In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take. -Levis Carroll
“You’ve been Tony’s friend for a long time. Will you get up and say something at his memorial service?” asked Susan, Tony’s wife. Her sad and desperate eyes left no room for me to decline.
“Of course,” I said, feeling both honored and apprehensive. Tony was a great guy and all, but our conversations over the years had been pretty superficial. You know, guy stuff. We’d open with weather, move to sports, and end on women. He particularly liked listening to my dating stories, as most of my married friends did. Our most meaningful conversations were the few occasions when Tony shared his struggles in his marriage. Not exactly eulogy material.
In fairness, I made a point to spend time with Tony during his year-long battle with cancer; the disease that has taken a handful of my friends from this life. But instead of talking about his cancer and how he was feeling about it, I focused on more positive topics in an attempt to cheer him up. At least, that was my rationale at the time. I feel differently now.
With little time to prepare for Tony’s memorial, I needed first to figure out what to say. Surely, I had a funny story, an embarrassing moment, or a profound memory of some sort…didn’t I?
Hours went by and nothing.
I called mutual friends. Still nothing.
I wondered: How can I know him for so many years and yet at the same time not know him at all?
The Back-Up Plan
Time was up, though the best story I had wouldn’t come to me until months later. I had to go with my lame back-up plan for Tony’s eulogy. I would recite one of my favorite readings, Bits and Pieces. It’s a powerful piece about all the different people who come into our lives and the impact that they leave on us. Ironic, right?
The service was intimate, and packed. Between Tony and his wife, they had many friends. And yet, only two of us got up to say a few words. The guy before me shared a couple memories and concluded by ripping off his shirt. He revealed a sleeveless undershirt, similar to the style we associated with Tony. It was a clever ending. Then I got up and gave my reading.
The service ended. We ate cake. People mingled. Some thanked me for the nice words.
I was sad and disappointed.
I knew why I was sad, but I couldn’t tell with whom I was more disappointed—myself for my lame eulogy or Tony for not being more interesting. Why didn’t he give me more material to work with?
And then it hit me a couple months later.
The real story I should have shared wasn’t about Tony at all. It was about me. That’s right, me. I failed to take our friendship to the next level. I could have asked him how he was feeling. I could have asked him to describe what it was like to be told you only have three months to live. I could have asked him if he had any regrets. But I didn’t do any of that. I missed out on an incredible opportunity.
The truth is, I was uncomfortable talking about his cancer. And because our previous conversations had lacked substance, it felt awkward to change the communication paradigm between us—even though cancer already had done that.
I don’t know about you, but I hope that when my time comes, my friends, family, and colleagues have plenty to say about me, our relationships, and the impact I had on their lives. I don’t want them to draw a blank with nothing to say. That would mean we all had failed.
So, if you are called on to say a few words at my memorial, may I make a request? Please don’t bring anything to read. No poems. No verses. Nada. Instead, I want to hear how I’ve touched you. I want to hear your favorite memory of us and why it mattered. I want to know how our relationship made you a better person.
I hope that isn’t asking too much.
I didn’t include this piece in the chapter from my book, It’s All About Me, but it needs to be included here:
Tony had two young children at the time of his death. Before he passed, his wife purchased a talking teddy bear for each of her kids. These teddy bears had a recording devise where you could record a series of messages that could be played back, over and over again, with the pull of a string.
While Tony was still coherent and able to be as present as possible in his final days, he managed to record a very heart-wrenched message to each of his kids on their respective bears. How do I know this? Because at the gathering following his memorial service, both kids could be seen sitting together, apart from the rest of the group, pulling their bear strings repetitively and in silence. So silently, in fact, that I could faintly hear Tony’s voice break up as he told each of his kids how much he loved them. It still gives me chills now as I write this.
Without question, that was one of the most touching moment I’ve ever witnessed, not to mention seeing it play out in tandem. But more significantly for me, I realized at that moment that I had finally found the missing story!
* From Geese’s latest book, It’s All About Me: Stories and Insights from the Geese.