Even now, after living in central North Carolina for almost fifty years, I still don’t take for granted that I have the Atlantic Ocean as an easy drive to the east and the Blue Ridge Mountains an easy drive west. But growing up in central Indiana, I knew early on that seeing oceans or mountains meant a very long haul south.
And yet in just a two and a half hour drive, our family could be at the Indiana Dunes State Park on Lake Michigan. And who could tell the difference between this gigantic Great Lake and an ocean, especially after a storm when the waves were whipped up high, and I could nervously ride them into the glorious dunes-strewn shore?
Not being a good swimmer but an accomplished swallower of fresh lake water as the waves hurled me toward the sand, I was timid about swimming and worried the water would be freezing cold. “Just dip your toes in, Honey, and see what you think,” my ever cheerful mom suggested.
This wise childhood advice bizarrely came back to me when I was at my partner’s memorial service seven weeks ago, sitting in the front row and waiting to give my eulogy. I hadn’t even debated whether I could stand the pressure of speaking to perhaps two hundred people while grieving the loss of LeRoy. The only true gift I’ve ever had is public speaking. Any other skills or talents I might possess were hard won with effort. But speaking at length to others is innate with me. Yes, yes, I can already hear some of you thinking “So that’s why the only way you ever speak to me is ‘at length’!”
And so, remembering the joy that exchanging beautiful presents with LeRoy had brought us during such happy years, I knew that my eulogy would be my final, most heartfelt gift to him.
I also knew that I was going to inject some humor into my speech. It would be my antidote to what I feared most: breaking down in tears as I tried to speak. Actually, crying was not my enemy. I knew that those listening would completely understand and even empathize. But my tears would have distracted them from what I wanted them to remember about my many-splendored LeRoy. My grief needed to dissolve into my humor.
I realized as I sat there during the early part of the service that my funny moments would come toward the middle and end of my talk. But I wanted to “dip my toe in” as soon as I walked up to the dais so I could judge the temperature of my audience. Were they in a warm enough mood to appreciate my attempts at humor?
And then it happened.
Presiding over the service was a dear friend who was also a brilliant minister. Jimmy Creech and his wife, Chris, were two of our best friends, and Jimmy was now giving his eulogy before calling on me. “Think about LeRoy’s name,” Jimmy said with a warm smile in his tone. “‘Le roi’ is French for ‘the king.’ So his name, LeRoy King, means ‘The King King.’ Could there be a higher-sounding name than that?”
We all chuckled. But it wasn’t just that Jimmy had shown me that humor would be appreciated. Oh, no, he had just bestowed a much greater gift on me.
He then called me up to the platform. As I rose, I heard my mother’s voice in my imagination whispering, “Honey, put your shoulders back.” I did. And then I looked directly into the pews, saying “Jimmy asked if there could be a higher-sounding name than ‘LeRoy King.’”
“Allow me to introduce myself. My last name is ‘Engel’, which means ‘Angel’ in German. My first name is ‘Elliot’,which is Hebrew for ‘Gift From God.’ So let’s see now. On the one hand, we have ‘The King King’ (here I held up one hand open-palmed at shoulder height as if I were weighing LeRoy’s prestigious name), and on the other hand we have ‘Gift-From-God Angel’ (here I stood on tiptoe to raise my other hand high above my head). I’ll let you all decide which name is higher.”
The appreciative laughter that immediately followed rolled over me like the waves of Lake Michigan. Jimmy had first dipped his toes in the water, and I followed by joshing about my beloved’s royal name. I now found myself swimming in the warm currents of love that our family and friends were at that difficult moment providing to me. They buoyed me up and filled me with the courage and strength to finish my overflowing ovation to the most marvelous person I shall ever know.
Elliot writes: So many of you have told Darian and me that you have sent my essays to others. How we appreciate that -- and how we'd love to know how many of you are sharing my words. Please respond with a guess as to how many people you have sent my essay to recently. And of course I would love to hear from you about my current essay, whether you share it with others or not.