The upside of covering death

*Note: I wrote this more than three years ago. Looking at drafts, I almost want to vomit at the thought of being this person, yet there are parts of it I miss so much. I’m still thankful to have a creative career that allows me to visit the lives of people in such an intimate way. It really is a blessing.*

Last Monday when I received an e-mail about an Aiken soldier dying in Afghanistan, my heart sank. And then this horrible thought creeped into my head. “Automatic 1A”

It’s the cat’s meow to be on the front page. I’ve tried to act like I don’t care, but I still get excited when I see my name on the first page of the newspaper. If I didn’t, I think I should quit.

Yet, knowing that something awful in someone else’s life will only benefit me is hard to swallow. I’ve found myself randomly praying more often than usual for this man’s family partly as a way to atone for the acknowledgement of self gain. And then I pray again and try to be more genuine.

As we waded through the initial news last week, I couldn’t wait to pounce so it would be my story and not two weeks of double bylines. If there’s one morbid thing I’ve learned, it’s that I’m good at reporting and I can get people to talk about their loved ones. The story practically writes itself because there’s nothing descriptive I could write that is more poignant than their memories of their loved ones. And in the immediate motions of grief, families remember the tiniest details as they try to hang on to every memory of that person. Saying it out loud makes it tangible and makes the person as present as possible.

I was horrified when I was shut out by this soldier’s family. As I said the words “I understand” my face was a mask of disbelief and ‘tude. If they just talked to me, it would be a great honor to their father. The newspaper could be a keepsake.

Seriously, why would they want a keepsake though? They just want their dad. I wasn’t giving them anything.

Journalism’s a selfish business of asserting that it’s a privilege to be allowed into people’s lives while partially feeling that it’s a right. It’s never a right, but in your gut you know that if that story is shared it will be read. You’re there to serve the readers by providing insight into people’s lives behind closed doors. Aaaannndd…I get a 1A.

As the two weeks leading up to Mr. Harley’s burial have churned away, I’m realizing more and more though that I’m the privileged one to be exposed to so many facets of life – even unpleasant ones – to truly see what humanity is about.

After the funeral while trying to determine which granddaughter of Mr. Harley’s received the flag from his coffin, his daughter so graciously turned around from the family car to come back and give me the correct spelling and her daughter’s age. She was pleasant and seemed relieved that the moment was captured and grateful that I didn’t pressure her for additional time or information.

Allison coming back to answer that one question made me want to write something that did honor her father rather than producing something that would earn me kudos. I’m proud I got to be a part of those moments regardless of where the stories ended up in the paper.