Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015


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Cemetary in autumn

“If I never meet you in this life, let me feel the lack. A glance from your eyes, and my life will be yours.” James Jones, The Thin Red Line.

Sometimes I write eulogies for living people. I hope I’m not alone in this. I often do it in my head — as a supplication of sorts — a request that whomever I am eulogizing remains indelible in my mind. But sometimes the eulogies are a sort of rehearsal – for the day when I will need to praise (from the Greek eulogia) those dead and bid them farewell.

In 2011, I wrote a eulogy for Robert Bates (my Uncle Bob) — an old WWII veteran and surrogate grandfather. My earliest memories from childhood involve sitting in his wood shop on a rough wood chair watching cedar shavings curl to my feet from his lathe. This past summer, I wrote one for his widow Helen Bates (Auntie Honey), who grew tomatoes in her garden, danced to the radio in her kitchen and smothered my siblings and me with wrinkly-lipped smooches.

I am not the only one to do this. It has been a year where many friends have bid farewell and eulogized fathers, mothers, grandparents, spouses. Our lives suddenly lessened — augered out, never to be quite filled in again. And yet this resonance of the departed.

In her novel, Into the Heart of the Country, Pauline Holdstock writes,

I have tried to understand how our lives that seem so brief that end so soon can linger. Are they as dreams that in the telling snake out and extend? So that of our lives even the smallest segment takes yet another lifetime to relive to remember? Sometimes the moment is so small it barely exists yet while seasons roll away from me I can breathe again its whole length.

At one funeral I attended this summer, three people gave eulogies for the deceased. The first spoke of angels and spirits and better worlds beyond sickness and the mortal coil. The second spoke beautifully of memories. The third highlighted the influence the deceased’s friendship had on her life. The result was a triptych: a picture rendered in three particular panels, yet comprising a whole.

I also attended a funeral where no eulogy was given. There was only a gathering where people spoke softly and looked at photos. It felt –— to me — incomplete, perhaps because there was no eulogia. There was no setting apart.

There are mystical qualities to eulogies. A person’s life distilled to something sacrosanct, reaching long after its end. And this sacredness seems imperative — as though a eulogy were the necessary agent for the journey of grief. A journey that cannot begin without those written words.

When my Aunt Audrey died a few years ago, her younger brother Eddie made the journey from Prince George to Arizona to go through her belongings and set her house in order. In a desk drawer, he discovered a story she had written. A memoir of when she was a young girl, in the village of Cothen, in Holland.

In the story, she had fallen off a bicycle, crushing her face on a stone. She had to spend months bandaged from chin to forehead. In her now-blind world her little infant brother, Adjie (Eddie), became her constant. His voice, his nearness, his presence. While everyone else was afraid of her wounds and let her be, Eddie would grab her finger and coo with delight. She never forgot this.

 For Eddie, finding the story was overwhelming. He had remained close to Audrey in a way he did not share with his other siblings. He had a sense of her — even when they were worlds apart. Yet he never knew of this event. Her death meant the end of that closeness — but the story prevented total abandonment. 

Perhaps eulogies work in the same fashion. They are stories — fictionalized to a certain extent, for who is ever as perfect and redeemable as when portrayed by those who love them — that bind two worlds together. The worlds of presence and absence.

We make our farewells because now, erected in front of us like a totem, a binding narrative exists. A living mythology that keeps the deceased close. And the mourning, which rends the heart of immediate comfort, comes at the start of a journey where — deep in the recesses of human anguish — one hopes (or wishes) these two distant worlds to converge.

Harry Tournemille is a writer living in St. Catharines with his wife and daughter. His publications have done nothing to alleviate his nostalgic affection for 1990s Seattle music. He is currently working on his first novel with the gracious assistance of the Ontario Arts Council. To find out more about Harry visit him at his blog Dual and Divided Nature and follow him on Twitter at @HTournemille.

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