A Humbling & Honorable Privilege
In February, my favorite uncle died. While the act was not unsurprising, the timing was. He had been sick for quite awhile—years even. Of all my uncles, he was the kindest. Instead of showing his love and affection by harassment and haranguing, he used his words. He was doting. He was complimentary. He said, “I love you.” When he learned of my new interest in baseball (the Braves in particular), he was thrilled. Sunday lunch at the homestead consisted of conversation about the Braves and their players, past and present. It didn’t matter how many times you filled a paperplate full of leftovers for him to take home, he was eternally grateful. He was a twin. He was a gifted athlete. He was a story teller who understood the power of embelishment. He wrestled with his demons. He was warm and loving and hilarious and easy to be around. His name was Kent and when I watched Roots for the first time in eigth grade, I finally understood why people tended to call him Kunta.
We were lucky enough to have a last Sunday supper with him two days before he died from a massive heart attack. True to form, he regaled us with stories from his recent visit to the hospital and of his athleticism and stylish prom outfits in high school. On Tuesday, I got the silent, somber call from my mother while I was at work. The next night she presented me with the details of the funeral. And a request—to write his eulogy.
I knew it was going to happen. I didn’t know when or for whom, but I knew it would happen. Like his death, being asked to write and perform his eulogy was not unsurprising. But I was shocked nonetheless. No one had ever discussed such a thing with me. No one ever discussed such a thing at all. But in the depths of my soul, I knew that at some point I would presented with the seemingly insurmountable task of expressing, through words, the intense love my mother’s family shares. Too heighten my insecurity and uncertainty at being able to perform such a monumental task, Kent’s was my first death in twenty years. I was now closer to understanding my own mortality and actually comprehending the significance of life passing better, more than I could at 12 years old when my grandfather died. I’m not very well acquainted with death, and here in my first grown-up experience with it, I was asked to perform while grieving.
A southern death in a large family born into a small community lasts from sunup to well past sundown. This event was no different. So much food was brought that we literally had no more flat, horizontal areas to store it. Essential condiments and refrigerator staples had to be discarded in order to fit all the food–into two refrigerators and three freezers, tetris-style. The guests came. And stayed. And went. And more guests came. Friends brought tissues, paper towels, garbage bags, and toilet paper. Stories had to be told—and heard. Notes had to be taken for everything brought or sent to the house. Pictures had to photographed and uploaded and printed out and arranged for the different pieces of the funeral. Payments had to be made. A eulogy had to be written.
Time was limited and the clock was counting down to Friday’s service. I was questioned as to what I was going to say. I fired back asking what everyone wanted me to say. I carried a pad of white paper and mechanical pencil with me everywhere I went. I took notes during the stories. I remembered my own stories. I jotted down random nouns (golf, watermelons, ice cream, life-long friendship) and detached adjectives (giving, mischievous, forgiving). In the quiet moments, I sat at the kitchen table with my aunt and an ipad and googled “how to write a eulogy.”
During the kitchen table google session, I found the most perfect guide on Esquire. The article cautions the intrepid eulogy writer against using metaphors and similes. It kinda demands the intrepid eulogy writer be humorous. It urges the intrepid eulogy writer to think for whom the eulogy truly is. It belays the fears that the intrepid eulogy writer might cry. I scribbled phrases like “elegant search for small truths” and “concentric rings of loyalty” also “make them laugh” on my white note pad. I found them profound and relevant to how I wanted it to be. I wondered, “How am I going to make them laugh? I pretend to be funny, but I’m not actually funny.”
With the million little tasks and the active listening in the past two days, there had been no time. There had been talking to do and cleaning to do and group grieving to do. I had to find my time. I was exhausted and still had no idea what was going to happen at 1:30 the next day. With little more than 12 hours to go and still sitting a southern-style shivah, I was lamenting this to my very best friend. He told me this was the reason the symbol of wisdom is a lamp! Because the wise end up staying up at night reading and writing. From this I took strength. And I found my time at 4am Friday morning, sitting alone at the kitchen table huddled over my white notepad with my pen finally being put to the paper.
I had to make decisions: there would be no crying; there would be story telling; there would be the dreaded metaphor; perhaps there would be laughter (if I could figure out how to do it). It would focus on the biggest, boldest ring of loyalty–his twin sister, Kelly, and I would acknowledge him as the whole person he was, including his flaws. In fact, the acknowledgement of what some considered his biggest flaw was my favorite part of the whole sermon. He lived most of his hours away from his, doing things that many judged for him. To deprive his memory and honor without referencing who he was when he was alone felt like a betrayal.
Not allowing myself to cry during my performance was important to me. It was important because I did not trust myself. I did not trust myself to cry and still be able to finish the task at hand. Moreover, I did not feel as if this were my time to cry. I was to be there as an outlet for everyone else’s grief. So I cried sitting at the kitchen table. I cried knowing that Kent wouldn’t be with us that day. I cried thinking of Kelly. I cried as I wrote.
And then I finished it. I rewrote it in my little black leather-bound journal with gold-edged pages and a black ribbon. I created paragraphs where I intended to pause. And I reread it. I finished it. And it was good. Still sitting at the kitchen table, I found myself stunned. With pages lying before me of tribute to someone who was loved, so dearly, by so many. Although everyone else seemed to know what I didn’t, it wasn’t until that moment that I believed them. That I could do this.
I gave it to my dad to read. I got in the shower. I put on my skirt, t-shirt, and mary-janes. I cried one final time when Kelly called to thank me and tell me how much Kent loved me. I told myself that I would use up all my tears now because I would not allow any more to flow later that afternoon. There was nothing left to do now but stand in front of 250 people and read what was written in that little black book. That would be the easy part. The hard part was over–using my words, being the vessel to momentarily bring back a life for those who came to pay their respects and grieve a friend, a son, a brother, and an uncle.
So how does one write a eulogy? In any way that you can express what they meant in their own time and life and to those living. Find your time. Make your decisions; figure out what’s important to relay and let those decisions guide you. Be funny if you can. Cry if you want. Pay tribute to the really important ones in their lives. But really just sit down and write. Write what you can remember and what you heard and how you feel. Practice a little yogic breathing before you take your place in front of the crowd. Walk to where you are going. Read what you have written. Pause for effect. Continue to breathe.
Just don’t slam into the music stand as you walk back to take your seat after your performance of a lifetime.