Sunday, March 4, 2012

My Eulogy for Neil E. Garvey

A few years ago, I was a law student, working on a closing statement for my mock trial.   I was stuck, so I called my uncle, Neil.  After he helped me, I told him that writing was effortless for him.  He gave me this advice: “Just sit down and write.  Be honest.  The words will come to you.”  So Uncle, this week I took your advice.  I sat down and I was honest and I wrote.  These are the words that came to me.

To start, I would like to point out that Neil would be really touched by all the people here today.  If nothing else, he loved an audience.  And I know it would have meant so much to him that, as he goes to find his final reward, he has a packed house to show him off.  Thank you all for that. 

To say Neil died without having made a family would be a misrepresentation.  For one, of course, he has me, he has us, the Garveys.  I had the very distinct pleasure to mourn Neil’s passing this week with nearly all of my Garvey cousins and we all agreed Neil was like a dad in so many respects.  He took care of us.  He raised us.  He held us as babies, introduced us to latin, to Shakespeare and to Mystery Science Theatre 3000 as kids, and he cheered the loudest at our football games, our plays, our wrestling matches and our graduations as we grew.   We are where and who we are today because of Uncle Neil. 

But my point is, of course, that’s hardly the extent of Neil’s family.  This, this entire room, is Neil’s family.  As I came to learn this week, he would have done (and did) the same for anyone here.  He thought being a Garvey was a pretty cool thing, but anyone was eligible to be an honorary Garvey in his eyes.  He was raised, and entirely believed in the fact that there was always, always room for one more at the table. 

To the Garveys, as I’m sure to many of you, Neil served as a constant.  An anchor.  He was always there, holding court at the end of the kitchen table.  Even when the table wasn’t his, he’d have made room at it for you. 

Neil was the Garvey historian.  He could trace our family tree back for generations in one breath.  And in the next he could tell you from which ancestor you inherited your eyes, your chin, your temper or your sense of humor.  He had an intense knowledge of his parents' parents, their parents, and so on, not just when they were born or where they lived, but who they really were and what they believed.  When my grandfather died, Neil talked about his own grandfather, Grampa Mike.  He wrote:

Grandpa Mike was, among other things, a saloonkeeper, a tough profession at any time, but especially during prohibition, yet he managed just fine. So dad learned a saloonkeeper’s knack of how to judge character, and to measure a man up quickly.  But more than that, grandpa mike imbued in dad a 19th century code of honor and decency. He learned that there was a right way to treat people. 

Neil wrote intricate and very specific pages about who this great man was, and drew a parallel to those character traits he saw in his own father.  I’m sure you’ll agree these historical facts, though, were also the building blocks of his own character.  Neil certainly knew the right way to treat people.

As Garvey historian, Neil was also interested in memorializing the here and now.  How often would you see him without his camera?  He was not a great photographer, but I suspect the quality of the picture was irrelevant to Neil.  The real reason you take a picture is to capture and remember a happy or proud time.  At something as significant as a wedding or as common as a Sunday dinner, Neil would be the first to tell everyone to squeeze in for a group photo.  And at the end of every year, I used to love finding the pictures he took, the ones that made the cut, anyway, slid into frames and into our stockings.  This was our annual Garvey highlight reel, courtesy of Uncle Neil. 

A few days after Neil died, I tried to find his camera to see if there were any pictures left on it.  I actually didn’t find it until this morning [take out Neil’s camera] and, no, he must have uploaded everything he had.  I did, however, find a small pile of photographs in a shoebox on his desk.  Each was faded with time and dog-eared from, I assume, being pulled out and shuffled through a thousand times.  Later that week, my family and I poured through boxes of old photographs, the vast majority of which Neil took.  While I was writing this eulogy, I even looked at the pictures Neil uploaded to his Facebook account.  There were pictures of his friends on stage in Delaware Park.  There were pictures of him as a younger man, surrounded by family and friends, on the Fertile Turtle and pictures of him, not so young but with just as many friends, on the same boat.  There were pictures of his brothers and sisters at each of their weddings.  There were so many pictures of his parents.  He loved his parents so much.  One in particular was of my grandparents at their 50th wedding anniversary, looking so proud. 

