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Not The Last Post On Death and Eulogies

I told myself I wouldn’t be writing anymore posts on death and eulogies. People might start to think I was depressed. Or wearing all black, drinking espressos, and reading Nietzsche. Every time another idea on the topic of dying and eulogies popped into my head, I flushed it away. It was time to move on to cheerier topics (like having too much ice cream in the house).

Despite my best efforts, my thoughts kept returning to death and eulogies.

Part of the impetus can be blamed on the search terms that drive traffic to my blog. Day after day and month after month, the number one google search term that brings people to my site is “eulogy for mom.” Not “eulogy for dad” even though I happen to think it was a better eulogy, or “biking accident,” or “guy who reads a lot,” or “funny, parenting advice,” but “eulogy for mom.” Nothing else comes close.

The other instigator has been more funerals- attending more and speaking at more. In the last year, I’ve been asked to write and give the eulogy for two people- my grandfather and my wife’s grandmother. Either the family didn’t know someone else or they figured I did a decent enough job with my own parent’s eulogies. Regardless of their reasoning, I was honored by the invitation.

When I write a eulogy, I find myself returning to the same questions and themes. What sort of life did the deceased live? What memories did they leave behind? What kind of impact did they have? They probably made some mistakes along the way, and I’m not necessarily concerned with commenting on or even dwelling on those- we all make mistakes-, but how did they overcome their errors? What did they learn? How did they adapt, evolve, mature?

As I ask those questions and think about those things, I find there is an underlying, inherent question for the living. As much as a funeral is about the deceased, it’s also about the living. The question I keep coming back to is “What sort of lives are we leading?”

When our days come to an end, what will someone stand up and say about us?

****

To varying degrees, I’ve tried to be intentional about my life’s direction. In the deeper recesses of my mind, life’s terminability, the brevity of time we’re given, has echoed in the back of my thoughts. Thus, I’ve strived to have a plan, albeit one that has changed from time to time. I’ve given thought to what I wanted to do and accomplish as well as who I wanted to be as a husband and a parent and a friend. To be honest, most of the focus tended to be on what I wanted to do and accomplish. Nevertheless, whatever my plan at the time, I moved accordingly, maybe not quickly, but I was moving.

As I’ve written and said many times before and I’ll say it again, my Dad’s death was a catalyst for me. A splash of ice cold water in the face. Maybe more luck a bucket poured on my head. Mortality was no longer a faint song playing in the background, but a loud, pulsating beat that raised the hair on my skin. It wasn’t that I didn’t know what I wanted to do or who I wanted to be- I was 41 years old at the time and had given the idea a lot of thought- but I was moving slowly, contemplating rather than acting. His death was the fuel that kickstarted my engine. His passing reminded me that I didn’t have forever.

I got on with it. I focused on the one thing I’d hadn’t done, the one thing I toiled at day after day and hour after hour- writing. In 2012, I published two books, in 2013 I’ll publish another, and hopefully in the years to come more and more. Whether they sell a lot or a little is somewhat inconsequential. I’ve created a work and put it out in the world for others to consume and hopefully enjoy.

Less than a year after Dad’s death, I was sitting in the living room across from my mom. My eyes were filled with tears, my mind clouded and confused as I tried to wrap my thoughts around the news she’d given me on the phone earlier in the afternoon about the death sentence she’d been handed. Her stomach problems weren’t due to indigestion or some virus, it was cancer. Not just any cancer or even the beginnings of cancer, but stomach cancer and stage IV at that. She sat on the couch with one dog in her lap and another resting at her feet. I sat next to her in a chair. She looked at me and said, “I’m okay with dying. I’d like to have lived longer, but I’m satisfied with the life I’ve lived and how I’ve lived it.” Over the next four weeks, before she passed, she would repeat those words multiple times in some fashion or the other.

Every time she said those words to me, I turned them around in a question to myself. If I were in her place, if I’d been given such a death sentence, would I be okay with it? No matter how I thought about the question, no matter how many different angles I examined it or how I parsed it, the answer was always the same, “No.”

Accomplishments alone weren’t cutting it. They weren’t enough.

****

Changes were needed, but what sorts of changes. What if I made a mistake? What if I took a step backwards or two or three? What if things didn’t work out like I hoped or planned? Well, I can tell you I made mistakes, probably took four steps backwards, and some things haven’t panned out as I’d hoped.

But I tried.

And I keep trying.

I listed the things I knew I needed to do. The first one would be the hardest, one because it involved my paycheck, and two because I figured most people wouldn’t understand. But I did it, I left my job at a church, even if most people didn’t and wouldn’t ever understand.

If I had any doubts about my decision, two and a half weeks after submitting my resignation, I was back in San Antonio, not for a new job or even a vacation, but to give the eulogy at another funeral. As I drove from Arlington to San Antonio and back, I pondered the questions even more. “What sort of life do you want to live? What are you going to do with the time you have left? Who are you going to be?”

There had to be more than just changing a job, which I would do. There had to be more than writing another book, which I would do as well.

Life is more than accomplishments. For every mountain we seek to scale, when we arrive at the summit, there is a higher mountain on the horizon issuing its challenge.

My Dad was an insulator. Not a glamorous job by any stretch of the imagination nor was it a particularly well-paying one. I think he did good work but I’m not sure there’s an insulator’s hall of fame anywhere. My Mom was an administrative assistant for an insurance company. My Grandfather drove a bus. My wife’s Grandmother was a stay-at-home mom. The great majority of the human race toils away in non-descript jobs, ones that could easily be done by an equally-skilled individual. Rare are the few whose work leaves a mark. The world goes round and round by the efforts of the anonymous, interchangeable masses.

If that’s the case, why would anyone besides family come to say goodbye to an insulator, an administrative assistant, a bus driver, and a stay at home mom?

My Dad’s co-workers and friends came, but not because they missed his skills. They came for who he was- not perfect (and maybe far from it), but because he could be kind and caring and generous. On that Sunday afternoon, surrounded by people, I lost track of the stories told to me about my Dad, of hearing about all the things he did for people, things I’d never heard before.

In the last four weeks of her life, my Mom’s friends drove an hour each way to sit by her bedside and hold her hand. Was it because they missed her typing and adding and ability to manage? Did they need her to come in and balance the books? No, they could find someone else to do those things. They came because when they were in need, when they were sick or upset or in mourning, she’d sat with them and held their hand.

Part of the lesson in living from the dying is yes to live, to be intentional. Whatever it is that stirs the soul, give it an effort, whether it be writing a book, coaching a kid’s baseball team, or delving headlong into a hobby. But maybe the greater lesson from the dying to the living is that who we are matters more than what we do.

When the end comes, when someone is asked to stand and give a eulogy about you or me, they might talk about what we did, but if a life has been lived right and well, whether it’s been a long one or a short one, they’ll be talking about who we were. The memories we left. The impact we made.

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