Thursday, October 26, 2006

Twilight Zone moment

Wally Guenther, my partner-in-grim at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio, wrote an obituary that appeared in today's (Oct. 26, 2006) paper for Nikki Kukwa, a remarkable 22-year-old Kent State University aviation student who died of leukemia.

Even the time of her death was remarkable. And somewhat eerie.

Wally writes: "Her favorite time of the day was 11:11 a.m.," an uncle, Rick Kukwa, of Philadelphia, said. "We don't know why, but when she saw the time on the clock she would always say, 'Make a wish.' "

Nikki Kukwa died at 11:11 a.m. Monday, her family said.

Please cue the "Twilight Zone" theme.


Anonymous said...

I'm a friend of Nikki's and let me tell you it's not a twilight zone moment, it's just testament to how amazing she was and still is.

Alana Baranick said...

Thanks for your comment, anonymous. You are the fortunate one for having known Nikki.

I didn't know Nikki, but I agree. She was amazing. I wish I had known her.

From the perspective of an obituary writer, I can tell you that it's difficult to pen an obit for a person like Nikki, who died way before her time.

We rely on documented information and personal recollections provided by family and friends in order to compose the story.

Often we don't have enough facts - interesting facts, significant facts - to merit our publishing an obit for someone that young. This is especially true at my paper, where we usually run only one or two reporter-written obits a day. But Nikki did a lot of notable things in her short life.

The people left behind tend to want to dwell on how the prematurely deceased died, rather than how she lived. And they also tend to want to make that person a saint without regard to flaws, quirks or details that make this person a genuine human being.

Wally Guenther found enough compelling and factual information - much of it from her university - to write Nikki's obit without having known her or having heard about her while she lived.

He may have had difficulty interviewing relatives whose grief was understandably overwhelming.

While I'm certain her uncle also was tremendously grieved, he gave Wally something out of the ordinary. Something more than the standard obitspeak to which we are accustomed and which adds nothing to an obit, such as "She was a loving, caring individual, who would do anything for anybody, never met a stranger and will sorely be missed by all."

But I get the impression that Nikki really did fit that bill.

I'd still like to know the story behind her saying "It's 11:11. Make a wish."

Anonymous said...

Im Nikki's cousin, Jennifer Anstine. It was not eerie, she just knew what she wanted.
Live, Laugh, Love.

Alana Baranick said...

Thanks for posting a comment, Jennifer.

I hope you don't think that "eerie" in the context of what I wrote was negative. Quite the contrary.

I could see that your cousin was an extraordinary person. And I didn't understand the "11:11, Make a wish" ritual.

Since then I've been enlightened. In a general sense, 11:11 is four ones, like four aces in a hand of poker. And I heard about an organization that wanted everyone to have a moment of silence or meditation at 11:11 a.m. on Nov. 11 for some kind of mystical unity of mankind.

So the idea of four ones is more common than I had considered.

But as an obit writer, as a human being who appreciates what seem to be coincidences and as a person who sees bridges - most likely imaginary - between folks who've gone on and the ones they've left behind, I love all of Nikki's 11:11s.

In my book, "Life on the Death Beat," I write about another Twilight Zone moment that still gives me goosebumps, especially at this time of year.

It was about an obituary I wrote that ran in the Dec. 25, 1997, edition of The Plain Dealer.

The man, who died, had been bedridden for a long time, I guess.

A couple of weeks before his death, his wife purchased a slightly damaged music box from a second-hand store. It was a toy church that played "Silent Night."

After a few days, it seemed to be missing. The family didn't realize it had fallen under the man's bed.

The night the man died, his family gathered around his bed to pray "The Lord's Prayer."

As they said in unison, "Amen," they heard from under the bed the little church playing the last line of the old Christmas carol: "Sleep in heavenly peace."

Eerie. Heavenly. I loved it.

Anonymous said...

Hello Alana. I am Nikki's uncle from Philly. You picked a good one to focus on here, as Nikki was an amazing person. Unfortunately I did not learn just how much so until it was too late. She taught me to get away from the tedium of everyday life, and pay attention to what is important ... the family and friends around us that enrich our lives. My goal is now to help her legacy live on at Kent State, with the Women in Aviation program she helped found. Thanks again for your comments and attention.