An Undelivered Eulogy

Judy Birdsong Moore
1954-2017

Because I’m used to speaking in front of crowds and have a good ear for the sound of words, over the years, several people have asked me to deliver eulogies at their loved ones’ funerals/memorial services.

When I write a eulogy, I choose a text – for my father I opted for Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night.” I read the poem and pegged my father as a wild man “who caught and sang the sun in flight” but who learned “too late” that he “grieved it on its way.”

I offered examples of his wildness, like the time he captured a baby alligator and kept it in our bathtub, how he performed death-defying aerobatic stunts in an open-cockpit plane he had refurbished himself. I admitted that my father really didn’t care what other people thought, that he essentially gave the finger to the world.

Nevertheless, my father could be a man of immense compassion and adhered to an unimpeachable code of personal honor. I told about the time during the height of the Civil Rights movement, much to the chagrin of our neighbors, how he invited an abused ten-year-old African American boy to come live with us until a permanent safe abode could be found for him.

What I didn’t mention was that his last words were, “Get that goddamned light out of my face.”

Instead, I ended by saying that I thought Dylan Thomas’ exhortation to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” was bad advice and quoted some scripture that had been printed on my mother-in-law’s funeral program:

Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake hath forgiven you.

Having a text creates unity for a eulogy, helps coherence. What you want to do — or at least what I want to do – is to bring the dead back to life for a minute or two but also to help people come to terms with death’s predestined inevitability. Obviously, this last part is easier when the departed has lived a long life than it is when a life has been cut short.

from left to right, my father, an identified woman, my mother

When it became all too obvious that my love of 40 years, Judy Birdsong, was doomed to die of lymphoma, I thought about what I might say at her memorial service, what text I might use. Although these thoughts may seem self-indulgent to some, they provided me a chance to look back over our four decades together, back over the wooing, the establishing a household, travelling the world, begetting and rearing children, the various stations in the progression of our marriage.

About a week before she died, she looked over at me and said, “You’re not planning to do a eulogy for me, are you?” She delivered this question in the tone of voice she might use if I told her I was thinking about buying a thong speedo swimsuit for Folly Beach’s New Year Day’s polar bear plunge.

“No, of course not,” I said.

So now, of course, I’m not.

However, if I were, I would make use of quotes from the many sympathy cards we’ve received. I was sort of dreading reading those cards, but it has been so comforting, so life affirming.

Here’s her college and grad school roommate Veda who can’t “think of any times we really didn’t get along or were really mad at each other” but added “I guess she really didn’t like it when I would clean her room at our apartment in Columbia, but she really never got too upset about it.” [1] It was Veda who got Judy the job at the Golden Spur. Veda adds, “Sometimes it seems I can still smell the beer from mopping the floors after closing.”  It was also Veda who played matchmaker inviting me to their apartment for fried shrimp sensing Judy and I had crushes on one another but were too shy to do anything about it.   What an enormous debt I owe to her.

I’ve also heard from many of Judy’s colleagues I don’t know. A principal describes her as “so pleasant to work with and so well-prepared and good with parents.”

Our niece Beth nails it when she describes Judy as “kind, generous, funny, smart, and beautiful.  But I think what set her apart to me was the serenity she always possessed.  In this world which is increasingly so frantic, Judy always seemed calm and peaceful, happy in her life and content in her own skin.”

Perhaps the greatest solace I have received comes from others who have lost spouses. One describes us as “travelers on the same unwished for road, members of the same broken-hearted fraternity.”

The best advice comes from fellow widower Richard O’Prey who writes

It is in that spirit that I offer you this note. I hope it lends moral support to your heroic attempt to carry on without Judy. As I did with my wife Mary, I honored her by recalling her wisdom, her counsel, her courage in supporting me during our marriage. Now I urge you to honor Judy by continuing to consult her values, her directions, her unshakable faith in you [ . . .] As you are a creature of your early youth and the effects of those who loved you, think of Judy in the same way. Think of her often and ask what you believe her advice would be under the present circumstance. Perhaps that might be the best support I can offer at this discouraging time.

