Eulogies and the wit of the staircase

I was attending a memorial service at Mount Auburn Cemetery the other day, and I was asked to say a few words about my wonderful cousin Bob, who died recently from the effects of Alzheimer’s.  I said my piece and took my seat.

And then I remembered a beautiful anecdote that summed up Bob perfectly.  Three years ago he had sent me a lovely email remembering my father (who died many years ago) on my father’s birthday.  Fighting the wreckage of his mind, Bob still managed to send me a thoughtful email (complete with a Dickens reference).  When I recalled this I wanted to jump up from my seat and say, “Wait a minute!  I’m not done yet!”  But I had missed my chance.

This is a somewhat morbid example of l’esprit de l’escalier — the wit of the staircase — where you think of the perfect rejoinder to an argument at a dinner party only as you are on the way out.

This happened to me before, after I spoke at my mother’s funeral.  In the last months of her life something happened to her brain, and she had a perpetual low-grade random fear.  It was heartbreaking.  A couple of weeks later I was driving to work and listening to a tape of John Gielgud declaiming Shakespeare.  And suddenly I heard him recite the famous song from Cymbeline, which starts like this:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages:
Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.


It’s not exactly Christian theology, but it spoke to me.  I almost crashed my car on Route 128 when I heard it.  That’s what I should have said to my mother as I said goodbye to her.  Fear no more.

Oh well.

Because I’m in the mood, here is Brahms’ German Requiem.  This piece will always remind me of sitting with Cousin Bob and his wife Lesley in a darkened room in a Vermont hospice, listening to this great music as Bob’s father’s life ebbed away.  Here is the English text of part one:

Blessed are they that mourn,
for they shall be comforted.
They who sow in tears,
shall reap in joy.
Go forth and cry,
bearing precious seed,
and come with joy
bearing their sheaves

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