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agony column NOUN: A newspaper column containing advertisements chiefly about missing relatives or friends.

Memento Mori

Be Mindful of Dying

Commentary by Rick Kleffel

On Monday, March 25, 2002, my father-in-law, John Richardson Stephens passed away after a long battle with Alzheimer's disease. It's been a difficult three weeks for the family, and has necessitated an interruption in this column and most of my other activities as well. He is survived by a wife, a sister, two sons and two daughters. He will be greatly missed by all who knew him.

A lot of the fiction I write about deals with death in all its forms. I read about death all the time, and write about what I read pretty easily, but when it happened to John, it pretty much shut me right up. John was loved by his family and friends, and he'll live in their memories, re-created again and again in their thoughts. Everything I write is colored by the memories of those I currently know and have known. It's going to take a couple of steps back then a couple of steps forward to find the voice I use to create these columns. This is that voice.

In the interim, I've been reading as fiercely as ever. The fiction I've read is likely to stand out more starkly in my long-term memory. It's likely to touch me a bit more deeply than it otherwise might have. Some books stand out in memory because they stand out, and some books stand out as well because of what was passing in life when they were being read. I find that some books help tie me more firmly to events that might otherwise seem transient. I read 'Perdido Street Station' during an insomniac night spent on the USS Hornet with my son's Cub Scout Troop. I roamed the corridors of the deserted ship looking for places I could sit and read while my son and his friends managed to actually sleep in the coffin-like bunks. The night passed and dawn arrived, gray and anonymous. But as the book is sealed in my memory, so the night on the Hornet is as well. Connection, disconnection. Shelved and retrievable.

The books that seems likely to be shelved with this memory are Neal Asher's 'The Skinner' and John Courtenay Grimwood's 'Pashazade'. I've already marked in my brain moments of enjoying the blue, oceanic feel of 'The Skinner', the ancient, indestructible pirates strangely calm in a deadly world. 'Pashazade' is a weirdly affecting concoction, neither mystery nor SF, a whole world unto itself. The reviews will come. The skew will be evident, then slope off slowly, as the drone of life subsumes the singularity of death. One step, one life, one day at a time. I'll bring back the regularly scheduled commentary on Monday, April 15, 2002.


Rick Kleffel