dozens of good deeds. It’s not that wretchedness loves company, exactly; rather, it’s that suffering, in all a forms, and a response to it, binds us together opposite cooking tables, neighborhoods, towns and cities, and even time. Bad doings move out a best in people.

Lives were saved during a finish line of a Boston Marathon given bystanders ran toward a explosions to help, rather than divided from them. This is what Fred “Mr.” Rogers’s mom wanted him to notice when he was fearful by frightful news. “Look for a helpers,” she told him. “You will always find people helping.” Mr. Rogers upheld along that recommendation to millions of other children (and their parents) who were frightened or hurt by assault or tragedy, and it helped them, too.

Look for a EMTs wheeling a bracket into a ambulance.

Look for a guys barbecuing prohibited dogs for whirly refugees.

Look for a motorcycle bar collecting canned products for a food bank.


Sly Stone sang it loud. We are family. Our hearts are any bit as ductile as stardust incited to gold.

Loving one another polishes them.

“Where do stars come from?” my oldest granddaughter, Caroline, asked one winter dusk when her relatives were out and we was tucking her into bed. we told her, and she wondered given we customarily see them when a object goes down. Darkness creates light visible, we explained, echoing Emerson. we didn’t contend that we suppose stars paint a people who used to live with us and aren’t here anymore, and how ideal it is that they wink rather than glisten hotly down on us, and maybe that’s given they call a night sky a heavens. That would be even serve over her head.

After Goldilocks ran off, we dimmed a bedside flare and whispered about bears, what porridge is, and given walking into other people’s houses when they are not home is a bad idea. Then Caroline forked out a window again. “I adore a stars,” she pronounced and stuttered a approach she does given her thoughts are faster than her tongue. “I really, really, love, adore stars, don’t we Mi-Mimi?” (She gave me a new name to go with my new role.)

This afternoon we will finish that brief letter on anticipating a good and afterwards travel on a beach with my granddaughters. I’ll demeanour for heart-shaped rocks while tiny Caroline and toddling Lani and Ivy decrease behind me, transfer silt from one pail to a other, stomping in waves pools and climbing over driftwood. You substantially wouldn’t know a gray silt is unwashed with hearts unless someone showed you, nonetheless once we do, we can find lots of them.

Sometimes, we set down these found hearts on tip of logs for passers-by to notice. Other times we fill my pockets with them. we gave one to my father on Valentine’s Day. There are 3 on a kitchen windowsill, one on my dresser. Lani and Ivy are still too immature to know what they are, nonetheless Caroline, during 3 ½, finds sand-smoothed baby-palm-sized hearts all over a house. we have taught her to watch for them on a beach walks, too. Some days there are some-more than others.

When Caroline asks if she can take my stream favorite heart mill home, we contend yes. we have faith that there are copiousness some-more where it came from and that we will find them.

Make Your Own Good Weather

My father is reading a book about a male adrift in a life raft, that got us articulate about being stranded on a dried island. Chip asked, if we could customarily move 5 things to eat on a island what would they be? we said, “Coffee, cream, raspberries, brownish-red rice and red wine.” Pretty shortly we were selecting what device, that author and that musician we would need to have along to tarry a distress emotionally. we said, “My iPhone, Mary Oliver (or maybe Emily Dickinson) and Bach.”

“You never listen to exemplary music,” Chip forked out. “You like nation songs.”

“This would be an event for growth,” we said, meditative we should also enhance my appreciation for poets over New England women. Then he inquired, in his judicious left-brain way, how would we assign a phone?

I started to contend that’s not a point, this is usually pretend; we mean, don’t those smartphones have GPS tracking systems anyway? Instead, sounding snippier than we intended, we said, “Can we container a tiny some-more and stay for 6 weeks?” It was roughly 10 p.m. and we was tired. My days and nights have been revolving around a 17-month-old. Our granddaughter Lani is staying with us temporarily. Her relatives are in Anchorage, 800 miles away, watchful for her tiny sister to arrive. Labor began a week ago, too early, during 33 weeks. It has stopped now, nonetheless doctors are doing their best to keep a baby inside a womb and Stoli nearby a neonatal complete caring territory for during slightest 3 some-more weeks. (You might remember there is no sanatorium in Haines.) It could be longer. Term is about 40 weeks.

