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Friday, April 5, 2024

Good Words

       Writer and poet May Sarton once opined, "What is there to do when people die, people so dear and rare, but bring them back by remembering." Translated for the writer, Sarton may have stated, "What is there for the writer to do when people die, people so dear and rare, but bring them back by writing."
        Over the course of the last twelve years or so, I have come to write a number of obituaries and quite a few more eulogies--most of them delivered myself, some written for others to deliver, but all for people I deeply cared about. People I care about still.
        So far, 2024 has been a season of loss for me and many others. I attended two funerals in a single afternoon one blustery day in early February: the first for the mother of a friend who lost an incredibly brave but mercifully short cancer battle, the second for a college classmate, JSU Marching Southerner alumnus, and beloved teacher at my children's middle school, who died unexpectedly from a heart condition. A few days later on Valentine's Day, I lost a close friend to a car accident. And, just last week at the end of March, my first cousin died unexpectedly at home. I was honored to be asked to deliver eulogies at two of the four funerals, but I can't say that it was easy. It never is.
        The Greeks recognized a eulogy as an encomium given for one who is either living or dead, with an encomium defined as a "piece of speech or writing that praises someone highly." More simply put, "good words," as clarified by Reverend Anthony Cook, who so eloquently officiated our classmate and fellow bandmember Sherry Anderson Cunningham's memorial service in February.
        Good words to honor someone dear, to bring them back, if only for a few moments, the way we remember them, the way we hope to remember them all the days of our lives.
        It is a deeply held personal conviction of mine that people should speak on behalf of their dead. While the religious elements of a funeral or memorial service are important and comforting for the devout, with prayers, hymns, and reading of scripture, equally important for the bereaved can be "good words" spoken about those they love and have lost, especially if that loved one didn't have a personal relationship with a religious leader. My own grandmother hadn't attended the church she was a member of in over two decades at the time of her death, but she often talked about growing up in the Church of the Nazarene, and she frequently sang herself to sleep with Amazing Grace until I was a teenager. The pastor who officiated her funeral service didn't know that. The scripture he read instead was appropriately comforting--it gave her children and grandchildren something to revisit when looking for peace in the days to follow. I hope the essay I read about her hands did, too.
        If given the opportunity to deliver words of praise and remembrance for a loved one who has passed, I hope you'll find the strength and courage to do it. As a matter of fact, maybe you shouldn't wait until they've passed--the Greeks didn't. I can say pretty confidently that most of the people I've eulogized left this world never knowing how special they were to me. Maybe I thought I had more time with them? Maybe I was too embarrassed to ever say to them in person how much they'd impacted my life?
        My cousin Barry certainly didn't know how much I loved him. I never told him in life how important our relationship as children was to me, how closely I carried those memories in my heart. I left his parents home the day we learned of his passing consumed with memories and regret. Writing it all down was the only way I was finally able to sleep that night. Reading those words to our family and all those who gathered to say goodbye the following week was the closest I'll ever get to letting Barry hear just some of the good words I have to say about him, and I wish that weren't so.
        I'm including Barry's eulogy here.

