Perhaps it’s age, having turned 54 and now far more aware of the less time I have ahead of me vs. that lived. Perhaps it’s the fact my parents are now 80 and 82, and my 24 aunts and uncles aren’t getting any younger — 7 on my dad’s side, 17 on my mother’s.
I remember going to who knows how many funerals in a span of several years as my parents’ own aunts and uncles passed. And now here I am, where they were.
My dad came to Puerto Rico last year, from his home in Chicago, for the 80th birthday celebration of one of his brothers, the first time in years the remaining eight of them had gotten together. Two have passed in recent years, and I was captured as they joked about who will go next. To them, death is so alive.
That got me thinking about my own siblings. Will I go before my two brothers? Before my sister? And what about my wife? And sister-in-law? Or will one or more of them go first? What about my cousins? I have exactly 96 of them, many my only close friends growing up in Puerto Rico and Chicago. Then there’s my mother-in-law, now 80 and living with us since turning 75.
That’ll be an awful lot of funerals and burials. Some of us at or near my age will leave early and witness fewer of them. Others will live longer and endure the bulk.
The human instinct is to ask God for a long, fruitful life, in part so we can see our family peers and more so our kids grow up to live long, fruitful lives. But we generally make that ask when we’re young and idealistic, focused on the far more numerous years ahead of us, when those dying around us are close to our parents, a bit more distant from us.
As I draw closer to the passing of so many around me, that longevity dream begins to fade, or at least take on another dimension.
And yet, life is…life. We’re programmed to want more of it and live it to the max. Henry David Thoreau said it best, when he went to the woods “to live deep and suck all the morrow of life.” (Read the whole quote here. It’s worth it.)
The challenge, I suppose, is to live like Thoreau even if God grants you the longevity of Paul Edgecomb. Quite a challenge that is.
Paul is the lead character of the 1999 movie The Green Mile, based on the Stephen King novel. He sent lots of men to their final breath — a long walk down a green-tiled floor — during his earlier years as a death-row prison guard (played by Tom Hanks). At the end of the movie we see him at 108, guessing that as punishment, God had condemned him to an unusually long life, his own Green Mile, so he would suffer the death of everyone he ever loved, including his wife and children.
(That’s not a spoiler, since you still absolutely have to see the movie for the rich and meaningful detail.)
I saw it back then because I watch every Tom Hanks movie. But today, as I grapple with this conundrum, sometimes I wish I hadn’t. Because I’m more aware of the loved ones I’ll outlive and catch myself at times delivering segments of their eulogies in my head.
What would I say about each? They’re ALL so precious, their dramas so vivid, their journeys so alive.
Which brings me to David Brooks. In his 2015 book Road to Character, the famed New York Times reporter makes an insightful distinction between a life lived for the resumé and one lived for the eulogy. The former is driven by success as defined by social status and career achievement. The latter is driven by service and defined by how many people truly love you as a result.
When I imagine those eulogies and run through them in my head, I gravitate toward anectdotes that showcase the person’s love and service, even if his/her life focus has been career, status and achievement. Because in the end, a eulogy must be about the soul, not the diploma, no matter the tension we build up between those two forces during life.
Ironically, these occasional turns to the eventual death of loved ones has made me more keenly aware of them right now. Of their presence. Of their todays. Of the fact we have less time together than we once did.
It’s what the philosophy of loss teaches us — to be mindful, in the moment, all the while learning and growing from their passing when it comes, from the pain of it, from the significance of it. So why think of their eulogies at all, I then ask myself. They’re alive now!
Perhaps. That seems logical. Until I find myself thinking once more of Kevin Kostner’s memorable eulogy of Whitney Houston, and the many delivered by President Obama, when our world stops to remember the beauty and contributions of the loved ones who’ve moved on.
Perhaps being a writer and speaker doesn’t help, since I’m drawn to words when encountering ANYTHING, and death isn’t just anything. And the older I get, the more I encounter it and the nearer it draws.
It is the debt we owe the moment we’re born, as Shakespeare reminds us in Henry IV. You see Paul Edgecomb paraphrase it in the Green Mile clip and image above.
The death you owe is your own, but if you live long enough, if you bury more than your share of loved ones, if you get to see more than your share of loss in this age of media overload, you’ll end up paying for more than just your own.
And as we live ever longer in an age that has also brought better care, the inner struggle between Thoreau and Edgecomb itself becomes more a part of what we owe, a debt we just better get right.
In my case, the family circle happens to be unusually large — unusual in America and the developed world, that is. In developing countries, it’s more the norm. But that only means I will soon be facing more deaths than others, especially if I’m given Paul’s years, or near.
So there really is no conflict after all, between thinking of their eulogies and focusing on their now. Quite the contrary. As I do my imaginary speeches and think about their goodness, I value that side of them TODAY more than before.
And in any case, the eulogy question, of what we’ll say, doesn’t only apply when you get to deliver one at the altar pulpit, in front of all those people. Everyone, in fact, writes eulogies for every loss, but most remain unspoken. They’re the thoughts that run through your mind as you reflect on the person and how he/she touched you along your shared journey.
And if that journey is long, if there is a green mile in your fate, become inspired in the words of Thoreau. Live deep and suck the morrow of every single friendship, of every single relationship.
Because in the end, a eulogy is not just about the person who passed. It’s about the person who lives.