Judy absolutely hated being the center-of-attention. She wouldn’t let me put in her obituary that she was named Psychology Student of the Year at PC or that her EdS thesis was published in a respected journal and has been cited in other scholarly works. In fact, she really didn’t want to have a memorial service at all but thought it was necessary because it would help others receive some closure. It was always others she was thinking of, not herself.

I’m with Richie O’Prey. Rather than seeking closure, I’ll keep Judy always nearby in my thoughts,

She’s an impossible model to live up to, she who spent the week before her death recording passwords so I could have access to her accounts. To quote Shakespeare, she died

As one that had been studied in [her] death

To throw away the dearest thing [she] owed,

As ‘twere a careless trifle.

Like I said, she’s an impossible model to live up to, but I’ll give it my best.


[1] This, by the way, gave me the false impression that Judy was a meticulous housekeeper, an illusion that quickly disappeared after I carried her over the threshold of our first apartment at 17 Limehouse Street.

Cool Rocking Daddy Missing Libido Blues

 

 

[I] had pretty plumage once.

                                                WB Yeats “Among School Children”

 

A good while back, my libido stole one of my bags,

packed his Hawaiian shirts and leisure suits,

hitched a ride downtown to Calhoun Street

and hopped a Trailways bus to Mexico.

 

Can’t really say I miss him all that much,

that Wicked Wilson Pickett shtick:

 

Uh, you know I feel alright!
Ha, Feel pretty good y’all
!

 

All that preening Mick Jagger wannabe shit.

 

No, as my dead old lecher

Daddy Yeats once wrote,

 

Better to smile on all that smile, and show 

There is a comfortable kind of old scarecrow.

 

Still, it’d be nice to get a postcard, every now and then,

from some bordello somewhere south of the border.

 

 

Ground or Air or Ought

If you need a poem to help you cope with death, Emily Dickinson is your gal. I’ve read Richard Sewell’s 2 volume biography, and she was, as Robert Frost famously put it, “acquainted with the night,” or as my now-over-a-decade-dead friend Tommy Evatt used to say, “no stranger to heartache.”

During Emily Dickinson’s 56 years, lots and lots of people she dearly loved died.

She spoke from experience:

 

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –

The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’

And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

 

The Feet, mechanical, go round –

A Wooden way

Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –

Regardless grown,

A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

 

This is the Hour of Lead –

Remembered, if outlived,

As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –

First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

 

In my case, I’m not at the “formal feeling” stage yet, probably somewhere between “Chill” and “Stupor,” but by having read Tennyson and having read Dickinson, I know someday I can look forward to “the letting go.”

I can’t stress vigorously enough to my former students how the best poetry can prepare you for (in my case, the second worse thing I can imagine happening to me) by vividly making concrete the pain of loss before it actually happens and by underscoring the universality suffering.

Metaphors fail me – dress rehearsal, inoculation?

Anyway, Miss Emily, please accept this thank you note.

Good Night, Sweet Judy

 

Judy Birdsong

Maybe at last being but a broken man

I must be satisfied with my heart . . .

WB Yeats “The Circus Animal’s Desertion”

 

Since my wife Judy Birdsong’s death last Sunday, I have been unable to write anything but clichés. Courageous battle. Unending love. Flights of angels.

Fortunately, my friend Aaron Lipka was able to express what I am feeling in an email he sent to my friends and colleagues at the school where I teach. I’d like to present it as a prelude to the slideshow I made for the funeral home visitation.

I can’t express in strong enough terms the gratitude for all of you who have sent love, thoughts, prayers, solace. Now that my Judy’s gone, I don’t have a guide to steer me within the bounds of good taste, so please bear with me when I stray, which I’m sure I will.  As they say, the past is prologue.

Here’s Aaron’s message:

One and all,

I have been thinking about what to say in this email.  Sometimes, words are not what we need, and electronic consolation can seem cold and impersonal. Whatever I can say here today will risk falling sadly short of what is useful or necessary.

And yet words are all I have to give.

Death is sad, and scary.  In the face of loss, I have listened to our school community reach out with compassion to Wesley, and I have heard others tell of the benevolent and graceful individual whom we knew as Judy Birdsong.  The cumulative message I have received this week, however, is neither sad, not scary at all.

