EULOGY

St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, across the street from the campus, was still decked out from Christmas with pine wreaths and branches—and eighty-eight ceremonial candles, the female priest said. The altar was draped with yellow brocade, and, between two candles, gleamed a Bible that looked like it was made of embossed brass. I sat quite a few rows back, next to John and Karen, and tucked a packet of Kleenex in the rack next to the nearest prayer book.

The priest began by saying she hadn’t known Earl, that he’d never warmed the pews of St. Mark’s, but she’d learned from his family that he, too, was owned by an MG, which said something about his character—that he was someone who could live with uncertainty and contingency.

There were traditional hymns and responsive readings. Then Bonny—from Earl’s painting class—stood in the pulpit and, fighting back tears, read a eulogy that I’m including a portion of:

“I know that no words of mine can convey what we all felt about Earl as well as the outpouring of friendship, love, and sadness here among Earl’s friends and family, but I’d like to share with you some of my thoughts.

“Webster’s defines ‘gentleman’ as a courteous, generous, kind, gracious man with a strong sense of honor. All of us here today could give a far better definition—Earl Pierce. He lived his life with nobility and class, prompting his students to refer to him as the Earl of Berkeley. However, these qualities were combined with a profound modesty. As I wrote down these words I had to smile—I could hear me reading them to him and him saying, ‘What a splendid, marvelous man! Who are we talking about?’

“He taught for many, many years and had the unusual experience of remaining close to most of his students throughout his life. We recently had a birthday party for him and in early December our last field trip with him to the Museum of Modern Art. His teaching was marked by infinite patience and encouragement. He taught by example and was always ready to remind us just one more time of Hoffman’s famous maxim, ‘Symmetry is the enemy of art.’ Even when he truly despised something, he was gracious and full of humor. When I surprised the class by bringing in some chocolate raspberry coffee, which turned out to be gaggingly sweet, he merely took a sip, looked at me, and said, ‘Bonny, this coffee is preposterous.’

“He had a special affinity for children, having raised Billy and Kevin. Diana E. related a story about his drawing Christmas decorations for her boys with crayons because she didn’t have any ornaments for the tree. She also told another story about his taking them all out for dinner—to an ice cream parlor that served ice cream in a tub. He was loved and respected by my boys as well, and when I told my Kevin about his passing, he said, ‘I’m so sorry, Mom; he was always the most stand-up guy at our parties.’ Parties he never missed. And he gave some wonderful ones himself. Great Christmas parties—every July. He was a wonderful host and had such a special flair for cooking; he was probably the only person in the world that could get us to eat Brussels sprouts—and ask for seconds. And who could forget the famous Berkeley debutante ball—for the coming out of his restored Elva?

“One of Earl’s favorite books was Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine St. Exupery, and I would like to close with a fitting quote from that book written by the author upon the death of a close comrade.

“‘Bit by bit, nevertheless, it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this one garden is forever locked against us. And at that moment begins our true mourning.’

“Good-bye, Earl. We love you, we will miss you. You have truly honored us with your presence.

“Thumbs up—clear prop.” 

Like Earl, Bonnie was a pilot.

 

LINGERING

From A Patchwork Memoir:

I drove by Earl’s house a few days after his death, simply to begin to face the fact that he was no longer there. That was as much as I’d felt I could do, but then I saw someone in the window—a man, not Pippa—and thought I should push myself a little further, even though I felt wrung out, and introduce myself to Earl’s family, who had arrived from the east coast. As it turned out, his stepsons, Kevin and Billy, were there, as well as his sister, his niece, and several nephews, all gathered around the dining room table.

