19 October, 2005

Giving a Eulogy I Never Wanted to Give

One of the first thoughts I recall having after I got news last March that my brother had been diagnosed with leukemia was that I could not possibly get through a eulogy for him. Yet I knew that - if he died, as he finally did last Friday - I would simply have to... somehow. I was his only brother.

It sounds like a silly thought, but that has been my number one fear these past seven months... that and becoming the sole family caregiver as my parents age. I had plenty of other fears (missing him, pain for his widow, my niece, my parents), but those were the truly selfish ones.

Yet God has a way of making things work just in time - of giving us strength when we need it, even when it seems that in human terms, the pieces are not all going to fit together.

So it was yesterday at my brother's Funeral Mass.

All I can say is that I had help. Lots of help. And none of it from this world (aside from an enormously helpful review of a draft by my wife.) I never once got through the text without cracking up in practice. And sure enough, when I walked into the church yesterday, I seized up... my knees went weak... my hands froze, my breathing got shallow and my heart raced, my body shook, my throat closed, my eyes welling up. I couldn't even have told you my name at anything above a hoarse, distracted whisper if you'd asked.

Then something happened.

It had been a cloudy morning, threatening to rain. As the priest began reading from John 14, sunlight burst through one particular part of the stained glass window - the part depicting Jesus surrounded by children. And I kid you not, that improbable first beam of sunshine we'd seen all day struck 1) my brother's casket, 2) my father's face, and 3) my niece (Ed's daughter). The same thing happened ten minutes later when the singer launched into the first bars of Ave Maria. I've got 300 witnesses. I'm not making this up.

At that moment - not because of the sunlight so much as part of it and concurrent with it - I saw Ed's face in my mind's eye and this absolutely incredible warmth and peace came over me. It was at that moment that I knew with absolute certainty that Ed was happy, that God was smiling, that he wanted us to smile too... that this all had purpose we could not know but just to roll with it and trust Him... that I would be fine in delivering Ed's eulogy because God wanted it that way. That the rest of us would be fine too. That I'd been small and fearful in doubting that He would make it possible but that that was OK now... all behind us; don't worry and don't look back.

I had been absolutely dreading that moment for seven months. Yet when it came, I was borne up on a power not my own. I cannot describe it better than to say with absolute certainty that I was channeling something else... a mere conduit for outside power.

I've excerpted the introductory and closing parts of the eulogy (parts that others have told me they liked) in hopes that they're useful to others:

Dear friends… most of the time we walk in darkness. Glimpses of how others see us—of how we’ve lived and loved—are rare and often fleeting. Ed was blessed through his ordeal to walk in sunlight for a moment—to see with eyes wide open the impact he had on many lives… not least of them my own.

Many of you have seen it also—on the website and the blogs, in e-mail and in visits, in letters, phone calls and seven months of silent prayers. Those are just a tiny fraction of it. The blessings have been awesome. To count them all would fill a book. Yes, we prayed for one miracle in particular. It was not to be. But like a child on Christmas morning, it is not ours to say which gifts God must bestow and which we will accept. We can only be grateful, recognizing those we have.

We’ve been witness to an amazing coming together of friends, colleagues and neighbors, of family near and far, of nurses, doctors, clergy and social workers—living angels all. People we’ve never met have prayed for Ed and us: from Japan to South Africa, from Britain to California, Hawaii and much more; a beautiful tapestry of love, honor and memory on which the sun will never set, knit from the threads of Ed’s rich life...

...We’re conditioned to think that more time is always better; that making it to a long, tanned shuffleboard retirement somehow makes the man; that suffering and loving deeply are extra credit courses we can take once our lives are perfectly set; that vintage wine is always better than Beaujolais Nouveau.

But Ed knew well that quality trumps quantity; that integrity is the main thing; that the love that changes another can take just an instant to express and often costs absolutely nothing: a thoughtful gesture, a kind word or simply a negative thought kept silent to oneself.

Make no mistake about it: Ed died a Christian man, a Catholic man—a yoke he was as happy to accept for six days as for sixty years; a burden he knew was light; a decision carefully considered, to humbly walk with Christ, sure in knowing that love conquers all and the best is yet to come, or as the Apostle Paul put it: "to live is Christ and to die is gain."

I ask God from this day forward, to give us the clarity and courage to remember and share the blessings He gave us through Ed’s rich life, until we meet again.