A woman is at the funeral of her husband, her young son at her side. The preacher extols the virtues of the deceased at length until the boy tugs at his mother’s sleeve and says, “Ma, we better look in the casket and see if that’s Pa he’s talkin’ about.” For some reason our family always got a kick out of that joke when we were young, as if, if anyone really knew one of us they wouldn’t be nearly as impressed.
Yesterday I attended the funeral of George Heller, a very beloved fellow congregant, an extraordinary person, a holocaust survivor (who refused to be defined by that term since his focus was far more on the beauty of his unfolding life rather than remorse over a difficult past). His was a life of voracious learning, taking on robust challenges, and loving with a full heart. Unlike the joke above, listening to friends, family and clergy extol his virtues did not cast doubt on who was in the casket. Not surprisingly, it did cause me to ponder what might be said when it becomes my turn to be eulogized. I suspect many of us have similar feelings when we hear another person’s life so exuberantly celebrated. “What will they say about me? What have I done to merit praise?”
Something else also came up for me. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, originally with reference to the death of my brother two years ago. From his diagnosis of brain cancer to his death two and a half years later, he was clearly a man on a mission of love. He freely gave it and preached it. It was beautiful to observe and receive. What I wonder is, does it take such a diagnosis to give a person license to open one’s heart in such an unfettered and loving way? Despite the fact that we all have the same ultimate diagnosis, my suspicion is that a person on such a mission would just seem a bit daft. Who goes around cherishing each moment and each person unashamedly? Then, I heard George Heller’s family describe him. Maybe George was the exception to the rule. Or perhaps having survived Hitler’s Death March, George was compelled to thirstily drink in and savor every drop of life, and to share that gusto with others.
Regardless of how George found the capacity to love life and people in this way (and certainly surviving the Holocaust alone does not account for it given how many other “survivors” never shed the weight of their personal history) it is a quality I greatly admire and wish to emulate. I’d like to start every day by pulling on my happiest pair of socks with the full excitement and anticipation that today is a big day, and I’m getting dressed up for the great party that lies ahead! Listening to George’s stories makes me think of the popular aphorism, “Dance as though no one is watching you. Love as though you have never been hurt before. Sing as though no one can hear you. Live as though heaven is on earth.” It seems like a very tall order, but when facing a big challenge—such as scaling the climbing wall at the YMCA as he did until he was 87 years old—George would emphatically declare, “It’s possible!”