A Eulogy

Before I share the whole saga of Dad's final weeks in the hospital, I'll shoot to the end of the story and share the eulogy I wrote and delivered at his burial on Cemetery Lane at the end of that week of funeral festivities. He helped me write it before he left.

July 12, 2022

20220712 848am brandt st kitchen table, post-schenley walk, pre-run, listening to the cement men work outside and asking schenley to wait just a little more for me to take her to the park


I’ve written the story of this final, devastating yet admittedly impressive month with my Dad, and as I hoped it would be, it’s been very helpful to write it all down. I’ll share it all here by splitting it into digestible chunks over the next week or something, so it’s not too long – but first I’m going to skip to the end of the story by sharing the eulogy I wrote. Mom called it a “Message of Hope” in the invite to the burial, I should ask her why. Maybe the word eulogy is too on the nose. Maybe it's a religious thing? Anyway, allow me to give you context and paint a picture of me delivering this speech, in my wedding dress (it’s a great dress, I’ve been hoping I could wear it again) and my white Reeboks, on top of a hill on Cemetery Lane:


The week of funeral festivities is over. I was pretty grateful my mom and sister have worked hundreds, maybe thousands of funerals during their organist careers because they were in their element, they knew all the stuff to do. I can imagine that’s rough for other people who aren't around the funeral industry a lot. The day Dad died we three went pretty immediately to meetings at the funeral home and cemetery, to decide things like the poem on the collectible Christian funeral home cards, and check on Mom's balance towards paying for the plots. Let me tell you, everyone clears their schedule for you when your spouse/dad has died. We soared through those meetings. Then we ate at Bravo!, which became a theme this week and I hope I don't forever associate with tragedy, because their salmon is beautiful.


Then we had the visitation two days later, a few blocks from my house at a funeral home I’ve passed thousands of times and again I hope I one day I no longer associate with this time. (I'm discounting myself: I am passionate about learning about the topic of trauma/PTSD, which this totally falls under the umbrella of, and I've been really lucky to benefit from EMDR in therapy before, so I'm sure I'll be fine with these triggers one day if I put in the work, which I'm willing to do.) Fun fact, when my dad was a radio DJ in Michigan, at one point on air he said someone was getting “laid out” at a funeral home, and then after his segment they got all these calls into the station of horrified people asking what on earth that meant – because apparently this is some kind of colloquial phrase here in Pittsburgh or Pennsylvania or something, and getting “laid out” conjures a different visual for people not from around here. I think everyone else just calls it a viewing, I'm going to keep using it though, it's a little funny, admit it.


When my dad was laid out for those five long viewing hours, I spent a good deal of time in the secret back room family lounge that I deemed the "cryroom"; it was an eerily fake kitchen that seriously had to be some showroom model they got for a discount. All the cabinets were empty or filled with random office supplies, and the fridge had one poor soul’s soggy, forgotten lunchbox. During the viewing, someone gifted us a pineapple upside down cake (only one of dozens of treats that week, which is worth mentioning because sharing food is another interesting, massive grieving custom that....works. It definitely works, it helps.), and after I put it down on a table in the cryroom to take home later, a funeral home guy chased me down to tell me that no food is allowed to be eaten here, which is only funny because like I said that room was made to look like a kitchen, of all things, and there were signs everywhere saying that food and drink was *only allowed in the lounge*. Why hang those signs at all? None of us were jonesing to chow down at the moment anyway, sir. Mom said it might be a law in PA not to allow food in a funeral home? I’m not looking that up, feel free to @ me.


Here’s the thing – little mundane or hilarious details like pineapple-upside-cake-policemen are actually nice distractions from the dozens of hugs and deep conversations that are part of the mourning process, but also too personal and too heavy to give justice to in a write like this. Suffice it to say, so many people came to the funeral home and all these festivities (I’m going to keep using that word) that I know for a fact that it made some of my family members think about their own legacy they're leaving behind. Deep stuff. I’ve lived in that carpe-diem, live-like-you’re-dying-and-every-conversation-is-the-last state of mind since Dad got sick when I was little, so welcome to our fulfilling and deep club! It's a pretty helpful place to be - a lot less guilt and regret over here (usually)! Final note on the funeral home: Thank you to everyone who came to talk to me, it meant a lot, and thank you to the makeup industry for selling me waterproof eyeliner and mascara my entire life, because it finally paid off swimmingly.


