Friday, January 05, 2007

Producing a Eulogy

“We need more scenes,” I told my dad on the phone. “Good writing is full of live action. You can’t just say, ‘he was a good man, everyone liked him.’ You need real scenes, actual events that show that goodness or else it’s not going to be believable. I need to see you doing more, you know, actually engaging.”

“Mmm,” says Dad. “I see.”

Dad is On My Case.

He wants me to write his eulogy. He’s not so old at 76, and he’s not sick, but he wants the eulogy written before he dies. He wants to see it.

Dad Looks Great On Paper.

He gives away hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to many deserving causes. A champion of social justice, he gets behind progressive issues, has parties at his house to raise money for Universal Health Care. He’s taken care of whole families in Mexico, sending their children to college. He funds documentary films about the West Bank, rents commercial space cheap to non-profit groups like Planned Parenthood. Last year, at his house for dinner I shared a table with an Indian man who heads the Gandhi Peace foundation, a woman who led Sri Lankan village mothers into the jungle demanding that rebel armies release their kidnapped sons, and an American woman who ran a bra factory in Sri Lanka that had profit sharing for the workers. Just another night at my parent’s house. Dad even helped put braces on the teeth of a young Chinese woman he randomly met in Tai Pei, but for the life of me, I’m having a hell of a time coming up with the kinds of scenes that will really make his eulogy rock. The thing is,

People Make Dad Uncomfortable.

“Wally,” my husband said gently on our last day in Hawaii, “I think you should consider coming down to the pool with me.”

“Mmm,” said dad.

”And you might want to put on your bathing suit,” added hubby.

“Oh,” said dad.

“But you wouldn’t have to go in the water,” he said.

“Yes,” said dad.

And that’s how my dad came to be down at the hotel swimming pool on our last day of the trip. It was the annual sighting of grandpa, a man who prefers to spend his sunny, grandchild filled Hawaiian vacation indoors, in a dark office, reading newspapers and books and taking naps. But there he was standing poolside, a newspaper tucked under his arm and talking to a women I’d met a day earlier, a freelance correspondent for CBS, while his six grandchildren looked on, heads cocked, a little startled perhaps at seeing my dad in the light.

“And he looked horrible,” says my mom, laughing. “I thought, ‘who is that old man coming toward us.’ Did you see what he was wearing? That old dome topped Chinese Rice Field worker hat? His face is so narrow and that hat is so tall it just made his face go on forever! And his tummy?” she continued, “it was bulging and he was wearing that awful yellow shirt and he shuffled, did you see him shuffling? Mark was holding onto his hand.”

Dad Felt the Pinch.

“I need it for the eulogy,” I’d said earlier in the day. “We’ve been here nearly two weeks and I need a scene dad, something that will help me lead the piece off, like, ‘I’ll never forget the day dad came down to the pool to visit the grandkids.’ Something like that, but then I need you to actually do something,” I said. “Could you put one of them on your lap or maybe even order a drink?”

“Mmm,” said dad. “I don’t know. I should be at home reading. I have so much to do.”

Dad Tried

He stood there, lots of pool activity going on around him; lots of Marco Polo and vacationing families tossing children and balls from the shallow to the deep. I’d met lots of people in the week we were staying in the hotel next door to my parent’s house and I’d talked a fair amount about my mom and her house, how lucky we were to get to come to Hawaii fairly regularly. “Is your dad still around?” I got this question more than once from new friends because I hardly mentioned him. “Um, yeah,” I’d laugh. “He’s around here somewhere.”

Now he was actually at the pool, but sadly, it wasn’t really scene-worthy, I mean, he stood there looking like a Martian who had just landed. “Sit down, dad,” my sister said. He looked around at his family; his wife, his four children, their spouses, their children, a nanny or two. “Uh,” he said, searching for a place to sit amidst beach towels and smoothies, books and sand toys. “Uh, I don’t know. I think I’ll walk over to that grass over there and read.”

“Bye bye grandpa!” some little tot shouted as he trudged away.

I’d used the eulogy before as a way to get him to engage with the grandkids, who he doesn’t see very often. My nine-year-old had given him coupons for Christmas, little squares of paper inviting him to do things like take her to breakfast, get his back scratched, read together or take a walk. “Whatever you want,” she had told him. Even at nine she was trying to make it easy.

“I can use that for the eulogy,” I suggested, “taking her out for breakfast would be a nice scene.”

