Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Changing

Nobody wants to go to a funeral. Nobody wants to plan a funeral. Or to write their child's Eulogy. Or share in details the most painful, vulnerable moments of your life. 

Today I was changed through the power and transparency of a eulogy from a woman I do not recall ever speaking with. And I was given a task. We were given a task. To be more compassionate, and treat those you love as if you may never get a chance to tell them how much they mean to you. And to treat strangers the same way, as everyone has or needs someone who cares about them.

I woke up this morning to the usual yelling. Dogs barking to come inside, ‘Where’s my shoes?” “Who at the last piece of cinnamon bread?” etc. I said to myself, I’m not going to the funeral today. I told my wife, I wasn’t going. I thought I’d be taking the seat of someone more deserving to be there… But my wife said, "You didn’t go to anything" (I missed the candle ceremony as I had a bad stomach, and the wake due to taking Evan to a Celtics game). Then I saw my son looking polished and determined with his tie on, his pants a little too high due to yet another growth spurt, and I thought to myself what kind of example I was setting for him. With 20 minutes left before leaving, I showered, picked out a shirt, changed that shirt, put on a suit, got out of the suit, found a black shirt, my dad’s old blue suede sport jacket, and went with that.

In better times, Mike, Ethan’s dad, and I chatted comfortably in town and on social media about many things. He always took an interest in my Mountain Biking, as I did his competitive running. over the years from the sidelines of sports, a guac party his family threw every summer, and through many mutual friends, etc. 

I got to the church alone as Mary Beth had a busload (well SUV full) of Evan’s friends who's parents had to work. As I drove past, I saw a boy alone in a white shirt and tie in the bright sun and 20 degree morning chill, looking up at the steeple. He was 2 hours early. He is on my son’s basketball team, my mountain bike team.  The boys and my wife skipped the trip to the coffee shop and saved me a seat in the white austere congregational church behind my son and his friends and an hour or more to go before the service. Evan was seated in a row of freshman girls, beautifully dressed and in makeup, but most still looking more girl than young woman, as the first year of high school is not far removed from 8th grade. His closest friends were in front of him. At this point Guilford freshman still seem to silo their deepest friendships by elementary school. Everyone was chattering and playing with their phones. Many people walked in with coffee and water, something I wasn’t used to seeing, but this church was different. I understood quickly that judging was not in their line of business. I mentioned to my son’s friends mom that it had a comfortable “feng-shway” I am as sure of how to spell it, as I am to pronounce it. She understood, pronounced it correctly and agreed. I felt more comfortable than expected and a little antsy. I knew I was not going to cry today, just as sure as I thought I would not go to a funeral. I noticed the iced tea I had brought into church had left water drops on my tie. I wiped them away so nobody would think they were tears as I was not going to cry. 

At 10:00 the Song family walked into the church. I saw Mike. My eyes began to leak before I felt anything. Was I crying for his loss, or the feeling I might have if my own son was taken?, I wondered. I was not alone in leaky eyes. Tissues were distributed down the isles. Ethan was in my son’s class last week, but would not be attending. He was the reason the church, foyer, balcony, and every bit of space there was was packed with all the faces of Guilford and beyond. I looked at the young men in front of me. The freshmen were still recognizable as the boys who played sports, came over to our house to zip-line, or play basketball or jump in our pool. The seniors, who were once my oldest son’s friends before sports, social circles, personalities and interests spread them apart, were less recognizable without looking close. I tried to remember each of their faces as the boys they were, now in suits, shaving. Embarrassing as some would say “Hi Mr. Ghoreyeb” and I wasn’t quite sure who they were in the moment. The ceremony was opened with two young girls singing a song in harmony. I’m not sure what the song was.

Kristin, was Mike’s wife and Ethan's mother. I don’t think I ever spoke with Kristin. Not for being un-friendly, but the opportunity never came. She was always surrounded by so many friends, and we seemed to head in different directions at pickups and drop-offs. We share the same groups of close friends. We have boys the same age and we share the same community. Of course without ever speaking, we’re parents of all these kids in Guilford, and of course we’re friends as a result. Then again, maybe I have spoken with her. As I get older, I’m less sure of anything. For me, there are fewer absolute truths. 

