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Waterskiing: A Eulogy

November 24, 2010

Hi. A bunch of people have asked me to post the eulogy that I wrote for my sister’s funeral, which was two weeks ago yesterday.

I can’t format it properly in this template, and that is bugging me. Also, it was written quickly, and obviously, under duress, and, I’d like to develop the ideas further at some later point. But whatever, those are all apologies, and what you asked for was a eulogy.



It’s a subject I know hardly anything about, and it’s not particularly funereal in nature, but I think you’ll see where I am going with this.

When I was in my early teens and Beth was in her mid to late teens, our family used to regularly vacation up at Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire. We’d go to a modest and yet fabulous lakeside motel that our parents had first brought Beth to when she was two years old, and we’d rent a cottage for a week. Beth spent a week at the lake in New Hampshire every single summer that she could, first with our parents and me, and then with her own family. If you are of a certain mindset, there is nothing in the world as calming and as transcendent as a swim in a bright blue lake. And Beth was of that mindset.

When we were teenagers, we would try to coordinate our trip with that of another family who vacationed at the same spot. They were from Massachusetts, which at that stage of our lives seemed, ahem, exotic and mysterious. Our family had blue-eyed daughters, but their family had dark-eyed sons. They also had a motorboat. The boat was small, and it was used, but I think that everyone involved would agree that our time in New Hampshire was one of best weeks out of every year.

During the day Beth and I would sit at the lake, reading novels or squabbling like sisters, getting hot enough and then diving in for a swim. We’d swim out to a floating platform, climb up, then try to soak the astroturf surface by all piling on and stepping hard on one corner at the same time.

Every once in a while, someone would get the idea to use the motorboat to waterski.

I’ll tell you right now: I have never successfully waterskied. I can describe the attempt, though. It goes like this: put on a floaty vest that doesn’t really fit, stick your head underwater to get your foot into a ski, then do the other ski, try hard to keep the skis uncrossed, push your hair out of your face, and position your hands on a scratchy, stripey nylon rope with a y-shaped grip. The boat driver looks back at you, and you yell “hit it” in as confident a tone as you can muster. The driver pulls the throttle back. The rope goes taut and you are yanked forward. Then you tumble to the side. Spray up your nose. Complete disorientation. You realize you’re toast and let go. No more than three seconds have elapsed since you yelled “hit it.” At least, that was my experience.

But Beth, Beth could get up on the skis. She was older than I was, and I liked to be able to attribute it to that, but she was also very strong. And even more than strong, she was stubborn. And it is her stubborn attempts at waterskiing that I want you to know about. I’ve thought about them a lot during the past few weeks.

So, when it was Beth’s turn, she’d put on the floaty vest, stick her head underwater to get her feet into the skis, push her hair out of her face, hold the rope, and yell “hit it.” The rope would go taut and she’d use her legs, keeping her center of gravity low at first, until she got her bearings. She’d use the strength in her shoulders, elbows and arms to steady herself. And if Beth ran into a problem, she didn’t flail around and let go right away. Instead, she’d use her body and her brain in tandem to compensate. To correct. To keep going. She could do this, and she knew she could do this.

Once, though, when she ran into what we would later categorize as an unsolvable waterskiing problem, and I don’t remember whether she’d been up for a while or if she was still trying to get up, she held on and on and on. She didn’t let go, even after she’d fallen. And because of her tenacious spirit, her refusal to give in, she actually got a pretty deep and intense abrasion on her leg from the scratchy nylon rope.

Here’s my point: if there was a chance that Beth could make it right, could get at least some measure of fun out of an experience, she was likely to keep trying, long after someone else might have given up.

Beth was diagnosed with ALS over three years ago. There are the obvious facts. It’s a highly debilitating disease. There is no cure. It’s always fatal. Beth felt scared, as anyone would, but for as long as she could, she applied her physical strength to the disease, and her stubborn character. She used her body and her brain in tandem to compensate.

For Beth,
* The chance to see Justin get a great report card, or hear about all of the characteristics of all of the different aliens that exist in his imagination?

* or have Amelia present her with a picture of a panda bear she made, or want to watch a Madagascar DVD for the 12 thousandth time next to her mommy?

There was absolutely no way Beth was going to let go of the rope.

Ice cream, fried clams, sunburn, black flies. The soft scent of pine needles in a New England summer still levels me, because, though I lost my sister the other day in a way that has brought us all here together, I lost parts of her first. There is the special dressed up grief we do for a funeral, but there has also been an everyday grief, a quiet, angry loss.

I’ve been looking at a lot of pictures in the last few days, of our whole family because we are all shuffled in together, but mostly, of course, of Beth. And I am glad to consider the elemental character of the robust and red-cheeked girl in a bright blue swimsuit, waiting for her next chance to dive into the cool clear lake.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Andrea Cohen permalink
    November 24, 2010 10:22 am

    This is so beautiful. Will you be in town this weekend? I am around. Please let me know if you’d like me to come visit. Andrea

  2. Karen permalink
    November 24, 2010 10:43 am

    I am sure that you are also, in some measure, this way. Thanks for sharing this with us. I wish I could write as eloquently about my mother, who also left us too soon. I know that these reminiscences will mean a great deal to Justin and Amelia as they grow up.

    I know you don’t want it to get easier- I know about that, so forget about it. Keep writing though.

  3. November 24, 2010 10:59 am

    This is beautiful. I’m so sorry for your loss.

  4. November 24, 2010 12:21 pm

    Wow, that’s really beautiful. My sincere condolences.

  5. Hsw permalink
    November 24, 2010 2:35 pm

    So very sorry for your loss. Sisters are truly special.

  6. November 24, 2010 11:21 pm

    I am grateful to have read this touching, moving eulogy. Thank you.

  7. November 25, 2010 2:59 am

    My grandmother had ALS and died of resulting complications. I’m so sorry for your loss, but it sounds like your sister’s spirit still shines bright in your life. What a beautiful eulogy. Sending thoughts and prayers your way.

  8. November 25, 2010 6:30 am

    Beautiful. I am so sorry that your family has had to suffer this loss. Thank you for sharing your sister this way.

  9. November 25, 2010 8:14 am

    I am so very sorry for your loss 😦

  10. wallflower3000 permalink
    November 26, 2010 4:51 pm

    You always manage to emerge from the briar patch with the most tender bounty. You are truly a scrappy bunny and I’m very proud of you!

  11. November 30, 2010 7:43 pm

    such a beautiful post. I am so sorry for your loss. I stumbled across your blog and wanted to share with you our family’s experience with ALS. You can visit and scroll to the bottom for the first entry and read up. I would love to know what you think about it.

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