Eulogies for living

I did a thing. I wrote five eulogies for living friends.

Why I speak

This eulogy thing started in 1994, the year my son was born and my grandmother died.

In April, my grandmother went down quickly and unexpectedly. For many in our family, the timing was awkward. Awkward for me because my parents were out of the country; my husband out of state; and I was alone with three young children. We were all caught off-guard. Unready.

Just like that, we were all gathered for my grandmother’s funeral. The minister, who had never met her, stumbled through some niceties (good Christian woman), maybe one other speaker read her very traditional obit: survived by all these people sitting here. I felt a strong desire to bolt to the podium : “I have a few things to say . . . ” but I sat, stewing between my daughters on the pew, holding my baby.

How did we let this happen? The service didn’t honor her memory. No one talked about her mad sewing skills. Not a peep about her chicken and dumplings or biscuits and gravy. No reference to her heart-warming smile. Not a single story about her terrifying switch bush. No one who spoke at her service knew her, ate her food, wore an outfit she had made, or lurched in a circle around her as she gripped an arm with one hand and swatted a switch with the other. I was furious, I was sad, and I walked out of that experience determined.

Feeling determined: Part 1

Less than a decade later, my grandfather died. I asked my family who would speak at his service and answered my own question: I will.

At his service, I shared tiny memories: the coins he rattled in his pockets, the rubber bands he kept handy to snap playfully at a grandchild, the VO5 hairstyle, and the long-sleeved shirts.

Nine months later, my cousin died. I spoke again, reading memories and messages from all the cousins. We remembered our youngest cousin well, with sad but warmed hearts.

Giving voice to the memories felt right, necessary, so I continued to speak at services of family, especially if no one else was delivering a personal message.

Almost nine years ago, I eulogized a friend. My friend Dela was dear, complicated, brave. She was a beautiful mess. Her brothers and some friends judged her for the mess: the piles of interests in her home, the messy relationship, the untidy career. But as I watched her battle leukemia for ten years, I grew to appreciate her messes and spoke about it at her service.

. . . there was beauty, openness, acceptance, and love in her chaos. The mess, really, was reverence for the moment. There was presence when she was present.

After the service, another friend approached me.

That was beautiful. I want you to write my eulogy when I die.

Feeling determined: Part 2

That request haunted me for several years. Losing friends is hard, sorting through who might go first is unpleasant, but the notion that haunted me most was why do we wait until the person is gone to find those beautiful memory crystals?

After gnawing on the question for a few years, I decided to write pre-eulogies (I call them preulogies) for a handful of friends and give them as birthday presents. These were unannounced and I asked each recipient not to say anything to future recipients until I made the cycle through the birthdays, closing the circle with the friend who initially requested: write my eulogy.

Writing a regular eulogy can be challenging, not only because the moment is packed with emotion and loss, but also, the eulogist struggles to capture a lifetime, a personality, the giant journey of a person in a few well-strung words. I discovered that preulogies are no less challenging.

Crystals remembered

To find the words, I dragged my mind into the grief of the friend’s absence, across the experiences we shared, and also through the myriad of ways she may have touched others as a parent, friend, child, or co-worker. I struggled to crystalize a friendship in three or four sentences.

Here are a few of the crystals I dug up in this process:

Kathy: I felt a peace wash over me every time I watched her draw in a deep breath after listening to me, lift her hands out and forward as if opening a giant instruction manual, “Here’s what you need to do . . . “

Patti: Sometimes it seemed she was drifting, but she always seemed anchored. [. . .] Wishy washy? An anchored drifter? Hardly. All along, she’s been the anchor. The glue. The strength of the bonds.

Mim: Mim is to blame for many joyful occasions. Girl Scout trips to transplant sea grasses and dance around in medieval attire. Krewe meetings, workdays, and parades. Excursions to hear live music, splash around in shallow streams, explore the flip side, dig our toes in the sand, and paddle across a lake. Latke parties, dinner parties, and girls’ gatherings . . . my house at 6!

Jackie: That act of friendship, that model of taking control of chaos, changed me. It wasn’t about the furniture. She also modeled this for me as an artist, as a scorned lover, and as an explorer. But moving the furniture drove it home for me: take what’s before you, make it yours, make your peace in it, make it work for you.

