PW: The narrator in “Half a Man to Bury” describes a small moment of generosity from his uncle at the country club as the most human, most essential thing to know about his uncle. Why do such small acts stand out so much in our memories rather than, say, a person’s bio or resume or accomplishments?
MC: Memories are stories. When a person dies, we turn to whatever stories we have available. For some people, this will be the obituary/eulogy version of the person’s life: the bullet point, greatest hits version. Others will be left with more detailed memories of the deceased: moments of generosity or pettiness or kindness or dishonesty, and those little stories that people hold onto become, for better or for worse, the essence of who we are when we’re dead, even if they’re never committed to an official record.
David Eagleman has a short story called “Metamorphosis” in which he imagines a lobby where dead souls wait to be forgotten. He writes about how your final death occurs when your name is spoken for the last time; how for some people, this could take hundreds or thousands of years; how for others, it could be within a lifetime or less. At some point, though, everyone is forgotten, and that’s when you truly cease to exist.
I hadn’t read this when I wrote “Half a Man to Bury,” but something similar was on my mind, I think. To state the obvious: people are known in different ways by different people. There was a man I read about before I wrote this story who was attacked by a shark. He didn’t die, but I thought it was odd that his trauma could be packaged in a couple hundred words and presented to me so cleanly. I had an uncle-in-law who died unexpectedly (no sharks involved) when I was young, and, for whatever reason, I thought of him when I read about the shark attack. I have only one clear memory of my uncle-in-law. Obviously, though, my aunt and my cousins and my mother and my father all knew my uncle-in-law better and differently than I did, and he was a different person to each of them. And while “Half a Man to Bury” isn’t meant to be about the real man who was attacked by a shark, or about my uncle-in-law, there’s something in the idea of how we know people differently and how we remember them differently, and how we recreate those people through remembering, that was evoked for me in the intersection of these two real stories.
We tell stories about the dead to affirm that they were known, and to comfort ourselves that we will be remembered. So even though the narrator only has one clear story of his uncle that is his own, it’s a story he is compelled to tell.