The Last Word
Not fiction this time
Over the years I've done a lot of different sorts of writing. From novels to newsletters; I've penned articles and acknowledgment letters barely breaking a sweat. I once agreed to be the newsletter editor for the Oak Bluffs School PTO, in exchange for never being asked to bake for a bake sale. I'd rather volunteer my wordsmithing skills than any other skill because, for me, writing is easy.
At least I always thought so, until last week when I wrote my father's eulogy and discovered just how hard some writing is. When we were asked who might speak at the funeral, none of us in the room, my sister, mother, daughter, or I initially volunteered to do it, hoping that maybe someone else would take on the responsibility. Afterwards, I realized that this tribute needed to come from us, his family, the ones who knew him best.
Writing from the imagination allows great freedom; one isn't constrained by the facts, because the facts are malleable and bend to the will of the writer. Characters develop, some even say 'take over', but the truth is, the writer goes in knowing what will happen, how those characters are meant to react. Not so with real lives. A reader sees characters from the author's singular perspective. A person lives out his life scrutinized from dozens of perspectives: his wife, his children, friends and co-workers. We all have different personas, variations on our truest selves, for every person we encounter.
Eulogies are remnants of our ancestral oral tradition, sitting around the figurative campfire recounting heroic acts. I've been to funerals where the eulogist praised the departed in such eloquent phrases that I wished I'd known the deceased better, as if the insights of the eulogist gave rise to a different person than the one I'd known. And then there are the eulogists able to evoke wry chuckles from an audience.
But this was my father. And I had become responsible for bringing those insights and chuckles to life, responsible for explaining a very private man to a group made up from the different facets of his life. When writing a novel, there's a plot curve. Something happens, which is followed by something else, building up to a crisis, a denouement, and conclusion. People's lives don't really follow a plot line. Yes, there are certain things that follow a chronology: birth, marriage, children. But in between is the stuff that makes us who we are. Did I dare speak of his difficult childhood? Of the last hard days of his life?
I sat down believing that this would be the most difficult writing of my life, encapsulating the life of a good man. My sister and I bulleted the important things we knew about Dad. Survived a Kamikaze attack during World War II. Served his community, and held his politicians accountable. Loved his family and was soft on animals. In deference to the audience, we left out the part about how much he hated W.
From those bullets, I fleshed out the sentences that would tell his story.
I discovered that a certain comfort came with the act of writing. Writing his eulogy was something I could do for him that no one else could. In the end it was a real story, complete with plot and protagonist, and even a few chuckles.
Susan Wilson lives in Oak Bluffs. She is the author of five published novels and is working on her sixth. She also freelances, specializing in equine topics. Her column will appear on the OpEd Page twice monthly. Ms. Wilson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at her web site: www.susanwilsonwrites.com.