Saturday, October 10, 2009

My Uncle Bill

Two weeks ago, my mother asked if I could please help her write down a few thoughts about my Uncle Bill. When I arrived in South Carolina last week, mom asked if I could please finish writing down those thoughts and deliver the Eulogy at his funeral mass this past Saturday.

As it turns out, Eulogies typically don't happen at funeral masses. But because my family has attended this church for a long time, and because my Aunt Ann was a part of the service (and made connections with the organist who then talked with the Priest), an exception was made.

Below is the Eulogy that I delivered after the Homily. This is the Eulogy that took me almost 10 hours to write and when I collapsed in to bed at three in the morning - seven hours before the Funeral Mass was scheduled to take place - clear as day, I could hear my Uncle Bill say to me, "Thank you, Dear."

I love that man so much and it was my great honor to have the opportunity to tell everyone how much he meant to me. Or rather, how much he means to me. Because even now, I can feel his strong spirit surrounding me.


Writing this Eulogy for my beloved Uncle Bill has probably been one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Because there are so many things to say. And yet, none of the things that I say could ever capture the greatness of the man that we are gathered here to honor, today.

Uncle Bill.

You were a terrible driver.

My mother told me when I was a child that I should never drive with you and if I must, I should always sit in the back and never forget to wear my seat belt.

Albeit a danger on the road, you were a lucky man. To not only walk away from your countless car accidents unscathed, but to have lived such a full and rich life. I do not know of anyone who has given so much love - and received so much love - within their lifetime. I do not know of any man that is so adored by his children and grandchildren that they would consider building their own homes in their father's front yard.

(For those that don't know - my cousin Margaret's house is a few hundred feet off her parent's house. Smack dab in the right field of their front yard.)

To me, you were a constant source of entertainment. My favorite story that you ever told was the one where your mother, who on one particular day, was so angry at you and your brother, Joe - that she tried to throw a pot at the two of you as you ran up a flight of stairs. But instead of hitting you, the pot ricocheted off the wall struck her in the head and knocked her out cold. And rather than stick around to see if your mother was OK, you opted to hide because you knew that if she was angry before she gave herself a black eye, she’d be even more cross when she resumed consciousness.

To your children you were their mentor, coach and confidant. May I ask: How many fathers bring flowers to their daughters in high school on Valentine‘s Day? How many fathers would get excited over baking a rhubarb pie with their teenager? How many fathers have the privilege of working shoulder to shoulder with their grown sons? And how many fathers have such respect and decency, that they will tell their sons, when they are on a job working hard - talking hard - and getting dirty, that all of their work is to stay on the job, because as soon as they get home, they are in the company of women?

There was never any question that your family was the most important part of your life and because of that, you were committed to the success and well being of your children’s children.

You were not only “Father” to this family. You were a GRAND father. You have helped to shape and nurture your grandchildren’s lives, solely because you were a critical part of them. Like a dandelion’s seeds will blow in the breeze and spout new life in far reaching places - so the positive impact that you have had on your grandchildren has taken root to bloom and grow.

But the love and dedication for your children and grandchildren was eclipsed by the adoration and devotion that you had for your wife. Your Amazing Grace.

You were her dashingly handsome teenage sweetheart. She was your beautiful girlfriend. Your relationship was unlike any other, a match truly made in heaven. Your marriage of 56 years is what every marriage should be.

The way that you would put your arm around her, the way that you would gently hold her hand, and to see your face light up like the Fourth of July whenever she walked in to a room or spoke, was magic for everyone to see. When I once asked your advice on where you would live if you could live anywhere, you told me, “Your Aunt Grace sometimes gets a little irritated with me. But I‘d be happy wherever I was. So long as she’d allow me to be by her side.”

Uncle Bill, it was just the way that you lived your life. You were a beacon of eternal optimism, hope and strength. You harnessed the power of mind over body. Last year, when your dog Ruffo knocked you down and broke your hip, you didn’t cry out for help. Instead, when the first person called, you answered your cell phone, “Hello, Bill Finnell” as if nothing had ever happened. And when you heard that it was your daughter on the other end, you very casually asked if she had a pair of crutches you could borrow?

Lest anyone forget you were given a three-month life expectancy almost five years ago. You told the doctors that they had their work cut out for them and boy did they ever. You absolutely loved your life and because of that, you never gave up. When you were told that you would be growing weaker, you began getting up at three in the morning and working out so that your body would be as strong as your mind, for as long as possible.

But how is it possible that you were able to travel to California, just four short months ago?

I believe it was because there was nothing more important than for you to be present and support your daughter as she completed her first marathon. So you climbed aboard a plane, and flew 3,000 miles across the country (and back again) - took a cab - a train - and a bus so you could be there, waiting for us, as we hobbled across the finish line. Make no mistake: if you hadn’t been there, I would still be on the course. But I told myself, “If Uncle Bill can get himself to the finish line, by golly, I can too.” And that is where I found the strength to continue.

Then again, you have always given me the strength to continue.

