Monday, June 9, 2008

Eulogy

I got a call from a woman I didn't know, asking me to write a eulogy for her brother, whom I'd never met. I've never written a eulogy before, but I knew that I could do it. The bigger question was, what do you charge for a eulogy? How do you charge for a eulogy?

I interviewed the woman about her brother; let's call him Stephen. It turns out he was really a great guy, and in writing his eulogy, I got to know him. You should know him, too. Here's the eulogy his sister gave at his funeral:

I miss my brother Stephen. I’m sure you miss him, too. I think the world is going to miss him, because Stephen was the kind of person that the world needs more of: the kind of guy who didn’t think that love was a weakness or that faith made you a sissy. He knew that generosity made him richer, and making someone laugh was one more way to give a gift.

Stephen, as you know, was a big guy, and in many ways, a tough guy. He served as a sergeant in the Korean War, and led men into battle. Not only did he take his own turn on the front line, but more than once he went to the front line in place of a friend who couldn’t move for fear of the battle around him. It reminds me of a verse in the Gospel of John, John 15:13—“Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

Stephen was a tough guy, and a decorated soldier—but he wasn’t so tough that he couldn’t care deeply for his parents. He swore my cousins to secrecy when he was stationed right in the middle of a fierce fighting zone, because he knew mom and dad would lose sleep from worrying about him. When they found out, from a cousin who had missed the swearing-to-secrecy ritual, he reassured them as soon as he could that he’d be fine. And then he got wounded. Twice.

Stephen was married to his wife Annie for 54 years, and they had 10 beautiful children together. He instilled in his kids his own values of caring, giving, and respecting other people.

But even as he was being a father to his own kids, he was also sort of a father figure to my sister Kathy and me. When we’d have heavy hearts, we’d go to him, in private, and talk to him about our parents, or about whatever was bothering us. Stephen was a compassionate listener, and would always lift our spirits and help us feel better.


I admire how much Stephen loved and respected our parents. Even after he got married and started having children of his own, he’d still drive up to see them every two weeks. When Stephen was expected, the rest of us were chopped liver—“Stephen’s coming! We’ve got work to do. Let’s get cleaning! Let’s get cooking!” She’d cook—and all of us girls would help—all day Saturday and present a feast for Stephen and his family on Sunday. It was all about Stephen. Not that I ever resented him—I adored him, too.

And by the way, that was back when big families drove enormous station wagons, the kind with fake wood on the sides, and the kids all tumbling around in the back. It seemed like every time Stephen and Annie drove up, there’d be another little head popping up!

Later, after we grew up and moved away, he and Annie would come and visit us in Chicago. Kathy would introduce him to her friends and neighbors, and every one of them, without fail, would tell her later what a wonderful brother she had. Even Kathy's husband Andrew, who is as reticent as they come, always said he wished he had a brother like our brother Stephen. “He is going to be missed very much,” Andrew told me.


Stephen didn’t only care deeply about mom and dad. He loved every single one of his four brothers and five sisters, and none of us ever doubted it. He was the kind of guy who put family and friends ahead of most everything else. When his best friend Joe was getting married, Joe’s brother declined to be his best man because his fiance had the misfortune of not being Catholic. But Stephen stood by him, and stood up for him at the wedding.

Joe isn’t with us anymore either, but he told a story about how honest Stephen was. One time the two of them planned to skip school and go fishing. Joe wrote a note to tell the school that he was sick at home—and he forged his father’s signature. Stephen didn’t write a note, though, and the truant officer came to our house and busted them. What did Stephen say, what kind of an excuse did he make for not being in school? “We were going to go fishing,” he said. He couldn’t even tell a tall tale to the truant officer to get himself out of trouble.

There were thousands of stories—too many to count—that Stephen himself would tell about his youthful outdoor adventures. One time he led Joe and the other kids out to the woods. They were camping and being regular Daniel Boones, living off the land. It didn’t end well, though: Stephen and Joe had brought some bacon with them, cooked it over the campfire, and served it to their young woodsmen friends. I don’t know how you can cook bacon wrong—it’s already preserved, right?—but they all ended up getting violently ill.

Recently, Stephen’s friends and brothers and sisters have been coming from all over to support him, to try and help him heal just by being near him. “Why’d you come so far?” he said to us. “There was no need for that.”

But when our sister Corrie needed surgery, he had climbed in his beat-up hunting truck and drove non-stop across the country to California in order to be with her. You see, he had very high expectations for himself when it came to caring for other people—but he had very low expectations for what other people should do for him. He never gave a seminar on love, or wrote an article on friendship—but this is the way he lived, and as it turns out his life was an eloquent testimony about what love looks like.

I talked to our cousin Jack Bauer in Sydney, Australia last night. This is what he said about Stephen: “He was a true Bauer man, like the Last of the Mohicans: a tall man, a wide man, strong and honest, a man of principle and integrity, of heart and hard work.”

Stephen never complained—at least, not that I ever heard. He worked hard to provide for his family, because ten kids don’t feed themselves. He frequently worked double shifts as a tradesman in the tool and die business—but he never complained about hard work. Stephen would say that he worked himself fortunate.

Instead of complaining, he liked to tell stories and to make people laugh. When Stephen came into a room, you knew that you were about to hear a great story about a 10-point buck or a ridiculously stubborn Northern Pike.

He never lost this ability to make people laugh, even when he knew he was not going to get better. His family stayed close, and did what they could to keep him comfortable—but Stephen, who never missed an opportunity to make a joke, said, “You know what’s worse than dying? Having 10 women hovering around me, asking me can I get you this or can I get you that.”

The author and columnist Anna Quindlen published an essay in the New York Times almost exactly 14 years ago in which she said that her great journalistic contribution to her family is that she writes obituaries. She ponders death, and grief, and loss:


The landscapes of all our lives become as full of craters as the surface of the
moon…I write my obituaries carefully and think about how little the facts
suffice, not only to describe the dead, but to tell what they will mean to the
living all the rest of our lives. We are defined by who we have lost.

When someone we love dies, we grieve—but this is only the first part of our shared experience. This loss, Anna Quindlen says, is a “continuous presence of an absence.”

We have all been touched by Stephen’s excellent life. I think, now that we are sharing the experience of his loss, of the continuous presence of his absence, we should honor Stephen’s memory by being more like him: Complaining less, and laughing more. Giving more than we get. Choosing to do the loving thing, without expecting a payback. Allowing our faith to shape us into better, kinder people.

I’m going to close this with a verse that I think Stephen might have chosen as his final message to us, also from the Gospel of John, chapter 14, verse 27: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid.”


We’re going to miss you, Stephen.

In the end, I charged my client a hundred bucks. I remembered that when we dealt with Tohle Funeral Home to have our tiny Caitlin cremated, the funeral director was so kind: he didn't charge us for his time, but only for the costs he incurred. I wanted to offer the same kindness to my client.

It turns out that writing a eulogy is, essentially, story-telling--just like a lot of other rhetorical forms. But I don't really want to add eulogies to my repertoire. It would be a little like ambulance chasing.

But for this once, it was actually an enjoyable assignment. The only downside was that somebody had to die for me to get it.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

J-RO:that was worth a million.....

E. Peevie said...

Thanks, babe.

jeanie said...

I am wondering if you would do my eulogy. I could give you an advance!

E. Peevie said...

Sure, Jeanie. I'll get right on it. In fact, I think we should all get to hear our own eulogies.