Guest Column: Stories We Tell

Guest columnist Susan Stubson writes, "Is an obituary for the living or for the dead, an opportunity to rewrite grandma’s story or a last ditch attempt to make nicey nice with the one you couldn’t while they were alive?"

CSD Staff

February 10, 20245 min read

Stubson 2 9 24
(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

My friend Rick passed away last month.  He was a cowboy, a fearless bareback rider. He was also a quadriplegic, a hazard of said rodeo.

Paralyzed at the age of 23, he spent the next 43 years in a wheelchair, a life punctuated by daily struggle. No one would have faulted him for being a resentful arse but he was not that. He lived a life of joy, taking delight in others. 

My friend Bobbi Barrasso also passed away recently. You may have heard. Her memorial service was a blanket of comforting stories of a Big Beautiful Life.

Bobbi was a mentor to me. She was there at the right time providing wise counsel when I didn’t know I needed it. When I met Bobbi, I was at the beginning my adult life; young married, new mom, baby lawyer and a political spouse. 

She was a study in graciousness, perfecting the art of holding your tongue.  I’m still working on this.

Years ago, at a county GOP convention someone asked me to kick off the event with the Star Spangled Banner. I’m a classical pianist. I don’t do spontaneous. I practice everything. A lot.

Rattled and nervous by all the fancy people in the room, I blazed in and played the first “Oh Say Can You See” bars, then promptly forget the rest of the chords, musically hightailing it to the barn for the final “and the Home of the Brave." 

Bobby was the first to rise up, applauding just a little too vigorously, bringing the confused crowd with her. She gave me cover. Through the years, she had many opportunities to save me from myself.

Rick and Bobbi’s lives are worth re-telling. What about the rest of us? Those imperfect souls who, left to our own devices would prefer a strong skid through the worst parts of us. It’s time like these I think I better get cracking on my ultimate Mission Statement. 

Is an obituary for the living or for the dead, an opportunity to rewrite grandma’s story or a last ditch attempt to make nicey nice with the one you couldn’t while they were alive?

Who doesn’t love a great obituary, a juicy three-minute read, a distillation of a life well spent with a nugget or two of fragility? Humans are complicated. Why ruin the charade by being honest? Publicly acknowledge Auntie Mae, a disagreeable prig who swore like a millennial? Probably not.

On the flip side, glossing over our dearly departed’s warts seems a disingenuous strike for the dead and a foul ball for the living. We might not be a Despicable but if you are concerned what your “loved ones” might say when you’ve lost your say, you might consider taking your life into your own pen. That way, everyone is pissed.

Exhibit A: when I announced I was writing my own obituary, my son Finn retorted, “That’s so selfish. You should at least let us screw it up for you.”  My thoughts exactly.

  My obit will hover somewhere in middle earth, a balance between fact and fiction, tilting toward hyperbole. What better way to cement all the half-truths I’ve cooked up thus far than to permanently grout it into the family lineage?

In order to help my family - and to make sure no one botches it - I’ll draft several alternate endings, depending on, well, the ending. 

If I’m ultimately felled by a slow-drip disease and my family is forced to go along for the ride, rather than writing what they were really thinking (“She was pathetic, sniveling, high maintenance neonate, a stranger to courage.”), I’ll write: “In the end, she had the fury of a cage fighter, bare knuckling the disease to a woozy pulp. Due to her tenacity and socio- and political efforts to find a cure, the CDC recently deemed the disease eradicated.” Reports of my death have been largely exaggerated indeed. By me.

Oh, that I could choose this elegy, an ode to my sense of adventure and pronounced lack of judgment: “She died in an avalanche, having slipped under the ski area boundary rope, triggering a slide.  As the snow packed into her lungs, she looked over at her cow dog [middle earth, remember!] gliding above the snow, ears flapping in the storm. High on the ridgeline, she saw her friend Peter (what a Saint!) waiving at her to join the banquet, gesturing to the seat reserved for her. 

As the peace of the snow contracted into her airways, she pressed closer to her Maker. She thought of her precious family. She saw her boys, their sweet, smelly salts.  She delighted in the terror of raising them. She caught her beloved’s eye. She marveled at their trials, the hard complexity of the life they’d built. Pure joy.  They smiled. 

She drew her last breath and thought, “Whee. That was fun.”

Susan Stubson is a 6th generation Wyomingite. She is a writer, a pianist and an attorney. 

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CSD Staff