Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Putting in a Good Word

“Begin with the end in mind,” advised author Stephen R. Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

I don’t suppose Grandpa Don ever considered that advice—at least not when he considered smoking. That was when he was a kid. He had no idea it would get the best of him on the other end of life. But it did.

We made the long trip to the land’s end of Texas to be with him in his last days this summer, and to remember him after he just couldn’t keep on breathing. And a funny thing happened when folks gathered to remember him with us: we saw a man take shape who, though still the man we knew, was also a man we had never really fully known.

It happened during the eulogy. Eulogy: that’s a word you never hear until you are going to a funeral. Nobody seems to really know what it means—unless it means someone getting up in front of everyone to say nice things about a person (because it just isn’t fair to say mean things about people after they’ve died). In Grandpa Don’s case, the eulogy was said in an old country church that couldn’t have held more than thirty people—and even that would be a generous estimate.

In the simplest way that night, people came up and made their own contribution to a pot-luck eulogy. At first, it looked like the only ones speaking would be family members and someone reading notes from grandkids who couldn’t make it. But bit by bit, neighbors got up to say their piece about remembering Don. A representative from his workplace—he was long retired but long-remembered—was there to say a public goodbye. And people from his church, even teenagers, told their favorite stories about him.

That’s when something happened. See, Don wasn’t really Dad to this family—he was Step-Dad. No matter how many good times were had when the family gathered, there was always the long shadow of the dad who really was Dad but only lived on in the childhood memories of those who were now adults. There was no replacing Dad. But that kept eyes from seeing who Don really was.

The turning point was the eulogy. Eulogy: from two Greek words, the one a handy prefix, the other a term that has been oft-appropriated by our own mother tongue. “Eu” was a sort of accelerator for the Greeks; when plugged into the beginning of another word, it intensified its status. It basically means “good.” The “-logy” is actually from the Greek “logos,” the same root that gives English-speakers their business logo or their philosophical logic. It is recognized by Christians as a significant term representing not only the literal meaning of “word” but also the intelligence behind it: God Himself. “In the beginning was the Word.”

Plugged together, the two components signify “to bless” or “to praise.”

Funerals are events that rank fairly low in most people’s list of preferred activities, so I can understand why people don’t often rub shoulders with concepts like “eulogy.” I can’t think of how many funerals I’ve attended that I didn’t really want to be at. I’m not talking about close family members’ funerals, but those of distant relatives or friends’ family members—events which I’ve attended not for the dead, but for their living. A solidarity thing. Standing with them in their pain.

There was one such funeral I had attended that stands out, though. It was for my neighbor’s mom. One evening after work, my neighbor had mentioned that his mother had unexpectedly passed away. Though sorrow in such a case is understandable, there was something so plaintive in the way he told us about it, my husband and I felt we should support him by being at his mom’s service. We really didn’t know her—had only met her briefly. But once her eulogy began, she became transformed in our minds, lifted up by the vibrations of the stories her family offered up in her praise. We left that funeral regretting having missed the opportunity to get to know someone so neat.

Somehow, the same thing happened this summer for Grandpa Don—for us. It is incredible to see a life taking shape solely through the words pieced together by people who care deeply for that person. The pity is that it is a life in retrospect. Oh, to know the person that way while he or she is still living….

It makes me wonder why we wait so long to acquiesce and admit that those we know—those closest to us, those we see the most often and the clearest in all their glaring faults—are really those neat, special people we make them out to be after they are gone. Why do we wait until they are gone? Why don’t we eulogize them when they are still living and can enjoy the love we show through our words?

Used to be, when someone was looking for one of those scarce jobs in tough times, a friend might help the process along by promising to “put in a good word” for him. Though a good (“eu”) word (“logos”) for a job hunter would never be called a eulogy, that is exactly what it is. There are all sorts of ways to bless the living with our good words. Why wait until people pass away to speak up?

I first published this article in another blog in 2009 as a reflection on Don’s passing. Today marks two years since that point—still reminiscing, still feeling the draw of memories.

Portrait courtesy of Christa Elza Photography

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