Sometimes, when you're dead, you're only remembered for one thing. Everything else is stripped away, disregarded, and one fact, some single sentence, is all that's left.
Maybe, when you woke up on the last day before you died, you were a million different things, you were a bundle of interests and desires, past histories and present plans, connections and contradictions. When you die, all of that is noise and there's nothing left but a succinct statement. This is true in obituaries and it's what I learned from the Evangelicals who taught me Sunday School.
William LeMessurier, who died last June, figured out there were structural problems with a Manhattan skyscraper and he knew how to fix them. He lived for 29 years after that, but none of it mattered to history.
My father accepted Jesus as his Lord and Savior in a story I have heard many times. Later, he met my mother, married her, had me for a son and did a lot of other things, but according to the Evangelical version of Christianity, none of that will matter when he dies. The only question God will ask will be about that one prayer he prayed.
Michael White, who died this month and had his obit printed in the New York Times, developed something called "narrative therapy." He probably had friends, but that is irrelevant, now that he's dead. He probably listened to music and liked certain foods and liked to tell and re-tell certain stories, but all of that life is lost, with death, and it's all refined down in his obit.
It seems like we all surrender all.
This is why, I think, the most interesting obituaries are the ones about crazy people, the obsessives, the ones who purposely pursued some single end, abandoning everything. Those people, the ones who made horrible friends and terrible loved ones, understood this connection between death and a single statement. They pursued that singularity, surrendering everything else. They were dedicated. They were determined. They were devoted to just one thing, treating everything else as blasphemous trash.
When I started reading obituaries, sometime in high school, it seemed like a good way to read history, to read about famous people at their passing. But every page carrying the historically important also carried these deceased devotees of odd obsessions. They're freaks, some of them, spending years in a search for a lost fountain of youth, fortunes in an attempt to preserve a perishing language, lives in pursuit of the discovery of a new flower. But there's something sort of beautiful, too. Maybe "beautiful" isn't right, but I find I'm always fascinated by these obsessives, who somehow seem to think their lives only have meaning through this particular pursuit, who somehow seem to know what their obit writer is going to say, seem to understand that redemption can only come through excessive dedication.
It is a common religious belief, held by Puritans, Catholics and Quakers, Marxists and Capitalists, that work can bring salvation. There's something about labor that causes people to say it change the world and change the way you live in the world, to say that through work you can work out all the issues and the problems. Work can be the solution. Work can be the salve. Work can be the salvation.
There are others who believe that recreation can be salvation, that the ecstasy of doing what you want to do, doing something for the sheer existential fulfillment can deliver you. This is salvation as presented by TV advertising and Rock 'n' Roll, by revivalists and worship ministers, dancers, surfers and all athletes.
But both those who see salvation as wind-blown joy and those who see it as sweat-soaked service, those who say ecstasy and those who say excellence, hold up an ideal of obsession.
As we would of sung in Sunday school, salvation comes from surrendering all.
Part of me wants to perpetuate this. I want to say a great writer could be remembered and should be remembered for a single sentence. I want to say I will work to pray a single, perfect prayer. I want to say that one word, one work, one wild obsession, will be enough. I like the idea, but it doesn't deal with the maddening messiness of life.
No, I have to say that life's larger than a single sentence. Obsession isn't sacred. God has got to ask more than one question when you die, and salvation doesn't belong to those who abandoned everything. When you look at life like that, concentrated to the pursuit of a single purpose, you throw a lot of things away. And life includes the parts you throw away.
Once, I wanted to surrender everything, but now I find myself taking parts back. I hope that when I die, the obit writer won't know how to fit my full, messy, distracted and unsurrendered life into a single sentence.
Daniel Silliman covers crime for the Clayton News Daily. He can be reached at (770) 478-5753, ext. 254, or via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.