Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Too Much Information

For no reason, I googled a pair of my favorite high school teachers the other day. They were nuns — sisters to be precise — and they both remained friends of mine for a time after I graduated and went away to college. I kept in touch until my sophomore or junior year, when I made my getaway from Catholicism and decided I couldn't possibly explain it to them. That was silly of me. I can see now that they would have at least tried to understand, and it wouldn't have changed our friendship, even if they did harbor secret hopes of my entering the convent, too. (I came pretty close, actually.)

I checked out their Order's web site, and found out that my English teacher had died the month before, in a car accident. She was a vibrant 72 and was much beloved, especially for her work leading religious retreats at the Jersey shore. I read her obituary, which told me that she hadn't changed substantially since I knew her. She'd always been an exceptionally kind, thoughtful, and spiritual woman. But she was also funny and sarcastic — irresistible traits in a nun. I remember that we were inspired by a lot of the same music and poetry. She was perpetually cheerful, always busy, interested in everything. Those qualities had only deepened through the years, according to her obituary. It was clear that her life was rich and fulfilled before it was cut off so suddenly.

Once I got over the shock of the news (and the strange timing — why had I been thinking so much about her after more than 30 years of separation?) I was sad to realize that we'd never get back in touch. It was sadder still to think of how devastated her fellow sisters, friends, and family must be. Sudden deaths are terrible losses to cope with, no matter how much faith you have.

The obituary only described her death as occurring after an auto accident. I needed to know more. Who was at fault? Had she been hit by a truck, a teenager, a drunk? Were other nuns injured? Or was she alone?

I can find almost anything on Google and, sure enough, I quickly found the story, in the cache of the Asbury Park Press. It gave her birth name (which I'd accidentally discovered in high school, much to my delight and that of a few pals) and said she'd been driving alone in the early afternoon. It was a single-car crash, still under investigation. Then it provided a few vivid and unsparing details about what had happened to her, the car, and the guardrail, and described the aftermath. It even gave the exact time she'd been pronounced dead.

I suppose this is nothing more than factual, thorough news reporting, but it floored me. I didn't need this level of information. No one needed to read those gory details besides the police. I hope I eventually forget them, although I probably won't.

I don't know why I expected to be comforted by whatever I discovered, but that was my hope. And I guess it does help me to know that no one else was hurt by her apparent lapse of consciousness. I simply could not imagine her harming anyone else in any situation, even this one. And that's all I wanted to know.

It will be a long time before I read another article about a similar tragedy without wondering how the details are affecting the bereaved. I'm sure that journalists believe there is a fine line between sensationalism and responsible reporting in such situations. But the other day, I found it. It seemed huge, and it pained me.

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