I found one of my sister, Esther laughing with John and their beautiful children in Sixmilebridge in Ireland.  There was a picture of Shannon and Pat at their wedding, surrounded by family, exactly where they’re supposed to be.  I found a great picture of Amelia posing with Gramma with the caption, “on her 86th birthday!”  I assume it was Gramma’s 86th and not Amelia's.  He had a picture of Catlin and Mike at the party we held after they got married, filled with life and love.  I found pictures of sweet Cecilia and Amy at their wedding, of the regal Arthur and Tyler in their Statesmen uniforms, and the graceful Anna on horseback.  There was a picture of Ben, laughing and tending to the grill during some cookout and a picture of Alex standing at the chopping block in our grandparents’ kitchen during, I’d guess based on the amazing spread, Thanksgiving, but it could also have been, you know, Tuesday.  There was a picture of Patrick and James playing pool in the basement, of Mary at about age one, wandering aimlessly through the back yard, of Emma, smiling so wide and sitting at the kitchen table with her mother.  There was a picture of Elise from what might have been her first communion and a picture of Brendan at his going-away party, and a picture of Jena with her father, Joe.  I found one I’ve always loved of Louis and Neil, smiling proudly in front of the Cliffs of Moher.  And there was one of me too.  It was from the time I lived on Inwood, just a few doors down from my uncle. 

These were his happy and proud moments, the ones he saw fit to memorialize and the ones he wanted within arm’s reach.  Not his own accomplishments, though there were many, but those of his family.  It was these proud moments he wanted to commit to history, so to that end, everyone squeeze together. [Use Neil’s camera to take a pic of the crowd.] 

I remember showing him a picture of my daughter, Adelaide, who was making a silly face.  She was three at the time.  He howled with laughter and remarked that the silly face pictures were “the keepers”.

And of course, Neil could always be counted on to take the microphone.  Neil knew well the power of words and he spent his life learning how to write them and how to say them.  At Sunday dinner, he’d be the most likely to make a toast using exactly the right quote from James Joyce, or, depending on the company, Mel Brooks.

He stood at this very podium and delivered three of the most beautiful speeches I have ever heard.  Once to eulogize his brother Jim, once for his brother Joe and once in tribute to my grandfather, James, Sr.   This past week, four different people, at four different times, approached me in true anger at the fates for taking Neil before he could write and deliver a similar eulogy for them. 

I can now speak from very honest experience that giving a eulogy is scary, but what is fear for you and me was food for Neil Garvey.  For example, minutes before Ray Hoffman’s funeral was to begin, his oldest son, Frits, tried to give Neil a scare.  He pulled Neil aside as the congregation was filling into the pews and feigned an attack of nerves.  “I can’t do it, Neil”, said Frits, “please, you have to go on and do the eulogy for me.”  While this would terrify most mortals, Neil, without a hint of hesitation, smoothed out his scarf and said “When do I go on?” 

The amazing thing is, not only is he fearless, but I bet he could have done it.  By the time he uttered the “on” part of “When do I go on?”, he probably had three anecdotes and two Shakespearean references picked out and ready to go.  Neil could seduce a willing audience, and do it not just with charisma, but with the brains to back it up.

My wife and I, when we were planning our wedding, asked Neil if he would do us the great and solemn honor of doing a reading during the mass.  He accepted, so we printed out the passage.  You’ve all heard it, it’s Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:  “Love is patient and is kind”, etc.

So on July 9, 2005, the wedding mass had started and I was just short of hyperventilating from nerves.  It was the greatest day of my life, marrying my best friend in the presence of my friends and family.  I knew my grandfather, James Garvey and Lisa’s grandfather, Richard Leberer, were there in spirit, nodding approvingly, like the blue ghosts of Obi Wan and Yoda at the end of Jedi.  And indeed, I even felt the presence of God Himself, loving and blessing us from above.

Paul’s letter, I think, is a perfect embodiment of that feeling.  It talks about what, exactly, love is, and I was so happy that Neil had agreed to do the reading.  His powerful delivery would make the ceremony, the ritual, the sacrament of my marriage that much more sublime, inspirational.

Neil had another idea.  He took the podium, adjusted his microphone and said: “A reading from the First Letter of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.  Dear Corinthians, how are you in Corinth?  Things here are lovely… oh, wait, I’m sorry, that was the First Postcard of Saint Paul to the Corinthians.” 