As they sipped wine and I drank root beer—noting that this time the mug wasn’t iced—Kevin reminisced that when he was five and first met Earl, he didn’t know which was more exciting—his MG or Earl himself. When he was seven, he said, Earl taught him the parts of a car, knowledge he was inordinately proud of, feeling it was his initiation into manhood. Billy recalled that when they went camping with his parents’ friends, the adults tried to outdo each other, bringing along outrageous things to eat—one time Dick Steinke fit a whole watermelon in his pack, filled with fruit salad marinated in champagne. Marian recounted how when Earl was a boy, their grandmother insisted he learn to play the violin. Instead of rehearsing, he used to sit at the very back of the orchestra, where no one could see what he was up to, his violin at his chin, furtively practicing tying Boy Scout knots underneath it. Needless to say, he never advanced to the chairs in front, she smiled, for the first and second violin.

Later Marian and I had a private conversation, and she showed me pictures of her daughter’s wedding that Earl drove across the country to attend last summer; it was held at White Lake, where there was no plumbing or electricity, so they’d installed two outhouses and decorated them with bridal wreaths.

“I once asked Earl if your parents had loved each other—if they’d had a good marriage,” I told her.

She looked up at me alertly. “What did he say?”

“Yes.”

She nodded in agreement, musing that it was too bad their parents hadn’t been able to set up housekeeping on their own—they would have been happier—but they’d had to live with her father’s parents and her mother’s twin sister, combining paychecks because it was the Depression.

“That’s just what Earl said,” I confessed. “He told me he used to retreat to his bedroom in the attic to draw to escape the tensions in the household.”

She nodded again. “He had the whole third floor to himself.”

At one point she reminisced about their father having four heart attacks in his early fifties, the first one on his way home from work. He’d sat on the steps of the train station, trying to muster his strength, while overhearing the derisive comments of passersby about the drunk on the steps. He’d made it home, but later at the hospital the doctors had said he wouldn’t live through the night. All their family and friends prayed for him, she told me, and the next morning the doctors were astonished to find him recovering.

“Earl said he brought your dad a set of paints while he was in the hospital—and that he always felt good about that. He thought they gave your father something to live for.”

“I think they did,” she agreed. “He was in the midst of finishing a painting of the Adirondacks when he had his fourth heart attack. By that time, though, everyone in the family was praying for God to take him, he’d been through so much.”

She went on to reminisce about their father’s sisters, four maiden aunts who’d had a house on Cape Cod. Alma and Minnie contracted TB as young women and recovered at the Trudeau Sanitarium; then Alma went on to become a pioneer in the field of occupational therapy.

“Earl used to tell me how Gladys would insist everyone go out when a storm was coming because she wanted to be right in the thick of it,” I commented.

I knew how much Earl had admired his aunts, who were all strong women, and how he’d loved the childhood summers he spent with them on the Cape, where they treated him like a little prince.

I found myself lingering for hours, even though I was exhausted, afraid of missing something, some bit of conversation or memory about Earl that I wouldn’t then have to cherish—as though leaving his family that evening meant losing parts of Earl I could never retrieve.

 

NEW YEAR’S PARTY

John had been worried that some of the people Earl invited to his New Year’s party would show up at his house New Year’s Day, and, not knowing about his death, would descend on his sister Marian and her kids, who’d flown in from the East to make the funeral arrangements. So it was decided that any stragglers would be sent on to Karen’s house.

I found Karen living in a snug little apartment alongside a creek down near San Pablo Avenue—she’d gained weight since I saw her last, and hobbled. “I hurt my leg last night, doing a jig,” she explained. When we hugged, she didn’t let go for a long time.

I stuffed myself with comfort food—my own Pepperidge Farm cookies—while we reminisced about Earl. She’d been his neighbor at one time and helped host the strawberry-champagne brunches he used to hold at his house for everyone on the block. In the years she’d worked at the Produce Center, she’d invited me too—but because I didn’t really know Earl then, I never went. “He was always there for me,” she choked. “When my car broke down somewhere, he’d come to the rescue, tinker with it, and get it going. When I’d complain to him I was down in the dumps”—she couldn’t help half-smiling—“he’d suggest I streak across campus—or the Golden Gate Bridge.”