Monday, July 4, the next day (another patriotic trigger to work on in EMDR), I wrote a song in the procession line parade from the funeral home to the church the next day, with my little antique map-covered Macbook on my lap in the car. It's called "Pop Quiz", and it'll make sense when I share the whole story later, it became an important repeating conversation between Dad and me at the hospital in his few weeks. The funeral was at Assumption, the same church where Dad and us sisters went to grade school, and where he took us to the OG cryroom for mass. That’s also the church whose incredibly painted, vaulted ceiling taught me at a young age that Catholicism has got a wildly large penchant for personifying God to look like an old caucasian man, which I later found out was a history lesson in the influence of Greek art on religion at the time (God’s modeled after Zeus), but I want to give little Emily credit for wondering why God looked like Dzia Dzia (our polish version of grandpa). Very observant, past me. During the funeral, I stared up at that same old white man painting, and also the mosaic stork thing I always liked, and listened to a homily where the priest actually cared to learn about Dad instead of using a cookie cutter template for his speech. Thank you, so much. He started with a Joe joke, one that my dad actually did say at the hospital: “Where’s the worst place in the hospital to play hide and seek? The ICU.” Afterwards we went to the wake at my aunt’s house, which is just a party where we're supposed to feel normal and happy any time it's possible to do so. Grieving customs look so strange but they do help. It’s hard to explain.


At the end of the week, on Friday, we buried Dad’s ashes. We got to add momentos to a white plastic box they daringly called a vault. It got glued shut with E600 they left in the box in the first place, leading everyone to spend the service wondering who put the E600 in there? Joe must've really liked that glue, right? A guitarist singer/songwriter from the Harmony Sun, the cool folk group my dad played drums/congas/bongos in when he was in high school, played “Amazing Grace, My Chains are Gone” (just texted my sister to confirm this, it’s “a modern version of Amazing Grace with bridges in the middle of the verses”, which is indeed exactly how my prodigal musician sister would describe it.) Then the Deacon read some good ‘ol sing-song Catholic readings from an old crispy book.

Then I got up to give this eulogy and fought off a beetle that I yelped at because I thought it was a bee, which I later found out landed in my hair to get a front row seat for my entire speech, before we all went to Bravo! to eat that salmon with the asparagus and pesto that my mom and I are now nuts about, and some pretty solid tiramisu.

Here's the eulogy I wrote for him, from him:

Dad's perfect bitmoji, from early 2022.

Dad's "Message of Hope"

"I’m going to start with some reminiscing, and then I will indeed give us all a 'message of hope'.

Joe Jokes. Fishing. His boats. Playing rummy and cribbage. Poker parties. Sharing music from his radio DJ days. Theater lighting. DJ-ing high school dances with his first business, Big Bird DJing. Playing the congas and bongos in the Harmony Sun, and the snare in the Bellevue drum corps. Playing the steering wheel with drumsticks as he waited for us to finish our shifts at Bruster's Ice Cream so he could drive us home. Driving us and our friends to dances, or cooking us breakfast after sleepovers, dressed up as a chauffeur/French chef named Pierre. Coming to our sports games and concerts, often treating us to McDonald’s afterwards. His love for Steelers and Pitt football. His custom toyboxes, coat racks, and wedding clocks with our names on them. All the furniture he made everyone in the family. Then, the “Brighton Boutique” furniture store that his shop on the North Side became for all of us when we needed something. Pepsi Zero. Chocolate Ice Cream. Watermelon and Cantaloupe. Grilling Sausage. Whistling to call and feed his bird friends on our back patio. How he wouldn’t kill his spider friends in the basement. His pet bunny, Autumn. How perfectly accurate his bitmoji was. How he really liked using FaceTime and we could call him up just to chat, anytime we wanted.

His generosity. He was always eager to spend his free time helping us all with home projects, and he was so patient teaching us how to learn to fix things ourselves. He really cared that we understood. His monthly donations to fighting hunger with Northside Common Ministries, Light of Life. He loved gift-giving – especially the exchange with his siblings on Christmas. However, Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday over Christmas because, quote, “People are more important than things.” The way he was always there when we needed him, with his full attention and support. The two lullabies he sang us children every night, one of which he wrote himself that simply says “*insert name of child* I love you, *insert name of child*, I do, everything’s gonna be okay, *insert name of child*.” And how that low, warm voice *always* said I love you without hesitation, with a big hug.