“Mmm,” he says.

People Are Talking.

“You need to keep an eye on dad,” my brother had mentioned on the phone a week before the trip. “I got a call from the dentist, the one he’s been going to for years. The nurse said he fell asleep in the chair and woke up disoriented and angry. They’d never seen him like that. I think he’s slipping,” my brother said from his big leather swivel chair at the office. “So watch him, and get back to me.”

Dad Wants His Eulogy Now.

“You don’t have much time,” he’d said. “I mean I could be dead soon.”

Like I said, dad’s not sick or especially old, but he’s giving away all of his money and hopes to be perfectly broke in five years. “Then no one will want anything to do with me,” he says, “and I can die in peace.” I have no idea what he means by this, all I know is that this eulogy is going nowhere and I need help.

“So what kinds of things do you want me to put in there?” I’d asked him. “Is this about your accomplishments or do you want me to say weird things like you know how to use a lasso, or the only food you’ve been known to cook is oatmeal?”

“Mush,” he corrected.

“Or how I’ll always remember that time mom threatened to cut my hair if I didn’t get that rat’s nest of a knot out of it, and you got on your knees and combed mayonnaise and peanut butter through my hair for hours until it came out.”

“I don’t know,” he says uncomfortably.

“I have something that you could use,” my younger sister offers. Apparently my 38-year-old sister had sliced her finger cutting pineapple that very morning, “and he actually kissed my finger,” she says. “It was the most loving thing I can ever remember him doing.”

“I kissed it?” my dad says, coming into the kitchen to re-fill his coffee.

What's Up?

Finally it was time to leave the island. Dad drove us to the airport as I fed him pieces of sushi from the front seat. “It’s more than I can eat,” I promised, “here, have some.” He said he hadn’t eaten all day, but that he wasn’t hungry. He said this as he stuffed sushi into his mouth.

At the curb, after we’d unloaded our bags, I leaned in to kiss him. “Dad,” I started to say, “I love…”

“Save it for the eulogy,” he said, landing a peck on my cheek, and then driving off into the balmy, Hawaiian night.

11 comments:

divine turpitude said...

funny. poignant. marvelous. love this, a LOT.

xo

Stef said...

i love this a lot too...there is something about your voice, your touch, your thoughts, your words...they touch us all.

Anonymous said...

ok well the tears streaming out my eyes tell me, you got your eulogy! what an amazing tribute (and how lucky he is to have you for a daughter to have captured the wonderful, quirky, heartbreakingly perfect flash of an entire cosmology in the form of him, you, the all of it...this being human, this trying to write a eulogy!) deep satisfying sigh to have read this. thank you.

Deezee said...

From childhood, I remember such different things about your dad, like how he was willing to walk away from the group of grown ups to come talk to me, how he'd ask me about tennis and listen, how he actually approached me with interest (whether it was feigned or not.)

I marvel at what you have captured here, the picture you have presented...

Alison said...

Fantastic, one of your best. You capture so many dizzying contradictions, changes, nuances, flavors, textures of the universe that is your dad...

Love,
Ali

ecm said...

This is beautiful, just beautiful.

L. Oign said...

These three recent posts are among the most beautiful and accomplished writing you have done. You are a story magnet, and it's easy to see why they are attracted to you. Even your short vignettes are like zen koans. So much contemporary writing is self-congratulatory; so much of it dazzles reviewers with empty virtuosity. Your work is like a beautiful, soft coat that not only feels good, but actually keeps you warm. What a pleasure to climb in there with you.

Sky said...

fabulous story telling here! your dad must be proud! sounds like you are quite proud of him. interesting man, he is.

Kathleen said...

i read this twice...smiling and loving the connection between you and your father. there is a lot of love in your words...and he is obviously proud of you.

thank you for sharing this.

MB said...

I'm trying to find words. Elegant... balanced... deep... simple.... complex... Gosh, this is good.

tongue in cheek said...

Your rhythm flows. Gives meaning to the subtle, tells the depth in the unforeseen.

Your feeding him in the car. Then his words cutting yours short... save it for the eulogy

save the love for the eulogy, as if to say give me your best. as you were giving him your best.

In the silence in the distance, in your father you seem to long for more and yet have him perfectly captured in your understanding of him.

Your eulogy is flawless as love

well said, thank you for sharing your gift with us!