I truly do not know how many deaths I wrote about during my 10 years as a journalist. I covered crime and courts for nearly all of that time, as well as breaking news including car wrecks, fires and deaths of local citizens. People were shot, stabbed, poisoned and run over. People overdosed, crashed, took their own lives and drowned. People died of cancer, “old age” and incurable diseases.
I was that person talking to sobbing family members at crime scenes and car wrecks. I was the one looking through phone books, searching the internet and court records for relatives, then knocking on strangers’ doors. I was the one blasted by the public for intruding in the lives of those who were grieving.
The thing is, people almost always wanted to talk. They were desperate to tell me about their loved ones, and they begged me to write about fond memories. They showed me childhood photos, they recalled jokes, they told of scholastic and professional achievements. After I had left, they often phoned the numbers on my business card, wanting to tell me one more anecdote. They invited me to funerals, and some even contacted me on an anniversary of their loved one’s death, anxious to keep memories alive. One friend of a domestic violence victim sent me Christmas cards for years. A few found me on Facebook years later.
Even in the midst of gruesome, terrible scenes, I liked the work. I liked recording history, which included the details surrounding the death as well as the people involved. I liked being able to tell others’ stories.
But what happens when it’s my own family?
Until Wednesday, October 14, 2015, I never had to ask that question.
The answer is that I don’t have words. I don’t know how to sum up the life of a man born into an impoverished immigrant family, who went off to fight in WWII, earned a degree at Rutgers and became such a successful businessman that an Iowa town once dedicated an entire day to him. I don’t know how to tell about how he retired but then started a new career. How he made exquisite jewelry as a hobby but then began selling it, how he grew fruit for fun but then had so much that he had to give it away. How he designed and built his last home because he wanted the views to be just right. How he watched “Jeopardy!” every day and was so pleased when he knew the answers. And there were his legendary puns — a trait he passed down to my mother and which sometimes comes through in me.
It’s no wonder grieving families usually talked to me, the badge-wearing, notepad-carrying journalist who was at their door: They wanted someone to write about their loved one, but they didn’t have the words to do it themselves.
Now I am the wordless one.