Betsy: I always felt small next to Betsy. Not in a bad way, in fact, I loved being next to her because I felt complicit, like maybe I could get a little cred when she made the room roar with laughter or when the audience joyfully rattled and shook along as she played her music.

The crystals that capture the friend as I know her are only half of the story with preulogies. I also needed to project: where would my friend go from today, how would she die, who would she be.

Crystals imagined

This might be the trickiest part for me. What if I imagine it wrong, that is, what if she has a totally different outlook for her future? Will this made-up death upset her? What if she hates me for this?

Thankfully, I’m still friends with all of them. Maybe their futures were full of the plausible joys and rewards. Kathy went up in flames in the elbow of the effigy at Burning Man. Patti passed at her beach home, draped across her favorite beach towel, head resting on a thick novel. Mim took her final slumber at a campsite by a lake, Scrappy nearby, a photo of Skip in her hand. Jackie took her last breath drifting through the bayou on her paddle board. And Betsy . . . I didn’t include the details of her death in the preulogy. Maybe because she’ll actually outlive me? Or maybe because we’re so focused on her three long overdue Grammies.

Find the words

Not everyone wants to stand in the absence of a friend to find the words. And not everyone needs to. I certainly couldn’t do this for everyone in my life because the process can be gut-wrenching. But I move forward from this experience mindful of what my family and friends mean to me and open to opportunities to share that with them.

Your friend should know why you’re drawn to her company, why you feel inclined to call and catch up, what memory of her makes you giggle. Maybe stand for a moment in these questions: What will I most miss about her? What well of sorrow will her absence leave?

Remembering Betsy, I wrote:

What I wouldn’t give to hear her tell one more Marie and Boudreaux joke. Right? I’m sure everyone has a favorite. Mine? Marie, the coffee, the oatmeal, and the hot flashes. Ha! You’ve all heard it. Your laughter, that joy that just rose up in you as you remembered her tell that joke, that’s the gift, that’s what we take with us today. That’s the joy in this well of tears.

Friendship is a gift. Take a moment while your friend is living and find that joy, share the words.

©Pennie Nichols All Rights Reserved 2019

We All Drop Dead

As I tidied my website a bit, I realized I needed a new subcategory in my menu: dead.

Dead.

I already have several relevant posts. Sooner or later we all drop dead. I don’t obsess, but perhaps I’m at the age when I don’t block the thought completely. Consider, for example, my purple folder, my dead cayenne, my body donation, what we learn from pets that die. Arguably the most important is “Are you ready?

I have to confess that, despite my intentions to be prepared, I’m not. I think about it more, but I don’t do more, at least not “as more” as I should.

It’s easy to make light of our plans, our check-out tickets. our sunset. But filling that purple folder with proper information and making sure everyone knows exactly what’s in it and where it is? It’s challenging. I hope I don’t drop dead before I’m done with it!

©Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

 

Body donation

The mail we receive is rarely “real.” Mostly phishing, junk, and flyers. Today I had a dose of adult mail: a note from the insurance company, state tax department forms, a jury summons, and confirmation of my body donation (“after death,” they do specify on the form!) to the Department of Health and Hospitals Bureau of Anatomical Services.

Yeah, that last one.

My Body Donation

My first inspiration to take this route was a piece on NPR that featured med students and the appreciation they expressed for this gift. The more I looked into it, the more I understood the academic, scientific, and investigative importance of cadaver donations to the medical profession. 

Barring something truly horrific, I’m going to become a cadaver anyway. Why not donate it? I was already signed up as an organ donor, but the more I thought about donating my body, the more I felt this was more appropriate as my body’s last hurrah.

I dawdled for years before I found the correct contact information. I confess I wasn’t searching diligently. Who does for these things? I dallied another one or two years to fill out and send in the form. And, just like that, after years of dillies and dallies, I have my yellow body donation card. I know it will feel just like that when it’s time to turn it in. And just like another that, my surviving family will receive my ashes once the med students have finished their lessons.

I share these slightly macabre reflections in case you don’t already have special plans for your body when you’re done with it. This article on Parting (a funeral home site), which I didn’t read before I filled out the form, explains some of the advantages and disadvantages of cadaver donation. Even knowing the disadvantages, I feel good about putting this card in my purple folder.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved, 2017.

