By Jacqueline Doyle
“Will anyone in the family want to speak?”
The silence in the sunlit office grows. The priest behind the desk, young and rosy-faced, looks expectant. My mother looks at my brother. My brother looks at the floor. Nobody looks at me.
I’m surprised by the priest’s question. I haven’t been to many funerals, and it hasn’t actually occurred to me until now that there will be a eulogy and someone will have to deliver it. I’m not surprised that my mother is looking at my brother. I’m the older and was closer to my father, but my brother’s the male and has always been her favorite.
“Would you like to think it over?” the priest asks, looking pointedly at my brother this time. The priest is new and has never met my father. My parents were not regular churchgoers, and for the past six months they were absorbed in treatments for my father’s cancer. Months of radiation therapy for a tumor in his mouth. Months when he couldn’t eat, liquids and yogurt dribbling out of his nose as he sucked on a straw.
The room we’re sitting in is lined with leather-bound books. They don’t look well thumbed or personal. I suspect they don’t belong to the priest, but probably just come with the office as clergy rotate in and out of the parish. Outside the window the autumn sky is deep blue. The lawn is littered with yellow and red leaves that shuffle and recombine with each gust of wind.
“I’ll talk about his birthday then,” the priest says. “How’s that?”
He’s decided to focus on my father’s long life in his own short eulogy after the homily, and the pending eighty-eighth birthday he didn’t quite reach. After talking to my mother the priest hasn’t found much more to say. “The man was a saint,” my mother keeps repeating. Not exactly something the priest can include. Not exactly true either.
My brother didn’t say no to the priest right then, but he postponed his decision. A successful businessman, he nevertheless hates public speaking, and maybe that’s the reason he refused to give the eulogy. Or maybe it was more complicated than that, part of the damaged father-son relationship that no one ever faced in my family, as we refused to face so many things. I didn’t exactly say yes to the priest. I murmured that we’d get back to him.
Fretting over what I might say in the eulogy dominated my thoughts as my mother and I visited the mortuary, wrote and called in the obituaries, visited the florist to choose arrangements for the altar, went through decades of clothes crammed in her closet to choose her outfit for the funeral, and argued about her reasons for not calling any relatives. “It’s a long trip,” she insisted. “It’s just too expensive. I’ll tell them later.” My mother wanted to know how much she was supposed to pay the priest and the Ladies Auxiliary that was providing some food at the meager reception after the service. She wanted to give the lavish floral display she’d ordered to the church for their Sunday mass. “Might as well,” she said. “What am I going to do with it?”
What I Considered Including in the Eulogy:
- My father’s love of Ireland
- His love of his job
- How much his employees loved him (at least according to my mother, but I think it was true)
- His engineering accomplishments, drafting abilities, passion for math
- His carpentry skills, and all the work he invested in our eighty-year-old house
- His love of literature (a long time ago, really)
- His love of music (ditto)
- His love of art (ditto)
- His love of his family (despite)
No, not despite. I couldn’t include that.
I can see him in his wing chair in front of the fireplace reading my high school report card. He’s wearing a maroon polo shirt, beige Bermuda shorts, dark brown nylon knee socks and slippers, his feet stretched out in front of him on the wicker footstool. I’ve gotten all As and a C in Phys. Ed. “What’s this C in Phys. Ed.?” There’s a bit of a twinkle there, but he’s also partly serious.
My brother’s hovering in the hall, his report card crammed in his pocket. He’s going to get in trouble and he knows it. At the very least he’ll be grounded for his grades. My father will force him to quit the football team. Sports are not important, in my father’s opinion. Grades are important.
When my brother responds by flunking half his classes, my father roughs him up in the downstairs hall. I hang over the second floor banister while my father shoves my brother against the wall and my mother wails. Somehow my brother manages to graduate with a good enough GPA to get into the engineering program at Lehigh, but he drops out of Lehigh, and then out of the University of Wisconsin, and then out of Middlebury, and then out of the University of Wisconsin again.
He stays there, marries a local girl, bowls and golfs and drinks a lot of beer. His grammar changes. He starts to say “ain’t.” He builds an enormous house to impress my father, who’s not impressed. My father never revises his original blueprint for my brother’s achievements. After he dies I find a folder with my brother’s name on it in one of my father’s file cabinets. He’d preserved all the bad report cards from school and college. There’s an article on college failure rates, with statistics showing that boys are more likely to fail than girls. He’d underlined whole sections of the article in red ink.
