His wife told to me to "Follow my heart," after explaining that a lot of people had also requested time to say a few words. "This minister likes to stay on time." (Earlier…I think she had also said that he ran "a tight ship?" Did he even know your friend personally?)
I wrote the obituary, and was therefore asked to read it. I could do that. The piece was mostly facts, but I made certain to include some personal attributes. It felt right… for an obituary. (But it wasn’t enough was it Harp? There was more that you wanted to say. Could you do it?)
Dai is another member of our inner circle… well known to the attendees, but he resides in California. He sent a poem for me to read.
The diminutive form of his ex-wife was trembling in stairwell just inside the door to the worship hall. “I keep hearing his voice in my head. I can see him taking out the garbage. I can hear her running in the house to call him as soon as anything happened. ‘Daddy, Daddy.’ What is she going to do now?”
“She seems to be handling this far better than I would expect of someone her age.” I fought to avoid asking stupid questions like, “Are you all right?”
“That’s what I am afraid of" she replied. "She’s taking this almost too well. I’m going to need to get some help for her.”
“Let me know if there is anything I can do, ok?” I asked. (Then I changed the subject to the topic that was uppermost in my mind.) “Are you sure there will be enough time for me to read the Obituary and Dai’s poem… and still have time to say a few words?”
“I don’t know." Her eyes were red and glassy. "Someone from the congressman’s office is supposed to be here, as well as people from his job. I just don’t know.” She truly looked even more distressed because she was unable to give me clear guidance here.
I had not slept at all that night. Images of the wake and recollections of our adventures over the years kept running through my mind. I had come up with numerous things to say before our friends and family members and well-wishers in general, but I was not comfortable that I’d chosen the right messages. It wasn’t until the middle of the night before the funeral that I realized what I wanted to say.
I’d jumped up to write it down so that I could organize my thoughts and rehearse it a few times. I needed to make a clear distinction between what I was reading… and what I wanted to say to the audience as if it were a blend of spontaneity and clear thinking. I’d practiced until I was confident that I could do it smoothly and comfortably. I would end with something funny to lighten the moment. It would be as much for them as it would be for me.
“This is far more difficult than it should be.” I said to myself. “I speak in front of audiences of all sizes for a living. Why is this difficult?” (Because you did not get the outgoing gene, did you? You got the need for privacy gene, and it haunts you in just about all things. You have no problem as a professional trainer and consultant with topics that have little to do with you personally. But, sharing heart-felt experiences and emotions… and feelings with a crowd of people does not come easily to you, does it? Your brother is the same way... but this was your closest friend. You at least owe it to him and to his family to say the things that only you can say.)
“Follow your heart” she had finally said, putting the weight squarely on me. “You will know what to do.”
Later that morning, I read the obituary that I had written, with what I thought was poise, passion and sincerity. I varied the speed and tempo of my delivery for emphasis and clarity where it was needed. I could feel how well received it was, and emboldened… I read Dai’s poem. The obituary was printed in the program. My name was printed next to its listing in the agenda. They knew I was going to read the obituary, whether they knew I wrote it or not. They did not know I was going to read Dai’s poem.
I could feel the depth and rhythm of the poem. I had lived the experience and sentiments at the heart of Dai's writing. I gave the reading my heart and soul, salted with sufficient humility to let it go down real easy.
At the end of the poem, I said, “Thank you very much.” I took my notes and sat down to genuine applause. (It would occur to me later that the audience was obviously unsure about whether it was appropriate to applaud at a funeral or not. No one else received applause… but they applauded me.)
I’d barely heard them. I told myself that I was being polite and considerate of all of the others who wished to speak that morning. I told myself that the impending snowfall there in New York City, was such that we needed to keep the program on schedule. I told myself that I’d already used up more than my fair share of time on the program in reading the obituary and the poem. I said a lot of things to myself, as I listened to a parade of well-wishers, sharing their condolences to the family and talking about their paltry experiences with my closest friend. (You had your chance Harp. You blew it. All you had to do was hang in there and talk to them. You were supposed to tell them about his courage and his dreams. You shared things between you that will die along with him now Harp. Why did you sit down?)
I blindly went through the motions after that until we came to the cemetery. It was cold, and wet, with snow covering just about everything. Leaving the long line of cars parked below, we walked up a wet and muddy foot path to the burial site. (He is buried high up on a hill, overlooking his surroundings. He’ll like that.)
Then they gave me a white flower to lay on the casket.
I suddenly experienced all of the rage and agony that I’d bottled up throughout the many weeks leading up to his death… and the days that followed. (God owes me an explanation for taking this man away at such a young age. The world is wrong, it’s cold, it’s muddy, and there is a ringing in my ears. My feet will not work. Someone is holding my hand and I don’t know her. Someone else has put their arms around me and he, or she, is saying something. I can’t make it out. I only know that I seem to be the only one still holding this damned flower that is supposed to mean something. It doesn’t mean a God-damned thing. I want my friend back. I don’t think I’ve made a sound, but if they try to lower him into that cold, miserable hole… I do believe that I will lose my mind.)
It took me a while to move my feet. I had to get back down the hill before the entire assembly realized that I was still up there, holding up the narrow procession of cars.
I went through the motions again. I stayed in New York City that night because my flight had been cancelled due to the snow fall.
I awakened the following morning to the cold certainty that I had failed my friend when he had needed me most. I was supposed to provide the insight and understanding that only someone who knew him as well as I did could provide. I was supposed to let them see how much they still didn’t know. I could have given them release, I could have brought them to tears, I could have opened their eyes to so much… but I didn’t. I sat down after reading that poem and all of those words died in my throat.
I awoke to a couple of hours of self loathing and contempt for my own failing. I tried to console myself with this as a lesson learned for future funerals. (Are you freakin' kidding me?) But, in truth, this was a once in lifetime opportunity. I do have other close friends (who I damn sure hope will have the good graces to die after me) but I knew him like I knew no one else in this world. I was his subject-matter-expert… and I sat down.
Writing this has helped… a little.