Kristin approached the altar and stood alone shaking in front of the hundreds of people in the church. She looked as if she hadn’t eaten in days. But she was determined. She stared a moment at the hall full of people, the chairs in the foyer. There were also speakers in the basement and filled chairs there as well… She stammered shakily “I can’t do this…" Once again, then a third time, I thought I heard Mike say to her “We love you". Then she took a breath and began. I was transported from the church in that moment and found myself with her on the morning of the worst day of her life. She brought us with Ethan to have his braces removed. It was a big day. Like a great mom (what I say), she decided to “skip” school and celebrate. They went for breakfast. They shared an unusually deep discussion about Ethan’s life, about his dreams and aspirations, and how many children he planned on having (7?). That breakfast conversation, that day, was a gift, Kristin said. It was, in a way, preparation for the grief that would shake her life and our town.  As she brought us along through her day, she wandered to recount her son’s wit, intelligence, flaws and forgetfulness. Ethan didn’t wear shoes the day they were taking the ferry to Block Island, what was he thinking?. She wandered through life with her boy, weaving memories, then returning to lead us further through the moments of that horrific day. She let him walk his friends house. She heard the first responders race past toward the town docks. Then she saw the police grim at her door. The moments that followed were much darker. 

On a bright morning, in an austere yet beautiful church on the most beautiful green in Connecticut, on a sunny yet cold Monday, Kristin Song showed us her heart. She opened her soul and brought us to where we thought there were no words. No words to describe the horror of our shared loss… no words to make the pain any less or to give purpose to such a loss... No words to bring Ethan back, or provide comfort or closure...  Kristin, bravely, intelligently and beautifully gave us those words... Somehow shaping them around the unimaginable loss of her youngest child. She showed us a beautiful life through the lens of a loving mom. She shared with our community the treasure she lost, and asked for our care and love to be shared beyond the Songs. She said in Ethan’s memory, we could help make a better world by extending the kindness and love our community shed on their family. She asked to refocus our love for her family and youngest child among all of us in attendance, and not just to share it, but to live in a more forgiving, empathetic and loving way.  She wove memories of the horrific day with her best moments with Ethan. She shared his passion for animal rescue, his remarkable heritage, close friendships, favorite things, finally tying it neatly with an unexpected quote from the Lord of the Rings: 

Pippin: I didn't think it would end this way.
Gandalf: End? No, the journey doesn't end here. Death is just another path, one that we all must take. The grey rain-curtain of this world rolls back, and all turns to silver glass, and then you see it. Pippin: What? Gandalf? See what? Gandalf: White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise. Pippin: Well, that isn't so bad. Gandalf: No. No, it isn't.”  
Those were the words she she used to bring us gently back into our pew and conclude her youngest sun’s eulogy.  It was clear to me. These were the words; these, and the words before them. They are what we, (I was) searching for when we said (and wrote) “...there are no words". These words shared the pain, a path toward healing, and most importantly, shared intimately the life of Ethan Song, all tied up with a quote that carried more weight than the author may ever know. And words that Ethan would love. 
..But maybe this is just my perspective. I’m not really sure of anything anymore… Maybe I was alone in feeling like this was most powerful thing I may have heard. I question this because my son and his friends said they thought the most powerful moment was when dad Mike sang "Let it Be”.  I feel like I have perception issues, I talk too much sometimes without listening enough, or so I’ve been told... Or maybe I got filled up at that point emotionally and could not feel anymore… 

The rest of the service alone, without Kristin’s part was an incredible service. It was a powerful, sad yet joyful celebration of Ethan. It was a testament to this family blessed with so many gifts and cursed with one horrible misfortune. It was a memorial service faced by group of cousins, siblings and parents who rallied for their family and their grief. Flags of Korea, Israel and the Untied states, flanked by a Guilford sports jersey were displayed at the alter symbolic of a colorful and faceted family.  

