Please read aloud the following list of six “famous*” people:
- Waris Ahluwalia
- Gloria Macapagal Arroyo
- Varaztad Hovhannes Kazanjian
- Houa Vue Moua
- Larry Patten
- Vasyl Virastyuk
- Maite Perroni
Yes, there are seven names. You probably noticed that the guy alphabetically sandwiched between author Houa Vue Moua and actress Maite Perroni was the not-so-famous . . . me!
But wasn’t my name the easiest to pronounce?
Or was it?
The hospice where I work sponsors a annual celebration in early December dubbed the “Lights of Love.” People gather to witness the lighting of an immense artificial tree at a local shopping center. Partly we do this to raise funds, inviting folks to donate money for a symbolic light on the tree that will honor or memorialize a loved one. While much of the impetus for this celebration is tied to the Christian celebration of Christmas, our hospice (and hopefully every hospice) attempts to honor all faith traditions. We keep the “Lights” program simple, sometimes including songs from local choirs, and serving warm drinks and cookies to encourage mingling.
Most importantly, we read names.
This year we read about 450 names. Fresno, California is similar to many large cities with its mix of cultures, religions, and ethnic groups. The metropolitan area boasts citizens that speak at least 66 distinct languages. Whenever we honor those who have died, we have people (not unlike the list of “famous” persons at the top) from multiple regions and religions: Sikh, Filipino, Armenian, Hmong, Mexican, and Ukrainian. And where is my name from? It’s a stew of English, Scottish, and Scandinavian sources.
But at least my name’s easy to pronounce! Or is “Larry Patten” easy to pronounce by someone from an Afghanistan, Brazil, China, or elsewhere in the alphabet of global homes? Depending on where you are from and where you are, is every name difficult to pronounce?
For the last several years, I’ve been one of the readers at the gathering. Each names is precious. They are fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, sisters and brothers, children, uncles, best friends, grandparents, saints and sinners, infants and nonagenarians, and all part of an extended family. When reading, I feel bad when likely mispronouncing someone’s name. For example, Fresno has one of the largest Armenian populations in the world. As much as I know how to pronounce William Saroyan—from Fresno, Saroyan won the Pulitzer Prize in drama for 1939’s “The Time of Your Life”—other Armenian names can be, er, challenging. How about a scholar like Raffi Indjejikian or the musician Roupen Altiparmakian? I shudder! Of course, I’m sure everyone knows how to pronounce Kim Kardashian’s name. As much as I try, it’s hard to avoid a headline about her, or one of her body parts, in entertainment “news.” But even though Ms. Kardashian’s current popularity seems peculiar, I’m confident her name matters for those who truly love her.
Regardless of my pronunciation struggles, I am glad we make the effort to voice the names at the “Lights of Love” ceremony. Often, after death, we stop using a person’s name. We don’t want to cause tears in a bereaved family member. We don’t want to prompt our own tears. In some religious and cultural traditions, there are taboos about speaking a name. Nonetheless, in most cases, I urge people to “claim the name.” Don’t stop telling the “old” and “funny” stories that involved the one who has now died. The memories of mishaps and triumphs continue to help build an ongoing foundation for extended families. For those grieving, part of the healing journey includes sharing about a loved one and hearing their name spoken.
So, on a cool, windless December night, with a still dark “holiday” tree behind me, I read name after name. Each was a gift of not merely this season, but of a lifetime. Each was a light in someone’s life. Each name, even when I stumbled with pronunciation, was a shout-out that this person mattered and made a difference.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)
*My “famous” people, found whilst searching the Internet:
- Waris Ahluwalia – an actor, with a Sikh faith tradition
- Gloria Macapagal Arroyo – a politician from the Phillipines
- Varaztad Hovhannes Kazanjian – a physician, born in Turkish Armenia
- Houa Vue Moua – a writer, and Hmong
- Vasyl Virastyuk – an athlete from Ukraine
- Maite Perroni – a Mexican actress