Baumgarten: Remember how they were
A while back I wrote a column about how an obituary is sometimes the most-read article on our website.
It’s true; I felt like that at one point. I couldn’t understand why so many people wanted to read about someone who died. But as I started writing more stories and reading the obituaries, I found out that people didn’t read the page to just see a loved one had died.
I recalled the article after I read some tragic news Monday. A childhood memory died that day. Robin Williams — who starred in classics like as “Mrs. Doubtfire,” “Jumanji,” “Hook” and “Aladdin” — passed away from apparent suicide at age 63.
It was hard to swallow. He had been suffering from depression, alcoholism and drug addiction. It was almost impossible to believe that someone who made so many happy with his jokes took his own life.
Rewind five years ago. It was October 2009, and I was in college. I was driving back home with my grandparents, who live in Fargo, to a cattle show in Dickinson. As I got to Richardton, I noticed an ambulance speeding the other direction to Bismarck. I didn’t think anything of it until I got home.
I had discovered that Mom and Dad weren’t home, which was unusual since Grandma and Grandpa were with me. I just remember asking Jake where Mom and Dad were.
“There was an accident and Grandma had to go to the hospital,” was all he said.
This was my grandmother from Dickinson. She was the one that took care of us when Mom and Dad were busy in the fields, when they went to Denver or had to leave us by ourselves for a couple days. This was the grandmother that slaved over a kitchen during Christmas Eve, often cooking for 20-plus people. This was the grandmother I could tell anything.
It’s hard to understand how a person feels when a loved one is lost. Until that October day, I really never understood what it felt like to lose someone. Death was a distant thing, something that happened to others. I was aware of it, and I felt bad when a friend mourned.
I don’t think we fully understand or accept someone is gone, even as they are lowered to the ground. I had dreams of Grandma coming through the door with a smile, telling me I needed to eat more boiled wheat before I could have dessert (it’s a Ukrainian thing).
Almost 2½ years later, her husband, my step-grandfather, passed away. Like Grandma, Grandpa Jim took care of us. He always played cards and let us win. He would crack jokes that didn’t make sense. And he treated us like we were his own. Suddenly, he was gone, too.
I found out about his death as I read over the draft of The Dickinson Press. After Grandma died, it was easier for me to accept it, but by no means easy.
I remember going to the prayer service. It was full and I had to sit in the overflow room. It reminded me of the scene at Grandma’s funeral. The church was packed as well, barely an empty seat.
And that’s where I come back to the website. That day, the top-read story was Grandpa’s obituary.
I finally understood why people read the obituaries so much. They wanted to find out not only that the person had passed, but how they had lived their life. When someone dies, people are often angry or distraught, and for good reason. They can’t comprehend someone they have known so long is gone.
It’s hard to believe people like Robin Williams, Whitney Houston, Casey Kasem or Ann B. Davis (Alice from the “Brady Bunch”) are gone. They brought such joy to our lives, much like our relatives. But now, more than ever, we must not dwell on how they died; that’s not as important as how they lived.
In turn, we should always be grateful for the time we had with them, remembering their smile and how they made us laugh. We must also remember that there are others still alive that need us, that we can turn to. I still have Grandma and Grandpa Baumgarten to talk to about cattle and laugh with.
My father says Grandma never had a bad thing to say about anyone. I’ve had a lot of laughs with Grandma, and that’s how I would like to remember her.
Something tells me she is trying to force-feed Mr. Williams boiled wheat while shouting “Good Morning, Vietnam.”
Baumgarten is the assistant editor of The Dickinson Press. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/april.baumgarten. Follow her at twitter.com/aprilbaumsaway.