And his many, many quotes: Right tool for the job. Life is an either/or. Everything happens for a reason. There’s always someone worse off than you. Life is simple, just get up and do the best you can every day. I bought cars for less than that. There but for the grace of God go I. Just because people have nice things doesn't mean they have money. Cleaning has a dollar value. It’s time or money: the more you have of one the less you need of the other. People are more important than things. Emily, stop fighting with Amanda, she’s the only sister you’re ever gonna have. Love must conquer hate. Love is the answer. Everything’s gonna be okay.

Multiple times a year we’d ask Dad “What do you want for Father’s Day? (or) your birthday? (or) Christmas?” And he’d say, "For you to be happy." And we'd groan and say, "No, we want to buy you something!" But that's always what he really wanted for the holidays – and it’s what he wants now. He communicated this to me in his final breaths, our final two-minute conversation before he passed away at Shadyside Hospital at 342am last Friday.

I had been holding his hand all night, deejaying our shared 13-hour Spotify playlist on a freshly bought bluetooth speaker, and even though he couldn’t literally talk back at this point, we communicated the way we had the past the two weeks in the hospital – sometimes full conversations, but other times just body language or something else. He was struggling but still holding on, like he was waiting for something.

A nurse came in at 340am and when she left, I said “That nurse was pretty loud, I bet you’re definitely awake now” and I told him I wanted to take the opportunity to bring up something I’d been thinking about for a couple hours now, ever since I found an old text message conversation of ours while scrolling through my phone. In February he texted to tell me he finished the book I’d lent him, East of Eden by John Steinbeck, and he didn’t really like it. Surprised, I asked why. He said he didn’t like how when the father figure, Samuel Hamilton, died, the whole family “fell apart”, as he put it.

Now, if you’ve never read East of Eden, it’s massive. It’s got many overlapping storylines, and Samuel’s death was important but not really the most important part of the book. I had asked him to read the book because I wanted his take on other parts of it, but this was the part he zero-ed in on. When Dad said Samuel’s family “fell apart” it looked liked this: Samuel’s wife loses a lot of purpose, two children tragically die, and the other kids kinda drift apart. It’s kind of a mess.

When he texted me back in February, I didn’t get it. But it clicked for me this night. Dad was bothered by this aftermath because he must have related to the character of Samuel, obviously (I mean  - he was a ringer in the strength, wisdom, and beard departments) and while Samuel’s ideas and values lived on in peoples’ memories, his superpowers weren’t really harnessed by his wife and kids after he died, at least not as much as he probably would’ve liked. They didn’t really practice all the love he preached, in the moment they needed to practice it - instead, they mourned the loss pretty endlessly.

So, at 341am, I told him that I’m sorry for crying right now, but I’m going to figure out a way to be okay with him dying, if it helps him move on right now, if that’s what he needs to do. I’m going to figure it out. One day, I’ll nail it. And I’ll help Mom and my siblings figure it out too – I promised that I would help us all figure it out so we weren’t “fallen apart’ like the Hamiltons. I promised him we’d be okay. Then his breath slowed down, so I called my Mom on speaker phone, and as she said goodbye, he left, peacefully, holding my hand.

So, here I am, telling you the “message of hope” that in his final minutes I promised him I’d deliver. It was what he needed to hear from me, from us, before he could pass on. Joe Plazek wants everyone to be okay. He does not want anyone here to fall apart. As he lives on in our memories, this is what you need to remember:

Every time you think of his memory happily and don’t tear up with missing him, that’s a victory, you’ve made him happy. On the flip side, every time you tear up at his memory, that’s okay too, be kind to yourself until a better day comes. Every time you practice one of his many truism quotes, instead of simply remembering it, bingo, he’s smiling. And every time you feel like maybe you’re a little bit okay with him being gone, hold onto that moment and do not let guilt pull you away – Dad knows what actual love is. It’s being stronger than fear, putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and not passing judgement, and it’s a lot about letting go. And he loves each of you so much.

Love must conquer hate. Love is the answer. Everything’s gonna be okay. And, last night I had a dream that I was eating the world's biggest marshmallow... and when I woke up my pillow was gone."

*May I also take a moment to applaud myself for not cracking and waiting to cry until after the speech, because all my music performance and forensics speech-giving muscles know that an audience is no longer able to sink into their own experience if they're worried about the person performing being able to get through it. You get all on edge, both worried and kind of excited about the person messing up more, we all know this. Thanks for allowing me to brag, I focused very intently on this detail. Okay, I'll be back later with the hospital story.


Return to my notebook.