       Barry was born December 28, 1969, the 4th wedding anniversary of his parents Linda and Larry Morris, and joining another Christmas Baby, his older brother Danny, born on Christmas Eve two years earlier.
        Recently, while looking at a family portrait of the Morrises, taken in probably late 1978 or early 1979, when Danny and Barry were around nine and eleven, I was struck by how much Barry looked like my Aunt Linda at that age, if you replaced her jet-black hair for his tow-head blonde. While Barry was tall and lanky like the Morrises in stature, he favored our Clark family in other ways. I offer our shared, prominent chin cleft as Exhibit "A".
        By all accounts, Barry was a sweet and sensitive little kid. By the time I was old enough to have many memories of him, he was approaching this teenaged years, but still kind to his little cousins. For most of our childhood, Aunt Linda and Uncle Larry had a swimming pool, and the first Spring day the temperature ever broke 80 degrees, my younger sister Stacey and I would start on Aunt Linda. "When can we swim, when can we swim, when can we swim?" we'd beg.
        I remember one late spring when Uncle Larry was working long hours at Goodyear and Danny had his own summer job in town. Barry was probably around 14. When we started in, "When can we swim? When can we swim?" Aunt Linda said, "You'll have to wait for Barry--the pool has to be cleaned before we can open it."
        So, then we started on Barry. When he finally gave in, Stacey and I sat perched on the deck watching Barry in cut-off jean shorts down inside the pool, standing in ankle deep muck while he scrubbed the liner, as if our laser-focused, beady little stares could somehow speed him along. It took him two or three days to open the pool, and each day Stacy and I would return to watch. I'm sure we annoyed the t-total crap out of him, but I don't remember Barry complaining too much. Even when he had to swim with us afterward and for the rest of the summer as our lifeguard.
        There are many pictures of us together--Danny and Barry, Stacey and me--some of which you've probably seen scrolling on the televisions in the chapel today. In some of them, the boys are lifting us on and off their bikes, some are of us gathered around birthday cakes, some are of us playing in the grass or swimming. In all of them, Stacey and I are never far from the boys. It seems like because there were two of them and two of us, we paired up: one little girl for each bigger boy. We followed them around like little ducks, and they let us.

