Of course, since our lives evolve in phases, for most of us, there are circumstances that aren’t a part of our youth that play a much bigger role in our later years, such as when the linear lives of others, sometimes those about whom we care the most, abruptly stop.
When it comes to the section of the paper that so many who’ve lived six or more decades turn to first, well, that would be the obituaries, both to see who’s died and also to see what’s been said about them.
As far as the verbal equivalent of the obit, that would be the eulogy, those final words spoken at an end-of-life ceremonial sendoff designed to begin that ever-elusive process of closure. Over time some eulogies have become noteworthy, so much so that they can be found online. While it’s difficult to imagine in these current deeply divided political times, Republican Senator Jacob Javits was actually asked to deliver the eulogy for the slain Democratic President John F. Kennedy. And, in an effort to capture the vibrancy of a youthful president, just 46 when he was assassinated, Javits eulogized, “As a nation, we have lost a president who understood the institution of the presidency, gloried in its overwhelming responsibilities and discharged duties with dash and joy, which were an inspiration to the youth of our nation.”
And, it was Oprah Winfrey who used the literary device of apostrophe to speak to the deceased in her eulogy to civil-rights icon Rosa Parks, who refused to relinquish her seat to a white passenger on that bus in Montgomery, Alabama, in 1955 when she said, “So I thank you again, Sister Rosa … for confronting history, a history that for years said that you were not even worthy of a glance, certainly no consideration. I thank you for not moving.”
Of course, collaborative artists such as the men who gave the world the Muppets, Frank Oz and Jim Henson, or arguably this generation’s greatest troubadour, Bruce Springsteen, and his sax-playing wingman Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, often develop a special bond. And, when one dies, it’s left so many times to the other to speak the final words.
It was Oz who eulogized Henson at his funeral in 2010. He chose to emphasize the fun Henson and he had when he said, “The best thing of all — the best thing — is when you watched Jim laugh until he cried … and Jim would … just get that high whine … and he couldn’t speak and the tears were rolling down … and it was the best thing to see because he was always busy and working under pressure and [that laughter] was such a purge and a release.”
As for Springsteen, like Oprah who spoke directly to Sister Rosa, he spoke to his friend of 40 years when he concluded his eulogy to Clemons, “Big Man, thank you for your kindness, your strength, your dedication, your work, your story. Thanks for the miracle … and for letting a little white boy slip through the side door of the Temple of Soul.”
As for the eulogies I’ve heard in person, of course, I remember my own, delivered at my mom’s funeral mass in 1988, one I practiced in halting voice in front of the mirror the evening before at least two dozen times. As for others I’ve heard, perhaps the one I remember most for its heartfelt simple eloquence is my lifelong friend Greg Swick’s. It was a eulogy delivered at his mother Lois’ celebration of life at the family cottage on the banks of Coldwater Lake in Michigan, where she, husband Ken, and Greg and his three brothers Gary, Terry and Toby spent decades of quality time together.
Greg spoke of his mother’s many talents, one of which was displayed during many a bedtime moment during her sons’ childhoods in their house off West Elm just east of St. Charles School, where Greg and I first bonded. When any of her four little birds squawked at bedtime for something to eat, a young, loving and artistically inclined mother would grab an apple and a knife and proceed to pare the apple from right around the stem all the way down to the very bottom, all in an unbroken red ribbon of skin. The recollection was the only time Greg briefly lost composure on that late May day in 2017, so special were those moments frozen in time.
While often those final written or spoken words delivered by those who seek closure for themselves and others from the waves of grief that wash ashore when a loved one passes are often filled with the accomplishments and awards bestowed that are certainly important in a person’s life, perhaps it is the simplest of recollections that are the most profound, such as long-ago childhood moments when a mother’s love unwound, in unbroken fashion, one long red ribbon at a time.
John Grindrod is a regular columnist for The Lima News, a freelance writer and editor and the author of two books. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.