She told me the story of their community bath almost thirty years ago, how she’d come home from work one night and found Earl in her bathtub with a glass of wine—her sister and Setsko (Earl’s Japanese girlfriend) scrubbing his back. “Be careful with the stemware!” she’d shouted, thinking he was going to drop the glass in the tub and cut himself up. Then they’d all taken turns lathering each other up.

Later, when John showed up with cheese and champagne, we drank toasts to Earl and our friendships with him. Ed and Kay, also Earl’s neighbors, arrived next and joined the carousing. Kay said when Earl used to drive by their house in his MG, he’d throw up both hands exuberantly, his scarf flying in the breeze—which reminded me that Earl always claimed he was hounded by the police whenever he was out in the MG, his theory being that they just couldn’t stand to see someone having such a good time.

John said when he tried to hug Earl, he would stiffen up, which surprised me. Maybe Earl was just uncomfortable embracing men, I thought, because he and I always gave each other big bear hugs at greeting and parting. I often took his arm when we walked. And once in a while, he’d reached out his hand and we’d strolled hand-in-hand. “Pippa thought we were lovers,” Earl had told me one morning over breakfast at Fat Apple’s. “That doesn’t surprise me,” I’d said. “I suppose on some plane we are,” he’d mused.

John went on to say he knew Earl really loved Moira, his first wife, and he wanted to try to find her on the web—that he’d always wanted to meet her. The talk turned to how private a man Earl was, how he didn’t share his feelings—and John wondered aloud why their marriage failed. I realized I was the only one who knew at least some of the details. I told them the part I felt free to—about Moira abandoning painting and trying to get her Ph.D. in English at Cal, flunking her Ph.D. orals because she was so nervous, and becoming depressed. The rest I kept to myself.

Later Karen’s son and daughter arrived with their respective girlfriend and boyfriend. They’d gotten a reservation at the Long Life vegetarian restaurant for anyone who wanted to come, they said. The party broke up, and, as we were all leaving, Karen’s son remembered how, when he was little, he used to go knocking on Earl’s door at 8:00 in the morning, wanting to play with his pinball machine—and how Earl had never chided him or sent him away.

“Earl was one of the finest human beings I’ve ever met,” Kay said, but she was only expressing what every one of us felt.

BESIDE MYSELF

From A Patchwork Memoir

The Friday after Earl’s death, I was beside myself with grief. As the TV screen lit up with fireworks going off all around the world in celebration of the new millennium, I felt all the light had gone out of my life and, at moments, felt like I wanted to die too. Saturday I talked to Earl non-stop in my head, trying to ward off the pain of loss. Sunday I stumbled around stunned and disoriented, barely able to do the simplest, most routine things. One morning in the wee hours I thought, “Grieving over a sudden loss is like being shot out of a cannon. You’re so mangled by the impact that you can barely pick yourself up, and you’ve landed so far afield that you no longer recognize where you are.” Another morning I thought, “When you lose someone you love, you’re drastically displaced, like a pendulum swinging from a new center of gravity—wildly into grief, then wildly back into a false sense of normalcy, as you struggle to recover your equilibrium. Gradually, over time, your feelings lose momentum. With each swing into grief, your pain is less, but with each swing back, your former sense of normalcy is less too, so that you finally come to rest in a new place.”

At the Friday meditation a week later, when Sara suggested we might have something we wanted to say to our Higher Power, my grandmother Marie appeared in my mind—and beside her was Earl. “No!” I cried to Earl. “I don’t want you over there! I need you here—with me!” “OK,” he shrugged, in his characteristically genial and laid-back way. “I’m in no hurry.” (It occurred to me then that in eternity, he wouldn’t be.) “I’ll hang around as long as you want.” I thought of all the times we’d been in restaurants and I’d pored over the menu trying to decide on what to order, as though I had to make the very best choice, as though I’d never get another chance. “We can come back here another time, you know,” he’d tease me. He could never understand my sense of urgency.

