Monday, July 25, 2011

A lesson in journalism

Mark Henderson died Sunday.
I shouldn't be surprised, I knew it was coming. Not like Amy Winehouse I-knew-it-was-coming, but he had terminal cancer and had been told his days were numbered.
But I had something to give Mark, and I hadn't gotten around to it.

In April, a publisher asked me to write a book called The Afterlife Survey. It's a sampling of a bunch of different peoples' views on the afterlife, loosely hinged on a Pew Forum survey that said 74 percent of Americans believed in an afterlife.
They wanted a sample chapter from me immediately. This was a great opportunity, but had come at the wrong time -- I'd just been offered, and accepted, a perfect job back in my home state. I was getting ready to move, getting my house ready to sell, mentally preparing myself for a new job with new duties. But I knew it was too good an opportunity to pass up.
And I knew if anyone could bail me out, it was Mark. We were acquaintances. Facebook friends. Introduced by my sister a few years before when he was chaplain of the hospital she worked at. We had similar political views and both liked to talk -- she thought we'd hit it off.
We never really got to know each other well. We had one of those twenty-first century electronic acquaintanceships.
But I knew Mark had beat serious cancer a few years ago only to recently have it come back. I knew he was a minister, with a master's in divinity from Boston University, who had some intriguing views on religion. I knew that if anyone had some serious beliefs about an afterlife and would be willing to share them in a completely out of the blue request by someone he didn't know that well, it would be Mark.
And I was right. Not only did he say yes, but he embraced the idea.
I knew he was once again dealing with cancer, and he told me that is was terminal.
And he said, "So the idea of addressing questions about the nature of the 'apres vie' is not only something that I'd love to do as an intellectual exercise, drawing on my years of reflection/reading on the subject combined with my fairly vast experience dealing with death and dying, but something that is immediate and personal. I really see this wonderful coincidence as an opportunity to leave something of a legacy behind."

Some friends were stunned that I'd asked him. Wasn't it a little inappropriate? A little insensitive?
But that's what we do as journalists. We ask questions other people don't, or won't, and hopefully get some answers.
Not only did I know Mark would be okay with me asking, but I also thought, what kind of afterlife book would it be if I didn't survey someone staring down death's barrel?
And to top it off, it turns out that he was no longer a minister. He was now an atheist and didn't believe there was an afterlife.
He definitely had to be in the book.
So I sent my surveys out. Forty or 50 or so. I put an early deadline on them, hoping to get enough back to start writing the book.
The day before the deadline, in early May, I got an email from Mark. He wasn't doing so great and while he was still committed to taking part, didn't think he could make the deadline.
No problem, I emailed back. Take your time. If you're too weak to answer the questions, write out an essay based on them or something. Anything. Whatever you want.
I didn't hear back.
The days passed, my June 15 deadline for finishing the book neared, and still nothing from Mark.
I'd received a lot of great survey responses. Poignant, thoughtful. Some laugh-out-loud-funny. From people who practiced religion and people who didn't. From fundamentalist Christians and from atheists. A priest, a rabbi, a funeral director.
But I really, really wanted that survey from the guy who was dying, and knew there was nothing beyond that.
So in early June, after a lot of back and forth in my head about whether I really should, and checking Facebook to make sure he'd had recent posts so was still, presumably, healthy, I emailed him again. I apologized profusely if it was a bad time for him, but said I knew how much he wanted to take part. I wanted to be sure he knew I still wanted to have him.
But I didn't get an answer. I resigned myself to not having him, to the fact he was too sick, and this project just wasn't a priority.
But three days before the deadline, he answered. He'd been in the hospital -- his wife had been told he wouldn't make their anniversary (which was, in a jolting coincidence, the day I'd emailed him).
He didn't think he could answer the survey in writing -- he was having too much trouble focusing because of his meds. But he was willing to do it over the phone.
So the morning before the book was due, I got up early, brewed a pot of coffee, and gave him a call.
I'd assured him it would take half an hour, tops. We were on the phone for two hours.
And he was funny and articulate. He made sense. He was reasoned and passionate.
And he talked about measuring the days. How he'd rented a TV series, thinking he'd seen the whole thing, only to be find out part six was coming out Aug. 6. .
"And I wonder, 'will I be around to see it?' It gives me something to shoot for." And he said that with a laugh. And it struck me -- this is a guy who honestly doesn't know if he will be alive Aug. 6.
And while everyone trots out that tired old cliche about living each day like it is your last, the reality of it never really struck me until that moment.
And yet Mark could laugh about it.

I realized at the time it was the best interview I'd ever had in my 30 years in journalism -- someone who was being completely honest, opening his heart and his guts, making sure that I understood his point.
As a reporter, I've always favored the conversational interview technique, rather than the firing questions technique. So Mark and I had a long conversation. And he blew me away.
He was excited about the book. He felt it was his legacy. He felt he'd been given a big opportunity to say something. That it was a wonderful coincidence that my opportunity and his opportunity collided.
I dedicated the book to him and made plans to send him an early bound galley. I didn't tell him about the dedication, I wanted it to be a surprise.
I couldn't wait for him to see it. Couldn't wait to unveil the big surprise.
And then my sister sent me a simple text today: "Mark H. died yesterday."
I won't insult him further by saying he's "up there" somewhere, seeing all this play out and appreciating the role he played.
But if I've learned anything, it's this: Journalism is a funny thing.
A bunch of barely qualified talking heads on TV can inflame a nation about a woman (one of thousands every year) who may or may not have killed her child. Where people running for president of the United States can't get their simple facts right, but no one seems to think it matters and no one holds their feet to the fire on it.
Where if something can't be said in 146 characters, it's not really worth listening to.
It's not a world where many people will pay attention to the thoughts, given over a two-hour interview, of a dying man musing on the nature of god, an afterlife, and humanity in general.
Mark scoffed when I said what he was doing was noble. He said noble had nothing to do with it. There was nothing courageous about it. But this was all he had. There was nothing left. And he wanted to go out of this world being understood.
He didn't know me that well. We'd had one long, beer-fueled night talking a few years ago. Some back and forths on Facebook since.
But he knew I'm a journalist, so he trusted me to get it said.
I hope I did him justice.
And if any of us need a reminder about what journalism is -- I know I do these days -- that is it.