Today, Lani’s cousins, Ivy and Caroline, spent a afternoon with us. The building is gummy and there’s a playpen in a vital room, a high chair in a kitchen, and we have sprained my ankle, again, stepping on a block.

The dog, Pearl, is carrying a grand time pulling a stuffing out of a plush moose.

It’s also mid-August, one of a busiest months in Chip’s busiest season. From Apr to Sep my husband’s lumberyard earns a family’s income for a year. So he can’t assistance out as many as he’d like. If anyone dies right now, someone else might have to write a obituary. It’s unfit to form with a child on my lap. I’ve tried.

But we am singing a lot. Lani thinks “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” is a excellent tune. My devise is to confuse her into forgetful her fear of water. She is filthy. We dug potatoes today. Lani cheered any time we found one and afterwards she forsaken it in a pail. She was so tender by this typical consternation that we covertly reburied a spuds we found so she could lift them from a dirt herself.

Afterward, when she refused to lay in a bathwater, even with a song, and we disturbed she’d outing and tumble station in a fatty tub, we nude down and climbed in with her. To her warn (and mine) it worked.

I had to dry and dress her first, so she wouldn’t locate a cold, and before we knew how it happened, we found myself station during a desk-turned-changing-table in a den-turned-nursery, naked. Thank God my life is not a existence TV uncover (even nonetheless my overarching guideline for grandchild caring is, would we wish their mothers to see this on videotape?). we have given hung a dress in that bathroom. we am caring for this baby with any fiber of my being, anticipating that by gripping tiny Lani safe, healthy and content, a object will gleam on her mom and soon-to-be sister.

We open Lani’s fate any morning and note if it is satisfactory or stormy, transparent or foggy, if a waves is high or low. we tell her there is no such thing as bad weather, interjection to a sleet rigging and rubber boots. We listen for a roosters and Pearl’s jingling collar tags. We never watch cartoons. We glance during a flapping clouds, a waves and a ants in a sand. We review stories. Lani won’t nap during night yet “Goodnight Moon.”

The story reminds me of an necrology we wrote for a 20-year-old who died of complications from inborn intelligent palsy. Jeremy “talked” with a voice outlay device, by dialing adult digital recordings of sentiments he wished to express. The propagandize superintendent recorded, “Hey, dude, step aside, I’m entrance through” for him, and Jeremy replayed it as he guided his motorized wheelchair down a corridor between classes. “Despite his disabilities Jeremy had a superb opinion on life. He was positively a good instance for all of us,” Superintendent Byer told me.

When Jeremy died, his mom was so ravaged that she could not pronounce to me. She requested that we conform in essay for a obituary. we slipped my initial questions by her foyer door. “How did he die?” we wrote. She wrote back, “The cat came and clawed during my bed. we woke adult out of a dream in that we was reading ‘Goodnight Moon’ to Jeremy. Got up, stoked a woodstove, went to check on Jeremy. He had usually departed.”

Goodnight moon, and object and stars.

My final note from Cherri about Jeremy arrived after a necrology had been published. She thanked me for exchanging records a past week or so. “Heather, we are a partial of this, too.” She wrote “this” nonetheless we review “Life. Love. Loss. Us.”

This is given we insist on anticipating a good: given we know some truths, that have been common with me by people during their many vulnerable, when their hearts are so unprotected and tender that it takes all their appetite to harmonise a few lines and pass a note underneath a sealed doorway into my watchful hand. As an necrology writer, it’s my pursuit to be partial of Jeremy’s genocide and to assistance his mom remember her son’s life. But as a tellurian being, we know that once hands are clasped, it doesn’t matter who did a reaching and who responded. The comfort is in a vigour of palm on palm, of heart to heart.

The same day a daughter Sarah and her father announced that a child who would be called Caroline was on a way, we met with a family of a teen who had drowned while canoeing. It was Mother’s Day. The relatives had separate adult a few months progressing and a boy’s mom was relocating away. The father sat on a cot holding his new girlfriend’s hand. The vital room was full of boxes filled with garments and domicile equipment and sacks for a Salvation Army and a dump. Photos of a son were sparse opposite a list and were being comparison by his sister for a print during a commemorative service.

