©2013 Keith McWalter
Why should eulogies be reserved for those we’ve lost? We should offer them while those we love and admire are still with us….
We are gathered to honor the unique life and powerful spirit of Courtney Wilson McWalter.
The facts of her life are simple but revealing: born Courtney Hawley Wilson, she grew up in Oklahoma as the daughter of Jack, a hardworking insurance executive, and Adelaide, a feisty, funny, beautiful woman of means. Nurtured by black nannies, as was typical in that milieu, she was shipped off to Catholic boarding school in California as a teenager (though her parents were Episcopalians), and remained in the Golden State for most of the rest of her life. This was very lucky for me, for it was there that I eventually met her and fell in love with her and married her.
When we met we were each unhappily married, and when I finally divorced, I was sure I would never love – much less marry — again. Courtney, on the other hand, made it clear very early on that, for her, I was the one. World-weary as I’d become, I found this difficult to believe, but with her considerable help I set about trying to believe it. Hers was not the oblique, edgy love that I’d experienced all too much of in my life up to that point. This was love, directed at me, as strong and undiluted as summer sun.
This is what most of us have received from Courtney: what she liked to call “unconditional love,” but which is really something far more complex and rare. It might be better described as unrestrained love, excited love, crazy love, selfless love. She would jump up and down when she saw you coming. Often there would be a lot of high-pitched squealing. She would hug you as though she hadn’t seen you in years, when in fact you’d just left the house that morning. It’s the kind of love where the first question out of her mouth as you sat down together was “Are you happy?”
Am I happy? What kind of a colossally unanswerable question is that? In some circles, it may not even be a polite question. Yet for Courtney, who would often describe herself as a “black and white person,” it was the only important question, and the one to which everyone ought to have a ready answer. Even more importantly: she wanted to know the answer.
I confess that at first I was very uncomfortable with all this. Sometimes I still am. I grew up with an idea that many of us have: that there is greater safety in a bit of emotional distance; that you must exercise extreme care in what you reveal about yourself, and to whom; that a hallmark of adult maturity is to temper our enthusiasms and edit our expressions of emotion – above all, expressions of love and joy. Act cool; be cool.
This is, of course, a form of cowardice. Many of us never give voice or action to our emotions out of fear that we will appear foolish, or that our feelings will not be reciprocated. Courtney was absolutely fearless in the face of love. One of her dear friends has called her a “warrior of love,” and that seems exactly right. She was not about to hold herself back from joy or from loving, not about to miss a chance to tell someone how dear they were, or how good they looked, out of some need to appear superior. She was the first and only person in my adult life to tell me that she was proud of me. No adult needs to hear that, self-confident achievers that we are – and yet we all need to hear it. I heard it from her almost every day, and of course it made me want to earn her pride all the more. By example and by encouragement, she made me a better man. There is no higher praise for a wife, I think.
But first, I had to be taught a thing or two. For you see, when Courtney and I met, I thought of myself as something of an intellectual, someone who needed an equally brainy, hard-charging person as my life’s companion, and at first, I confess, I wasn’t sure that Courtney would measure up. I’d been involved with some very smart, aggressive, worldly women over the years, and here was this beautiful, loving, giving person with a childlike sense of humor, boundless joie de vivre and absolutely no pretensions to the “life of the mind” that I thought I should be leading. Heck, she hadn’t even seen Star Wars, let alone Five Easy Pieces, as though she’d been living on another planet since 1965. She was religious, a relentless spiritual seeker, a devotee of the Virgin Mary (that Catholic boarding school’s influence). She’d been raised to be a political conservative. What would we talk about?
Everything, as it turned out. And unlike the women I’d been involved with or married to previously, Courtney would actually listen and ask questions with a total absence of ego, without the slightest interest in argumentation. Often, instead, to my frequent disbelief, she would thank me for explaining something to her, even though half the time I’d been pontificating about something –such as myself — that she already understood quite well. This, too, was another form of her love, and an example of her own brand of intelligence.
That’s another thing I had to learn from her: that intelligence can take many forms. There ought to be an official gradient for Emotional IQ. If there were, I would have a room-temperature score and she would be in the genius range. She could pick up a sad or tense face across a room, and usually knew just what to do or say to relieve the person who wore it. Not only did she possess laser-like emotional radar, but it was on, at full power, all the time. We never left a restaurant or a store without having made a new friend out of a waitress or bartender or clerk, and that was all Courtney, radiating appreciation and kindness where most of what that person got all day was indifference or condescension. We would return to a favorite hotel in Mexico or Italy (it didn’t matter) years after our last visit, and women would come running from behind the reception desk to hug and kiss her, so fondly and fully was she remembered by them. With me, they would shake hands. That was the difference between Courtney’s Emotional IQ and mine.
Slave to duty that I am, and full of regrets and druthers, I would often tell Courtney in passing what I should have done in this or that instance in the past, or what I should have been doing to prepare for something in the future. She would invariably respond, in her firmest voice, “There are no shoulds.” And I would smirk or sneer in my knowing way, for of course there are shoulds, my life was made up of shoulds, how naïve to believe, much less say, that there are no shoulds. Yet eventually I came to understand that this was not naïve at all, that she was telling me something far more subtle and profound: you can’t control life, and for this you are forgiven in advance.
One day as she was leaving her gym and telling the person behind the desk, by way of goodbye, that she loved them, another customer, a stranger, sad or angry or aghast at this display of feeling, challenged her openly, asking indignantly how she could possibly love someone she barely knew. (I can understand the confusion and envy and resulting anger behind the question; it might have been my own, years ago, before I knew Courtney.) She told him that he should try it, that it might make him a happier person. And with that good advice, she was out the door.
Another time, long after we’d married and moved to Ohio, we visited the office of the company in San Francisco where we’d met. As we were walking down a hallway, suddenly someone called out from behind us, “Courtney, I love you!” It was the office manager who had hired her 10 years earlier, blurting out the first thing that came into her mind when this human gift re-entered her life.
I realized then that the world has a way of telling you what kind of person you are, how successful you are, how you are thought of, how you will be remembered. You don’t need scores or grades or an income statement — or a eulogy. You will be shown, in no uncertain terms. Courtney was shown all the time what a success she was at life, though it never went to her head. It all went, instead, to her heart.
If this were a real eulogy, and Courtney were really gone from our lives, I doubt I would be speaking all these orderly words, because my world would have become profoundly disordered, and I probably could not speak at all. My usually excellent, even wild imagination fails utterly to conjure what life would be like without her. So this is hard practice for a moment I hope never arrives (much as I want to survive her, so that I can be there for her entire life). It’s also a recognition that she deserves to hear now, and every day hence.
Who should you eulogize today, while they are alive and with you? (And yes, there’s Courtney in the background, saying “there are no shoulds!”)