"Each man's life touches so many other lives," says Clarence, the angel.
A shell-shocked George Bailey, standing in a graveyard, turns slowly and stares into the middle distance. He is here because he almost took his own life out of desperation. Clarence's last, ditch effort to make George see his personal value, has brought them smack into the middle of an alternate universe, one without any record of George. He is horrified at what he almost threw away. He is grateful for his wife, his children, his crumbling old house, his crazy uncle, his deaf ear, his quiet, quaint hometown. George runs back to all of it, begging, "Please God, let me live again."
The snow begins to fall, collecting on George's coat; his lip begins to bleed, the petals appear in his pocket.
My church put on a production of It's a Wonderful Life some years ago. Though I'm a born Mary (good, plainer than pretty, funny, unwaveringly loyal), I was cast as Violet, the town tart, a role originally made famous by blonde vixen Gloria Grahame. (Okay, who am I kidding? I've got a little of that in me, too.) I had a couple of the best lines in the play. When George asked where I got my dress, I said, "This old thing? Why, I only wear it when I don't care how I look." Wink. The cast had a ball, and the community loved it, too.
But a few months later, our church family was shaken by a suicide. The man, ironically, had been a member of the Wonderful Life cast. I didn't know him well, but he'd seemed like a happy guy. Tall, slender, with a handsome, crooked smile. He'd been our Ernie the Cab Driver, George's good friend. That this man took his own life was irreconcilable to me. How could anyone be that close to the moral of this particular story, and not carry it with him, protected from doubts about his own value for life?
But I forget that not everyone has the movie memorized the way I do. I know it by heart, from the very beginning, those opening voice-over prayers from George's mother, daughter, wife, and friends. Burt the cop says, "He never thinks about himself, God. That's why he's in trouble." Ernie says, "George is a good guy. Give him a break, God."
Each man's life touches so many other lives.
Today, as I perused a website dedicated to news from my hometown of Livermore, California, I happened across
the obituary of a man named Ken Limtiaco
. He died unexpectedly this summer, at the age of 50.
I never met Ken, but his tire shop was down the street from the first home I shared with my husband. Because Jonathan knew Ken, we took our cars to his shop exclusively. Every time Jonathan (or his dad, who referred us to Ken in the first place) spoke about Ken, I heard only the best things. I've recommended Ken's Tire Service to friends and family for years based simply on the knowledge that my husband and father-in-law, who are both fine men and good judges of character, considered Ken to be honest, helpful, and expert.
Stumbling upon news of Ken's passing was tough. I let Jonathan know right away. He said, sadly, "It was nice to read through so many of the comments on that article."
I went back to Ken's obituary. Indeed, running below it were dozens and dozens of comments left by people who all had something to share about their long relationships with Ken. He gave sound advice. He offered coffee. He reached out to people who were down on their luck. He treated people with respect. He was a straight-shooter. He embodied integrity.
This man who sold tires for a living, this mechanic, had touched these people. Hundreds more showed up at his memorial service to pay their respects and support his family.
In one of my other favorite films, The Big Chill , which is far less wholesome and moral than It's a Wonderful Life , Jeff Goldblum's character is at the funeral of a close friend and whispers to someone, "Amazing tradition. They throw a great party for you on the one day they know you can't come."
It's true. We memorialize our dead. We throw "celebrations of life" for those who are no longer with us, something which could be ironic or morose, but we're too busy grieving or catering to social norms to notice. More than once, my own father has mentioned that he doesn't want us to do anything like that for him when it's his turn to go. This is ridiculous for a thousand reasons, not the least of which is that he is beloved and remembered by hundreds and hundreds of his students, as well as many co-workers, former classmates, and his family. When Dad's gone, the rest of us get to decide how to handle it. He won't be around to control it. (Which, if it weren't so sad, might even be refreshing.)
These memorials aren't for the dead, really. They're for us, the ones left behind to make sense of the timing, or to accept the lack of sense. The ones who still have to run errands, raise children, eat food, laugh, and achieve. Getting together to appreciate the one we lost is about knowing we aren't alone.
Before my grandmother's coffin was closed and taken to the hearse which would bear her to the crematorium, my cousin Becky slipped a small paper bag in next to our family's beloved matriarch. In one of their last conversations, Grandma had said to Becky, "Bury me with some food." (Grandma had long since stopped being entirely lucid.) In the bag was a pastry from the local bakery, Grandma's favorite. Even in our mourning, we all had a good laugh at that one. After the funeral, we gathered at my aunt's house and played a game of Scrabble in honor of Grandma Dot, the greatest Scrabble player of them all.
But people need this level of appreciation, this great party, the donuts and the Scrabble, before they go. Even those of us who don't consciously struggle with life's eternal Why? are heartened by the knowledge that they are valued, that we've done some good. Dad is lucky because he's a teacher, a good teacher, and the aforementioned students often swing back by his classroom, years after they graduate 6 th grade, to thank him for being Mr. P., their favorite teacher of all time.
I hope that Ken knew how much he had done for the Livermore community, and that people thanked him profusely and paid their bills on time. Not everyone gets a Mr. Holland's Opus-sized thank you in the end. But knowing how many referrals Ken received from our family alone is encouraging. He was loved by those who knew him and respected even by those who didn't. Each man's life touches so many other lives.
Our thoughts and prayers are with Ken's family.