The other evening when I was taking a TV tray with my supper into the living room, I saw him in my head, from behind, as though he’d just turned to walk away from me at my front door at parting—as a teenager he’d been the smallest boy in his class and as a young man he’d been slender, but in later age, he’d acquired a sturdy girth that I liked. “Don’t go!” I thought. Then I imagined stepping into him, merging with him, so that from then on I could carry him inside me—could see the world, in part, through his eyes and experience things, in part, as he would have.

AS CLOSE AS I CAN

Two days ago, just as I finished writing about my Christmas Eve with Earl, our dreadful buzzer, a travesty of a doorbell, snarled at me. I never answer the door when I’m not expecting someone, because I have to go out to the foyer of the apartment building and look through one of the narrow windows on either side of the door to see who’s there—they can see me too, of course, which doesn’t feel safe, since I’m often the only person in the building.

But the buzzer rang insistently, and, for whatever reason, I made an exception to my rule and went to answer it. It was John, a friend of Earl’s, who’d done some handiwork around our place a few years back. He told me he’d been driving all over the neighborhood trying to find my house—it’s been repainted and the two giant pines in front cut down since he was here, so he didn’t recognize it at first. He told me that Earl had died in the night.

                                                                             …

I remember I wailed and clung to him. When Ella got home, I paced back and forth between the kitchen and the bathroom, ranting and sobbing steadily for hours. I remember clutching my head and pounding the air with my fists, my stomach twisted up to the point of nausea—and I kept gasping for air.

Maybe Earl had given up on life, I keened. His leg had been bothering him since his fall last summer, and his painting arm ached so much he frequently couldn’t paint—sometimes even driving was difficult. He was losing his hearing too—he often had to ask me to repeat things, but kept putting off getting a hearing aid because he knew the trouble his friend George had with his.

Anguished, I felt I’d let him down these last months, that we hadn’t spent as much time together because I was so absorbed in writing my memoir—and even when we did go on outings, I was preoccupied. He’d asked me to drive across the country with him to visit his relatives on the East Coast last summer, but I refused because of my back. He’d suggested we take figure drawing at Studio One again, like we had a few years ago, but I said I wanted to stay focused on my writing.

He’d always kidded me before about being his “favorite niece,” but one evening recently he’d surprised me, saying if he were twenty years younger, he would have wooed me. Another afternoon, when I commented that I thought the week or two between my visits with Arielle seemed like a long time to her, he’d said, “They seem like a long time to me.” And Christmas Eve he’d reminisced about a passionate affair he’d had with one of his middle-aged students years before. “You know how it is when you can’t keep your hands off each other?” he’d said. “I miss that.”

Now I wept because I hadn’t been—wasn’t able to be—what it seemed he’d wanted me to be and at the same time because now I couldn’t tell him how much I cared about him. He would never read what I’d written about him in my memoir. He’d never see the illustrations I’ve been working on for Yesterday I Was Bad or Tired of Trying either—he’d asked me to show them to him, but I insisted on waiting until they were more developed. For years he’d kidded me that I’d better get rich and successful quick so he could visit me in my posh seaside house in Malibu. I’d had a fantasy that if I did sell some of my work, I’d take him to Europe to see all the great art he hadn’t had a chance to as a GI after WWII.

I didn’t know how I was going to go on without him, I lamented to Ella. I’d thought he’d live another twenty years he seemed so vital. He’d been the one friend I could call at a moment’s notice—when I needed a break from writing and drawing or when I was feeling low—and he always made time for me. If I phoned in the morning and invited him out for breakfast, he’d go with me even though he’d already had his—and order “anything with apple.” If he was outdoors tinkering with one of his MGs when I dropped by unexpectedly, he’d change out of his overalls and we’d go off on a spur-of-the-moment excursion.

