Two Eulogies

T

It was a long October.

We were finally able to gather in Vermont to celebrate my father, more than a year since his passing. It was lovely. My family’s generous hospitality, the chance for our girls to see their relatives, and the spectacular setting meant that this was both a melancholy and happy time.

We returned from Vermont to face quarantine and other challenges–ones I’m not going to write about. But things got better. Then they got worse.

Sue McCluskey passed away on October 22. She was my best friend’s mother. But she was a mother to me, too: a source of wisdom and comfort throughout my adolescent years, and someone I deeply admired. She knew me better than nearly anyone.

The news came as a shock; she was intensely private about her health challenges. I admire her children for keeping her confidence, and I’m grateful that they were able to give her the chance to be remembered the way she preferred.

But there is a sad symmetry to these losses. When dementia overtook my dad it was hard not to look back at each day spent worrying about the money or the care arrangements as a missed opportunity: a chance that could have been spent telling him what he meant to me, or simply sharing time together. At the end, when there were no minutiae left to fret over, I knew I had waited too long to do the most important things. I told myself I won’t make that mistake again. Sue slipped through my fingers anyway.

Well, I hope they knew. I think they knew. I spoke at the services for both–an honor in both cases, and immensely flattering in the latter (I think primogeniture still gets you dibs on eulogizing a biological parent).

I wish I had more to share with you about these brilliant, singular people. This is what’s left.

Jeffrey Armistead Lee

Thank you all for being here today to celebrate my father. Thank you also to those who are celebrating him on some other day, through the video of this service that I will hopefully not screw up. I am grateful to you both for your love for my dad, and for providing an excuse to include a somewhat impractical videography project in his memorial. I am quite certain it is what he would have wanted.

To those here in Westford: thank you for making this journey. Across the country; across a pandemic year since his death; across the final years of his illness. None of it easy. But to be back in this building, where I watched him do the same thing that we are here to do–it was important to me.

And being here was important to him, too. He wrote this about it:

I know what it is to be attached to a place. For me it is Vermont, especially Burlington. It sits on a bowl facing the widest part of Lake Champlain. As a college student I walked down to the shore every evening to watch the sun set over the water into the Adirondacks of New York. Every time I return I get this sweetly painful rush. Better to be homesick than rootless.

He also wrote:

My family is quite eccentric but we really get along and being with them is one of my favorite activities. When we get together we can spend quite a lot of time agreeing with each other.

So thank you for honoring him by helping him come to this place, and being here now, and agreeing with each other so consistently.

It’s hard to know how to write something for an occasion like this. I have stories about him, of course–I remember how he helped me build projects for school and cub scouts, pinewood derby racers and musical instruments. How he would bring me remaindered paperbacks from the break room at the bookstore where he often worked, sharing his own love of sci-fi trash and nurturing my own, which endures to this day. But these quiet, good-dad moments don’t have much of a punchline. And many of the best stories about him are flatly ridiculous, like the 9 days he spent as general manager of that same bookstore chain, or the time a side business selling brass door knockers got him mixed up with the CIA. It doesn’t feel quite right.

I had seen my dad eulogize his own father. In fact I had found those notes in his papers–this is them, written in capital letters with a mechanical pencil, as usual. And that got me thinking that letting him speak for himself might be the best approach. I had spent some time digitizing his papers, and Rebecca had saved his computer’s hard drive. I went through his Microsoft Word files. There were some impassioned letters to the editor, in the great family tradition. Some memos to customers about the ways their current, inadequate lighting solutions might burst into flame at any moment if he was not allowed to intercede. And there were drafts of emails–I think he wrote them out there so he could use spellcheck, though frankly spellcheck was no match for my father.

In particular, there were a bunch of emails from when he tried online dating. Obviously this is a potentially mortifying thing for a child to read, but I’m pleased to report that my dad was a gentleman, and well-behaved.

And there’s good stuff in there. He repeatedly deploys a joke about a barista that must have killed. And he has some snippets of simply beautiful writing that I am quite envious of. For example, he complained about being called “eclectic” (though of course he was), saying the word sounded “like plastic chopsticks falling off a table”. And he wrote about staying in a Florida motel covered with flowering vines that “[s]eemed like an alcoholic detective should have been based there.” It’s very good stuff.

