What’s In a Name?
Alphabet of names in a green field.
Names in the small tracks of birds.
Names lifted from a hat
Or balanced on the tip of the tongue.
Names wheeled into the dim warehouse of
So many names, there is barely room on the
walls of the heart.
— From “The Names” by Billy Collins, former
poet laureate of the United States, dedicated to the victims of
September 11 and their survivors.
Funerals and weddings. As a young man, I hated them. One marked the dark moment
when those of us who remained were forced to
accept that life had shifted, leaving us to forge
on without our fallen friend. And funerals were
even worse. But as the years have progressed, I’ve
come to enjoy weddings and funerals, although
“enjoy” seems incongruous for a funeral. Maybe
“appreciate” is more appropriate. Weddings and
funerals are among the few occasions when we purposefully gather, often with people we haven’t
seen in years or decades, to appreciate the
good times we’ve had and look forward to
those yet to come.
My son got married recently, which is
weird because he’s only six years old —
in my mind, anyway. One day he was
sprawled on the living room floor playing velociraptors-versus-Barbie with
his sister and the next he was walking
down the aisle. A large percentage
of the people I know best were there
for the ceremony, including my mom
as well as the extended family of my
ex-wife, a group of relatives for which there is
no adequate name. Ex-in-laws? That doesn’t
seem right, as we remain on good terms. And, of course,
there were my new in-laws, who are equally fine people. At
a period in history when you can’t avoid hearing about the
latest shooting, stabbing, or bombing, here for a couple of
hours was a building full of people just having a good time,
celebrating two kids starting their life together.
I found myself doing the things you only do at this kind
of event, like shaking my son’s lifelong buddies’ hands and
thanking them for being lifelong buddies to my son, even
though they were the same punks who used to shoot paint-
balls at our cars when we left them home alone. I congratu-
lated the father of the bride for having such a nice family,
then danced with his wife, and my mom. I even wore a bow
tie for the occasion, and I hate bow ties. That is, I used to
hate bow ties. But I bought one (a real one, not the clip-on
kind) and spent the better part of an evening watching You-
Tube videos on how to tie it. It was more complex and subtle
than I had realized. But the effort I had to put in made me
appreciate it. I was proud to show up with my fairly-well-
executed bow tie and may wear it for the next wedding or
funeral to which I’m invited.
Another reason I have come to appreciate these family-oriented events is that, genetically speaking, I was plunked
down on this planet randomly. I was an adopted child with
no siblings, and I adopted my kids. From time to time it
dawns on me that I represent the end of a genetic line that
had managed to survive from when our distant forebears
crawled out of the primordial stew. I’m past the age where
I care to debut a new model for my genetic line, if you
get my drift. So I’m as far as it goes.
At my son’s wedding, something happened that
happens at every wedding, but to which I had
given no forethought. After the bride and groom
pronounced their vows, the minister had them
face the congregation and introduced them for the
first time as “Mr. and Mrs. Heatherly.”
Wait — Mr. and Mrs. Heatherly were my parents,
or my now ex-wife and I; I mean . . . what?
Until that moment, it had never occurred to
me, that thanks to the still-common practice of handing down the paternal family
name upon marriage, a new Heatherly —
and the potential for a new line of Heatherlys — would be created that day.
It was startling. Although my DNA
had reached its end, my name had not.
My brain populated with possible
identities and accomplishments of
generations of future Heatherlys I
had never previously imagined: Professor Heatherly, Admiral Heatherly,
Doctor Heatherly, President Heatherly, Emperor . . . well, you get the idea.
I felt as though I was given new life.
Even if represented only by a name, some part of me and
the ancestors I embody might live on after all. I feel a new
commitment to take good care of the name for as long as I
walk the planet, and I ask only that any future Heatherlys
do so as well. NWL
NWLawyer Editor Michael Heatherly practices in Bellingham. He can be reached at 360-312-5156 and nwlawyer@wsba.
org. Read more of his work at nwsidebar.wsba.org.