In 1979 William Saroyan published an oddly overlooked book titled Obituaries. Or maybe, given the title, understandably overlooked. He went through the list of deaths for 1978 in an early January issue of Variety and wrote about each person named—whether or not he knew the individual. The book rambles and is sometimes hard to read, but it is also pure Saroyan and his unique testimony to the wonder of living.
I offer another kind of death list. I didn’t intend to stay quiet for so long on this blog, but a number of deaths overwhelmed me. I’ve stayed away from writing and editing projects. After a long year, let me recount a chain of deaths that froze me.
Alfred Kamajian, died June 23, 2018. An artist and a musician and one of my three first-cousins. We were family allies in the midst of frequent family chaos. Known to most people solely by his last name, Alfred specialized in scientific illustration, doing work for the Scientific American, Omni, and other magazines and journals. He produced art for the American Ophthalmology Institute, and you may see his work when you visit an eye doctor. He also did cover art for Batman comic books. He played drums in clubs in the Baltimore-DC area. He and I jammed when he was an adolescent and I a young adult, but we were unable to connect musically in more recent years, though our conversation became richer.
Carole Perdue Farr, died August 13, 2018. While I was in Maryland after my cousin’s death, my friend Mike Farr called to inform me of his wife’s death. Carole Louise Perdue Farr had a Ph.D. in library science. She had been a vocalist and loved to participate in musical theater. One Sunday afternoon when we were all in graduate school, a friend and I visited the Farr apartment when The Sound of Music came on the television. While my friend and I began making sarcastic and satiric comments about the songs and dialogue, Carole became defensive and then she went to the bedroom and returned with a sword, chasing us out of the apartment. Apologies all around, but later and after the movie. I miss her.
Michael Paul Farr, died September 13, 2018. Husband of Carole. Mike and I worked together on a garbage truck during our last year of college and went on to university together. He embellished stories about our adventures. Mike was a Methodist minister for a time, then went through several vocational chapters before returning to school to become a Registered Nurse. He may have been the only R.N. with the M.Div. degree. In the days when I rode a Honda 350, he urged me to prove that the bike was capable of highway speeds with two people on it. I proved that it could—and confirmation came from a highway patrol officer. Mike paid for half of that speeding ticket.
Rita Callis, died October 5, 2018. Rita was a clergywoman in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church. She and I served as pastors of eight neighboring churches—four churches for each of us—long ago. We bonded then, but as with many friendships, time and distance stretched the connection so that over the last twenty years we saw each other only once a year. Rita was always pastoral and always a seeker of justice. She encouraged many to stand for justice for all people.
Steve Roberts, died October 20, 2018. Steve was a member of a church of which I was once the pastor. A month before my arrival, Steve wrote a letter of welcome and offered some insights into that lakeside community. When I moved from that community to Nashville, Steve offered a prayer of blessing and a gracious letter followed the move. While we did not agree on all things Christian or church, we engaged in conversation and that continues to be the important reality of any relational connection.
Alan Shipp, died October 22, 2018. Here I will be like Saroyan and write about someone I did not really know. That’s not exactly true. I talked with Alan one time. At a wedding where he was part of the receiving line. Where when we were introduced, he said, “I’ve heard a lot about you” and I laughed in a Saroyanesque way. Alan was married to a friend who was a turning point for me, and that makes all the difference. A scientist and an entrepreneur and one active in church and community, Alan died after a long bout with cancer. His illness was part of an ongoing conversation among several friends and we engaged in much prayer for Alan and family, prayers that continue.
Ginna Minasian Dalton, died February 2, 2019. Ginna was the older daughter of my godparents, and she was my older sister. Ginna was ordained clergy in the United Church of Christ. She wrote curriculum and other resources for Protestant churches and for the Armenian Apostolic Church. She was also a truthteller. Ginna experienced rape and broke the silence about that experience so that others could speak about their experiences of sexual violence. Her lone failure, and an abysmal one, happened when she tried to teach me to dance.
Sam Malamis, died March 16, 2019. Sam and I were friends from childhood. In adolescence we played in rock bands. He was a drummer. We also bought fast cars that needed continuous work so we learned about those mechanics in his back yard. Sam died from the effects of Parkinson’s disease, which he had for twenty years.
Mesrob Mutafyan, died March 20, 2019. Archbishop Mesrob, the Armenian Patriarch of Constantinople. To be an Armenian Church leader in Turkey is no easy matter. We became friends when he emailed about a book I edited. I replied, but then made a joke about a gray-bearded Armenian archbishop and email. He responded, “This gray-bearded Armenian archbishop is 42 years old.” Our friendship focused on books and church. He tried to convince me to become an Armenian priest, which I resisted. Mesrob attended the University of Memphis as an undergraduate and he hoped to visit Tennessee again, a trip I also anticipated. He did not return. In 2008 Mesrob could not longer function and became vegetative because of early-onset dementia. Politics of church and state kept him in office until his death at age 62.
Obituaries matter for many reasons. They remind us of the impact other lives have on us. As Saroyan might also write, we celebrate these lives with gratitude because we are still alive.