Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Fascinating Life . . .

I come from a long line of obituary readers, and yes, I too love a well written obit. I have learned since reading them that there are journalists who specialize in the craft of obituary writing,  that there is an an association that serves these journalists, and that the grand stage of obit writing, the Met, if you will, is the New York Times obituary section, which features obituaries on national and international luminaries, as well as the locally famous and infamous. I have read on those pages the obituaries of politicians, football players, and priests. Until a few years ago, I saved the news clipping if I particularly liked the obituary, now I save the file.

A few weeks ago, one man's obituary grabbed my attention. I had heard of  him, though I had never read his story, nor had I seen the movie based on his life. I am referring to Mr. Kim Peek, who is best remembered as the person on whom was based the Oscar winning movie, Rain Man. Mr. Peek was born with "severe brain abnormalities," according to the Times, and was, early in life, incorrectly diagnosed as autistic. The unusual brain problem resulted in similar symptoms to autism. These malfunctions left him unable to perform simple physical actions, like brushing his teeth, for most of his life. But he could do unusual things like read facing pages in a book at the same time. One page for each eye. And remember what he had read, including works of Shakespeare and classical music compositions.The obituary states that he read 12,000 books this way and that he could memorize but not conceptualize.

When I read a story about someone who is a little different than the average man on the street, I think of the idea of a person. That in every man is imparted something Divine, or to use the Genesis imagery, that God "breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."  And that I am a full person when I am missing an arm or an eye, or when my brain is "wired" abnormally.  Likewise, I am still a person when my "soul" is corrupted, even to the point of the most heinous crimes. That Divine Breath is there in every man and woman, combining flesh and spirit in some mysterious totality in the person, imperfect as he or she may be. This is an enjoyable puzzle to me and something I will never fully understand.

Mr. Peek was loved and cared for by his father after his parents' divorce, and eventually gained some ability to develop and maintain friendship and to converse. The most telling proof of this was described by the obituary writer at the end of his piece, which is best read, as written:
Though his social skills never fully developed, he grew to be outwardly engaging. He enjoyed being among people in his travels and became comfortable as something of a showman. He began developing mental skills he had never had before, like making puns; his coordination slowly improved, to the extent that he could play the piano. He became more self-aware, even displaying a certain social agility.

During a presentation Mr. Peek gave at Oxford University in England, after he fielded students’ questions about the Lusitania and about British monarchs, a young woman stood and asked him, “Kim, are you happy?”

“I’m happy just to look at you,” Mr. Peek said.
Mr.Kim Peek died at the age of 58, apparently, a happy man.

To read the full obituary from the New York Times, click here.

3 comments:

Steven said...

Well done on this one, Francis. Another thing we have in common -- the love of a well-written obituary. I keep the NY Times, Washington Post and Times of London RSS feeds in my newsreader. There are plenty of ordinary yet extraordinary people in this world. A great obituary makes you glad to be alive and part of it all.

Sunni R. said...

this made my eyes tear up!

Francis Shivone said...

Steven -- I have the same response. Also, I think I heard that the Times of London is the grandfather of the obit, I need to look into their RSS feeds. Thanks.

Sunni -- I saw about 10 minutes of a video on Kim and his father was devoted to his son. It is a very touching story made all the more interesting when Kim starts reciting dates and names from memory.