Empty Nest Recycling and Buying the Farm

or Kicking the Bucket or Going on for my Reward

An eker in an empty nest will make less trips to thrift-store drop-offs than the typical empty nester. Unlike most empty nesters, an eker does not purge so much as recycle the things the children leave behind. An eker strives to master, over time, the art of empty nest recycling.

Recycling Remnants of Childhood and Youth

I still have most of the children’s furniture. My daughter’s bed has become a guest bed. The chest of drawers is photo album storage. All of the children’s closets are holding areas for things undecided. The homework desk with all its sharpie marks and pen indentations became my jewelry making station. It now lives under my son’s double loft bed, where the built-in shelves make a perfect craft cove.

And those leftover school supplies! Backpacks, composition notebooks, binders, dividers, clips, pens, pencils . . . I’ll never run out of college-ruled paper or index cards.

I have a tub of pencils, some of which date back to kindergarten. The erasers are shot, but the pencils find new purpose, like marking measurements for flooring installation and greenhouse construction.

Most of the plastic tubs we used for school supplies have been re-purposed. The tubs are filled with canning lids, garden whatnots, and necessary miscellany. Spiral notebooks —some partially used, some untouched— are my scratch pads for scribbling recipes and grocery lists and for doodling or writing when I’m stuck in a waiting room. I keep a nightstand notebook for those seldom occasions when I wake in the night with an idea. The chalk moved to the kitchen chalkboard, where we scribble to-dos and to-buys. The school supplies are stealing their way into every room of the house!

Recycling for the Farm Purchase

As I continue to find re-uses for remnants left in my nest, I’m pleased with last week’s recycling move. A plastic multi-pocket folder has become my folder of documents for the day that I buy the farm.

empty-nest-recyclingA friend’s mom recently passed, leaving her children a notebook with instructions, last wishes, and all the useful information to help navigate a mournful final farewell. Her thoughtfulness inspired me to get my check-out papers in order. I scanned the shelves of school supplies for a notebook. Instead of a spiral notebook, I pulled out a purple, multi-pocket folder. The sturdy pockets will hold my last will and testament, cadaver instructions, information about my accounts, and some thoughts on how my survivors might survive the days following my death.

Recycling Beyond the Nest

The act of filling out death documents was laced with a bit of morbid dread. However, as I collect the documents and thoughts in the folder, that dark, alloyed emotion morphs toward the antipodal feeling of joy. I feel comfort as I fill the folder. I feel I am tying an important loose end. I feel the satisfaction of a gift well-conceived and well-given.

No amount of preparation can preclude the grief and regret of words said or unsaid, acts done or undone. My hope is that this recycled folder will make the journey through it easier. That the thoughts I scribble on index cards and college-ruled paper will bring at least one smile. That the pockets will offer one last gentle caress, one last comforting squeeze, one last I love you locked onto their hearts to float them well beyond that day.

I remind my children and myself that I expect the folder to collect many more years of dust in my empty nest. That idea of dust helps dissipate the morbid dread as well.

The empty nest recycling job is as yet incomplete. Far from complete, I would say. But with the Farm Purchase Folder in order, I have my eye out for a pretty something that could serve as an urn. Not sure I’ll find it among the pencil boxes and sheet protectors, but I’m searching. This, too, I do in love.

© Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016

Life Lessons from Pets

We learn life lessons from pets.

Responsibility, unconditional love, training and discipline, scheduling, … The list is endless.

This week one of my cockatiels gave me a lesson in pushing myself around a curve I avoid.

Annie

Annie (Anastasia), a white-face pearl cockatiel


I’ll begin my explanation with a confession.

I’m a little lily-livered.

I say “a little” because I do manage blood and injury when I’m the only adult. Something kicks in and I just do what needs to be done. But, if there’s an adultier adult in the room where injury or blood is introduced, I run to fetch. I will fetch anything for that other adult!

  • “Towels? Coming right up!”
  • “Peroxide? I’ll be right back with some.”
  • “What?  No, that’s OK. I don’t need to look. I trust you. Can I get you something?”