He had to describe himself in these emails. That’s the task before the online dater: to introduce yourself, over and over. To present yourself with charm but also honesty. To make yourself understood. He wrote:

I am a generally up beat & tolerant person with a good sense of humour.

He wrote:

[The] best I can claim is being a ‘generalist’. Unfortunately we live in a world demanding experts that we can ignore. Which makes me really good at shmoozing at cocktail parties. I’m interested and know a little about everything.

He wrote:

I am considered intelligent, harmless and fun to be around.

All of this is correct, of course, although “harmless” does not really convey what a kind and gentle person he was.

He talked about being born in New Zealand; about growing up in Iceland and Belgium. He remembered this about Jamaica:

My sister and I would have an afternoon nap. Our mother would sing to us, ending with whistling the Star Spangled Banner. [And a] large green lizard would emerge from the window sill and inflate its orange throat sack with pleasure (or maybe patriotism) at the sound.

He talked about the Quaker School he attended, about having too much fun at UVM, and about how he enjoyed the course work at law school so much that his professor warned him he’d make a terrible lawyer.

He talked about how much he liked his work–how it meant he could meet interesting people and look at art in beautiful settings. He talked about his ramshackle house and its many pending improvements, where he raised a family with our mother.

He talked about his fascination with the ancient world, its philosophy and history. And religion, where his opinions were wide-ranging. He had particularly harsh things to say about the Phoenician god Moloch. He wrote:

Let’s be honest about this; the monotheism thing has not worked out too well. Doesn’t it make sense to have specialized divinities? Pagans had six specific gods just for doors. I’ve hung doors. Having extra Gods to curse and cajole is a help. If I get to pick divinities, Athena is my favorite one. A warrior Goddess of wisdom. An unusual collection of attributes presiding over the most culturally successful civilization in western history.

I think and read a lot about myth & religion and I consider myself spiritual. The natural world around me makes it impossible for me not to believe in a brilliant creative force.

He quickly adds that this could just be an evolutionary adaptation. You can see why the guy had the adult Bible study class at our church eating out of the palm of his hand.

His quips about the ancients are funny. But they also show me something about how my dad understood the world. He wrote:

It’s hard for me to explain myself concisely. As a child I grew up overseas and read a lot. I became a history buff and during high school began to wonder what made western civilization so dominant, perhaps even virulent. The rise of classical Greece and the fall of the oral tradition seemed particularly significant to me. The medieval era appeared to me to add the basis for the Western legal system and linear history.

Another time, he wrote:

I have followed current events since I was very young. My parents explained to me the history (frequently tragic) of our civilization. I have had a feeling for a long time that our modern world does not fit a human nature developed over thousands of years.

And he wrote:

To me existence is justified by being aesthetically cognizant. […T]hat has to include human creativity, which itself includes the highest level of human reason, which must at least include philosophy. This entails the concepts of justice and concern for the rest of creation[…]

This is a lot to write to a stranger, and he knew it. But he couldn’t help himself–he loved ideas, and he loved sharing them. In one email, after offering his thoughts on the optimal development strategy for the nation of Belize, he admitted

I guess an electrician with an agricultural policy is a bit pompous. But that’s how my mind works.

Reading his words was a reintroduction to that mind–to its bashful grandeur and its equanimity. Especially after so many years of watching him struggle to express himself, reading them felt like–here I’ll borrow his words again–”a sweetly painful rush”. It reminded me of ideas that feel so familiar and obviously true that I’d forgotten where I learned them.

So let me look to my father for instruction one more time by considering how he approached this task–how he celebrated his own parents. The eulogy he gave for his mother–that he gave right here–was in his files, too. He said many lovely things about her, including this:

I had woken up in the night thinking of her, then the phone rang and the nurse told me she had just died. I felt close to her, that together we had achieved something; we completed a successful relationship. To me our lives as humans are marked by our participation in these timeless roles. If we are lucky, we get to act within many of them. Even as we pass through them we are participating in an eternal structure that defines human nature.

My father’s illness arrived too early for me to feel quite this sanguine. But I do believe with all my heart that his final years here, in Vermont, were exactly what he wanted, and the best gift he could have received. I am grateful to all of you for making them possible, in so many different ways. I have to thank Jill for helping him when his needs were at their greatest, meeting a brutally hard challenge with a gentle implacability that mirrored my dad’s own nature. And above all, I have to thank Rebecca, whose devotion to him is a source of awe for me. She did everything I could possibly imagine for him, from earlier than I had known, and, I am sure, she did much more besides. Thank you.

