Tag Archives: Chad Greene

He Is Survived By _________

By Chad Greene

 

My father
Has died.
He was
87.

 

My father wrote, for many years, too many, obituaries for our hometown newspaper. Why “too many?”

Because, in the newspaper business, he explained, the obituary desk traditionally serves two functions. For young reporters, it’s a proving ground. Promotion to the obits beat is supposed to help them to understand the importance of speaking politely in phone interviews and spelling correctly the names in articles. For old reporters, it’s a dumping ground. Demotion to the obits beat is supposed to help them understand the importance of retiring quickly and quietly.

For my father, there were no “glory years” in-between two traditional tours of duty on the obituary desk. There was only one that lasted for many years, too many. But even after he had lost hope of a promotion from the obits beat that would, admittedly, inevitably lead to a demotion to the obits beat, he continued to take pride in his craft.

In particular, he was proud that – despite the if not hundreds, then thousands, of obituaries he composed for the paper – he never repeated himself, with the exception of four sentences. These four sentences, his time on the obits beat had helped him to understand, were the most important.

Near the start of the obituary, he always wrote both of the first two sentences.

 

_________ has died.

He was _________.

 

The blank in the first, he explained, was filled in with the name of the subject of the obituary, which was always different. But it was the next two words, “has died,” which were always the same, that my father insisted were most important in this sentence.

Why ‘has died’?” I asked.

Because a newspaper is supposed to deal in facts, not in fantasies – however comforting they might be,” he explained. “So you must state the fact that the subject ‘has died.’ So you must resist the temptation of euphemisms: no ‘has been called home,’ no ‘has gone to a better place,’ no ‘has gone to his reward,’ no ‘has gone to meet his maker.’ Until there’s some evidence to prove otherwise, those euphemisms are fantasies, not facts.”

The blank in second, he explained, was filled in with the age of the subject of the obituary.

What’s most important in this sentence?” my father quizzed me.

Feeling philosophical, I guessed, “‘He was’?”

He sighed. “Only three terms to choose from, and you choose the two that aren’t right.”

The age is most important?”

The age is most important,” he confirmed, “because that’s how the newspaper’s readers keep score.”

Keep score?”

If they’re younger than the deceased, he’s winning. If they’re older than the deceased, they’re winning.”

It’s that simple?”

It’s that simple.”

Shouldn’t it be quality of life that’s most important, not quantity of life?”

Quality is subjective,” he scoffed. “Quantity is objective; it’s a number, a fact. Newspapers are supposed to deal in facts.”

Near the end of the obituary, he always wrote one of the last two sentences.

 

He is survived by _________.

He leaves no survivors.

 

Although filling in the blanks in the former meant more work for my father – more names to spell correctly in the article – he hated to write the latter.

The most painful line of all,” he sighed. “The saddest sentence in the English language.”

He hated to write it, but he had – if not thousands, then hundreds of times. So, after finally retiring if not quickly, then quietly, he made a silent promise to his successors on the obits beat: He would not make one of them write it in his obituary.

So, at the age of 65, he – somehow, even my mother herself can’t recall how he did it – managed to seduce one of the nurses at his retirement home. That’s where he explained what his time on the obits beat had helped him to understand, as I sat by his bedside. When he died – not ‘was called home,’ not ‘went to a better place,’ not ‘went to his reward,’ not ‘went to meet his maker’ – I composed this simple poem.

 

My father
Has died.
He was
87.
He is
Survived by
One son.
I am
22.

 

Then I forced myself to do something poets hate to do. I did the math.

For those keeping score, he’s winning.

 

A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, Chad Greene is an assistant professor of English at Cerritos College. Whenever he isn’t planning lessons or grading papers, he is attempting to put together a novel-in-stories tentatively titled Trips and Falls.

Advertisements
Tagged ,

Lincoln, Lincoln

 

by Chad Greene

 

When I was a child, I thought like a child – thanks to the encyclopedia my parents purchased. Or, more exactly, thanks to the one volume of the encyclopedia they didn’t purchase.

See, next to the Bible on our bookshelf were 27 of the 28 volumes of Funk & Wagnalls’ New Encyclopedia. Growing up on the farm, we were poor, but my parents were believers – believers in the power of education to improve their children’s lots in life. So, the moment the checker at the grocery store handed them a free copy of Volume 1 and a full-color flyer informing them that ‘the purchase of Funk & Wagnalls’ New Encyclopedia is an excellent investment in your children’s future,’ they made up their minds to find the funds to buy the rest – one a week for the next 27 weeks.