The service offered emotional recollections from their daughter.* Her thoughts and words were heartfelt, clear and powerful; showing the love a big sister has for her littlest brother. I have an older sister. I remember when she left for college.  I get that close bond.

Ethan’s brother, also in high school, recounted his disdain for his sibling just as my oldest son feels the same frustration with Evan. Always late, effortlessly charismatic, less serious yet somehow living life effortlessly… And still yet the terrible loss he felt. Who would say “I love you” to their little brother after all? Nothing should ever happen where you would need to in the first place... It’s an unwritten law of sibling-hood! It was clear to all how much he loved his little brother.

Ethan's closest in age of many cousins tearfully recounted their adventures as a family who often skied and vacationed together. Now he would be the youngest cousin. His uncle, Kristin’s brother, recalled the horrible sadness he felt at the moment Ethan left the earth and later called his sister only to hear the voice of her minister on the other end of the cell phone. 

There was a moving tribute from pop star Nick Fradiani, our local celebrity, who sang a moving rendition of Hallelujah with his dad. Famous or not, he’s part of our community. We celebrated his American Idol win, and cried together for our loss here today.  

Ethan’s grandmother is a holocaust survivor, who recently gave Ethan her “Jude" star from the death camps, that he kept as a badge of honor. She bravely read a letter from Ethan which was delivered to her the day after his passing discussing his mid-term results and his empathy for Anne Franke with his grandmother. She wanted us to hear his words and see his colors. Her poise and close relationship with her grandson were quite moving.

Mike Song is a well known and successful motivational speaker. I was sure he would have crafted some words to sum up the service. But he probably (rightly) knew his family and wife in particular had said it all.  He said, “ I prepared nothing. There’s nothing left to say”. I wondered if Mike's Grandfather, a Korean war veteran, was also buddhist; as Mike chose a song which despite mentioning Mother Mary, felt to me in spirit to resemble a Buddhist chant. He sang "Let It Be". He sang for/to his son.  He was accompanied by his acoustic guitar and the voices of our community. When there were no words left, there was a Song. 

However, nothing for me was as moving as Ethan's mom. Kristin found the missing words, the energy she shared and the care in which she offered them, was to me the greatest gift. Today I cried. I didn’t go to a funeral. I went to a celebration of a life.  Thank you Ethan. It was a pleasure to meet you and share the love you felt from your wonderful family with myself and the world.

*Correction was made: Emily, who spoke so touchingly, is a nursing major at UConn and the Song's oldest child. The screenwriter for Disney is Mike's sister Elena, who of course was in attendance.



5 comments:

Michelle Maitland said...

Yes... sigh. I was also so moved. So brave and loving and honest was Ethan's entire family. They were a model of the persistence of the human spirit. The worst, the best, stirred up and blended with all of our tears. I hope I can keep firm hold on the inspiration their family, and Kristin in particular, gave me. I will support the Foundation and follow the family's work with interest. RIP Ethan. Tom, I am sorry for your son's loss and for that of his friends. I hope they too keep hold of Ethan and do good works in his name.

Eric said...

Thank you or this Tom. I did not know the Family but am grieving anyway.

Diane Van said...

You are amazing parents Mike & Kristin 💚

Diane VanSteenbergen said...

Beautiful written....thank you. Ethan was funny, caring, compassionate, loving, inquisitive, and beautiful. "And in the end, it's not the years in your life that count; it's the life in your years." Abraham Lincoln <3

Marilyn Lynch said...

Such a beautiful tribute to a brilliant and beautiful young man, gone too soon. Ethan's teachers, faculty, staff and classmates will leave his seat empty in each class to honor and respect his memory. My daughter told me, "Mom, I just had a great conversation today with Ethan in class a few hours ago." Everyone loved and adored Ethan, such a beautiful tribute to his mom and dad. RIP