        Growing up in Alexandria, Alabama, Barry was a cub scout, played baseball and basketball, and marched in the band. While any of us juggling multiple children in multiple activities can relate to the stress of balancing all that with work and home life, I would say that my Aunt Linda has always looked back on those years as some of the best of her life. She was always good at and enjoyed being the Den Mother, the game chauffeur, the PTA Mom, and Band Booster for her boys. She wanted them to be involved in whatever they wanted to pursue, and she was there, quite literally, along for the ride.
        Because Danny and Barry were in band, Stacey and I followed them into band, and even though I would go on to march at the college level at Jacksonville State University, I still don't think I've ever heard anything as cool as Barry Morris on quads. That "clack, dunk-a-dunk, dunk-a-dunk, clack" cadence he would play for us as little kids thrilled our souls! Barry was nothing if not cool. He and his Senior prom date were the first formally dressed young couple Stacey and I ever saw in person--Barry in a tux and dark sunglasses, his date in layers of silk and lace. They were quintessentially 1980s, and they looked like movie stars! So, Barry was cool even before his blue, t-top Camaro and motorcycles, but boy was he even cooler with them.    
        Our shared grandmother, who we called Mamaw Rose, was exceptionally proud of all her grandchildren, and I'd often overhear her on the telephone exuding our various virtues to other relatives far and wide. "Danny is an artist," she'd say. "He has a degree in graphic design from the Art Institute of Atlanta." Then she'd go on to describe whatever the latest thing Danny had designed and produced for her on her mantle. More than one I heard her threaten a relentless telemarketer with her attorney grandson "Alvin Donald Scott, Jr., Esquire." (She liked to throw Donnie's name around a pretty good bit. He was her ace in the whole!) Anyway, the things she most often bragged on Barry about were how smart he was, how hard he'd worked to be so successful to afford the absolutely best toys. She talked about his sports car. She talked about his motorcycles. She talked about the other vehicles he suped-up and modified that she probably didn't fully understand. She talked about that blue Camaro so much to her sisters in Ohio that Barry was finally persuaded to drive it all the way up there for a great-uncle's funeral.
        The story goes that after the funeral, Barry decided he would take our great-aunt Bonnie, who Stacey and I would finally learn to call Aunt Bonnie Flaig and not "Old Aunt Bonnie," home. It was long before the days of MapQuest or GPS, and Barry wasn't entirely sure how to get Aunt Bonnie Flaig home. "You just have to get her to the Big Chicken in Hamilton, and she can find her way home from there," Aunt Linda told him.
        Barry described the following trip as a raucously good time for Aunt Bonnie Flaig, saying she'd even hung one of her legs out of the passenger side window, probably while he blared the L. L. Kool J and Two Live Crew music he often played back then. "So you got her home okay?" Aunt Linda asked for reassurance. "Well, I only got her to the Big Chicken--you said she could find her way home from there!" he answered.
        There's also another story about Mamaw Rose convincing Barry to whirl her down Alabama Hwy 204 in a side car attached to one of his first motorcycles, and there should be pictures somewhere, but those details are fuzzy to me. I only remember Mamaw being addiment that she be provided a pair of googles to protect her eyes from the bugs, though we all suspected she just liked the way they looked.
        In the waning days of Mamaw's life, as Aunt Linda, Aunt Bonnie (the young one), Danny, Stacey and I  sat vigil for her, Barry wanted so much to be supportive of all of us, but he didn't really know what to do. Finally, one day, several days into what was truly a physically and emotionally exhausting experience, Barry showed up with a case of liquor--the good stuff--maybe even Crowne Royal, I can't remember--at Mamaw's front door. "I thought y'all could use a drink," he said. He wasn't wrong.
        There were other times during my life that Barry did his best to be there for me, as well. When I was going through a divorce (my first one, for anyone keeping count), he showed up at my door unexpectedly during a particularly difficult time with some encouragement and a little tough love that helped to pull me through, while reminding me that I was, in part, suffering the consequences of my own choices. "You're gonna be okay. Now cut it out," he basically told me. I always loved him for that.
        This "looking out for" wasn't something Barry reserved for just me and Stacey, by the way. He was especially close with his only Morris first-cousin Kim, who he thought of as more of a little sister, and because he and Kim were closer in age, they had a lot more fun. I've heard tales of some of their adventures, but even if I knew all the details, I probably wouldn't be able to tell them here. Barry loved Kim. He trusted her with parts of his life he didn't always share with the rest of us.
        Barry also had a special relationship with his Morris grandparents, PawPaw Roy and MawMaw Say. Being with them at their farm in Webster's Chapel was something that Barry enjoyed most. Because, like many people in his family, including PawPaw Roy, Barry was a gifted storyteller, I remember family holidays on Aunt Linda and Uncle Larry's back porch listening to Roy and Barry tell farm stories. As a result, I remember thinking as a twelve-year-old girl that I probably knew a lot more than some of my peers about how to free a wayward calf from a tower of hay bales, or an irrigation trench, or a barbed wire fence. Most of Roy and Barry's stories involved cattle ending up in places they really ought not to have been.
        The challenges of livestock farming were firmly in Barry's wheelhouse of knowledge, as were so many other things. He was incredibly smart. Like Uncle Larry and Danny, he could probably fix or make anything he set his mind to. I remember as he grew more into his teens, he stopped traveling with the rest of us sometimes on our summer treks to Florida and Ohio to stay home with Uncle Larry instead, to build something as a summer project. From go-carts to bulldozers, they were always building or rebuilding something. It was this closeness with his dad and all that time spent in his shop that eventually propelled Barry into his chosen career as a machinist.
        Barry loved riding: from across the country to Daytona Beach, to his own backyard on Mount Cheaha. It was his passion! After every mishap or bike wreck, no matter how broken or battered, we all knew that as soon as he was well enough and the weather was fine, he would be back on his back. Sometimes even if the weather wasn't fine...or it wasn't even daylight...or he wasn't exactly well enough. After his stroke in 2023, it was when he'd be able to ride again that most occupied his thoughts. He worked hard to regain his mobility and had come so far.
        As he grew into middle-age, Barry kept a small circle of friends. When not with them, he preferred time riding or alone in his shop. The last few years of societal turmoil affected the way he saw the world. He'd worried for a while about where we were headed. It weighed heavy on him. As an extended family, we saw him less and less, but when we did, he was always friendly, always kind.  I will forever remember Barry as he was at twenty, though. Handsome, healthy, funny, and one of the coolest guys I, or our grandmother, ever knew.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Saying Goodbye: It's okay to laugh through the tears

I've delivered two eulogies in my lifetime--both extremely difficult, both among the top honors of my life. It's hard to speak to a large group of people when you've lost someone you care deeply about, but I believe the dead should be spoken of and remembered by those who knew and loved them. I try to live my life with that in mind, the knowledge that when I'm gone someone, hopefully someone who knew me well and loved me...warts and all, will be called upon to speak of me and they'll answer the call. And, I want them to laugh through the inevitable tears when they're able. Death is sad, but it isn't our deaths that people should remember most about us.