For the next 21 weeks, they kept that promise to themselves – and to their children. But then, somewhere early in the Ss, the grocery store suffered a mysterious shortage of Volume 23. The store, my parents said, had run out before they could purchase a copy. To make up for it, they said, the store had decided to substitute Funk & WagnallsThe Presidents  a collection of brief biographies of every Commander-in-Chief from George Washington to George H.W. Bush.

Because my parents had raised me to believe, as they did, that education could empower people to escape rural poverty, I read over and over the biography of Abraham Lincoln. The sixteenth president’s comprehensive campaign of self-education, which culminated in passing the bar exam despite never having attended college – let alone law school – inspired me to strive for academic excellence.

When I was a child, I trusted my parents implicitly, so it was only years later that I started to suspect that there had been no shortage of Volume 23. When I was a teen, I was deeply disappointed – and frustrated – to discover that volume was the one that contained all the entries related to ‘sex’. But, by then, my otherwise exhaustive knowledge of the lives of presidents had developed the fatal flaw that would allow me to one day be blindsided by deep disillusionment: In my mind, as on our bookshelf, presidents and sex did not go together.

When I became a man, I thought I had put the ways of childhood behind me. Out of loyalty to Lincoln, I had registered to vote as a Republican at the age of 18, and – a few weeks after that – enrolled at the only alma mater of a Republican president that had accepted me: Whittier College.

Presidential scandals, though, had left me feeling conflicted about both of my first two adult decisions.

The Republican Party of the late 20th century, I understood, was not the Republican Party of the mid 19th century. Then, I understood, its members had been motivated by desire to create racial equality; now, I had started to suspect, they were motivated by a desire to maintain economic inequality. But first the rumors, and then the revelations, about the sexual misconduct of Democratic presidents both past and present – I went to Whittier during the Clinton Administration – repulsed me on a visceral level. Literally: Those scandals drove me away from the Democratic Party I might otherwise have embraced.

Speaking of scandals, Whittier College – of course – is the alma mater of Richard Nixon, the only man to ever resign the presidency. But its proximity to Disneyland allowed me to worship my childhood hero on a daily basis as an enthusiastic cast member at its ‘Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln’ attraction on Main Street, USA. And ‘attraction’ was the appropriate term for it because, in a purely platonic way, I was attracted to Disney’s audio-animatronic Abraham Lincoln, which – with its noble face cast from an actual life mask of Lincoln and its dignified address compiled from his historic speeches – seemed a perfect representation of the president I had idealized and idolized since childhood.

Ironically, it was there, at the ‘Happiest Place on Earth’, that I had the unhappiest moment of my life when – more than 125 years after his assassination – I was a witness to Abraham Lincoln’s first sex scandal.

‘There’s something wrong with President Lincoln!’ shouted the mother rushing her children out of the auditorium. ‘He’s making obscene gestures! And dripping fluids!’

When we went to investigate, the rest of the cast members barely suppressed smiles. I, however, was utterly unable to hide the emotion evident on my face at that moment: horror. For, there, in front of a spectacular painting of the U.S. Capitol, was my animatronic Lincoln – his right hand spastically pawing at his crotch. As more and more of his hydraulic fluid dripped onto the stage, his shoulder and elbow were starting to smoke from the exertion. I sprinted to close the curtains embroidered with the Great Seal of the President of the United States.

‘Well, I’ll never be able to put a penny in my pocket again,’ shuddered one of my fellow cast members.

Without thinking, I punched him. There, in that shrine to presidential dignity. There, where the only passion that had pumped through my heart – until that moment – had been a religious reverence for the savior of our country. Lincoln, who had won the Civil War. Lincoln, who had reunited the house divided.

Lincoln, Lincoln.

I thought I had put the things of childhood away, but – as I inhaled the scent of Lincoln’s spilled lubricant – the childish chant of kids skipping rope consumed my mind: 

   

Lincoln, Lincoln,
I’ve been thinkin’:
What on Earth
Have you been drinkin’?
Tastes like whiskey,
Smells like wine:
Oh, my God,
It’s turpentine!
 

Strangely, it was at that moment that I had my first truly adult thought: There is no perfect person. There is always something wrong with the wiring.

 

A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing Program at the University of Southern California, Chad Greene is an assistant professor of English at Cerritos College. Whenever he isn’t planning lessons or grading papers, he is attempting to put together a novel-in-stories tentatively titled Trips and Falls.

 

Tagged , , , , ,