He was my best friend in the world besides Ella, and the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father. He was the steadiest person I’ve ever known, his integrity absolute. He wouldn’t even let me pick some tomatoes, going rotten on the vine, in a stranger’s front yard a few weeks ago, I told Ella. “He was a rock,” John had said to me as we sat together on the sofa. And the one thing that had always astonished me about him was that it seemed to make him happy simply that I was happy. He would sit patiently on the beach while I cavorted in the waves or wait in the car along the road while I jumped out to take pictures. Along with Ella, he was my family—the one I spent my birthdays and Christmas Eves with. Only last week, he said to me at leave-taking, “You keep me young.”

I knew an era of my life had ended.

Why couldn’t you have waited, Earl? I thought. To share my success if I have any. Or to be a comfort to me if I don’t. We still had so many plans. We hadn’t had our ferry supper or gone flying with Bonny. We hadn’t dined at the French Laundry, which we stumbled upon on one of our outings. When they said they couldn’t seat us, we thought it was because we looked so disheveled—we didn’t know they were one of the most famous restaurants in the country and were always booked for months in advance. We hadn’t even made it to the aboriginal art exhibit at the De Young that closes in two weeks.

Late in the evening, when I was calmer, I called Pippa and asked how Earl had died.

She said they’d been watching TV the night before, and he’d seemed relaxed and content. Later she’d gone bowling, and when she’d gotten back he was still up, so they’d chatted about her evening, then gone to bed at their usual time. At 8:30 the next morning, the cats were up, but Earl wasn’t. She didn’t want to knock on his door because once he’d gotten miffed at her for waking him up, even though it was out of concern. So she went off to her boyfriend’s, then told him she realized she was going to be anxious all day if she didn’t check on Earl—so they went back. She found him lying on his back in bed, his eyes closed, one leg slightly hanging over the side, as though he’d started to get out of bed. The coroner said when he arrived later that he thought Earl had probably died around midnight the night before. I asked if he’d seemed depressed, but she said, “Oh, no!—he was excited about his New Year’s party Saturday.” The one thing she said that troubled me was that sometimes he’d seemed a little lonely. “I’m so glad he’s had you living there, Pippa,” I told her.

Later I reminded myself of all the good things Earl had going in his life. Although he’d been retired for several years, he still did critiques with his two painting classes each month—they both gave him a big 75th birthday bash in November, one of them ordering him a cake shaped like an artist’s palette. He still went on all the MG Club outings, as well as cross-country trips. He hosted parties, and the holidays he didn’t spend with me, he spent with Rita and John, or George and Pam, who all welcomed him as one of the family…

I took a Dalmane that night to knock me out but woke up around 5:00 anyway. To ward off grief, I pleaded over and over until I fell asleep again, “Please stay with me, Earl. Don’t go. Please stay with me. Don’t go. Please stay with me…”

                                                                            …

Yesterday, when my grief threatened to become beyond bearing, I told myself, I know you didn’t give up, Earl, I know you didn’t choose to die. You would never have left me alone on purpose—you cared too much about me to cause me to suffer. You would never have left your sister, Marian, who’s been having strokes and needs you too. I know you would have chosen to live—to take me to Cape Cod and buy me my first lobster dinner, to write the account of your childhood Marian’s been asking you to, to put together your “Beautiful California” album. The frontispiece, you told me on Christmas Eve, would be the picture I took of you at twilight, sitting in your MG on the way back from Point Reyes, the empty highway curving up behind you like a ribbon. You would have chosen to live to see your book on painting published and your step-grandson, Jesse, grow up.

And I won’t believe you’re gone altogether. I won’t! I’ll believe you’re still with me, even if it doesn’t make any logical sense, even if I can’t explain to myself how you could be. I’ll believe you’re still here, and I’ll continue to talk to you as though you were. I’ll finish my memoir and tell what I know of your story.

“What do you do when someone you love dies?” I asked Annee yesterday. “You hold them close, as close as you can,” she said. And I will, Earl. With all the power of mind and heart, I will.