Three things about that story.  First, his reading pretty much ignored Paul’s statement, in the first line of that passage, that “love doesn’t behave itself inappropriately”.  Second, I love that the passage we printed out for Neil was an excerpt, a few sentences at most, which he ignored and instead read the entire chapter from his own bible.  And third, I wouldn’t have changed any little part of it. 

On a side note, Lisa, John, Amy, Pat, Mike and all of Neil’s sisters in law: Neil loved you so much.  You were every bit as close to his heart as any blood relative and he considered our family stronger and better for having you in it.  Remember when Neil said grace at our wedding rehearsal, Lisa?  When he said “I hope Lisa and Mike have a long and beautiful marriage, but, if the unthinkable happens… we get Lisa.”  He meant it.

My daughter Adelaide is four now.  She asked me this week if I thought Neil missed her all the way up in heaven.  I bit a hole in my lip, trying not to cry, and I assured her that Uncle Neil will always love her, and I am certain he misses her.  Lisa added that Neil will always be able to look down from heaven and see her pretty face whenever he wants to.  Addie let this idea sink in, she thought about it for a second, then slowly looked skyward and made a silly face. 

And I could again immediately hear Neil howling with laughter, saying that face is a “keeper”.  He’s at the end of heaven’s enormous kitchen table looking down on us, sitting near Manny Freid, Tim White and Chris O'Neill.  And why not?  Shakespeare and Davy Jones are there too.  He’s surrounded by the generations of Garveys and Malloys and Haars and all the ancestors he knew so well.  His cousin Charlann is laughing with him just as hard.  But more importantly, he’s next to his older brothers, Jim and Joe, and finally wrapping his arms around that man with the 19th century code of honor, his dad.  And what a party they’re having, looking down on and loving us all from above.

So in closing, Uncle Neil, I’ll end my tribute by raising my voice skyward and telling you directly that you left this mortal coil a better place than when you found it.  With your confidence, you taught us to be confident.  With your humor, you taught us to be funny.  With your strength, you taught us to be proud of where we came from.  With your love of life, you taught us that so long as we take care of each other, everything will be alright.  You taught us to keep our perspective open and forever widening.  You taught us the power of the written word, those we read and those that we ourselves commit to paper.  In your honor, I will always put family first and I will know that everyone is family.  In your honor, I will always, always make room for one more at my table. 

I love you, Uncle.  Godspeed.


  1. Well thats not fair. I thought i had cried enough just hearing this on saturday. Hes so damn proud of you, mike. It was perfect.

  2. I remember meeting you uncle once, I wish I knew then what I now know. I'm sure he is very proud of you. God Bless

    Nik Halaszi

  3. I'm so happy you posted this. Thank you. (It is perfect. Absolutely perfect.)

  4. Mike, This was a remarkable eulogy for a very remarkable man. I think you just stepped into some very big shoes...Love Nan

  5. Beth and Keith WhartonMarch 6, 2012 at 3:13 PM

    Thank you, Mike. Your words were sheer poetry. Neil is surely proud of you and will fill your life with grace from above. He was truly like an Uncle to us as well. So lucky to have known him.

  6. margaret haar-sikoraMarch 7, 2012 at 11:14 PM

    Mike, I am so sorry that I could not be there to hear such a fabulous tribute to your Uncle,/ my cousin. You appear to have covered all of the bases, and portrayed his memory in his true likeness. I miss bantering back and forth with him on facebook and through e-mail. Now I have to accept his chuckles from above. Your Uncle I know was smiling down on you this past weekend, saying, "I taught him well, now, didn't I?" We are all so glad the Lord graced us with Neils presence. I can not immagine, growing up and not knowing him in our family. Thank you so much for sharing such memories.

  7. Hello Mike - This is Mary (Giallanza) Carney...long time fan of the Garvey's, first time commenter. I was out of town for Neil's funeral, but I am so grateful to have the opportunity to read your beautiful tribute to him. Thank you for the laughs and the cry. God bless you and the Garvey family always. With much love and sympathy. Mary G.

  8. Mike,
    Thank you so much for sharing this beautiful eulogy. I cried, I laughed, I felt present and presence. I felt your love for Neil and Neil's love for all who were in his world. Thank you.
    Ellie Valentine in Kyiv, Ukraine