Death is pretty much the same story. I manage when I have to. For example, I was home alone when Delilah (one of our cats) brought in a rabbit before the battle was complete. She finished him off, up and down the stairs and through most of the house. At first, I locked myself in my room, banged on the door, and screamed at Delilah: “Stop it!!!” I knew I was being ridiculous, so I came out, collected rabbit bits (they were gifts after all), and began the impossible task of cleaning blood from the wall and carpet.

In most cases, however, I keep my distance from dead.

  • Dead rat at the front door? I tell Steven: “Honey! Meaux left a gift for you”
  • Animal injured or dead on the road? I’ll wait in the car while the other adult checks on it.
  • Funerals? I’ll visit the open casket and linger to reminisce and pray, but I never, ever touch.

Blood, injury, and death don’t have to be real or realistic. I own the “walking” in show title The Walking Dead. During every gory scene, that is, during 90% of the show. I jump out of my seat and, walking frantically around the kitchen and TV room, I ask: “What’s happening now?”

Cockatiel pair

Annie with her mate Dorian: She loved millet and the baby bird formula we would prepare for her chicks.

Back to this week’s lesson

On Wednesday morning, Steven noticed that Annie, our mama bird, didn’t look well. She was on a perch but leaning against the cage. Birds decline quickly when they’re sick or dying. Annie was at least 10, but for all we knew, she was 20 years old.

My inner battle began. “What if she dies while you’re gone!?”

“It’ll be OK. Just keep an eye on her,” Steven said as he left for work.

And just like that, I was the only adult in the house. Please, please get better. 

I checked on Annie after five minutes. She had changed perches. Maybe that was a good sign. Ten minutes later, another perch, and higher. “Maybe you should take her out of the cage,” Steven had said. Annie looked wobbly, and I knew I should.

Our cage is tall and the fall is far. Annie was on the top perch when I reached in for her. She was too light, droopy. I knew this was the end. After five peaceful hours, some time outside for fresh air and birdsong, but mostly inside cuddled against my chest, Annie slipped away quietly. I am grateful Steven encouraged me to take her out of the cage. I feel some solace for having made Annie comfortable during her last hours, for saving her from an unnecessary fall.

Isn’t that all we want to do for our loved ones, pets and human, who go before us? Save them from an unnecessarily far fall? Offer a bit of cuddle, sunshine, and comfort in the end?

I don’t fear death or dying, but I am a little lily-livered about watching it. Thanks to Annie, I’m a little less lily-livered now. I’m grateful for Annie’s lesson. I’m grateful she helped me move past my ridiculousness. This week a cockatiel taught me to be in a room with death without jumping out of my seat and pacing frantically.

Thank you, Annie. May the air be ever bright and gentle under your wings.

Copyright Pennie Nichols. All Rights Reserved. 2016

Open letter to a lost friend: Six Dollars and a Deadly Secret

This is one in a series of open letters to lost friends.

Dear Sandy H,

When I remember you, filaments of anger are still tangled in the jagged edges of my sadness.

The first call came on a Sunday morning in October. The conversation began with your typical Southern notes of greetings and inquiries. Your turn and you responded, “Oh, I’m fine,” adding after a pause, “I need a favor.”

“Sure, Sandy, whatever you need.”

We had that “It’s been years but it’s like we’ve never been apart” grace in our amity. Months or years might slip away, but we could pick it up. It had been nearly five years since our last visit. Fit to be tied that night: your father had died, you hated your mom, and the will had wrecked your life .

“Is something wrong?” I asked.

“I need to borrow six dollars.”

“Six dollars?”

“Yeah, I just need six dollars?”

The inception of our friendship was a Shakespeare lit class. You commuted to attend classes, so our friendship never extended into the evenings or weekends. I loved listening to stories about your derailed marriage. You were a non-traditional student before that was a thing and the first divorced friend I had. Even though our friendship didn’t go beyond swooning over our lit professor and sharing snorts over things people said in class, I valued the time together.

After graduation, I moved to your city for grad school. We kept up on the phone but our visits were only occasional. You continued to be that peculiar friend. You lived in elegant condos with fine furniture; my other friends and I holed up in noisy apartments or dilapidated houses. You cruised around in a sporty VW with leather seats. We sputtered to class in used cars with worn fabric seats and failing headliners.

“Well, sure. I’m happy to give you six dollars. Did they turn off your water? Your lights? You can come over if you like.”

