The following is from the eulogy I gave for my mother in law. Posted here in the hope you might find some of it valuable.
Speak no ill of the dead.
It used to make me crazy to sit at a memorial service and listen to the Rabbi who had never met my father… or my grandmother… or my Cousin. So, I thought, let the family speak… and let them tell the truth, both good and bad. Now I think; thank God no one left me in charge back then.
After a few more decades I’ve come to believe that there is wisdom in speaking only the good…and it has nothing to do with being polite or respecting the family.
There are two good reasons for speaking only in praise and with love.
First, It is a sacred promise to ourselves that when it is our turn, those who gather will make some effort to overlook our failings and remember our best intent… our finest moments… the good that was at the heart of all we meant and much of what we did.
Second and more important is a truth that we see right in front of us. Right now, there is an unreality to these few days…. And during this time, our memories are soft clay.
What we choose to remember… what we say aloud…. what we share with one another, will harden over time into our personal truths.
These stories will become her history.
But these selected memories are the truth. They are in many ways truer that our actual experiences. That is, they are closer to the reality of who Lilyan was than we ever were able to achieve during her life… when we were so busy being, that we couldn’t possibly begin to understand one another with perspective.
So here is the human condition. We act like idiots and then something happens to bring us up short and we are bemused by all that we did…. And then we vow to ourselves that this time we will learn… and we will live in full knowledge of how easily things can change.
And then because we are human, we go back to living like everything is permanent, consumed by momentary crises that signify nothing.
So here’s a story.
When Stacey and I got married Lilyan wanted me to call her mom…. I didn’t want to.
Why not? I couldn’t tell you.
But I knew I was right….. I used to be right a lot.
And so I wouldn’t call her mom, and she wouldn’t be called Lil… and so I didn’t call her anything for five years.
I’m not joking, I’d just start talking.
Sometimes, it wasn’t her fault, she didn’t realize I was talking to her. How could she? I didn’t say “Hey, you who cannot be named, do you want a piece of cake?”
I just said “do you want a piece of cake?” for all she knew, I could have been talking to the cat.
One day, about five years after we were married — I don’t know when it was, except I know it was Seth’s wedding — so if it was really one year or ten, my wife could tell you.
But that day, I called out “Lil, can I get you a drink?”
I hid my calling her by name behind an offer of a drink… She said yes, and that was that.
From then on I called her Lil. No problem….. At least no problem for me. ..
What little hurt that left for her, I can’t know. So today I can’t figure out what the big deal was.
Now this is important to me today because I know that back then she could not ever tell me what the big deal was to her…. but it was a big deal. That was for sure.
You’d think I would have said to myself, okay it is a big deal to her, for whatever reason, so why is it such a big deal to me if I call her mom?…. Sorry mom,
The bigger story is this: For whatever reason, I didn’t understand what it was Lilyan was asking for.
I forgot how incredibly difficult it is to speak openly, to communicate the most vulnerable and critical need to be heard, to make contact.
I forgot how much conscious effort I must make, and should have made…. to hear her….. Instead I turned away, when giving way would have cost me nothing and enriched us both.
And I still do that all the time.
For a long time Stacey’s mom and I struggled for common ground. I was angry, and she was sad … And I was angry that she was sad.
And somehow our shared love for Stacey was not enough to make for a nice dinner conversation.
When her granddaughters came along, Lilyan and I were able to reach across the silence and embrace for long moments as we reveled in the unalloyed wonder of these magical children.
And I stood wide-eyed watching as she got down on all fours to play…. To be with them in a way that I wasn’t able to be with her.
Grief is, at least in part, a shedding all the superficial and treacherous junk we accumulate over the years. It is a process of reframing… and It is a chance to focus on the heart of our experiences.
And the heart… the truth… the core of my experience of your mother is the woman who put sparklers in your birthday cake, and who lay on the floor with my children.
That is the woman I choose to remember and to celebrate today.