The Words We Use when People Pass Away

Reed reported recently that two classmates from my undergraduate days had died. They were my age, naturally, so I was brought up short. Seventy-five is a respectable age for dying. Most of life’s experiences have been sampled: a career, marriage, family, and friends. Still, it is unsettling to read about the lives of acquaintances written in the past tense. “She lives in Pasadena,” and “She lived in Pasadena,” isn’t a matter of style; it’s the distance traveled between existence and nonexistence. That little “ed” at the end of a verb is a reminder to squeeze as much joy and adventure into every 24 hours as we can . . . while we lie above ground and not under it.

I don’t say living is easy. Disease and natural disasters are what flesh is heir to, not to mention the catastrophes we bring upon ourselves, like war. But Marcus Tullius Cicero grasped the essence of existence centuries ago (106–43 BC): “While there is life, there is hope.”

Connecticut lobsterman James Arruda Henry knew that truth as well. Illiterate all his life, he learned to read and write at 91. At 98, he has written his memoir, In a Fisherman’s Language, which will be published later this year. James Arruda Henry is a man very much in the present tense.

Reprinted from the blog Caroline Miller Write Away that was picked up in the April edition of the Oregon Women’s Report.

—Caroline Miller ’59, MAT ’65

Portland, Oregon