If you work in a newsroom, you develop coping mechanisms for reading obituaries.
It is one of the last earthly services anyone will perform for those folks whose life stories are entrusted to us, and we treat each with great dignity and respect.
Like anyone who deals with grief and trauma, we also do our best to maintain our own sense of composure as we read and edit these heartbreaking biographies night after night. It’s not easy.
Some of us are hit hardest by the children, the young people, those called away from this life far too early. Others feel that all-too-familiar pang when we see the smiling photos of some sweet old lady whose children and grandchildren are now missing her the way we miss our own moms and nanas who have gone before.
He would be 102 today. But with nary a wrinkle on his young face or his crisp Navy uniform, the sailor stared back at us Wednesday night from across the decades.
We already knew that the Wanamie native was just 26 when he died at Pearl Harbor on the date that will live in infamy. We knew that his remains were coming home last week, finally identified thanks to the wonders of DNA testing and efforts by the Navy and Defense Department.
There were no surprises in the four paragraphs sent to us by the George A. Strish Inc. Funeral Home of Ashley. The surprise was in how much those simple words moved us.
Several staffers — one only a few years younger than Slapikas was when he was killed in service to this country — choked back tears. Seventy-six years later, here was Slapikas’ obituary in the local paper, taking its place among those of fellow Luzerne County residents. Many who shared the page with Slapikas had lived their entire lives in the decades since his ended.
His impending homecoming suddenly felt achingly real. The final chapter of Slapikas’ life story, to the extent that we will ever fully know it, now had the ending that had been missing for a lifetime.
When we edit the obituaries, it isn’t lost on us that they are written for the living, for people who are grieving. That was one of the reasons this one was so poignant. Slapikas’ parents, no doubt devastated, both followed him into eternity within a few years of Pearl Harbor. His siblings have all passed away as well.
It hurt deeply as we placed the words onto the page Wednesday night to think about those who had loved this young sailor: How they went to their own graves mourning the brave, good-natured man who never again laid eyes on this green valley where he loved to hunt and fish, and how much Saturday’s service would have meant to them.
As Hotko told reporter Bill O’Boyle in a story before the funeral, “Uncle Eddie” sent her a letter two months before the attack, saying he couldn’t wait to come home, as he was hearing reports of a Japanese attack coming soon.
Her last message from him was a Christmas card that arrived two weeks after the family was notified of his death.
“I thought he must be still alive — that it was all a mistake,” Hotko said. “But I was only 12; I really didn’t understand.”
Maybe none of us will ever understand.
All we can say is thank you, Eddie. Welcome home.
– Times Leader