Never unconditional love. Always qualified. Years of barely suppressed rage because my brother failed to finish his college degree. “He broke your father’s heart,” my mother repeated, for decades. Years of festering anger because I fell in love with the wrong men—wrong race, wrong politics, wrong ethnicity, wrong profession, wrong income bracket. Not the conservative, Ivy-educated, white brain surgeon he’d had in mind for me to marry. Not the dazzling professional job in a big engineering firm he’d envisioned for my brother. My father’s Horatio Alger story prematurely concluded in one generation when we failed to follow the scripts for upward mobility he’d written even before we were born.
A scholarship boy in the engineering program at Cooper Union, a privately funded college in New York City, my father wanted my brother and me to go to private colleges and to climb the intellectual and social ladder he’d barely begun to ascend himself. He was professionally successful, working his way up from copy boy to draftsman to junior engineer to senior engineer to vice president and member of the board. He was proud of that. He would have wanted those achievements in the eulogy. But he never felt socially accepted. He never saw other men in management (there were no women) outside the office.
I didn’t comprehend the depth of his isolation until shortly before he died. He’d pretty much ignored my half Mexican American son until Ben got an early acceptance to Harvard. Then he showed an interest.
We were sitting on the tiny balcony of their independent living apartment in their retirement complex in North Carolina.
“The perfect son,” he said, his voice vibrating with emotion.
It was so clear he felt he hadn’t had the perfect son.
He wanted to know more about Ben’s victories in cross-country and track. I was surprised he cared at all.
“I never fit in. I didn’t play golf or tennis.” I could hear all the yearning of a bookish, working-class kid who’d spent his high school years in the dark room developing photographs, who’d started working full time at seventeen and done his college classes in night school. Who’d never played sports, or enjoyed the privilege of leisure.
“Ben doesn’t play golf or tennis either, Dad.”
“But he could, couldn’t he. He could learn. I couldn’t.” The longing in his eyes was almost unbearable.
My mother didn’t want my husband and son to come to the funeral in North Carolina. My husband was teaching in California. Ben had just started his freshman year in Massachusetts, and he was running in a cross-country meet that weekend. She didn’t think it was worth making the trip. “Money doesn’t grow on trees,” she said.
I didn’t realize how much that hurt my husband until he told me later. At the time it just seemed part of my mother’s insane thrift and determination not to make a big deal about the funeral arrangements.
So my husband and son didn’t attend. Partly because I was acceding to my mother’s wishes. Partly because I inherited some of my mother’s insane thrift. We’d just spent money flying out East to see our son off to college. We’d just paid our first tuition installment.
But they should have been there. Looking back, I can see that. The few relatives who might have come should have been there, too. Not for my father, who was dead. Not for my mother, who didn’t care. Maybe for me, so I wouldn’t be looking back now at the nearly empty church and a ceremony that felt so incomplete. But for something larger too. For the occasion. For all of us and our deep-seated need to mark the significance of a loved one’s life and death in a fully realized communal ritual. Our hope that we, too, won’t pass unnoticed.
The eulogy was botched in a number of ways. Before the service, I told the priest that the three of us wanted to go up to the pulpit to say goodbye at the end. I was thinking I might even deliver a full eulogy then, but I was still not sure, still turning over the possibilities in my mind. The priest didn’t call us up. It might have been because the Catholic funeral service was so emphatically directed at the joys of the afterlife and not saying goodbye. Or he just forgot.
I ended up extemporizing a eulogy at the entrance of the parish hall, with the handful of mourners standing in the vestibule. I put my hand on the coffin, which was being wheeled out of the church by the mortuary attendants, who stopped and stood back. I cleared my throat. “I’d like to say a few words.”
I kept the eulogy short, and positive. I talked about inheritance. How my father had passed on his love of Ireland and literature to me. His ability to build and repair things to my brother. His mathematical and scientific skills to my son. I don’t know why I gave the eulogy at all, under such awkward circumstances, to my parents’ cleaning lady and a small group of acquaintances from their retirement complex. People who barely knew my father, and certainly didn’t mourn his passing. My mother was misty eyed, my brother stolid. The rest of them milled in the vestibule of the empty church, respectful smiles pasted on their faces, waiting for me to finish. The daughter who’d flown in from California. “Did you know she’s a professor?” I heard one of my mother’s bridge partners say afterwards. “Isn’t it funny, Peggy never mentioned that.”
I could see them eyeing the trays of sliced cheese and cold cuts on folding tables in the parish hall behind me. The white-haired volunteers from the Catholic Ladies Auxiliary were putting out paper plates and Styrofoam cups and plastic knives and forks. The bitter smell of boiled coffee filled the air.
