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Eulogy for Sheldon Stern

By Matthew Arnold Stern

Giving a eulogy for a parent is always difficult. There were several issues that made this eulogy especially hard for me.

I didn’t have a good relationship with my father because of his divorce with my mother and his distance from me before and after that. (See my speech, “A Basket of Magazines.”)  In June 1986, I saw him for what would be the last time in Novato in Marin County, California. We had a long drive in the country, which is described in this eulogy, where we were able to make peace with each other.

During the rest of the summer of 1986, my father’s health deteriorated because of the legal and financial problems he was facing. He died of a heart attack on 31 August, 1986. He was only 55 years old.

I gave the following eulogy at Congregation Rodef Shalom in San Rafael, California on 3 September, 1986:

I’d like to read for you a poem by Emily Dickinson:

After great pain, a formal feeling comes–
The Nerves sit ceremonious like
tombs–
The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,
And Yesterday, or Centuries before?

The Feet, mechanical, go round–
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought–
A Wooden way
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone–

This is the hour of Lead–
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow–
First–Chill–then Stupor–then the letting go–“

My most cherished memory of my father was eleven weeks ago, when I last visited him in Novato. At that time, his body was weakened by disease and his personal struggles, but his spirit was still strong. He still had that sly, understated sense of humor that I remembered from my youth. He could barely walk, but he could still smile.

It had been too long since we had last seen each other. The last time I visited him in San Francisco was eleven years ago [1975]. The last time he saw me in Los Angeles was back in 1983. A lot of things had separated us, most of them unnecessarily. But we were together again, this time as adults.

On a sunny, clear Sunday morning, I took Dad out for a drive in Napa County. It was the first time that I remembered ever driving for him. We went north through Sonoma to Napa. Along the way, we passed acres of verdant vineyards and isolated farm houses. At first, Dad and I didn’t speak very much. He pointed out a few interesting landmarks along the way, such as the best place to buy raspberries in Napa County. We stopped at Sutter Home to buy some wine. That was when the conversation began to change.

We talked about adult things. I told him about my career as a writer. I remembered how he beamed with pride as I showed him clippings of work I did.

We talked about the divorce. Dad was very candid and honest with me as he told his side of the story. I sensed the sorrow and disappointment he still felt. For the first time, I really understood what he went through. I no longer felt that he abandoned me, or that he left our family because he didn’t love me. I realized that it was the hardest decision he ever had to make.

After lunch, we took Highway 128 to Healdsburg, then drove west along the Russian River to the Pacific shore. It was some of the most beautiful country I had ever seen. The trees were so thick, it was almost like driving through a tunnel. Below us, the Russian River churned green and white, softly murmuring with the breeze.

We talked about women. Both he and I had our share of joys and disappointments. I remember how he spoke about Cindy, how much she loved him, and how she stayed with him even through their difficulties. “I don’t know why she stays with me,” he said. I replied, “You’re lucky to have someone who loves you like that. Most people would leave.”

As we spoke, I realized just how much alike my father and I were. We shared some joys, struggles, and disappointments. We had to learn many of the same lessons and still repeated many of the same mistakes. As I look back today at some of his childhood pictures, we even looked very much the same.

I made peace with my father. I forgave him for the divorce, and then I asked him for forgiveness for separating myself from him for so long. “Forgiveness is not mine to give. What happened happened, and there is no sense punishing yourself for that.” It also brought to mind one of Dad’s favorite sayings, “You can’t invest in retrospect.”

We returned to his condo that afternoon relaxed and at ease. I told him, “I hope that it’s not another eleven years before I come up here again.” He told me that his door was always open and always has been. I promised that I would come back again soon.

I am here now, but my father is gone. Yet, I don’t feel guilt, or anger, or even remorse. (My dad didn’t have much interest or tolerance for such feelings.) That day, I discovered how much he really did love me, how proud he was of me, and how much I meant to him in his life. I realized how much we had in common, yet he always encouraged me to discover things on my own. I found out how much I really did love him.

I believe that as long as you keep a person’s memory alive in your heart, he never really has died. I will always keep alive the memory of my father’s love, his wisdom, and a quiet drive along the Russian River.