I had the good fortune to attend TWO amazing funerals in the past three weeks. Yes, I just said “good fortune” and “amazing”, both in regards to funerals. They were so very different, but so very similar. In both cases, I was late to the dance. I only knew these two men for the past 20 years, while mourning family members had shared many more years and memories. Their losses are deeper than mine, but their lives are richer because of the time they spent with their dear and departed loved ones.
Dennis Warner was my sister-in-law’s brother-in-law. What, what? Yes, not the most direct relationship, but he was a frequent visitor at our Thanksgiving celebrations, and in those annual gatherings, I was privileged to share conversations that I can guarantee you I will never share with another. Dennis was a hippie to the day he died, wearing bell bottom pants right into 2013. Peace and love, baby. English teacher first, then in retirement radio DJ on his own morning show in Ellenville, Dennis was a master of conversation, of engaging the human with whom he spoke, of letting you know he listened and cared about your opinion. Dennis’ college-age son eulogized him, a stunning tribute to a man who touched so many lives. He started off by pointing to the casket and saying, “Was this the coolest cat you ever met, or what?” He then related the disconcerting situation he faced many times as a middle schooler and in high school, when he would arrive home to find his friends there, hanging out with his dad as they waited for him to arrive. He was never quite sure who they really came to see.
John Ziamandanis was my husband’s uncle. He was Athletic Director at Linton High School in Schenectady. Uncle Johnnie loved athletics and competition, but more importantly, he loved being around kids, many of whom were at the calling hours to pay their respects. He not only taught and coached at Linton, but he was a mentor for the kids at his school. And jokes? Uncle Johnnie loved joking, laughing, and most of all, pranking. He was the master of planned laughs, and had inside jokes with all of his grandchildren, nieces and nephews. Someone coined this past week as “My Big Fat Greek Funeral”. Family gathered almost every evening for meals, to tell stories, to shed a few tears, and to raise the occasional toast to Uncle Johnnie. After four days of gatherings, and then the funeral and the burial, we gathered at St. Sophia’s church for the traditional makaria, a fish dinner shared with family and friends. After the makaria, we were still reluctant to leave. We lingered, we did the traditional kiss-absolutely-everyone-goodbye-once-or-twice, and we then started new conversations with friends and family. Eventually, my husband’s generation of cousins, 18 of us, moved to Martel’s restaurant. We thought we would just have coffee and maybe a beer, but we lingered and laughed, and reminisced.
Two funerals, two very different rituals, but two men who effected change and affected so many around them.
I left Dennis Warner’s funeral with a lesson on humanity and the value of human interaction. Look at the person speaking to you. Don’t judge. Just listen. Engage. It allows you to see into that person and connect on a base level that cannot happen if you are multitasking, texting or interrupting. Peace and love, baby.
I left Uncle Johnnie’s funeral with a lesson on love and family. Uncle Johnnie married his high school sweetheart, Tina. She will tell you that she fell in love with him when she was 12, and continued falling in love with him for the more than 60 years they were married. The testament to Uncle Johnnie’s parenting: his children loved him so much that as his health declined, they stepped in each and every day and helped care for him, never complaining about how it might be putting them out. The extensive relations of family and friends that did not want to go home was a tribute to just how far Uncle Johnnie’s love and laughter reached into the community.
Surprisingly, or maybe not, the message in both homilies was the same: Do something! See this example? Follow it! Talk to someone. Connect. Share. Laugh. Love.
One person DOES indeed make a big difference in this world.
It has been a powerful three weeks here.