My sofa is my habitat. If a five-year-old might draw a tiger lurking through a jungle or a shark prowling a coral reef, that same child would draw me sprawled out on my red-orange sofa bed, with my laptop, books or drawing board. Yes, I have a desk. Yes, I have a work table. But my favorite place to dream and write and binge on Netflix is my sofa. It's the same place where I choose to relax after a long day of work.
On Tuesday, August 5th, I retired to that same predictable spot. I had spent the morning writing articles and press releases for clients and the afternoon teaching a writing workshop to children. That evening, I had another short assignment due. I thought I would eat a quick dinner and clack away until I could finally have some fun. Instead, I received an email that ruined my night. A major tabloid wanted to know if I was available to work. The assignment? Interviewing the widow of the highest-ranked military officer killed in combat since the Vietnam War. This widow was practically my neighbor, living at most a five or ten minute drive from my apartment. The money was more than good; it was great. Yet my answer was no.
Grief may be private or it may be communal. Either way, it is a personal emotion, experience and era that you either choose to share or not. If you choose to share your grief, chances are you will only entrust your closest friends and family. You will not appreciate a stranger knocking on your door, asking you how you feel and snapping a picture of your devastated expression -- all within hours of your husband's tragic ending. You will either choose to go about your normal day with as much poise as you can muster or lock yourself away from the public. Your choice should not be the topic of any publication anywhere, unless you choose to write a personal essay or poem, which, again, is your choice. Otherwise, it is not a topic suitable for public scrutiny.
Suddenly my sofa felt stiff after reading that email. It even felt dirty. I noticed stains I hadn't seen before. I didn't want to stay there because that's where I had first read that vile request. So I picked up my computer, went to my bed and swaddled myself. I breathed in deep. My sheets were clean.
For the rest of the evening, I imagined the widow in the widow's dark home. All the lights off. The curtains drawn. Dinner sitting cold at the lonely table. Hours of crying and screaming and clenching her fists had exhausted her. At last, she sat in her husband's old armchair, saying and doing nothing but staring off into space. Perhaps the next day she would take a shower, eat a hot breakfast and try to regain some sense of normalcy by running her usual errands. Or perhaps she would not shower, not eat, not move. Either way, the choice was hers. To document that choice seemed perverse.
Journalists must not be shy. They must be able to start conversations, earn people's trust and ask the right questions. As a journalist, you must speak well and you must listen. While poets and novelists may have the luxury of holing away in a cabin in the woods and scribbling page after page on a university's or foundation's dime, a journalist does not. A journalist has the duty to inform the people, which means being among the people, but a journalist also has the duty to be decent to the people. Getting in a widow's face on the day her husband died does not qualify as decency.
I have since returned to my sofa, which is where I sit typing this. I wonder, too, if the widow has a preferred piece of furniture, but I feel no real impulse to investigate. May she grieve in peace.