“No, no. My car is out of gas, so if you could bring me six dollars, . . . I’ll pay you back.” This odd request was new to our relationship but it wasn’t surprising.

At the end of those two years of grad school in your city, I stopped by your condo to say good-bye before I left for a new phase of grad school in Austin. You were in a huff that day. You had always been angry with your mom, but today you were also bickering about your dad and your credit card. “They won’t let me use the damn card unless I pay $300 first!” you carped. Still creditcardless, owing a big chunk of money on a bigger chunk of debt sounded exotic to me. The icing on the cake: “And daddy wants me to pay my own car insurance now!”

Steven warned me, “This sounds very suspicious,” as I was leaving to take you six dollars. It’s okay, I explained, adding that you were a little eccentric, had probably maxed out all of your cards, had a fight with your mom, and just needed some gas or milk. What could it hurt? Six dollars?

I didn’t recognize you at first. Arms wrapped across your abdomen, as you wait for your dog to mark her territory in a patch of grass. Your hair was matted into a flat up-do, your face was swollen, your skin ruddy and blotched, and your linen clothes were torn and stained. Even from my car I knew that you were draped in a rancid cloud. You didn’t sound like this on the phone. You never sounded like this.

I did my best to collect myself as I parked the car. Handing you a $20 bill from an ATM because I didn’t have six dollars: “Keep it.”sandy-3

Your eyes brightened. “Thank you so much. I’ll pay you back. I promise. How are you?”

“No worries. I’m fine.” My desire to leave was not as strong as my desire to understand. “Do you need anything else? A ride to the gas station?”

“I need a ride to Hi Nabor?”

“Sure,” I said, realizing it wasn’t for milk or eggs.

The books and movies I enjoy revisiting most are the ones with the big “Gotcha!” twist at the end. The ending you didn’t see coming. Even as I waited for you in the car, I started revisiting all of our visits. I had missed something. How could I have missed it?

You limped to the car holding Parish. “Do you mind?” Her matted and discolored coat camouflaged her breed. Shih Tzu? Poodle? “Of course,” I responded, regretting the absence of towels to drape across the seats. You jumped agilely into your diatribe. The details, impossibly tangled in my memory now, were basically the same as our last visit: “My life is crap since dad died, I hate mom, the will was unfair.” The only saving grace in your life was this stinking (but very sweet) dog.

No idea what to do, I offered food. “While you’re in the store, I’ll grab us some lunch, and we’ll catch up, OK?”

“Please don’t leave me,” you implored, doddering out of the car. I promised I’d be back. You watched as I drove across the parking lot to the drive-through. Your fear was real.

When I returned, you were waiting, paper bags clutched to your chest, oblivious to the looks of passersby, relieved when you finally saw me.

At your house, even an “excuse the mess” hostess plea wouldn’t have prepared me. Holding the boxes of food, I turned on my heels, looking for a free surface, a place to sit in the battleground of slain fine furniture: the carved wood accent chair snapped in half, the porcelain lamp in pieces, the once-plush leather sofa gutted, springs and stuffing protruding. The condo was bulging with the smell of urine, ammonia, excrement, and rotting food. Circling, circling.

You plopped into your spot on the dead couch and pointed at an injured but standing accent chair: “Sit there.” I handed you one of the boxes, then sat carefully on the edge of the chair. Your mood had brightened, and I knew why. You had tucked the brown bags behind the cracked desk by the door. The hundreds (yes hundreds) of cheap vodka bottles (every possible size) and diet Coke cans under and on top of the coffee table were my cue to the contents of the brown bags I had enabled.sandy-2

I tried to follow the frayed threads of your stories. Your limp was from an accident that nearly killed you. “Damn doctors. They were mean to me and didn’t put the right kind of pin in my foot. Didn’t they know who my dad was!?” Your doctor dad. You needed your meds but your mom wouldn’t take you to the clinic. No, I shouldn’t take you to get gas, You hated those people at the Circle K. And could I believe that your family wanted to take away this condo your dad had left to you!? Times were bad. You even sought out free meals at churches when you had gas to get there.

I spied Parish pooping on a throw pillow close to the dining table and began to rise to take care of it.

“Oh, that’s OK. Don”t worry about it.” Could you be serious?

