When a devotee of language-- a writer, a speaker, a communication scholar-- dies, the most fitting tribute is one made of words. Last night, Curt's friends, family, and BUST family paid lovely verbal homage to a singularly wonderful man.
Before I go any further, I need you to know that this grief I am carrying isn't really mine. It's borrowed, I guess from my friends and family members whose lives were touched more often by Curt. But that's not accurate, really, because this grief fits; I've already worn it, and I can't give it back to anyone. Everyone I know has more than enough of their own. So I guess it is mine.
Before I walked into the funeral home last night where ushers were bringing in maroon upholstered chair after maroon upholstered chair and setting up padded row after padded row for people who poured in thick and fast filling up the guest book before staff members could add more pages, I thought I was attending the service to support my little brother, who was eulogizing his childhood friend. I was there, too, to support my own friends from college and my brother's college friends who were on the Bradley University Speech team with Curt, who coached him, who lived with him, who loved him so much. I was there to support my brother and his cohort, who have grown from boys who wore suits to give speeches on the weekends into grown ups who shrug on the mantle of manhood with their jackets every morning and carry briefcases to work and haven't started to go bald yet and who will soon be the elders who tackle the problems of our nation-- these men who just a few years ago were boys with mops of hair and torn jeans who listened to shit like 311. And a few years before that these guys were kids who needed to be driven to each other's houses so they could play Mega Bomber Man and solve Zelda.
Anyway, I thought, bravely applying DiorShow Blackout instead of waterproof mascara, we came into to town to support these boys who had to figure out how to take the measure of the man they lost in a tragic, awful accident last week. An accident that could happen to anyone but was so unspeakable, I'm not sure it has ever happened before.
Then I walked into the place and saw his high school graduation gown with its Class President 2002 shawl. His Eagle Scout uniform. The laminated certificates proclaiming him the winner of the Pekin High All School Writing Contest and a valued member of the yearbook staff. His AFA and NFA trophies. Team pictures from when he competed in Odyssey of the Mind and his old OM teammates staring at these photos reflectively.
A slideshow of pictures played on a huge LCD screen on the wall. One of Curt as a fat little baby drinking a bottle in his mother's arms. And then there was his mother, shaking an endless line of hands in the front of the room, and she looked so much like her 1983 self, a little older, sure, but too young to stand crying next to all those pots of flowers. That picture faded into one of toddler Curt proudly smiling on a brown plaid sofa, his chubby legs sticking straight out in front of him. In his outstretched arms rested his tiny baby sister who was wearing a lacy little bonnet, and you could see his mom's arm in the picture, steadying the baby. On her arm was a hospital bracelet, as if the first thing she did upon arriving home was take a picture of her two children together, and I have that same picture of my arm with Harry and Jack taken in a similar moment of joyous homecoming. Curt, then, as a curly-haired preschooler, and a grade school boy whose teeth were too big for his smile. This was the kid who met my brother in 4th grade and roomed with him freshman year at Bradley and stayed his friend all through college and beyond. They were awkward middle-schoolers together and high school speech teammates after that.
I sobbed all over his sister in the receiving line, surprising myself and making her cry, too (nice of her, really, to cry over the grief of a stranger; how long before the grief of those you don't know overwhelms you, do you think?) because his death-- such a horrible accident-- could happen to anybody's brother.
7 people spoke about Curt last night, and after hearing all of these speeches, all accompanied by sniffles, sobs, and nose-blowing from the crowd (and what a crowd! At least 300 people from all over the country-- and those were just the people who stayed for the service. Many, many more streamed through the visitation, and more still are coming to Peoria tonight for a Bradley event in his honor), I think it is actually some kind of elitist bullshit that we preach against cliches to our public speaking students (we in the general sense, not indicting any tradition or school of thought). Many of the speakers last night had no more delicate instruments than cliches in their inventional toolbox and still their words brought comfort and tears to the assembled mourners.
His scoutmaster, so proud of his Eagle Scout brother, asked all the Eagle Scouts in the room to stand up, and the sight of these men in their work clothes sharing a moment in honor of one of their own made me cry harder than the pages of the scout diary written by a 16 year-old Curt that the scoutmaster read. His favorite high school English teacher shared a dark poem he wrote his senior year. His prom date reminded the audience that he spent his hard-earned money to buy her exactly the roses she wanted: white with red tips. A young local man spoke on behalf of all of his childhood friends and stood at the podium with a group of fidgeting guys behind him, all of whom wiped their cheeks and their noses on their sleeves. My brother remembered him as a hater of pimentos, a kid who was the first in fourth grade to sprout armpit hair, as an existentialist who left behind an ache and a void. His college roommate flew in from North Carolina and swore he would have been spending last night in Pekin even if had awoken that day in Singapore because he would never miss the chance to say goodbye to this friend. His (and my) college speech coach deftly fulfilled the generic conventions of a eulogy and offered lovely solace to his family. And a couple more college friends said some words, one of whom served as master of ceremonies. This guy was a gangly, rabble-rousing speech camper in 2000, when Curt and my brother were campers and Ben and I were staffers. I know that he is grown up now, married to his speech camp sweetheart, a lawyer, even. But I didn't realize that this guy-- all of those kids we used to know-- were really men until I saw them standing, suited and speaking controlled words of comfort. It's all right, their straight backs and shined shoes told us. We're taking care of everything.
Thank God for my old friend Chrys who walked up to me at the bar after the service and said "Oh my god. None of the speakers came to get their ballots after the round."
Thank goodness, also, that I am such a lightweight and could get drunk from one and a half Heinekens and could watch with a goofy grin as my little brother and his high school friends drank shots for their missing teammate and the large, loud BUST family hunkered over buckets of beer bottles and baskets of battered food and made the evening an all-smoke.
Gathered at the Pekin Goodfellas last night, we had no bagpipes, but we were, as a BUST alum and once-Pekinite said on Facebook "a makeshift redneck honor guard."