Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Rembrance of Neal Gray, from his memorial service

Remembrance for J. Neal Gray, said by Julie Williams at his memorial service, October 3, 2009.

Words in quotations are Neal's unless otherwise credited.

I just want to say a word about the weather. I'm sure we would have all liked better weather today. But Neal Gray loved "dirty weathah." You may have noticed a picture of him up here dressed as a fisherman. He's ready for it.

Neal Gray was a realized soul. He threw himself into the moment without hesitation or reservation. On the day after his death, Gisele, one of Neal's many angels, wrote: "He's the only person I personally know who lived life as it should be lived...100%, not 35%, 50% or even 85%...but 100%." Not only was Neal extraordinarily alive, he was a dedicated and talented musician, who sung classical pieces, Gospel, traditional ballads, bawdy ditties and falsetto with equal zest. But perhaps his greatest gift was for friendship.

It doesn't seem possible to be a best friend to your daughter, dedicated to a wide family circle including a son-in-law, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and cousins, (I hope I have not left anyone out) and a real friend to hundreds of persons, but Neal Gray was. He knew birthdays, children's and partner's names, the struggles, tragedies, hopes, dreams and triumphs of hundreds of people. Neal Gray got women, and we loved to be gotten by him. He took over two hundred of us under his ample wing, making us "Neal's Angels", giving us a special T-shirt, emailing jokes and pictures of sunsets he took himself, and sending us handmade cards for Valentine's day, Easter, Christmas and our birthdays. I don't remember what number angel I was. But he would brag about each new angel, "She's a hell of a gal."

Few of you may know that this was a conscious choice, the guiding mission of his life. Neal experienced terrible loneliness after the tragic loss of his beloved wife, Amanda. Another person would have become bitter, or bewildered and withdrawn. Not Neal. He vowed, whenever he could, however he could, to alleviate in others the suffering and loneliness he had experienced firsthand. This is why so many of his angels were divorced or widowed. He was always on the look out for someone who was struggling to make their way alone, often in the face of hardship, so that he might offer them concrete help, solace and joy.

If we are lucky, we count among our friends and families a good listener. Often someone centered and wise enough to be a good listener is quiet and serious. If we are lucky, we count among our friends someone unfailingly positive and playful. But often these persons are not able to hear us out when we are lost, sick, afraid or sad. Neal had both these qualities. He was a truly good listener, always willing to offer comfort to a troubled friend. Neal would listen with care, ask if you were done speaking, and offer simple, well chosen words of encouragement that although they did not deny your reality, created room for hope. He might then share a challenge of his own, giving you the gift of being there in turn. This made you feel strong and useful, and pulled you out of our own challenges.

Then his irrepressible smile would start to play across his face. His eyes would start to sparkle, his crow's feet would crinkle, and he would jump to his feet, a big grin on his face. Neal would chortle "Now what are we going to do for fun?"

Neal has graduated. "Hot diggity!" He is a real angel now. We know his soul is deeply well, and that he is making a scene in heaven, yelling like Tarzan while Saint Peter holds his hands over his ears. But he leaves a big hole in each of our hearts. "Now what are we going to do for fun?" First we must grieve. We feel his loss so sharply because he loved so extravagantly, spread joy so freely, and was such a gifted and multifaceted man. We must seek stillness and honor the need to mourn, listening to ourselves and each other with just as much attention and skill as Neal listened to us. There will come a day when we leap up, remembering with joy what a character our friend was and shout "Now what are we going to do for fun?"

Neal had boundless energy. He stayed up until three or four in the morning many nights, emailing his hundreds of friends. He maintained a prayer list and sang in six choirs. He worked, drove, sang and chopped wood right up until the days before a brief illness took him from us at age 85. He was adventurous, sometimes reckless, kayaking without a life jacket and answering the cell phone from a ladder at the yacht club. "What a revolting predicament" when our 83-year- old friend answers his cell phone while standing on an icy, sloped roof. Neal was irrepressible and there were times we wanted to strap him down. He packed more into a single day than most of us do in a week.

Who will fill Neal Gray's shoes? There is not one person here who could. But I would like to issue an invitation. Let us, as we grieve, think fondly and carefully of our friend. And let us, each in accordance with our own natures, talents, and dreams, pick one aspect of Neal Gray and make it our own. If you want to take up photography, work in to your 80's, race cars, write a book, or ask a pretty lady to a fancy dinner, and pick her up in a vintage convertible, getting the car door, her coat, and the chair, standing when she returns to the table, go for it. What will we do now for fun? Boat parties? Sing-alongs? Casserole potlucks? Join a chorus traveling overseas? Salsa dance until our date, 38 years younger, begs to go home and go to sleep? Strap miniature canons under our classic cars and drive around until we see a cop, then let it rip?

Maybe you would prefer to spread cheer or offer comfort, listening to a neighbor who has just been diagnosed with cancer, picking out a lovely piece of jewelry or a good book for a recently widowed friend, taking someone who has just been laid off or divorced out to eat, or sending Valentine's day cards to every single person that you love. Whatever your dream is, do it. Whatever talent you have, cultivate it. Whoever needs help, lend them a hand. Whatever your gift is, large or small, share it. Neal Gray let his little light shine, shine, shine, without ceasing, without apology. Neal Gray never hid his light under a bushel. Neither should we.

No one of us can fill Neal Gray's shoes. But if each of us picks one way, large or small, to emulate him, heaven will share him with us. We can spread who he was a hundred or ten thousand fold, healing this weary and troubled world, just as he, with his magnificent openheartedness, healed each of us: with his boundless enthusiasm, his high jinks and mischief, his endless support, his creative generosity and his enormous love. Neal Gray was the embodiment of love. How magnificent it was to be his friend. May each of us be lit by this love, like a match touching a candle and catching fire. May the love that was Neal Gray spread infinitely and last forever, through each of us, the people we touch and help in turn, passing to those who did not have the honor and privilege of knowing Neal Gray. Hand to hand, heart to heart, in voice and deed, let us pass along Neal Gray's love like a lantern.

Julie Williams

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