My father possessed a great depth of feeling and understanding about the world, and its history, and especially its overwhelming vastness. In the face of that comprehension, some people rage or despair. But he chose a gentle, smiling humility. He chose to appreciate the glory of what was before him, and to embrace his timeless role in it with joy. He taught me this, and many more things besides. I am not as good at these things as he was–that’s as true about lived philosophy as it is about drywall repair. But the things he gave me are the things I like best about myself, and the things I most wish I had more of. They’re the things I want to give my own kids.

In one email he says, “Am I a success? You would have to be the judge.”

That’s characteristically humble of him, and generous. To me, the answer is obvious.

Susan Dee McCluskey

I met Sue’s son Charles in sixth grade. Right away, I knew I had found a buddy who was both able to shoot a basketball (which I couldn’t) and maintain interest in Dungeons & Dragons (which I could). On its own, this would have been a rare and precious thing. But soon I met Johanna, and Chuck, and Sue. And before long it was clear that I had found not just a best friend but a surrogate family.

I owe a debt to all of them that I will never be able to repay. But I think Sue was the first of any of us to understand how much my time with them could and would matter to me. I think she set out to change my life, and she did.

The house on Longfellow Street was just around the corner from our middle school, so on most afternoons I’d walk back over there with Charles and we’d spend the next few hours watching MTV and consuming revolting amounts of string cheese and Coca Cola. At the time, I was thinking about how great it was to hang out with my friend. I wasn’t thinking about why I wanted to be there instead of my own house. It’s only in hindsight that I know: Sue was thinking about that.

It will be impossible for me to completely describe the ways that this family’s generosity was extended toward me. It’s hard to understand these things when you’re a kid, and don’t have a frame of reference for what’s normal. I’m 41, and even now I sometimes find myself realizing new ways they helped me.

At the time, I was even more oblivious. I imposed on them to an incredible, embarrassing extent. Afternoons, meals, holidays, even vacations. And although I was clearly the worst offender, I at least had company. Jeff was part of our trio from the start. Then Paul, Andy, Chris, Jon, Mark, Justin. Multiple Justins! Johanna’s friends, too, the circle kept expanding–we overran the house like a swarm of pubescent locusts. Basically good kids, some just needed the string cheese. But some of us needed a kind word, a comforting place, to know that things would be okay. Whatever it was, Sue made sure we got it. She welcomed us all. “How’s it going kiddo,” she’d ask us. “Oh honey,” she’d say.

As I grew older, I started to realize that this was not simply because she was an unusually kind person, but also an unusually impressive one. Big minds and big hearts aren’t always found together, but in Sue, they were. I think her generosity was a choice, and her capacity to love so many of us a manifestation of her capacity to do so much else besides. She had a sharp sense of humor, a wry understanding of human nature and–on the occasions when I got to overhear her on a conference call–an undeniable ability to impress her will upon the world. 

But only when the world needed it. Lots of us kids needed it. But she was too clever for us, and was rarely anything but subtle. I vividly remember a handful of times when I knew I’d disappointed her–but no more than a handful. They are vastly outnumbered by the little things she taught me–how to cook better, how to dress better. Big things, too: how to think about college, and work, and politics, and feminism. But even more than that, I learned by watching her and Chuck. How to love music unironically. How to enjoy a good meal. How to talk to people. How to despise a sports team properly. And how to be a family. These things only seem easy if you can already do them. You know, I’ve been a nonprofit executive. And I’m married to a government lawyer. Chalk it up to a lack of imagination on my part if you must–it’s not as if I set out with a plan. But when I saw those chances, I knew I was on a path that could include happiness. I’d seen it firsthand.

The week since her passing has felt unreal. In my mind’s eye she is forever holding court somewhere, laughing and having a great time. I always thought of her as being incapable of being overwhelmed by anything at all. Of course that wasn’t true–it’s not true for any of us–but I think it was truer for her than most.

But the shock and sorrow are nothing compared to the gratitude I feel. It has been an immense privilege to know that someone like Sue was irrevocably in my corner. To have been shown how to love so wisely and immensely is a rare gift. And it’s a challenge–one that I know she is rooting for us all to rise to.

About the author

Tom Lee
By Tom Lee