It has been a celebration of a life lived, full of love.  It is a story that has refused to be marred in the face of hardship or sorrow.  In the sharing of the story of her life, I feel her presence with us.  Her memory is very much alive, and it is radiantly beautiful.

I consider myself fortunate to have known her, in my small way.  And I judge Wesley to be a lucky man; not for his loss, but for the many years he had to spend with Judy.  We should all hope to share such love in our lives.

I hope to see many of you at Chico Feo on Folly Beach this afternoon, 4 pm, and together lift a glass to commemorate the life and love of Judy Birdsong.  In our shared words, she will be among us.

Penitus ex animo,

Aaron

 

 

Trump, Shakespeare, and Willy Loman

Shakespeare would begin his Trump play with the inauguration speech. We’re now in Act 2, and the Comey sacking is a very important complication in the plot. Although the chaos of the firing and its aftermath is not what Aristotle called the peripetia, the turning point of a tragedy, it is the equivalent of the murder of Banquo in Macbeth, a brazen act that deepens suspicion.

Now, no one but a Kool-Aid swilling soul-selling Party Person (e.g., Jeffrey Lord) can dismiss that Trump has obstructed justice in the canning of Comey. After all, Trump has admitted as much on national television.

Speaking to NBC’s Lester Holt, Trump contradicted the farcical original rationale that he was just following the suggestion of the deputy attorney general who saw impropriety in Comey’s handling of the Clinton email scandal. No, Trump admitted that he had wanted to fire Comey all along: “When I decided to [fire Comey], I said to myself, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made up story.” In other words, he canned Comey because of the investigation. Comey’s people have subsequently claimed that Trump demanded from Comey an oath of loyalty when he summoned him to dinner at the White House in the first week of the Presidency. Makes the conversation Bill Clinton had with Loretta Lynch on the tarmac seem way too much ado over nothing.

As one of my Twitter pundits put it, there’s a reason lawyers instruct their clients to keep their mouths shut.

The problem with this Shakespeare analogy, though, is that Trump lacks the stature to be a tragic figure. He’s more like Pantalone from commedia dell’arte than Macbeth or Julius Caesar. There is, however, something about him that evokes, at least in me, pity. He betrays a sort of childish vulnerability that suggests a boyhood devoid of love or attention. Like Willy Loman, he’s pathetic, not tragic. When he’s sitting down in an interview, I sense his insecurity in the shifting of his eyes and the movement of his hands.* He’s dying to be loved. Approval is his crack. He might be bigger than life, but then again he is so much less a man or woman than your average sympathetic bartender.

I suspect the peripetia is just around the corner in Act 3 when his taxes come to light.

Republicans will commence their ratlike run from Trump’s sinking ship, Spicer will continue play the role of the comic butt, and Bannon will eventually land a spot on Fox News.

In a tragedy, Bannon would hang himself.

We’re talking farce, not tragedy.


*Don’t get me wrong.  Trump is a buffoon whose brain resembles a pinball machine.  I’d love to see the above-mentioned pussy-grabbing hands stymied by a pair of handcuffs.

The Long View

Stefano Vita

Note: Last week, and a very difficult week it was, our guidance counselor asked me to “offer some words of wisdom” for the upcoming senior milestone dinner, and I agreed, though it’s a difficult task if you don’t like trafficking in clichés.

So what follows is a sort of rough draft, which I’ll more or less memorize, and then deliver it to the seniors, their parents, my colleagues, and whoever else shows up.


Good evening and first I’d like to congratulate the class of 2017, and all of the people who have helped you reach this point: your grandparents, parents, siblings, friends, teachers, the obstetricians/midwives who brought you into the world, everybody — because no one who has ever made a speech like this has failed to mention that you had a lot of help along the way, and you did.

Mrs. Kimberly has asked me if I might convey some “words of wisdom” as you prepare to leave this familiar place, so I’m going to give it a shot, and at the very least end this talk with the best advice about succeeding in college there is. So stay tuned.

