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posted: 12/21/2011 5:00 AM

Seeing life in the obit page

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It is a Monday morning and I begin my day, as I usually do, with the obituaries. This is a particularly rich day -- Vaclav Havel, the novelist, playwright and former president of Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic. He was 75. Kim Jong II, the quite mad dictator of North Korea, has also died. He was 69, more or less -- no one knows for sure. And Suzanne Hart has died as well. She stepped into a malfunctioning elevator and was crushed to death. She was a mere 41.

Of the three, Hart was the least conventionally important. She ruled no nation and she wrote no best-selling fiction and she did no time in jail as a dissident. She was merely another of Manhattan's myriad working women, a Midwesterner who came to New York and fell in love with place. She worked for an ad agency, just to sort of complete the cliche.

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I read the obits because they are all little lessons or mini-sagas, lives lived full and sometimes triumphantly. Kim was a clever little ogre, a ridiculously looking man in platform shoes and a bouffant hair style. He somehow managed to stay in power, feasting while his country starved and who played the United States for the fool. He had but one asset -- a nuclear weapons program -- and it served him fine. Kim not only knew what he wanted, he had what he wanted.

Havel was the stuff of heroes. He was brave in a way that's hard to fathom. His courage was not the episodic, flash bravery of combat -- or the dash onto the tracks to lift a fallen child out of a train's path. Instead, it was the day-to-day determination to stand up to a communist regime that sometimes killed its enemies but almost always imprisoned them until they broke and were tamed. You only have to read Milan Kundera, yet another Czech, to appreciate how brave Havel was. Like Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, Czechoslovakia's first president, Havel did not so much as govern -- although he did -- as embody an ethic, a Western-looking liberalism.

But for both Kim and Havel, their time had come. They were old, sick -- Kim from a stroke, Havel from a lifetime of heavy smoking and too many nights spent in dank jails. Hart was a different story. She personified not a death foretold but one so unexpected it makes one gasp. The elevator. We all fear elevators, but we all know -- at least we tell ourselves -- that our fears are not rational. There are multiple safety devices, brakes galore, gizmos to stop the fall.

With Hart, though, something happened. She stepped into the elevator. It shot upward and the door did not close. She was mangled. All of New York, a city whose arteries are elevators, stopped to gasp. 'Didja hear? Didja hear?" people said over and over again. It was like the elevator had attacked the woman -- yet another urban nightmare.

"If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans" is the way I have heard the familiar saying. My own version of this comes from when I was a young wire service reporter in New York and had to rewrite police reports. A guy in an office overlooking Times Square decided to put out the flag. He opened the window and aimed for the holder, when a gust of wind ripped the flag from his hand. It dropped seven stories -- and instantly killed a woman walking below. The lethal weapon was the brass American Eagle on the tip.

I wrote up the police report, but never forgot it. Much of life was in it -- a step faster, slower, a train missed, a breakfast taken or not taken. All this was the difference between life and death. I don't know if that woman had any plans. I do know no God could have laughed.

Suzanne Louise Hart lived in Brooklyn with an architect named Christian Dickson. Her paid death notice said she was "particularly interested in landscape architecture" and had entered the advertising business as a graphic artist. A tribe of friends and relatives are mentioned -- a father, a stepmother, a brother, nieces and nephews and countless others. In the accompanying picture, she smiles -- "a ray of sunshine wherever she went," the obituary said. It is indeed a smile that comes right off the page.

It was Monday, and as usual I had started with the obits. They are supposed to be about death. But they really are about life.

Richard Cohen's email address is cohenr@washpost.com.

2011, Washington Post Writers Group

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