I knew immediately what had to be done when he died. I had to deliver a eulogy. There were three emotions surrounding my preparation, delivery, and reflection of Charlie’s eulogy; anger, fear, and guilt.
ANGER: Some people offered to do one in my stead, but there was NO CHANCE anyone other than me was sending Charlie off to heaven. “This is MY son. I will be responsible for his eulogy.” I remember initially being offended by the mere mention of someone other than me writing and delivering the eulogy. I quickly realized that they only had my best interests at heart and weren’t sure a father- any father- would be able to have the strength and poise to deliver one. Which brings me to another thought I have about it. I remember writing and practicing it in between intense bouts of sobbing, hyper-ventilating, and sleepless nights. I was so angry. Angry seeing Vanessa in such intense pain. Angry thinking of deadbeat, abusive, and cruel dads that still had their sons. Angry at dads that took pride in not changing diapers, doing late night feedings, or anything else that may distort their delusional view of what makes a man a dad. (Hint: It’s way more than putting food on the table or buying mommy expensive jewelry and pedicures.)
FEAR: What if I fuck up? What if I cry the whole time and can’t talk? What if it sucks? In case you don’t know, I am easily my biggest critic. I was so afraid of not being able to get through it but not as afraid as I was of it sucking. You all know what I’m talking about too. The kind of speech that you’re wishing to end for the orator’s sake. We’ve all seen at least one, and they’re usually a best man or maid of honor speech. I wanted nothing more than to leave people with good thoughts of Charlie and not some mash-up of bad stories and aimless run-ons. I had one shot. I needed to nail it. There was no other option. (As I walked in behind Charlie’s casket, I kept my hand on it the whole way up. My entire focus and attention was on his casket. Nothing else.) When it was time for me to get up there, I remember walking up to the pulpit, looking out into the crowd for the first time, and thinking, “Fuck me. This place is packed.” My adrenaline kicked in. I swallowed the huge lump in my throat. Looked out to the crowd. And gave the best and only speech of my life.
GUILT: I can still physically feel everyone standing up to give me a standing ovation. I was able to feel the weight leave the pews as everyone stood up and the applause echoing around me on the altar as I hugged Vanessa. I was able to write and deliver the best damn eulogy I was capable of and I was bursting with pride because I nailed it. And I never hated myself more than I did in that moment. Later that day I remember my Uncle Tom acknowledging what I had done in front of my family and friends at lunch. I remember being ashamed of the death of my son being a catalyst for the first time I’ve felt proud of myself. In the days, weeks, and months following I received sporadic emails and letters telling me of how moving and inspirational the eulogy was to others. Each time my guilt grew exponentially.
I’ve since grown to know that it’s ok to feel proud about what I was able to do for Charlie that morning- thank you Dr. Ken. Because that’s who it was for, Charlie. I wanted to do my best for him and I did. It’s ok to be proud of myself for giving the 400+ people there an insight to the depth of my love for Charlie and what a special kid he was. I’ve also been asked how the hell I was able to do it. I seriously cannot tell you how I did it. I guess I was literally in the zone. I’ve never felt how I did before, during, or immediately after I gave it before or since that day in my life.
Below is the written version. (I ad-libbed a few lines while I was up there so it’s slightly different than the oral version.)
I’d like to begin by thanking our family and friends for providing unwavering support during this tragedy. We’d also like to thank Donna Stopa for caring for Charlie and Danny like they were her own. We’d like to especially thank Dr. Frank Belmonte who watched over Charlie during his greatest hour of need. Knowing that you personally carried him to the morgue, watched the autopsy, and waited for him to be picked up provided us with great comfort. Thanks again.
The thing about Charlie, is that no one can exactly explain THAT THING about Charlie.
But everyone KNOWS, everyone FELT, that THING about Charlie. And it was this THING that made him so special and easy to love.
It was this thing about Charlie that would solicit comments from complete strangers about how sharp and quick he was. A geek squad technician was setting up a blue ray player at my Mom’s house two weeks ago. Charlie, of course, was right in this guy’s face showing him which cords went where, how to put the DVD in, and reminding him that he had to clean up for CC. The guy turned to Charlie and said, “You’re going to be a mayor someday.”