Here goes.

One of life’s biggest challenges is staying awake – and I don’t mean that in the literal sense of not dozing off as you’re tooling down the Crosstown but staying awake to the wonders of the world.

Wordsworth has a sonnet that starts

The world is too much with us, late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers,

Little we see in nature that is ours,

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon.

What Wordsworth means, I think, is that the day-to-day grind blinds us to the miracles of being. Focused on the upcoming chemistry exam or speeding ticket court date, we don’t notice the wren perched on branch above singing its heart out or the glint of sunlight on the distant river or maybe even the river itself.

We forget [acid head voice] that, like, hey, man, we’re on the third planet from the sun swirling in concert with a spiral galaxy spinning like a Frisbee through interstellar space.

A had a jolt a couple of months that reminded me of my own place in nature. My son Harrison and his wife Taryn gave Judy and me a DNA test kit so we could check out our ancestry. When the results came in and I logged on to discover my makeup, the first thing I noticed was the drawing of a cave man and the message “You have 58% more Neanderthal DNA than the general population.”

illustration source: The New Yorker

“Ah ha. That explains a lot. My deep-set eyes, prominent brow, inability to factor quadratic equations.”

Now, Neanderthals went extinct 40,000 years ago. Let’s for the sake of argument say a generation is 30 years. That means, in my case, it took 1,333 successful matings to come up with me. If my Neanderthal Mema had died in childbirth from an older sibling, I wouldn’t be here. Ditto if my sub-Saharan ancestor had stepped on a snake or my Norse ancestor hadn’t raped and pillaged that Irish village. You get the picture. It’s the same with everyone everywhere. That we exist at all is truly miraculous. We’ve all had miraculous births.

One of the most universal human myths – it extends from Borneo the Hebrides – is the hero’s journey. The hero, like you, has had a miraculous birth, and, like you, is called to leave his home on a quest of discovery. You’re at the part of the journey called “crossing the threshold.” Having mastered crawling, walking, riding a bike, reading, writing, calculating, solving equations, understanding the rise and fall of empires, conjugating another language’s verbs, it’s time to go.

You’re leaving the familiarity of your home to encounter new and strange beings, and, of course, it’s not going to be all smooth sailing. You’re going to be tested in more ways than one.

The good news is that you’ve been equipped with an excellent education, not only academically but also in the realm of ethics. My charge to you is not only to stay awake to the miracles surrounding you but to also strive to be a good person because I sincerely believe that if you don’t live a life of integrity you won’t be truly happy. I say this not only in the context of my own experience but also in what great literature tells us about the human condition.

Each night we go to sleep assured that the sun will rise again in the morning; however, of course, one morning it won’t, at least for us. Keep in mind the immense unlikelihood of your existence, your miraculous birth, the beauty of the world.  Look up more than occasionally at that night sky Hamlet calls a “majestic roof fretted with golden fire.”  Step boldly over that threshold into adulthood with your eyes and ears wide open.  In other words, wide awake.

How great, how exciting to be just now venturing forth.

Oh yeah, that surefire advice about succeeding in college. I promise each and every one of you will be successful if you follow this one instruction:

GO TO CLASS!

It’s harder than you might think.

To all my former students, it’s been an honor teaching you, and certainly an honor addressing all of you tonight. I wish you all the very best.

Fun with Grammar Nazis

A few posts back, I mentioned Practically Painless English, a grammar primer by Sally Foster Wallace, mother of the famous David Foster Wallace, the brilliant novelist and essayist who gave us Infinite Jest and “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”

Here’s a riff from one of David Foster Wallace’s infamous footnotes, a description of his favorite “tablemate” on a luxury cruise that Harper’s sent him on, despite his being more than a touch agoraphobic:

Trudy was 56, the same age as my own dear personal Mom, and looked – Trudy did, and I mean this in the nicest way possible – like Jackie Gleason in drag, and had a particularly loud pre-laugh scream that was a real arrhythmia-producer, and was the one who coerced me into Wednesday night’s Conga Line, and got me strung out on Snowball Jackpot Bingo, and was also an incredible lay authority on 7NC Luxury Cruises, this being her sixth in a decade – she and her friend Esther (thin-faced, subtly ravaged-looking, the distaff part of the couple from Miami) had tales to tell about Carnival, Princess, Crystal, and Cunard too fraught with libel-potential to produce here, and one long review of what was apparently the worst cruise in 7NC history – one “American Family Cruises,” which folded after just sixteen months – involving outrages too literally incredible to be believed from any duo less knowledgeable and discerning than Trudy and Esther.

