The rabbi's eulogy was boilerplate. The subject's name was inserted but otherwise the comments were recited by rote with a delivery that lacked any sense of kindness, sympathy, or caring.
Well, the departed had not been a member of the synagogue, the only one in the small city in which he had lived for nearly half a century. He may never have met the rabbi; what the rabbi knew of the late gentleman for whom the eulogy was being given had come from a conversation with the deceased's older brother who similarly was not a member of the synagogue. Perhaps boilerplate was all that one could expect.
The small sanctuary was filled. The seats were occupied by family, friends, acquaintances, customers. All sat quietly as the rabbi continued a description that applied to any generic dead person. When he described the departed as 'optimistic,' I could not help but figuratively shake my head and think to myself, "No, you asshole, David was a lot of things but he was not optimistic."
I was disappointed. But understandable, I supposed. Here the rabbi had to go through the required steps for somebody he did not know, somebody who had never supported his congregation or his synagogue. The rabbi was human. Perhaps he was resentful. Perhaps one could not expect even feigned compassion.
David's brother followed with his own eulogy, then a cousin, finally a nephew. Each was dull, a mere recitation of facts, humorless, hardly a celebration of the man's life. Later that day, his brother told me that had he been certain I would attend (I had flown 1500 miles to get there) he would have asked me to speak.
I wish that he had.
I would have celebrated both David's life and our friendship. I would have told of a friendship that began in grammar school's first grade and lasted the 65 years until his death. I would have recalled that so many years earlier, before social media and internet and cellphones, most friends went different ways after high school's end and gradually lost touch but David and I found our bond worth the effort to maintain it.
I smoked my first cigarette with him, got drunk for the first time with him, smoked my first joint with him. When I married, he was my Best Man.
David loved to tell stories and to tell them again many, many times. My sons could recite some verbatim. He and I laughed together at the old stories no matter how many times they were told.
I wonder which stories I might have told in a eulogy. How would I have chosen from so many?
Perhaps I would have described his frantic efforts to convince me to get out of the car when we arrived at my wedding; he could not know I was just fooling around. Maybe I would have recounted the scene a decade later when, grumbling and mumbling, one morning he entered the warm kitchen of our ancient uninsulated New Hampshire farmhouse after a winter's night in our extra bedroom, his wool cap pulled down to his eyebrows, his heavy coat zipped to its highest reach, his hands gloved, his shoulders hunched. His complaint of the cold room was met with a tongue-in-cheek reference to a lack of manhood, only later recanted when I found the heat to his room had been inadvertently closed off, my friend left to suffer the near-zero temperature. Or I might have recalled an episode a number of years after that when he and I beat my two sons in touch football after which, standing there naked and helpless, he needed my wife to physically help him into a hot bath.
I certainly would have described his great concern for all of his many friends, his worry when things were difficult for them, his joy and vicarious pleasure when things went well for them.
And I would have described his wonderful talent playing his banjo and singing, his self-taught skill, his natural ability to draw in his audience of friends and hold them tightly. I would have told how one of the great pleasures in life was to sit with friends some evenings listening to him play and sing. I probably would have described one night in a secluded beachfront cottage, the lack of electricity overcome with a few candles, when I heard him sing for the first time "Sweet Baby James" and found myself speechless when he finished.
Doubtless I would have mentioned in closing that oftentimes when the night grew late and he was ready to stop playing he would sing one final song, The Highwayman, a poem by Alfred Noyes that had been put to music by Phil Ochs. He invariably performed it beautifully and we knew then that we were done.
And still of a winter's night, they say, when the wind is in the trees,
When the moon is a ghostly galleon tossed upon cloudy seas,
When the road is a ribbon of moonlight over the purple moor,
A highwayman comes riding --
Riding -- riding --
A highwayman comes riding, up to the old inn-door.
Originally appeared in West Texas Literary Review.