The man who braved my ice-covered driveway was so quiet the dogs didn’t bark. Shoveling it had become an exercise in futility in the punishing cycle of snow, sub-zero cold, followed by more snow, which has characterized our St. Louis winter. Perhaps the snow muffled the sound of his footsteps, because I didn’t notice either, that someone had come and gone, leaving a large manilla envelope outside my door.
Or maybe I was just preoccupied. I was writing a eulogy, on deadline. I needed to finish it and get on a plane to deliver it in New Mexico at my little brother’s funeral. J.R. is the third brother I’ve lost. He’s the third brother for whom I have had the burden and honor of eulogizing. Throw in my mother and the total comes to four. Four family members, four eulogies, four last-minute flights hiding puffy eyes behind sunglasses, stomach in knots, knowing that once we set down, I would have to step up. If it wasn’t for good Mexican food and the opportunity to catch up with long-time friends and far-flung kin, I swear to God, I would have phoned these suckers in.
Okay, this is preposterous, I know that. Of course we want to be there at a time like this. It’s our obligation and our opportunity to comfort and be comforted, all part of the price of admission to this exclusive club we call family. Fortunate indeed are those who do come together to grieve. But, I didn’t sign up to be the eulogist. Nowhere does this appear on my birth certificate. It’s Jean Ellen, not Jean Eulogist. Frankly, it’s gotten to the point where it’s a family joke. I told them on this most recent engagement, it was the last time I’d do it for free. From here on out, I’m charging a speaker’s fee. As we were getting ready for the funeral, my son joked, “So, Mom, who’s going to deliver the eulogy at your funeral?” to which I replied, mascara wand in hand, “Me! I’ll video tape it in advance.” We are nothing if not skilled practitioners in the art of gallows humor.
In my memoir, Off the Leash, I wrote extensively about my brothers and me; the highlights, the lowlights, the absurdity that was the hallmark of our upbringing. The Whatleys made the Royal Tannebaums look like the Cleavers. Dysfunction forced us kids to function like a highly-trained SWAT team, but the adrenaline took its toll: my brother Garrett in 2002, my brother Don in 2010, brother J.R. in 2014.
“We were all just kids once, together, under one roof. We were just a pack of plain ol’ kids, thrown together by a force of nature named Beverly, a remarkably smart and strong-willed woman with high ideals and occasional weak morals. God bless my mama. A passle of kids, all from one mother, but three different fathers. Five kids, I was the only girl. Five kids, in the bottomless, jagged-edged gaps in which we longed for normal to reside, my brothers tried to fill the empty space with liquor or drugs. I’m the only one who dodged that bullet. I am not passing judgement. Like wads of paper in a metal trash can, in a barren room, save for a table, a chair, and a typewriter, I stuff the holes of my life with words. Therein lies my addiction. I am a writer.”
How I have struggled with this. Like who really gives a flip? I fancy myself a writer? One book under my belt by a small press in the Midwest and a few magazine stories here and there, big deal. What good does it do, really? And what in the name of God and in the mocking absence of any financial reward, keeps me tapping at the altar of my Mac? Writing is a solitary endeavor. Writing is disruptive. It makes for strained relationships, late nights, and unceasing distraction. Even when you’re not writing, your mind is still at work on that next line of dialogue, the reveal, the perfectly paced phrase, or that one elusive word that has been twitching at the edge of your mind, but you can not catch. Then it surreptitiously appears at the most inopportune time, like in the middle of an intersection or the middle of the night, forcing you to grab it before it flies out the window of your car or your bedroom. Writing rarely makes you rich or famous. Accolades and big, fat checks are reserved for a privileged few. Knowing this, there have been countless times when I have wondered, why do I continue to do this? Why, over the course of the last thirty years have I spent hundreds of hours banging out stories, battling the fear that my writing wasn’t worth a tinker’s damn. What kind of delusional bubble do I travel around in that makes me think that what I have to say makes a particle of difference?
And then, I get an answer. I’d gotten through a first draft of the eulogy and was headed out to my car to navigate the icy streets.There was dog food to buy and funeral clothes to fetch from the cleaners. There, inside the storm door of my carport was the large manilla envelope. I picked it up, thinking someone had dropped off their condolences. Instead it was validation. I went back inside, opened the envelope and pulled out a two-page document, a photocopy of a newspaper article, with hand-written notes in blue ink at the top and bottom of the page. The article was a letter to the editor that I’d written in February 2006 about the wonderful man who had lived in my house before me. This man, Bill Biggs, was a policeman. The story described how Biggs had changed my life when he and his wife sold me their home years before. I had just gotten divorced. I had four kids and very little money. My daughter and I spent months of Sundays house hunting, but from the moment I set foot inside this 86-year old bungalow, it felt like home to me. After we looked at the house, I drove only half a block, pulled into a church parking lot and made an offer. The Biggs had already received two others, both for more money, but they accepted mine. Biggs told my realtor he wanted to sell his house to me. I thanked him for that in the story I wrote. I thanked him for his ingenious craftsmanship and attention to detail, which was apparent everywhere from the cedar lined closets to the barbed wire he strung in between the fence slats to keep his dogs from getting out. Later, it would be my own. I pledged to be a good steward of the place and I promised to remember him. Biggs was murdered by a madman at a city hall melee on February 7, 2006. Five people were killed that night. The news coverage was immense, the tributes, voluminous. Still I felt the need to add my own. I wanted to offer something different: a tale of gratitude from a family who would forever be the beneficiary of his kindness.
Six years later, on the anniversary of his brother’s murder, Jim Biggs braved the icy, downward slope of my driveway to drop off a thank you note. In his careful cursive hand, Jim told me that he’d recently come across my letter. He said it touched his heart. He told me he has fond memories of this old house and how happy he is to know there’s a family living here now, who’ve made it their cherished home. He said he would often drive by and see my dogs laying in the shade of the pin oak in the yard. “Very fitting,” Jim said.
Six years after I penned that tribute, on the eve of my brother’s funeral, when all I really wanted to do was fold in half and grieve, someone else who’d lost a brother, took the time to thank me for my words. Little did he know the magnitude of his gift. It gave me courage. It gave me the grace and fortitude to write reverently about my sweet little brother J.R. He was our family’s go-to man for everything under the sun. There was nothing that J.R. could not construct or deconstruct, figure out, work around or repair. He was the fixer. Lest I ever have a doubt in my mind about what my job is, from this day forward, the note in the manilla envelope will serve as a reminder: I am the writer. Sometimes, I am the eulogist.