Look what I found: Jackie Gleason in drag!

In the above-mentioned post, I mentioned that I actually taught from Practically Painless English in the ‘80’s but that now copies were going for $138, but lo and behold, I have scored a copy of the second edition for pittance — $34.

What a hoot. Sally Foster Wallace is brilliantly subversive. Dig this explanation of the capitalization of pronouns:

Remember that I is the only pronoun that is always capitalized, no matter where it appears in the sentence. Capitalize a pronoun referring to God, too:

God’s eye is on the sparrow, but I know He watches me.[1]

Here’s an example with the polite instruction to “please circle each pronoun you find in these sentences”:

Lassie is teaching her pups to chew with their mouths open.

Another treat is that she creates a cast of idiosyncratic characters who sort of evolve – or at least provide behavioral motifs — as we travel from “Parts of Speech” through “Paragraphs.”

These include Peony McAllister, Rambo and Rambette, Inertia and Aphasia. Grandma and Grandpa Pringle, and Chively Sneed. Fedonia Krump and Mongo.

Here are a few of my favorite examples:

Please circle the adverbs in the following paragraph:

Peony McAllister was so excited about her extremely interesting Japanese flower-arranging class that she completely ignored the bright red stop signs randomly placed here and there on her route to school. Suddenly, her very cold ears picked up the hauntingly familiar sound of a skull-shattering loud siren, and she saw dazzling lights in her rearview mirror. Frantically, she began to create convincingly pathetic excuses for going too fast. As she slowly pulled over to the side of the road, she patted her motorcycle gently and smiled bravely at the very large person who was slowly approaching.

Brava!

Identify the part of speech of the italicized words.

Ezra pounded the steak and then smothered it in onions.

If you call your sister a dweebazoid again, I’ll be forced to turn you into a toad.

Obviously, no remedial student is going to pick up that allusion.

Identify the subject and verb.

Rambette took her parakeet for a walk.

Wild horses dragged the tall leprechauns to a boring movie.

Here’s one from a punctuation exercise.

Fedonia’s pet lion fell into the paving machine so she calls him Leotarred.

You catch the drift – DFW didn’t fall far from the maternal tree, at least as far as surrealism and an obsession with English usage (go, goes).

It’s interesting to note that when he taught college, he was, by his own admission, fanatical about correct grammar and mechanics. Here he is in another footnote, this one from the essay: “Authority and American usage” describing what happened every semester when he taught lit.

Once I’ve had to read my students’ first set of papers, we immediately abandon the regular Lit syllabus and have a three-week Emergency Remedial Usage and Grammar Unit, during which my demeanor is basically that of teaching HIV prevention to intravenous drug users. When it emerges (as it does every term) that 95 percent of these intelligent upscale college students have never been taught, e.g., what a clause is or why a misplaced only can make a sentence confusing or why you don’t just stick in a comma after a noun phrase, I all but pound my head on the blackboard; I get angry and self-righteous; I tell them they should sue their hometown school boards, and I mean it. Every August I vow silently to chill about usage this year, and then by Labor Day there’s foam on my chin. I can’t seem to help it. The truth is that I’m not even an especially good or dedicated teacher; I don’t have this fervor in class about anything else, and I know it’s not a very productive fervor, not a healthy one – it’s got elements of fanaticism and rage to it, plus a snobbishness that I know I’d be mortified to display about anything else.

Good God, how I miss DFW. What a loss to literature.

David Foster Wallace
world copyright Giovanni Giovannetti/effigie


[1] Aren’t two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them falls to the ground without your Father’s consent.  Matthew 10:29, Holman Christian Standard Bible