How do you summarize a life in a few words? How do you convey all those wonderful and amazing qualities that exist within a complex human being? All you can do is skim the surface and share your reflections with fellow mourners.
When I was called upon recently to speak at the service for my niece, Cheryl Carlson, in Santa Maria, California, I was able to interpose my thoughts with a heartfelt obituary that had been written by her son, Jason. He couldn’t read the words aloud himself without being overcome by emotion, so I read what he wrote, adding my own memories and regrets for a life cut short. I never thought I would speak at a memorial service for a family member who belongs to the next generation, and Cheryl’s death was truly a shock.
The death of my friend Richard Polacek wasn’t a shock because it followed a long, debilitating illness, but you are never fully prepared for the end of a life. Dick had a fierce will to live and resisted death as diabetes and other complications steadily ravaged his system. His last years were consumed with doctor visits, pills, medical tests, hospitalizations, dialysis and all the other interventions that could never restore his vitality, but postponed the inevitable.
Dick and his wife, Bev, were our best friends when my wife and I lived in Southern California. He and I did not have a lot in common. I was a newspaper reporter; he had been in the grocery business. He was Mr. Fix-it around the house; I was Mr. Klutz. But all I had to do was mention to Dick that a door wasn’t shutting properly or a lock didn’t work right, and he’d volunteer to get his tools and fix it. I’m the sort who will help you if asked; Dick didn’t have to be asked; he would volunteer.
Dick and Bev were RVers for a time, touring the country with a folding camping trailer. When they couldn’t travel with an RV, they stayed at campgrounds in yurts.
He was a skilled woodworker and a poor gambler. Our mutual interests intersected at Santa Anita and Las Vegas. There’s nothing worse than losing at the racetrack or the casino when others around you are winning, and I took comfort in the fact that Dick was no more likely to win than I was. We each won just enough to keep in the game.
Eleven years ago, Dick and Bev retired to Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. They loved the peace and serenity they found there. We would occasionally visit each other, but it was a long way from Coeur D’Alene to our house near Seattle, so we never saw each other as much as we would have liked.
I was honored when Bev asked me to prepare a eulogy after Dick died near the end of April. But it was a task I didn’t relish. When I was in the newspaper business, I occasionally wrote obituaries, but Dick wasn’t rich or famous; his work in the grocery business did not lead to awards and honors, and he was not known beyond his circle of friends and family. His life could not be summed up by citing achievements that everyone would recognize.
It brought to mind the point made by New York Times columnist David Brooks about the differences between what you put in a resumé and what winds up in a eulogy. Your educational and career attainments are the sort of things you put in a resumé. But your character—that’s what counts in the end and that’s what people talk about in a eulogy.
Richard was such a good man. His integrity could not be questioned. He was honest, caring, generous, fun loving and deeply religious. He found solace by reading the Bible every day.
When his sister was seriously ill, Dick undertook the difficult job of providing platelets from his blood to prolong her life, going to the hospital regularly for two years. It was not an easy thing to do, but Dick did it willingly.
One test of character is the way we handle illness, and Dick rose to the challenge. I remember once he was in the hospital on Valentine’s Day. He apologized to Bev for the absence of flowers and a card. He was in no position to go to the Hallmark store, but he told Bev he would be happy to write her a card if she would get him the only thing at hand—a piece of toilet paper.
That was Dick—making the best of things and finding the humor.
Those last years were difficult for Bev and Dick. Ask Bev how she could handle it all, caring faithfully and arduously for her ill husband, and she would say, “Because I know he would do it for me.”
And there was never a doubt about that. Richard was a person you could always count on for anything.
Sharlene Minshall, who writes the “Silver, Single, Solo” column for this magazine, always ends her column with two words: God bless. I can’t think of a better way to end this column than that: God bless you, Richard.
Write to Mike Ward, editor at RV Life magazine, 18717 76th Avenue West, Suite B, Lynnwood, WA 98037 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Find “First Glance” online at rvlife.com.