Each time we asked a doubt possibly a father answered and a mom contradicted him or a mom answered and a father pronounced no, that wasn’t correct. we don’t consider they even concluded on his date of birth. My questions became shorter, their answers briefer. Then it was quiet. I’d customarily been there about 20 minutes, nonetheless we stood adult to leave, observant we was so sorry, again. That’s when a silver-haired aged lady came from a kitchen with mugs of tea and a image of cookies and insisted we stay.

Everyone sipped and crunched. Then a aged lady pronounced a child had played a piano. That he had a dog. And his relatives nodded and wept, and remembered adequate to fill an obituary. This is what we do.


Rocking Lani behind to nap during 2 a.m., we feel her heart violence opposite mine, remember my possess babies’ snuffling warmth, and am strike by a blue wave. The undercurrent of time is strong. we will never boyant this approach again. Neither will any of us. It’s not yarn during all, is it?

So what do we devise to take on your one-way outing to a dried island? Who do we wish rowing with we in that life raft? we know we don’t wish to be expel divided with someone who talks all day prolonged about a hazards of descending overboard, eating tender fish and skin cancer. Who asks, “Why didn’t we container sunscreen instead of red wine?” That will not be helpful. There is a reason a rope continued to play as a Titanic sank, and we consider it has been many maligned. I’m going down with a horn territory overhanging when my time is up. Also, I’ve motionless that wherever I’m going from here, I’d rather not be in an open raft on an unconstrained sea, even with copiousness of coffee and raspberries.

Is it OK if we change a raft to my grandmother’s dreamboat of a selected Chrysler? There are far-reaching dais seats, along with copiousness of legroom and an AM radio with a ball diversion on. I’ve already got a window rolled down and I’m indicating out all a good things we can see from here. And I’m not driving. Something bigger than me is steering this rig. Pearl is on a building with her soothing conduct in a grandchild’s lap. I’m wedged in a back, too, amid a automobile seats, singing about a Big Rock Candy Mountain, changing “cigarette trees” to “cinnamon trees,” and usually one some-more gray hair divided from ditching my ball top and trek and shopping a wide-brimmed red straw shawl and relating alligator bag, that we will batch with dog and teething biscuits, splendid glossy objects of distraction, curiously clever peppermints and a outrageous first-aid kit.

If we were to die tomorrow, would my grandchildren remember anything I’ve shown them about adore and happiness? Would they even know what “find a good” means? They’re too immature for me to explain that yet, nonetheless we consternation if somewhere inside their mint silly-putty hearts there’s an impress of what we wish for them that will endure? Maybe that’s a lot to ask.

It’s copiousness good that one loves a stars in a night sky. The other pulls open a fate and greets a day as shortly as she wakes, and a third has schooled to unlatch a embankment and run forward of me to a ocean. Even if they won’t remember one humorous line from a story we review together or that comfortable egg we carried so delicately from a duck shelter to a kitchen, we gamble they’ll remember a feign front tooth that is a tiny secret. My sisters have never even seen me grin yet it, nonetheless when we cocktail it out it creates all a grandbabies laugh, and nonetheless we wish we still had a strange tooth, what’s not good about that?

So we will arise early to work while a residence is quiet. When baby Lani calls from her crib, I’ll assistance her let a morning object in, singing, “Oh, what a pleasing morning. Oh, what a pleasing day.” we will change her diaper and find a dress her mom packaged for her. “It’s usually we and me, kid,” I’ll say, as we pin behind her curly black hair. (And to a dog: “Out of a diaper pail!”)

Looking for a good might be partial nature, nonetheless it can be nurtured. we trust that with my whole heart. we have schooled it by essay obituaries, lifting a family and vital in a tiny town.

Find a good, regard a good, and do good, given we are still means to and given what moves your heart will sojourn prolonged after we are left and spin adult in a many astonishing places, maybe even retained firmly in a unwashed tiny palm of a child using along an Alaskan beach. Everyone has listened of hearts branch to stone. But stones can spin into hearts, too. we know, given I’ve gratefully supposed those heart-shaped rocks, dusted them off, put them in my pocket, and carried them home.

Heather Lende is a Haines author whose previous books embody “If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name,” a New York Times best-seller, and “Take Good Care of a Garden and a Dogs.” She writes a unchanging mainstay in We Alaskans and has contributed essays and explanation to NPR, The New York Times and National Geographic Traveler. John Hagen is a Haines-based editorial and mural photographer. Find his work at

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