I am sharing the writing I read at my father’s funeral in the hopes that it may help you if you find yourself tasked with writing a eulogy or want to write a eulogy, even long after a person has died.
As you will see, repeating a specific phrase helped me keep writing and conjuring the moments I wanted to share.
At My Father’s Funeral 2001, The Words I Shared
When I think of my father, I think of the words he taught me: presentable as in his morning question those years he was climbing the corporate ladder, “Do I look presentable?”; indispensable as in the mantra that kept him motivated toward excellence, “No man is indispensable;” and the one he taught us using the British pronunciation because the company he worked for had had research done there, “ laboratory.”
When I think of my father, I think of the way he taught me to be conscientious, honest, forthright, and disciplined. Homework was to get done, goals were to be set and reached, and mistakes were to be noted and fixed.
I think of the gifts he most cherished giving my sister and me—copies of books like Treasure Island, a white football he tried to teach us to throw, a c chemistry set we could only use with him as our proctor, money for college saved each week in the blue envelopes we brought to school.
I think of the things we took as gifts—riding his shoulders to play at great height in a swimming pool, his hand on the back of our two-wheeler seats as we pedaled down the sidewalk learning to balance, his driving lessons and the degree of attention and seriousness he gave the task and his bravery sitting with us as we pressed the accelerator and learned to steer. He concentrated on helping us learn to make our way as well as helping our way be joyous. When I had my first job as an administrator and found the nonprofit I worked for was in the red, my father came to visit and sat for hours teaching me how to create, monitor, and control an organizations budget. When my son designed me a house, he donated the financing for skylights, an extra that would make all the difference to my son’s design. When I had a collection of poems that needed presales for the small press to make a print run, my father ordered about 50 copies and eventually gave them out like cigars when a baby is born.
When my dad’s health declined these past few years, I began writing poems incorporating my memories of his fathering. I would like to share one today because I think it best evokes his nature and what I will always treasure.
Some Things He May Not Know He Taught Me
— For my father
I praise him for two varnished skulls from cats
He’d dissected in biology, the way he bolted those skulls to mahogany
And kept them on his shelves, a trophy for attending college against the odds.
I praise him for the diligence with which he wrote a jingle night after night
At our kitchen table trying to win prizes from the supermarket, the special care
He took with the 78 rpm Pinocchio album his jingle won him, how he kept it
On a high shelf so my sister and I would not touch it when he was not around.
I praise the way he cherished what he worked so hard for.
I praise him for the clay pot he planted with grass seed scooped from the ground
When gardeners sowed a lawn each spring between the buildings of our court.
I praise him for the joke he made, cutting the grass each Saturday
With a scissors, showing my sister and I that chores get done.
I praise him for the day when I was four and watched him shave
until the plumbing backed up. With an inch of sewer water
underfoot, he lifted me from the room waking my mother in a hurry,
telling her the problem, his feet already out the door to work.
She yelled how it wasn’t fair to leave her with the mess.
I praise him for teaching me nothing unexpected need be fair.
I praise him for the hand he slammed against the steering wheel
our first time through the Lincoln Tunnel when a car rear-ended us
and his sample cases of pharmaceuticals clanked, smashed and oozed.
I praise him for the way he did not easily accept what wasn’t in his control,
Quick most times to anger, he let us know his burden and his soul.
As a writer, repeating phrases helps me occupy and contain my abstraction-making mind so my image-making mind can deliver the details that bring my subject alive without me worrying about how to fit them into a narrative.
One of the beautiful things about a eulogy is the way that in honoring the dead with details and images, both writer and listener resurrect a life.
I am looking forward to sharing my young father and young mother’s voices with my mother and family members this Sunday. I imagine my mother’s reaction will become an occasion from which to write a poem, too.
And only a few months ago, my mother died at almost 95. Here are the words I read at her funeral services:
I Think of My Mother Caring for My Father with Parkinson’s
- Wednesday Afternoon
How easily I think back to those years—
me in the first grade, tromping around in my mother’s
navy blue heels, watching her lipstick rise from its sheath
with a twist of her fingers, her compact chirping shut.
When did she stop using lipstick the red of the bougainvillea
outside my window? From the years between then and now
comes the scent of lilac bushes planted at each new home, the dogs
named Fanny and Butch, Pledge and Pride, products we dusted with,
the way we shrunk from the gurgle and hiss of mother’s
steam iron, thud it made against the cotton wrapped board,
smell of heat on quiet cloth.
- Saturday After a Morning Bike Ride
Home now after 30 miles of sun in my eyes and the far off
Santa Monica Mountains beckoning like a voluptuous woman
in evening dress, houses like sequins on her full-length gown,
a village of houses like the one my mother wanted when I was 11.
I remember my sister and me with bowls full of ice cream on shaky
folding snack trays in front of the couch, Jackie Gleason on TV,
his small city apartment, something my parents had come from.
My father at the kitchen table with columns of numbers to buy the house,
how much from here and from there and from their parents,
how much the interest on how many loans.
- Sunday Morning
I raise the blinds, see sunlight on the bougainvillea, this late
December, its branches grown laden with blossoms.
I want to give my mother back the red lipstick, the days she
bought pistachio ice cream my father loved, shopping trips
to buy the Howdy Dowdy spoons we ate it with, the chartreuse
couch, the window to raise and yell at my father
for doing his paperwork in his parked car, not ready to come in.
I want to give her back mornings he adjusted his tie
asking if he looked presentable, the other words he often
said, “Nobody is indispensable,” the way we knew it wasn’t true.
It turns out, too, that my mother would never be indispensable, nor the lessons she taught.
Today I want to tell a story about her adaptability — it used to be to new homes in new communities where she always found a niche for herself, to being alone for much of each week as my father traveled early in his career, to her empty nest once her daughters were off to college, to slowly over the last few years losing the independence she treasured as she needed caregivers more hours each day (they all said how gracious she was at accepting their help). But then she had only one week between doing pretty well and dying. And here is some of what happened that week when she became bedridden that speaks as much as I can say about how I am in awe of her enormous ability to adapt.
The first few days she would ask what happened, say she didn’t understand. She would talk to Kurt and to me asking when she would be able to get up and walk to her TV room, and one day she said, “Sheila, I feel miserable. What can I do to help myself?” We told her she was doing it by resting. After the next couple of days she asked “Am I dying?” and I had to say yes because her heart had weakened from her COPD, and the day after she said, “I am dying.” She still smiled when she got calls from her sister, her nieces, her grandnieces and nephew and her granddaughters, and remembered a recent earlier visit with Vanaja and Suku, our machatunim. She became talkative when my sister Betty Anne and brother-in-law Allen returned for a second visit after having seen her the first day she became bedridden. Family was what mattered. And her caregivers. She told them on Saturday of that week that she didn’t want to see anyone, only them. She asked them , they told me, if they were happy and they told her they were. “Life is for the living,” she always said.
She broke my heart when she told me, “Sheila, I love you. I love being with you. I will miss you.”
Then she struggled for another two nights and a day to do what she had to do.
And I will miss her forever.
I want to offer a second poem, as a tribute to my mother, who taught me so much about adaptability, and to all of us about acceptance.
If we are a body,
it is of trees,
from their tall trunks
the sound of doors opening.
If we are a tree,
the leaves are lobed
and feathery gathering light.
If we are light,
clouds are moving
fast across the moon.
If we are the moon,
we are the new
one rejuvenating. s
If we rejuvenate,
we are the world,
each of us a continent,
and each one of us a bridge.