County singer LeAnn Womack has a song lyric that goes, "I'm just tryin' to live so that when I die, the preacher won't have to lie." I won't mind if my friends and family lie a little--they can say I always looked thin and talk about how positively charming and hilarious they always found me to be, for example. (Those are words sure to reach me all the way in the hereafter.) I just hope that when the time comes, someone will do it, because it's important. It's important for those left behind, those too heartbroken to speak themselves but desperate for the comfort only memory can bring.

I recently lost a childhood friend who I loved very much. He had closer friends who'd spent more time with him in the years since our high school graduation. They no doubt knew him better than I, but I don't believe they loved him any better. When one of them asked if I would speak at his services, I was touched and honored. My friend had served as a pillar of support for me in our youth, asking virtually nothing in return. Remembering him (and subsequently his identical twin brother who he survived less than two years) for his friends and family at his funeral would be the only way I'd ever have to repay him that debt. I also knew that by speaking for our friend group, I would spare one of the others from feeling they had to. It isn't an easy thing to do by any means.

I didn't plan on publicly sharing the words I spoke that day in this forum, but today, October 30th, is Matthew and Andrew Ballard's birthday, and I wanted to share with our friends who didn't make it to Andy's services my remembrance of him...and his brother Matt.

Happy Birthday, Matt and Andy! It was a joy to know and love you. We miss you dearly!

