A Celebration of Life

by gillis

I’ve been to enough funerals to know that the euphemism a celebration of life is rarely accurate. Funerals usually provide the requisite ceremony and artifice to remove some of the depth of feeling from the event, leaving everyone involved with dignity and preserving the honor of the occasion. Until very recently, I hadn’t had the chance to truly celebrate someone’s life at a funeral. Not until Rick’s funeral.

Rick was an artist, husband, father, and elementary art teacher for more than thirty years. He was an extraordinary person by anyone’s standard. He had a wide smile and almost Falstaffian love of life. Where a hand wave would suffice, he’d throw his arm around you. Heck, maybe both arms. He was a very physical person, which is why the neuromuscular condition that robbed him of the full use of his legs was such a cruel irony. He loved sports, especially golf, and played as hard as he could for as long as he could. He refused to give in to a wheelchair and instead used a cane, with varying degrees of difficulty, to help him scissor walk from place to place a bit like a drunken bumblebee. As a teacher, he had no peer. He saw his students through a lens of love, nearly an unconditional love. He guided his students  through the foundations of art and life. Lessons on color, texture, line, and perspective were woven through the greater learnings about perseverance, connection, and passion that Rick modeled.

Despite Rick’s health issues, he was vibrant, a character whose page could not fully contain him. If someone else had been handed Rick’s life circumstances, their glass might have been half full, cloudy, or chipped, but Rick’s cup continually spilled over. He celebrated everything – every painting he finished, every golf round he played, every dinner he ate out with loved ones, every card game he won. He lived out loud and gave us all a glimpse at what life could be like if we threw off the shackles of polite distance and embraced love of others with a childlike joy. In truth, he forced us all to see our own beauty when it frightened us to do so because he refused to see anything else in us. He was a teacher yes, but his lesson plan went well beyond the classroom.

It should not have surprised me to learn that Rick had meticulously planned his own funeral, but it did. Because he so firmly loved being alive, enjoyed every moment with his family and friends, it hadn’t occurred to me that he would have given his send off so much thought, but he did. He did. He put it all in writing and asked those closest to him to share their poignant, funny, sweet stories with us. He chose beautiful choral numbers for the church choir and to sing. He arranged for a gifted young jazz vocalist and a saxophonist to perform, and their work was deeply moving, transcendent, just amazing. Finally he had the good sense to give us a break by having the minister play Jimmy Durante’s version of “Make Someone Happy” on a boom box so that we could recover from all that beauty with laughter. There was no way to escape his presence, no way to distance oneself from truly being with Rick in his most profound absence. When the 90 minute service was up, it truly felt like we had celebrated Rick. Even in death, perhaps especially in death, he was able to do what he did best. Remind us that we are connected. And we are alive.

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