When I appointed myself to speak at my mother’s funeral last month, those closest to me weighed in that it might be a risky proposition. “You are?” asked one friend, somewhat incredulous. “Don’t forget to rehearse,” said one of my mother’s dearest friends. (This, from a woman who has supported my writing and speaking career with only a little less zeal than my mom had and knew I was no stranger to a lectern.) “Remember, this isn’t about you,” said another person in my inner circle, and another, “Don’t go on too long” — although I don’t remember who those last two were, so it might’ve been me (I had a lot of voices in my head in those first frenzied days following Mom’s death).
Notwithstanding these cautionary words, I was resolute. It was as though I had been training for this moment all my life, starting my sophomore year of high school, during which my drama teacher knocked my Maine accent out of me through after-school drills. She would sit at her desk at the front of the room, I would stand at the back, and she’d instruct me to repeat a word after her. “Say ‘there,’ she’d command, hitting that r with her crisp Michigan accent. “They-ah,” I’d respond, oblivious to our different articulations. “I said there,” she’d repeat. “That’s what I said: they-ah,” I’d respond brightly. The volley went on — “there,” “they-ah,” “there,” “they-ah” — until that Eliza Doolittle moment occurred and, by jove, I hit
my r. From they-ah, there was no turning back.
I went on to compete in speech — or forensics, as it’s called on the circuit — at a national level during college (trophies abounded), where I also had a (thankfully) short-lived flirtation with acting. Years of playwriting followed, as did my slam-poetry career (medals abounded), not to mention 16 years as an instructor of public speaking at the University of Southern Maine. (Sixteen years? The only other things I’ve done for that long all involve a surgeon general’s warning.)
So, let’s just say I knew a thing or two about giving an oral presentation. Besides, I had always regretted not speaking at my father’s funeral 24 years earlier. You don’t get a lot of do-overs in life, but this was one. Miss the boat here, Champ, and there’ll be no more second chances.
But while I had been trained (theoretically) for this moment, I was blindsided when it arrived. My mom’s health had been in decline over the past few years, but no matter what befell her, she always bounced back. This winter and spring had been especially hard on her, but I maintained faith that she would come around yet again. Even when we were told by her new doctor that she was slipping — he actually used the word dying — I didn’t buy it. Mom had pulled through so many times from so much worse, all I could think was, Doctor, you do not know my mother. But the next thing I knew, hospice care was being ordered and within a week, she was gone.
So, how are you supposed to compose and rehearse the most important five or 10 minutes of your speaking career when your world is reeling and you are walking into walls? Oh yes, and you have only a couple days to prepare, after you write two obituaries.
I tried doing what I tell my students to do. Determine a narrow and clear thesis. Develop talking points with specific examples to back it up. Write a snappy lead and a memorable close. And, remember, you can’t tell your audience everything. Be lean, be spare. Sing your song, do your dance, leave ‘em wanting more. (Thank you. That will be $693 please, or $1,914 if you’re from out of state.)
But as any of my students will tell you, I am of the “do as I say, not as I do” school. Those rules surely didn’t apply to me. I had to tell my listeners everything. When I timed my first run-through, I was already up to 15 minutes and I hadn’t gotten beyond my mother’s Gorham childhood. After a ruthless, slash-and-burn, take-no-prisoners edit, I got the thing down to a tidy 25 minutes. The problem was, the service was slated to be only 35 or 40 minutes long, and we had all those pesky, multi-versed hymns to get through.
And there was one other problem. The speech was a mess. It was rambling and unfocused, worthy of one of my dreaded “needs work” C-minuses. Perhaps my friends were right. Perhaps I couldn’t do this.
Then a miracle of sorts occurred. I spoke with one of my mother’s high school chums, who lives in North Carolina. She told me stories I’d never heard before. My mom came to life before my eyes in all her dazzling brightness and beauty. When I got off the phone, I scrapped the notes I had, used one of those stories as a springboard, and the rest fell into place. Finally, I had my eulogy.
When I took the pulpit the following day, I was calm and assured. I passed the test. And I got my do-over. Not for me. For my mom.
Elizabeth Peavey can’t begin to thank all of her beautiful angels out there. You know who you are.