A talent was originally a form of currency in the time of Christ. It has, of course come to mean a special gift or proclivity. I have a pretty strange one that manifests itself as needed and only when needed. Thank God. A calling, if you will.
I have done numerous eulogies over the course of my adult life. Like some contrapositive variation of tender mercy, I have had the privilege to help people send their recently deceased loved ones off to the choir invisible. It is a calling that sucks, quite frankly. Someone I know and love dies in order for me to be called into action. While loved ones are on their knees, I am pounding out the words that will give their lives proper homage.
The first eulogy I ever did was for a man I had met only once. He was my (then) future father-in-law, Dr. Harley M. Sigmond, M.D.
In July of 1988, my (then) boyfriend invited me up to the “lake place” to meet his siblings and his mother, who had retired there with her husband after he had a stroke that left him paralyzed on the right side and aphasic. The only words he had left were “Yes, okay” and “God damn no.”
I had no trouble engaging in a conversation with him:
“Dr. Sigmond, I see you are watching the Cubs game.”
“Are they winning?”
“Do you think they have a chance?”
“Wait until next year, eh?”
He gave his son a big thumbs up with his good hand.
He passed away, two months later while I was again visiting the family with my husband to be. Having lingered in the hospital for a week after another stroke, he came to his peace. The timbre of the weekend immediately changed.
My husband’s family is an exclusionary lot. They grew up in comfort and privilege and the best way to phrase this is that they are not very welcoming. It takes them out of their safety zone.
I was now about as welcome as a good case of the plague.Except for my husband.
He entreated me to stay and help him through the weekend. He needed my support as everyone else was methodically making arrangements and planning the menu for after the service. I understand this was their way of coping. But it was NOT what my husband needed.
“She can stay if she wants to,” was my future mother in law’s frosty response to his entreaty.
I ended up taking a lot of walks to stay out of the way. This pleased them. They complimented me that I “knew when to leave”. It was a survival mechanism for me as I negotiated the cultural mine field.
But my future husband was becoming increasingly more frustrated. His needs in honoring his father were not getting met. At all. All the other family members are introverts, task oriented, and repress their emotions. No one ever addresses the 300 pound Magilla in the living room. Eric was (and is) every bit as gregarious, curious, boisterous and welcoming as his father was. He needed desperately to find a way to convey the essence of his dad to the people who would be attending the memorial service. I could feel his frustration reaching the boiling point.
I pulled him into the little office area in the back of the house, fired up the computer, and said, “Start talking and I’ll start typing.”
We writers are an odd lot. We process things by putting them into words and, sometimes, putting those words out to be scrutinized. Some writers are better at the latter than I am. But either way, it is a direct circuit from brain to heart to fingers on the keyboard.
Except this time.
This time, he began to speak of his dad and all the man’s qualities, virtues and faults. The words came from HIS heart to MY heart and out my fingertips onto the keyboard. I was certain that the spirit of Harley was between us with the necessary cosmic jumper cables completing this incredible circuit. It was all I could do to keep up.
‘Twas truly one of the most amazing experiences of my life up to that point.
The whole process took about 30 minutes and here is the product of that magic time as we said goodbye to Harley. His parting gift to me was an entree into his family:
From time to time on this earth, God puts a very special human being amongst us. Usually such people go through life quietly committed to their fellow man; doing good acts and expecting only the reward of a good feeling in their souls. When such a person come to us, lives his life, and quietly leaves us, there are moments of mourning that are all too fleeting. These moments are cut short by a need to get on with the day-to-day matters of life.
Comforting words are spoken. The final ceremony is performed. Those closest to these very special people miss them. But we all continue on.
And they would want it that way. While the words are fleeting, and the necessities of day to day life do, indeed, call us onward, we fee acutely the loss of Harley M. “Sig” Sigmond.
There will always be other orthopedic surgeons to fulfill the societal function — heal the sick, fix a broken bone, make “all better”. But the true loss is Sig’s compassion and his quiet commitment to his fellow man.
No one could “make all better” like Sig. Through a lifelong, selfless, commitment to others, he conveyed the love, understanding and respect for life and for the betterment of others through his efforts.
Sometimes, when you meet a man on the street and shake his hand, you come away from that brief encounter with a smile — though you can’t say why, exactly — and a better outlook on life. Sometimes, it’s a pat on the shoulder to someone who is depressed. Sometimes it is a smile for the frustration of a child. Sig was a man who lived for others and reaped his rewards in those who remain to convey the love and understanding he instilled in all those he touched.
For this reason, we gather. We shed some tears. We break into a smile at a fond remembrance. We remember and feel again, the warm glow of his hugs. And we receive, without any surprise, the deepest condolences of his residents, his patients, and people in the community. They too will occasionally remember Sig’s smile. The glow will carry on.
We do not come together to praise a man of perfection. To make a man like Sig an icon would be to do him an injustice. We must also remember the warmth of his imperfections.
“Cut the mustard and get it done.”
“Daddy’s coming down the hall with a broom.”
“I’m going to get the Great Persuader.” (An item of mystery to this day.)
To convey a sense of discipline in order to create a long term good, one must sometimes be a tough guy. Sig also took on this role with relish and gusto — as he did in all things.
He is remembered most of all by his children. In the same exuberant manner in which he lived, he has left this earth with four variations on the theme of Sig. Each one has his special imprint and his sense of right and compassion toward his fellow man. All will continue to smile and remember their Dad. Though the pain of their loss is acute right now, when they smile they will know he is with them still.
We were engaged two months later.