A year or two ago I read an article in The New Yorker magazine about newspaper obituary enthusiasts. Apparently there are lots of people who love them as little miniature biographies of ordinary people, and for others I suppose it’s just a morbid curiosity. But ever since reading the article, I’ve tried to pay a little more opinion to that page in the newspaper, at least the feature-length story they seem to run most days under the banner “Life Stories”.
Today’s main Oregonian obit, about former psychologist Michael Rolfson, has particularly stuck with me. Apparently Rolfson grew up in the Portland area and worked here treating mental illness until he had to give up his career after developing afflictions of his own: agoraphobia and what sounds to have been schizophrenia. A burly former weightlifter with a thick beard, he had to sell his house and move into a low-income assisted living apartment with medical bills of $50,000 per year.
The story also goes on to describe Rolfson as a younger man, before his demons got the better of him, earning “multiple degrees in psychology, literature, literature and speech,” and having “once taught at several Portland colleges”. Generous to a fault, he would refuse to lock his door and maintained his faith even in those who robbed him. And despite what’s described as an ogre-like appearance, he was purportedly quite a lady’s man as well, having been involved in a “group marriage”—when else, but in the 70s.
I love the innocuous little details obituaries often provide, such as with Michael the fact that he loved the oyster beef at Hung Far Low, a Portland Chinese restaurant. Or that he “liked a cigarette and craved a snifter of the Christian Brothers he could not drink because of his medications”.
Not every obituary profiles such an interesting and ultimately tragic life (Rolfson died of heart failure at 60). But when done right this type of writing blends the important and mundane. I enjoy that because little details about people helps complete our picture of them. Yet unfortunately most non-obituary profiles are either too official or too trite, and rarely a nice balance of both . We are the sum of our greatest and worst deeds, but also so much in between.
That said, my motivation for writing about Michael Rolfson’s obituary is not to focus on his love of oyster beef, but rather to join the Oregonian’s obit page in briefly paying tribute to a guy my heart goes out to and, perhaps even more importantly, I would like to have known.