It had been fifteen years prior, yet it was typical of those initial years. “Isn’t it wonderful?” you had said, sweeping your arm to indicate the carpet. “I love to vacuum. It makes me feel like everything is in order. Everything will be all right.”

This was a new you, surrounded by piles of dog poo and urine stains. Parish even had poo on her bed pillows, next to piles of canned dog food that you had dumped on it.

I was feeling ill. I knew you wanted me to leave. Eyeballing your brown bags, you told me you needed a nap several times and became increasingly agitated when I didn’t take the hints. I needed to get a number, a name.

You sunk into the couch and into another tirade about your father. I could see the area of the couch responsible for your matted up-do. You beat the loose stuffing for each syllable of “I’m just so angry,” and I understood that, as frail as you seemed, you had broken your own furniture.

After acquiring a few numbers, I left you and drove home with my windows down, my tears a bitter cocktail of anger, sadness, and confusion. I was still sharing my bewilderment with Steven when you called an hour later. “I feel much better now. Thank you for coming by.”

I was prepared for your next I need a favor call. “Sandy, I won’t bring you money for alcohol. I’ll bring you food, take you to the clinic, or help with an errand, but that’s all.”

This wasn’t the first time you had heard this. Without reaction, you said you understood. I imagine, though, that you threw the phone and beat the I’m.so.angry out of the couch stuffing after we hung up.

We interacted more in the subsequent ten months than in the previous twenty years I had known you. Clinic visits, rehab lobbies, grocery runs, AA meetings, Tex-Mex lunches, resume help. I tried to sort the chronology of our twenty years of infrequent visits with that life you lived: your accident, the expensive rehab clinics, the DUIs, the move to Florida, the boyfriends. I was baffled by my ignorance of those fierce formations and events that had developed beneath the crystalline waters of our chats.

I finally met your mom. You had been forthcoming and accurate about her. She called when you had dislocated your shoulder. You couldn’t remember the tumble down the stairs of your condo. A hospital visit and arm brace later, you had no choice but to stay with your mom until you could use your arm. One night after I had brought groceries for you and your mom, you followed me to the door. “I’m going crazy,” you whispered wide-eyed. “You’ve got to get me out of here!”

When you were finally at your condo again, I started receiving phone calls from your mom. “Have you heard from Sandy?” I sometimes stopped by to check on you. Through a crack in the door, the response was always the same: “I’m okay. The damn phone broke again.” I doubt you remembered those drive-by visits.

The last call came on a September afternoon. I had never met your twin brother, and this was only the second time I spoke to him. He wasn’t crying at first. “Sandy is gone,” he explained. “I was calling to pick her up to watch a Saints game with us. When she didn’t answer, I figured she broke the phone again.”

Your brother was an alcoholic too. He was successfully recovering. I often wonder about his recovery versus your struggle. Maybe his wife and two children gave him more motivation to recover? You had Parish, but Parish didn’t even require a dish for her food. Many alcoholics have family responsibilities and still fail, but perhaps more often than not, family helps.

Your brother and your niece went to pick you up. Your door was unlocked. She found you on the floor in your kitchen, dog poo, rotting food, and an open fridge. Your brother started sobbing at this point in the story. I think he regretted sending his daughter in instead of going in himself. Your heart had given out, drowned in the violent waves of alcohol.

At your wake, a computer ran a series of photos of your fifty-five years, focusing mostly on the first thirty. Birthday parties with your twin brother, beach trips with friends, fancy dinners with your family. I wasn’t in any of the photos. I don’t think I have a single photo of the two of us. I wasn’t part of that life you had lived under the surface of the Sandy I knew. The photos of friends and family were sad reminders of the relationships that had crumbled under the burden of your disease. I realized as I left the wake that I was that acquaintance that teetered on the edge of friendship, I was the last number in your little black book. The last call for alcohol.

That little bit of anger still stuck in my craw is not about your dark secrets, not about the transparent manipulation of our last ten months, and certainly not about being last on your list. I’m angry that there’s nothing I could have done.

I thank you for the laughter of our first twenty years. I love you for the lessons of our last ten months. I hope you’re at peace.

Pennie

Copyright © 2015 by Pennie Nichols, All Rights Reserved.