Consider, it was 30 years ago last month that I moved in to your home. I was only eight-years-old at the time and I thought I was just visiting South Carolina on vacation before the new school year resumed. But when I didn't fly home and my mother and brother joined us from Massachusetts a few days later, I knew that my life was about to change, forever.

Those were some very tumultuous times. But you, Uncle Bill, were solid ground. You took all of us in, under your wing, and you made us feel safe and secure and welcome. You helped us to start over again. You showered us with your love and hospitality. You encouraged us. And you showed us, through your example, how a husband should cherish his wife and family, unconditionally.

Children and adults adore you. You were humble, gracious, patient, compassionate and kind. But if you saw something wrong, you were not afraid to speak up. Like the young man that you watched a judge try to sentence to jail because he could not afford to pay his fine. You not only spoke up, but you paid his fine and then told that young man, an absolute stranger to you, that the best way he could ever pay you back, would be to go forth and do something positive with his life. You believed in people and in doing so, you helped people to believe in themselves.

You had what can only be considered a God-given talent of making everyone feel special, like they were the most important person in the world. And whenever you would talk with someone, you were never distracted. You were always present in the moment. You nurtured relationships and created strong bonds and in doing so, you were an absolute gift to those who you cared about.

Uncle Bill, you are who I strive to be more like, every day.

You were a man with a dream and you lived that dream. There is no question you are the most successful man I have ever met. But what really defines success? Is it money or possessions or fame? In truth, it is none of the above.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote,
"To laugh often and much; To win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; To earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; To appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; To leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded."
Uncle Bill, you have done all of those things and more.

So you have not only succeeded in life, you have thrived.

Your daughter Margaret called me at sunrise on Wednesday to tell me that you had left us. But Uncle Bill, you haven't really left us. You will never leave us. You will always be a part of any one's life that you have touched. When I hugged you tightly just last month and told you that I loved you, you smiled and warmly said, "I know, Dear. I know you, do. Thank you for that."

Uncle Bill, if I had been emotionally able, I would have said, "No. Thank You."

Thank you for the goodness that you always showed to me and especially, the kindness that you always showed to my mother. Thank you for taking us in and making us a part of your family. Thank you for looking out for me, and my siblings, as we grew up. Thank you for taking me pony shopping when I was nine-years-old in your yellow MGB. Thank you for being a shining example of what I should look for in a husband. Thank you for being my advocate and my friend and my motivation. Thank you for being at the finish line.

No one lives forever. But Uncle Bill, you will forever live in my heart.

Finally. I know that Uncle Bill would want for me to tell you: Thank you, to each and every one that is gathered here today. Thank you so very much for coming to remember him, for being here to support his family, for sharing in his life and for being his friend.

Now go forth and enjoy your day.

Go forth and enjoy your life.

Put the ones you love, before all else.

And if anyone ever tries to hit you in the head with a pot, run like the wind.


  1. Jen, this is beautiful. What a gift to your Aunt Grace.

  2. Oh my God, I love your Uncle Bill. You and your family are so lucky to have this man in your lives. You are so right, he will live on in each and everyone of the people he touch the lives of. This has me in floods of tears. Fair play to you for writing this so well and for having the courage to say in at the funeral. My thoughts and prayers go out to you all.

  3. WOW!! This was absolutely the best eulogy I've ever read. I wish I had met your Uncle Bill : )

    Nice job -- and fantastic pictures.

    Have a great weekend!

  4. beautiful words. Uncle Bill sounds like he was an amazing man, and it would have been an honor to know him. You have truly honored him with your touching words. I'm sorry for your loss.

  5. Now you have started me all over again. You have captured him perfectly. This is how I remember him too. Beautiful Jen. Just beautiful.


  6. I know that your family must have loved this. It brought tears to my eyes, and I'm just a silly blog reader from Ohio. I know that your Uncle Bill blessed every life he ever came in contact with, and your family was very blessed to have him.

  7. That was absolutely beautiful; I've got tears in my eyes and goosebumps.

  8. Oh, such beautiful words, filled with honest love. We should all be so lucky to have an "Uncle Bill" in our lives. and thank you, since I am now sobbing in the airport.

  9. What a beautiful tribute. I feel like I knew him just from reading so much about him. You did a wonderful job honoring him, Jen.

  10. Beautifully said. Sure wish I knew your Uncle Bill and I'm sorry for family's your loss.

  11. Wonderful eulogy, Jen. Makes me wish for an extended family just like this one.

    KarenM in NC

  12. Oh my. This has me in tears again. What a wonderful Eulogy.

  13. What a great eulogy! You did an amazing job putting your feelings into words.

  14. Thank you for sharing your thoughts & thank you for having the fortitude to present these words to those in attendance.


