Remembering the first day, honoring the last

Ten years ago, I lucked out. Having just moved back to Claremont and feeling ready to leave my writing/editing position at Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple, I applied for a part-time reporter job at the COURIER. Martin Weinberger, then-owner/publisher, informed me that he had selected someone for the position but suggested since he had not officially informed the candidate, why don’t I come in and talk with him.

I got the job.

I remember my first day well. It was a blazing hot day in September 2002 and, of course, the air conditioning in the old brick building on College Avenue was on the fritz, as it usually was. I was nervous, I was sweaty, I was uncomfortable on so many levels, and then I was given my first assignment: an obituary.

Mind you, there was no mention of obituaries in my interview, and I had never written one before nor had I entertained the thought of writing one. I was wholly unprepared and halfway panicked.

Now, after a decade and more than 1000 obituaries written or edited, thinking about that very first obituary evokes a strong feeling of fascination in me. I find it marvelous that what was once so terrifying, unfamiliar and, I suppose, even unwanted in that moment became something I am now heartsick to soon stop doing as of July 18, at least as my primary vocation.

Working with grieving families and writing obituaries has been so many things: a privilege, a challenge, an inspiration, a constant stream of life lessons. It has been tear-jerking, laughter-inspiring, heart-squeezing and intensely fascinating. There are also some things it wasn’t: boring, for example. Nope, never a dull moment; never a dull life. 

With the passage of years, I have often found myself thinking about the surviving family members who I spoke with during their time of grief, wondering how they have fared since they lost their spouse/parent/child. I think perhaps I’ve shared with you before, readers, that I am in a rare position of good fortune in that I have not suffered much loss in my life. I do not have the experience of a person very close to me dying and, subsequently, the experience of grieving and healing. Therefore, my closest connections to and almost all of my understanding about death, bereavement and moving forward have been forged through all of you who lost someone and called me. Thank you for all that you have taught me; I know it will serve me very well in time.  

Besides obituaries, I have been lucky enough to write features for the paper. Claremonters, you know as well as I do that there is no end to the cast of eccentric characters, curious happenings and touching acts of goodwill in town. To learn about and write about such worthwhile people, deeds and activities is to have just about the best job there is. Being able to begin the day’s work by thinking, “That person fascinates me. I think I’ll write a story on him/her” or “I’m interested in learning more about that, I think I’ll pursue it as a story” has been an extraordinary experience.

I should have known it was an exercise in futility, but I tried anyway: last week, I began making a list of my favorite people who I’ve encountered through the paper. A ridiculous, impossible task. I believe that one reason we are on this earth—why we have life—is to authentically know and be known; to touch the lives of others and to recognize, accept and appreciate when others are making a difference in our lives, no matter if this difference is so small it’s almost imperceptible or if it’s surprising or even uncomfortable. This is why every person I’ve interviewed and written about is meaningful to me—even the one whose home I fled in tears. There’s always a new knowing and, if we really get to talking and making a connection, there’s an exchange that leaves both of us enriched. I place tremendous value on this aspect of my work.

I cannot leave the COURIER without making sure my colleagues know how much I love them, admire them and will miss our newsroom conversations—both silly and serious. I suppose I could tell them in person, but the page is where I’m most comfortable and probably most honest. Kathryn and my front newsroom friends especially, both past and present, thank you. The space you allow for being real, for not being perfect, for being downright ridiculous or awful sometimes, is a gift of profound proportions. To just be ourselves without pretense, to feel equally comfortable with each other in our failures and our successes, to talk about things that typical colleagues do not talk about, I am grateful.

I feel slightly self-indulgent for writing this column, maybe even a bit embarrassed and audacious. After all, I’m not like syndicated columnist Ellen Goodman who crafted an incredibly moving farewell column after having started writing influential columns before I was born and won a Pulitzer Prize. But the COURIER has meant so much to me, and simply put, I wanted all of you to know that.

As for why I am leaving the paper, I will be joining the staff of Pitzer College full-time after 6 months of working with the institution in a freelance/consultant capacity. The position draws upon my strengths and passions, and I’m excited to bolster my connection with and service to the school that I have loved for so long and with which I have numerous ties. I celebrate that this job change means a geographic shift of less than a mile, allowing me to stay rooted in the Claremont community.

Thank you so much for working with me, enlightening me in so many ways and allowing me to be safely vulnerable in these pages; thank you for reading my writing and taking the time and heart to send your feedback when you were touched. Thanks, COURIER, for 10 extremely enriching, wonderful, slightly madcap years. 

—Brenda Bolinger



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