The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, June 28, 2005
LIFE, DEATH, AND AFTERMATH: Sunday I posted the news that my mother-in-law had died, and that the Pittsburgh paper had made some serious errors in its obituary. Meanwhile, Rona composed an e-mail on the same topic and sent it to a bunch of our friends. Her words are so much better than mine that I've decided to take down my little post and publish her letter instead:
Dear friends,

For those of you who haven't heard yet, I wanted to let you know that my mother died on Thursday after a long battle with ovarian cancer. She was 62 and had been fighting the disease for five years.

I was so proud of her -- she faced chemotherapy and multiple surgeries with immense courage and never complained or felt sorry for herself. Over the years, I often forgot she was even ill -- I'd call her and she'd be planting tomatoes or shopping for baby clothes.

The last three months, though, were the hardest. The chemotherapies that had left her nearly bald stopped working, and a difficult abdominal surgery to remove the cancer left her bedridden.

Many people would have given up much sooner under those circumstances, but not my mother. She was determined to make it to my brother's wedding on Memorial Day weekend (which she did) and the birth of our daughter (which, very sadly, she would not.)

I visited her as often as I could, but my advancing pregnancy (now in its 9th month) made it hard to care for her. After she died, I realized there was something I could do for her -- convince the local paper to run an obituary in the Sunday Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. After all, I had worked there, and I knew many of the editors.

I called and the city editor suggested I write something. No problem -- I had written obits for strangers many times, knew the format, and knew my mother better than I know almost anyone else. Just to make sure I didn't embellish it, I had my dad and older sister proofread it. I included contact numbers and even dropped off the photo myself.

The next day, over a picture of my mother, was this headline: "Helen Kobell, worked for IBM, National Labor Relations Board."

It went on to say that she had helped to found a national cancer organization, often led her fellow cancer survivors in prayer, and had flown planes over the Middle East as a physicist studying the effects of artificial rain to make the desert bloom. Later, she went on to serve as regional director of the National Labor Relations Board -- all while running a successful jewelry business and raising four children. To top it off, the photo they ran -- which we chose -- showed a beautiful woman in 1978. It was my mother before my brother was born, her hair windswept as she stood overlooking San Francisco Bay.

It was all so lovely. If only it were all true.

My father, who is alive and healthy, is regional director of the NLRB and has been for more than 20 years. Reporters at the P-G ought to know that -- several have covered him, and he tried to settle the Pittsburgh Press' newspaper strike 12 years ago.

My mother participated in her local ovarian cancer support group, but never founded any national organization. As far as praying with other survivors, I highly doubt it happened. As we told the obit writer (and there was no evidence he interviewed anyone else) my mother wasn't very spiritual and was so skeptical about religion that she was kicked out of Stern College at Yeshiva University for asking too many theological questions (a fact that also didn't make the obit).

And though my mother was a passenger on several air missions to study artificial rain, she never flew a plane. In fact, she'd only learned to drive a car in her 30s and still wasn't all that good at it in her 60s.

Initially, I was angry. I wanted a new obit. The paper would only run a correction and fix it on the website, and they only fixed the NLRB error.

But as I drove home to Baltimore today, I started to imagine my mother the way that half a million Pittsburghers would see her when they opened their Sunday papers: beautiful, courageous, and tough. I pictured her flying Red Baron-style over the Dome of the Rock, her long hair flowing over her aviator glasses as she communicated over the radio with the scientists at Terra Sancta. I imagined her settling labor disputes in-between coaching our soccer games, leading prayer circles after solving complex physics problems.

It made me smile to think of her that way, and I know she would have been tickled to see it. She was our mother and there wasn't a thing she wouldn't do for us. And for that, we will always see her as larger than life.

posted by Jesse 5:23 PM
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