  15. Jen, you're such a good writer. I know you already know this, but you are so lucky to have had your Uncle Bill in your life. When an uncle takes such an interest, I think there is something really grand about that.
    I've been mulling over your posts lately, about life decisions and all that. I haven't weighed in until now but I hope you'll "go for it" once you figure out what it is. I'm one that likes change and would tend to move if given the opportunity, to that place that I've been dreaming of.
    After infertility, I have the family I've always dreamed of and at 41 I feel like I finally know what it feels like to live for the day...I feel like I'm 'looking for the nectar rather than the pearl' to paraphrase your mother, and finally realizing what it means to get excited about now. The key for me is living for the moment/day but planning for the future. The TODAY show had a good segment the other day on women's happiness. It was quite good-I thought of you. We recently downsized our home-there are just 4 of us so we don't need as much space as you do but I cannot tell you how happy I am in a smaller home. I think there is something so wonderful about simplicity. Your recent post in which you stated that you don't have a problem in the world really resonated with me. Today, for instance, I get the whole day to myself as my husband took the kids on a day trip and while I so need the alone time...I feel like as long as they return safely to me...I cannot ask for more. Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

  16. Oh Dear Jen. How can I ever thank you for all that you have done? How can I thank your Mother for all the love and devotion she has given my family? How do I thank my own brothers and sisters and in-laws for loving each other and pulling together during our time of crisis? How do I thank my own Mother for being our pillar of strength? How do I thank extended family members and friends for being with us not only for the past weekend but for many many years of my Father's illness? How do I thank people whom I bearly know like Bridgette Lombarti and those whom I've never met like Amy Vile and Steph who have donated in my Father's name and sent cards of encouragement? How do I let each of those special people in our lives know how much they are adored and appreciated for being with us during a very difficult time and for sending their prayerful condolences?

    How do I thank my Father for all of the gifts and blessings that he gave to each one of us?

    I don't know how to show my appreciation? As so many times I feel that my words are not enough.(I can hear you now...telling me to donate). ;-)

    Through your words and actions once again you have honored my Father beautifully. In a way that all of us have wanted to do but due to the pain of loss we couldn't. You captured his spirit, his humor, his devotion and his love for each of us. You did what none of us could do. You spoke with Grace, dignity and poise. I knew you could do it. I always knew you would.

    As funny as it may seem I still feel my Father's presence and at times I hear his voice. Telling me to get up, to enjoy my day, and enjoy myself. I hope and pray that I never lose that part of him. I hope and pray that I will always feel him by my side, talking me through my day.

    There could never be enough said or given to you and others but Thank you my dearest cousin. Thank you for being a valuable member of our family. Thank you for always answering my calls- no matter what time of night and for calling me at midnight. Thank you for your encouragment. Thank you for having a blog and writing about my family and your memories with us. Thank you for bringing attention to cancer research. Thank you for being who you are and marrying that wonderful man. ;-)(Like I wanted you to do.)

    Mostly and more importantly thank you so much for being a dear friend.

    Love, Marg.

  17. So lovely Jen. Made me cry. Condolences to you all.

  18. wow, beautifully done..............

  19. I love reading your posts. You are an amazing writer and I truly enjoy reading about your family. What a blessing you were given to have your Uncle Bill in your life! I know that your own children will continue to reap the rewards of his influence in your life. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  20. That was beautiful. Truly.

    I wrote one for my grandpa when he passed, but I had to have someone else read it. (He passed a week before my son was born, so I wasn't able to fly in.)

    I'm glad you were able to go.

    ps. what you did with the flowers in the post below was amazing. That is the sort of thing, people appriciate, but don't think about doing in a time like that.

  21. beautiful. thank you for sharing with us, and allowing us to take a small part of your Uncle Bill into our lives.

  22. Beautiful, beautiful tribute.

  23. That was beautiful. I'm definitely crying. You have such a lovely way with words. He really sounds like the most wonderful man.

  24. Wow! Thank you for sharing your Uncle Bill with all of us, Jen. This post is so wonderful, sincere & heartfelt. It made me tear up & thank my lucky stars for the people in my life that I love too.

    Thank you, Jen!

  25. Jen:
    That was beautiful. I'm sitting here with tears in my eyes. It is easy to see how much you love and will miss your Uncle Jim.

    The world is a better place because your Uncle Jim was here.

    I am truly sorry for you and your family's loss.

    Warmest wishes ~
    Jessica (JLD from the Board)

  26. Jen, that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. I can imagine sitting in the church listening to these astounding words with tears running down my cheeks. Tears of sadness, tears of loss, tears of joy and tears of love. As a matter of fact as I sit here reading it there are tears running down my cheeks.

    You did yourself and your Uncle Bill proud.

  27. Beautiful :*) Rest in peace, Uncle Bill.

  28. I don't know you or your family but I am sitting here sobbing like a baby. Your Uncle was so amazing and just a wonderful human being!

    What a blessing he was! I dreamed of having a father like this growing up, but sadly that never happened.

    I am truly sorry for your loss, your family is in my prayers.

  29. Absolutely beautiful! What an honor to your Uncle Bill. Thank you for sharing. You are wonderful writer and I always enjoy reading your posts.

  30. Dear Jen,

    I am just returning from vacation and reading about Uncle Bill. What a blessing it was that he could cheer you and Margaret on for your marathon this past summer. I know I was right there cheering for him to make the trip and for both of you to finish.

    It's a gift (and maybe a curse at times!) to be such a talented writer, but I know you gave your family the greatest gift of all, by honoring him with such a stirring eulogy.

    My heartfelt sympathy to all of Uncle's Bill's family.