It was this thing about Charlie that made people chuckle and shake their head in disbelief as he walked away. I watched this happen from another room just last week at a one year old birthday party. Charlie walked into the tv room where my friend’s father-in-law was sitting by himself watching a basketball game. Charlie walked right up to this man, whom he had never met before, and said, “I can’t wear big boy underwear on long car rides bc I’ll fall asleep and pee my pants. And that’s not good!” As we were leaving, this man- who has many grandchildren of his own- said to me, “Your Charlie is something else.” It made me swell with pride because I recognized that Charlie just showcased this THING that no one can explain. He truly was something else.
I remember one morning as I took Charlie to school at Donna’s on my bike. He kept asking me to go around the block one more time- even though I had already taken him at least five extra times. We finally pulled up the alley and met Donna in the backyard. I asked Donna how she felt Charlie was going to react to sharing our attention with a new baby. And Donna said to me, “He’s just so tender. He loves everyone and everyone loves him. He’s going to be a great big brother.” After I gave Charlie a big squeeze and a kiss goodbye, I remember riding away with tears in my eyes bc of how proud I was of what kind of a person he was becoming.
This thing I keep mentioning. This aura. This spirit. It was contagious. He had an uncanny ability to make people feel so alive while he was around them. I remember going to the pool over the summer. Whenever it was rest break, he would beg me to jump off the diving board. As I would walk toward the end of the board and begin to jump, I would watch him mimic me along the side of the pool. He would even jump in the air as I went airborne. Every time I popped my head out from under the water, he would immediately start yelling at me from the side of the pool, “Dad, can you jump off the diving board?” He would wait for me at the ladder, grab my hand, and then pull me back to the diving board to dive off again. Another Dad that was watching us said, “I could watch him all day.” I would literally spend the entire 15 minute rest break jumping off the diving board, which is exhausting, just so I could see his beaming smile when I emerged from the water. And if I could, I would spend the rest of my life doing the same thing so I could see that smile just ONE more time.
This thing about Charlie was on full display this past Christmas. He stormed into our room and yelled, “Santa left us presents!” He didn’t say me, he said us. As we were opening our presents, Charlie stopped and sadly said, “But we didn’t get Santa any presents.” What 2 year old stops unwrapping gifts bc he’s concerned he didn’t get a present to give in return? A tender one. One whom has that special THING.
This thing. This appetite for life couldn’t be contained. He always wanted to be in on the action. A couple of weeks ago, I was sleeping and I remember getting the feeling that someone was staring at me. I opened my eye and there was Charlie, nose to nose with me. He said, “Dad! I got a great idea! Let’s go eat cereal and watch Mickey!”. It was 3am. So I told him to come into bed with us and go back to sleep. Which he did without a fight, but not before he kicked ME out of HIS spot in MY bed.
Vanessa and I were blessed to have a front row seat to the Charlie show 24/7. And we cherished every second of it, which has made this soul crushing experience a little less difficult. We never took one second for granted. Even before he was taken from us, people who have been close with me my whole life commented on numerous occasions about how much better of a person Charlie made me. (I used to ask these same people why they didn’t say the same thing about Vanessa. And they all said she was already better. . . Still not sure what that means.) Now that he’s gone, even more people are reiterating how big of a positive influence he had on me. It gives me strength to try to move forward.
This thing I keep going back to is what I will always cherish and try to use to fill this gigantic void in my soul. A major part of us died as Vanessa and I felt his beautiful body stop breathing in our arms. I need his spirit to guide me to become a stronger husband to Vanessa and a even stronger father to Danny. I need that thing.
I keep replaying a recording I have of Charlie asking me a question that I need to answer.
(play recording: “Dad, are you down there? Can you come up here? Dad?”)
I am down here Charlie. And no, I can’t come up there. But I would give the world to be able to do so.
Everyone here loves you. Mommy loves you. And I know that you want me to deliver this message to everyone. (play recording: “I love you!”)
Good bye my Charlie. I love you.