When Sarah first asked if I’d be willing to speak, while deeply honored, my first thoughts were of how, among all of us that would gather today, surely there would be so many more qualified—so many more that were closer to Andy over the last few years, so many more that knew him even better than I. Looking out at all of you now, I am happy that’s true. What a legacy—to have counted among your closest friends and family so very many.
            Today feels especially tough, because while we gather here to say good-bye to Andy, in many ways it feels like a final goodbye to Matt as well. As long as Andy remained here with us, a part of Matt did, too. If we glanced at Andy from afar or as he darted in and out of a room, it was possible to pretend, even if for only a second that he was Matt, and wasn’t that something? That trick we still willed them to play on us?
If loosing Matt was hard on us, it was excruciating for his family…and unimaginable for Andy. We all knew his bereavement would be different, that he would feel the loss of Matt more deeply. How would he go from a lifetime of beginning sentences with “we” when there was only him? He had never known an existence without Matt, and until Matt’s passing, no one except for Mrs. Reatha for 60 seconds in 1977 ever knew Matt without Andy.
On the last night I spent with Andy and Matt together, the night of our 20th high school reunion, I remember getting a kick out of them looking for one another between Sarah and Patrick’s kitchen and back patio. “Twin, twin?” they would call and it was like watching them at nine or ten versus almost 40.
I remember the day—the very moment even—that I met Matt and Andy Ballard. While I had briefly attended Kitty Stone Elementary, I left Jacksonville for a few years but returned in October of our 7th grade year. And there I was, in Texann Dixon’s 7th grade homeroom, delivered at last from the wilderness of Ohatchee, back to civilization within the City of Jacksonville. The tardy bell had rung a good twenty minutes earlier, when Matt and Andy virtually burst through the door. “Sorry we’re late,” Andy said. “Some cows got out and we had to catch them,” Matt added. Mrs. Dixon sighed as she noted her attendance record. They didn’t look like cattle wrustlers, they looked like city boys except for the fact that Matt was slightly muddy. We weren’t driving yet, so I believed their explanation to be true: it was a random Tuesday before 8:30 a.m. and there were cattle to be wrangled in Jacksonville by a couple of identical 13 year-olds. Years later, when we were however old enough to drive, the Ballards would be a factor in almost every single one of my “tardies”, and there wouldn’t be a single cow story to offer up as explanation…or another teacher as forgiving as Mrs. Dixon. The boys entered my life in a mini-explosion of excitement, chaos, and adventure…and that was what it was like to be in their presence forevermore: to never know exactly what might happen because anything seemed entirely possible.
For much of our teenage years, I believe Matt mostly tolerated me. I was Andy’s friend, a tagalong. Matt and I grunted at each other when he’d answer the front door and find me standing there looking for his brother. Sometimes jokes would be exchanged. “Sasquatch,” he would offer. “Bilbo,” I would counter. That changed when we became parents and our boys ended up on the same little league soccer team. Andy was in the Carolinas and Matt and I spent evenings at the practice fields catching up, talking about our sons, and laughing about old times. Those were the days before pervasive social media, when being with Matt was really the only thing that made Andy feel less far away.
I’ve wondered countless times over the past several days if Andy ever truly realized the importance our friendship held for me. Leaving Sarah’s sometime around 3 a.m. after our 20th reunion, another classmate and I had a conversation on the ride home, deep and uninhibited the way only 3 a.m. conversations can be, about the way our high school relationships and friendships had ultimately shaped us, for better or worse, as individuals. I know that I never made the kind of indelible mark on Andy’s life that he made on mine. Andy never NEEDED me. Not like I had needed him, anyway. When thinking about what I would say here today, I revisited my senior memory book, looking for the words I knew Andy would have left among its pages, hoping to find the classic “thanks for being a good friend” inscription or some variation. Not a single word of what he wrote to me back then is appropriate to share here. Not a word. I take some small comfort in knowing that I at least entertained him, but he did so much more for me.
I spent most of my high school years under the guardianship of my depression era grandmother. She was loving, but tough. Her family had survived some of the harshest years in American history and she never got over it. It was completely reasonable in her mind that I should make due with a single pair of “long pants” during cold months and a single pair of “short pants” during the 8 months known as Alabama Summer. This was how Andy came to clothe me for most of our eleventh grade year. It was the 90’s after all—I fit right in wearing his Gap jeans and t-shirts. In one of my favorite pictures of the two of us, I’m even wearing one of his button down shirts. I can’t tell you how many times he called me up before a basketball game or other event to ask, “Where are my jeans? And no, not those, those are Matt’s.” (Maybe that’s why he was grunting at me all the time?)
When I needed a job that same year, Andy helped me get hired at Gregerson’s in Anniston where he’d swooped in as a seventeen-year-old to take over their seafood department. He had middle-aged men and women who’d worked in the grocery industry for years deferring to him, and he carried himself like this was absolutely the norm. He was confident and self-possessed in a way that I’m not even sure I am today. At Gregerson’s Andy taught me that with determination, the right plan, and hard work anything was possible no matter our youth. There was a wider world waiting on us outside of high school, he’d tell me. As long as I was taking steps toward my place in that world, I was going to be okay. He was probably the most reliable and responsible teenager I ever knew.
Andy also shaped me as a thinker and activist. In part, because of him I will always stand up for a person’s equality and their right to protection under the law, no matter who they love—even if who they love is Nick Saban...I know, he was so weird.
I wondered who an old Andy would be without Matt, and the truth is I was never able to wrap my mind around the thought of it. I would have liked to have known them both with white beards and eyes that still twinkled when they smiled and laughed, but there is nothing sadder on this earth, at least not that I’ve encountered, as a twinless twin. There’s no doubt that we will miss them forever, but we can take comfort in the knowledge that Matt and Andy are together again. I hope that we leave here today more committed than ever to our friendships and that we do so in memory of Matt and Andy Ballard, the best friends many of us will have ever had.
Thank you.