Think of the hardest thing you’ve probably had to do in your daily life. Now multiply it by infinity. That is a bit how I felt yesterday at my friend’s funeral. It still hasn’t fully hit me that he is no longer with us. I’m numb today. I’ve tried to do some work to have some “normal”, but it’s like trying to comprehend rocket science – not happening at the moment. I’m not sure his passing will hit me fully any time soon.
The only funerals I have attended to date have been those of my four grandparents. While each one was devastating in their own way, you could see them coming (and I don’t mean that flippantly). My maternal grandfather, for example, had Parkinsons (which is a horrible way to die, by the way if you didn’t know). He worked for the Port Authority before he retired in the early 70s and designed some of the lighting for a few of the NYC bridges. He was so smart and mechanically oriented. He loved to fix jewellery, clocks, and watches. In many ways, I picked up a lot of his traits. But that’s a whole separate discussion. The point is, as horrible as the circumstances around his death around this extremely intelligent man who at the end, couldn’t speak or experess himself (and you could see his frustration) due to his horrible illness, even though it still is a blow when the inevitable happens, you can prepare (as much as you can) for it. With Mike, someone who was in shape, happy, successful, healthy, and seemingly had a lot of time left, it was a shock to say the least. To say it is a tragedy is an understatement.
It’s no secret I do a lot of public speaking either at events or online. Heaven knows I crank out a lot of content in any given year. But I can tell you nothing is harder (or more of an honor) than having to speak at someone’s funeral. How do you properly eulogize someone? It’s not like writing a technical document or a blog post, that’s for sure. When Mike passed away (and I still have trouble even typing those words), in the back of my mind I started formulating a few things in the event they wanted me to speak at the funeral. I was asked, and on Tuesday night after getting down to my parents, I typed up something. I had my parents read it to ensure it was okay. My Mom pointed out I had used a few things in present tense. Yeah, it is just hard to let it all sink in. While I didn’t use the script exactly, it provided the basis for what I did ultimately say. My goal was to pay a fitting tribute to my friend Mike. One that would show my experience with him – no one else’s – but that they could relate to because I’m sure they had similar experiences. And for those who may not have known him as well, I wanted to really show why he was special. I wanted to celebrate his life.
After doing a few edits, I went to bed and got up in the AM and tweaked it ever so slightly before heading north to Paramus, NJ. I didn’t rehearse it. When it came time to speak (I was 4th, after his mother and two brothers), I composed myself, and was surprisingly OK until near the end where I nearly lost it. That only lasted a few seconds but it felt like an eternity. As a guy, I think we have this “be tough” mentality that is somewhat imposed on us by society. I think it’s rather silly. Tom Hanks (in the movie A League of Their Own) said: “There’s no crying in baseball!”. True, but try to go through a funeral and not be touched. I double dare you. If you’re not, you’re soulless.
While it was nice to have some people come up to me later and tell me they thought I did a great job or liked what I said, that isn’t why I did it. I wasn’t looking for kudos. This isn’t like a technical conference where you hope you’re at or near the top of the heap in evaluations. Everyone who spoke at the funeral did a great job and brought their own unique perspective on Mike’s life to the table. There is no winner here.
I was also asked to be a pallbearer – again, a big honor. Up to that point, everything was a bit surreal. At that point, it was very real. All too real. I just can’t express how much I still can’t believe he’s gone even a few days later. I know some folks over the years have thought of me as brash, outspoken, brutally honest, insensitive, and so on. While I’m smarter these days about how I express myself, I think some people still think I’m a bit of an arrogant jerk (that’s the PG version, folks). I know this, and I doubt I’ll ever convince them otherwise. I can’t worry about that – nor do I anymore. But I’m definitely not an unfeeling ogre who doesn’t consider others. There is nothing more humbling or human than having to eulogize someone you cared about. You think 400 level technical content is hard? Ha! What would have been the point if I gave some emotionless eulogy which focused on facts only? He was my friend, not some random stranger.
In Judaism, we don’t do an open casket or things like a viewing. There are no ornate caskets or embalming to preserve the body. Jewish burial laws and customs are designed to speed the process along. If possible, someone should be buried within 24 hours or as soon as possible (for example, close relative has to travel a long way, so you delay things; that happened with one of my grandparents – the funeral was delayed a few days because of me).
This, however, was not a standard Jewish funeral. Because Mike was an EMT, his fellow sisters and brothers (fire, police, EMT) showed up in force from all over NJ, and possibly elsewhere. It was an amazing and touching sight. From the procession of emergency vehicles which led the cars to the cemetary, to the blocking off of streets (some major roads, like Route 4 in Paramus), and probably the most impressive/touching: the two Paramus fire ladder trucks set up in front of the cemetary gate with the ladders up and an American flag in the center. EMT, fire, and police lined the driveway as the mourners drove in. It really was impressive, and I’m a cynical bastard. The traditions of Judiasm were observed, as well as the traditions of his brothers and sisters who put their lives on the line every day. Mike truly was a hero in life and death, and he got a hero’s funeral.
When I atteneded the funerals of my grandparents, I was still in my 20s. I was an adult, but not in the same way I am now. I’ve got another 10+ years on the proverbial tires. In every possible way this was a different experience. I don’t know how to fully express in words how, but it just was. After yesterday, I’ve determined that the two worst sounds one could ever hear are:
- The sound of dirt hitting a coffin. Don’t need to really elaborate on this one I hope. Horrible, horrible.
- The playing of the song “Taps”. I’ve never attended a military funeral, but I have to assume this was as close as I’ll ever see. After the Jewish part of the ceremony was over, “Taps” was played. You know, you see it on TV in news snippets at funerals, but it is a whole different experience in person. There’s something so sad, so final about it.
Only being a little bit older than Mike by a few months, and turning 40 in November, something tragic like this really puts a lot (and I do mean a lot) of things in perspective. A few weeks ago I wrote a blog post entitled “Recharged Batteries = Full Steam Ahead”. That blog post is even truer today than when I wrote it: life is too short. Worrying about work 24×7 won’t get you anywhere. You do have to stop and smell the roses because it can all be taken away in an instant. Enjoy your time on this planet and be the best person you can be.
Mike lived his life to the fullest. He was one of the most honest, loving, trustworthy, selfless, joyful, giving, intelligent people I have ever met. He was curious about life and its experiences. You couldn’t ask for a better friend. I’m thankful for the time I had with him since 1990 and I know I’m a better person for it. I can only hope to honor my friend’s way-too-soon passing in the way I choose to live and conduct the rest of my life.