I’ve blogged previously about a writer’s sphere of influence, but sometimes you really just don’t know what kind of impact you’ll have on other people’s lives.
Last Friday morning while I was out hiking the banshee (husky dog), I received a call from the daughter of a couple I’d interviewed several months ago for my monthly “Northwest Love Story” series in The Oregonian. It was the kind of call I’d dreaded, though this is the first time it’s happened: Guan Wing Sang, whom I’d interviewed about her 70-year marriage to her husband Robert, had passed away.
The daughter, Jean, was in tears as she relayed the news. She wanted help formatting her parents’ article so it could be handed out at the memorial service, but she also wanted to let me know how important that interview had been to her parents and to the family.
All I’d done was conducted an hour-long interview and written up a Q&A for the newspaper, or so I’d thought. After that interview, and the subsequent article that ran in May, Robert took a new interest in his wife’s life. Jean told me that while he’d already written his own autobiography and had been urged by his family for year to write his wife’s life story, he sat down with her only after my interview with them. Jean said that he starting asking his wife all sorts of questions about her life before they were married, and that in what turned out to be the last weeks of Guan Wing’s life, he wrote her biography.
So Jean was calling to thank me for making this happen. I protested that I’d merely asked a few questions. I was just doing my job.
“No,” Jean replied. “You were that necessary catalyst. That article was so important to my family. If you hadn’t done the interview, my father wouldn’t have written her biography. That article brought my parents closer together, right at the end.”
I was floored, not just by this phone call but also by the follow-up emails I received from Jean and her sister, Margaret.
“Your article brought my mother, father and our family a lot of joy and we are grateful that they received the recognition for their long and happy marriage and life together,” Margaret wrote. “We would like to once again thank you for telling their story.”
It’s not that I never thought of my interview subjects as real people?it’s actually quite the opposite. I’ve been touched by each one of these couples I’ve had the honor to interview for this series, and I’ve learned from them all. I do my best to present their story to newspaper readers, but it is more than a job for me. I just never stopped to think about what kind of an impact I might be having on them.
One couple sent me home with a home-baked apple pie. Another gave me some salmon their son had caught. A few weeks ago, one couple sent me flowers, and they’ve invited us to go hiking with them this summer (and I get the feeling Mike and I will struggle to keep up with these very active 80-plus-year-olds).
I do hear about how fun the interviews were, and what a kick the neighbors, kids, grandkids and great-grandkids got out of reading the articles. But this was the first time I had someone tell me that the simple act of showing up and showing interest ended up changing the dynamic of a 70-year-old partnership for the better.
I wasn’t able to make it to Guan Wing’s memorial service. I was touched the family wanted to invite me. And, yes, when I had a few minutes to myself and could let the news of Guan’s passing sink in, I sat down and cried.
Creative Commons photo by josefnovak33.