Making Connection, As Best We Can
Too great a preoccupation with mortality probably is not a good thing. But there are those of us who open the paper in the morning to the obituary page and survey the roll on which our own name will one day assume its place.
I am one of those cheery souls, and so it was on Wednesday of a recent week that I finished my coffee reading about someone I never knew. Her name was Mimi Butterfield. The name made no connection.
She lived in Durham, had been a psychiatrist and was on the faculty of the Duke University Medical School. She left behind a husband of 20 years and two children, a 10-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. She was not old herself -- only 47. She died of breast cancer, first diagnosed five years ago.
Those, at any rate, were the barest bones of her biography. But they hardly told the story of the person who had lived and who had died.
"Mimi loved well," the obituary read, "and, in turn, was well-loved by others. She cherished her husband, Kevin, and their marriage of more than 20 years .... Together, they created a welcoming home infused with warmth, generosity and openness .... Mimi viewed their children, Corrie and Jack, as her greatest source of joy and the most precious gifts she leaves for others."
How many of us, I wondered, would merit such words, unadorned yet moving in their straightforward simplicity? This had to have been a remarkable woman. I wish I had known her.
I finished my coffee, set the paper aside and went about the day's routines. That evening, as the neighborhood swim meet was about to begin, the starter addressed the parents and assorted helpers.
In a somber tone, he asked for "a moment of silence in memory of Mimi Butterfield," and I realized the gallant woman whose obituary I read that morning had been in my midst every day. She wasn't simply someone in the newspaper -- a stranger -- but, as I was to learn, a neighbor. Someone who lived around the corner.
"You know the house up the hill with the purple door?" Anne Marie Schneider said after the moment of silence. Of course I knew the house with the purple door. I passed it every day. "She lived there."
Sociologists and others have been talking about Americans' shrinking circle of close friends, of their increasing isolation and of the health hazards in not having people to confide in. By one estimate the number of people the average American could confide in had dropped from three 20 years ago to two in 2004. And a quarter of Americans could talk to no one at all.
The reasons for such a change -- if it is a change -- are easy enough to guess: We spend more hours at work; we're on the computer or in front of the TV more; we're taxiing children to games and practices. In short, we socialize less, and turn to family more than to friends when we must unburden ourselves.
Is this really so? As an explanation, it seems too pat, too easy. It was only a generation ago, in the '70s, that the druids of self-help were advising us to be our own best friends. Solitude need not be loneliness, even if it usually was. Now the prescription is reversed: We should surround ourselves with confessors and confidantes, a handful anyway.
The reality of everyday life is, as usual, more complicated. In Mimi Butterfield's case, a network of friends near and far kept one another updated, many through online sites such as carepages.com. That is how we now live, for both better and worse.
We tap out e-mails -- which betray no inflection in the voice, no uncertainty in the eyes -- more than we actually visit. We "communicate" more than we commiserate, and at a distance both geographic and emotional. We are "in touch" with people, but little more. Sometimes we don't even know they exist, even when they live around the corner.
One of the things Mimi Butterfield's many friends said of her was that she never failed to make time for them. "Talking to her, you knew you mattered to her," one woman said.
In her last weeks, visitors continued to come by. And then, when her own time was running out, she had to ask that they let her go. Her family would be arriving the next day from Michigan, and what time was left to her she wanted to spend with them and with her husband and children. And so they did, grateful not just that she had wanted to know them but that she had let them know her.
Michael Skube, a former editor at The News & Observer, teaches journalism at Elon University.
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