Tips for Writing and Delivering a Eulogy that the Internet Would Have Provided, If I’d Looked:
- Think about the person and your relationship to the person.
- Gather information, including special accomplishments, career, hobbies, family anecdotes. Look for humorous and touching memories.
- Decide whether your tone will be light or serious. Look for appropriate religious quotations if your eulogy is serious.
- Organize your information and create an outline.
- Write, review, and revise.
- Have tissues and a bottle of water handy. Take a deep breath before you begin. Remember to speak slowly and distinctly.
I’m used to public speaking, in the classroom at least. I was composed, and spoke slowly and distinctly. I was choked up but didn’t cry. I didn’t gather any information beforehand or tell any anecdotes, though I did mentally rehearse what I was going to say. I don’t know how useful the Internet tips would have been. Even if I had located them and proceeded in an orderly fashion, I would have been stalled on the first one.
“Think about the person and your relationship to that person.” How to express my mixed feelings about the father who nurtured my creativity and intellectual development and then turned his back on me and the choices I made? Who strong-armed me into transferring to another college by threatening to cut off my funds after he learned of my African-American boyfriend? Who thought I traveled too much, lived abroad too long, stayed in school too long? Who never fully accepted my Mexican American husband or our son? “Look for humorous and touching memories.” How far back would I have to go? I could have said more about his job. There was a lot I left out, and a lot I couldn’t say, not that anyone there would have cared.
What I Did Not Include in the Eulogy:
- My father’s rages when we were children
- His anger and resentment later
- His silences
- The burden of his expectations
- The fact that I’d lived in California for almost twenty-five years and he’d never once visited
- How I felt about that
My mother was pleased with the eulogy, and six months later asked me to send a copy to her. It hadn’t been written to begin with, but I typed up what I remembered. It seemed sparse and inadequate to the man and my feelings about him.
I didn’t keep a copy for myself.
“I’ve lived longer than anyone in my family tree,” he said more than once, so perhaps the priest was right to emphasize his age. The fact that the priest focused his eulogy on something my father didn’t reach—his eighty-eighth birthday—fits the man, whose expectations exceeded his grasp, whose youthful dreams dominated a life where nothing was enough.
He was a man who held on to his ambitions, even to his detriment. Whose sense of duty never flagged. Who worked hard. Who retreated into angry solitude when he felt others had failed him. Who couldn’t look past his son’s failure to finish his degree. Who may have been proud of his daughter’s Ivy League Ph.D., but never said so. Who fought constantly with his wife but may have derived more from their bond than an outsider, even his own daughter, could fathom.
When they got the news that his tumor had spread beyond the possibility of further treatment, “We just lay on the bed,” my mother told me, “holding hands. We didn’t say anything. Just held hands.”
I hold on to that. I like to think he found some comfort amid so many disappointments, some companionship in his alienation.
What I Would Include, If I Were Asked to Deliver His Eulogy Today:
After eight years, I still don’t know. I stare at the blank computer screen in my home office, fingers frozen on the keys. My wooden desk chair, a swivel chair that my father bought as a young man in Greenwich Village, creaks as I lean forward. I review my directions from the Internet, stuck on the first point. “Think about the person and your relationship to the person.” I write:
“My father had big dreams for his future and his family’s. They weren’t my dreams.”
It’s all I’ve come up with, after years of writing, so much of it about my father. I’m like him, meticulous, critical, socially awkward, a hoarder of memories and books and souvenirs of the past. Obsessive in my quests—obsessive in this quest to write something that would express the man and our complicated history together.
To eulogize is to forgive, James Baldwin writes in “Notes of a Native Son,” a better guide than the Internet to the enormity of the task. Everyone hopes that upon death he too “would be eulogized,” Baldwin writes, “which is to say forgiven, and that all of his lapses, greeds, errors, and strayings from the truth would be invested with coherence and looked upon with charity.” I continue to seek that truth and coherence, labor to forgive the unforgiving, to find the words that no one in my family wants to speak.
My father’s dreams died with him. His disappointment and anger died with him. His love did not.
JACQUELINE DOYLE’s creative nonfiction has appeared in South Dakota Review, Waccamaw, Southern Indiana Review, Cold Mountain Review, Under the Sun, and elsewhere. Her essays have earned Pushcart nominations from Southern Humanities Review and South Loop Review, and Notable Essay citations in Best American Essays 2013 and Best American Essays 2015. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. Find her online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle