Maggie Rose

These are the remarks I made at the funeral yesterday. Kim proofread and made improvements to them and stood beside me while I spoke. I actually wandered my way into this with some comments on the weather (snowing – like the day Elena was born seven years ago this Friday), the Music (my sister Jill sang Ave Maria. Same song as at our wedding but sounded so different in this different context), and the picture Elena slept with (which I’ll write about later).

Maggie Rose –

It’s been a long week of people talking about and thinking about Elena. I want you to know that they’re talking and thinking about you too. Look around you. Look at these people who have come today. They have come to say goodbye to your sister. But they have also come to let you know they are here for you too.

Here’s something I don’t know if you can understand – I don’t know if I can understand it either. They’ve lost something too. I can hear you say, as you did to Jack the other night, “why did you get the grieving kit? It was my sister that died.”

It was. There was no one in this world closer to Elena than you. But there were a surprising number of people who were very close to her. Some are here. Some are not. Some may tell you later how sad they are. Some may pretend that nothing happened. There are times that you may feel sad and there are times that you may feel that nothing happened.

As always, how you feel is how you feel.

Your mom and I disagreed about spanking children but  because she didn’t believe in it, we didn’t do it. But you and Elena had a joke. You would be misbehaving but you would be so darn cute while misbehaving that I would laugh out loud. There was a time when you did something that was borderline bad but that cracked me up. I said, “do that again and you’re going to time out.”

“But,”  you said, “you can’t send us to time out. You’re laughing.”

“I can laugh and punish you at the same time,” I answered.

From then on, when one of you was walking up to that line you would look at me and ask “Dad can I?” I would shrug and you and Elena would jump to your feet and
jump up and down — laughing and spanking your own behinds to show what I would look like laughing and punishing you.

Mom and I will continue to love you as we did before – but we can love you, laugh with you, and still send you to time out.

Katie McGovern did something the other night that was so sweet and innocent and honest. While you were in the other room with Jack, she came out of Elena’s room with one of Elena’s dolls. She looked down at us from the top of the stairs and announced that she was going to keep this one. “It was Elena’s,” she said. “I can keep it. Elena is dead.”

What a wonderful moment. You can hear that the kids in the room don’t see anything wrong with what Katie said and some of the adults are horrified.

Maggie, that’s going to be a big problem for a while. There are people that won’t know what to say to you so they won’t say anything. They won’t look at me and you and mom. The death of a child – particularly this type of death – is very frightening to a parent. Some of them feel sorrow. Some of them feel guilt. Many of them feel afraid. Some fear that by meeting our gaze they will catch something they can’t overcome. It’s called deep sadness.

People who don’t know you – won’t know how moody you can be. You will be the way you’ve always been and someone will say quietly to the others, “oh, that’s because her sister died.”

You need to know that losing a sister is a part of what makes you you – but it is not who you are. You are not “the girl whose sister died”. You are Maggie Rose. You are so many things to so many people. Again look around you – you are part of this community that surrounds you with their thoughts and prayers.

You are the smartest child I know. You will figure out which people are willing to be there for you. I hope you will figure out how to let them do what they can. Not with those sad eyes. Not by asking you again and again “are you o.k.” By asking normal things and understanding when your response is not normal.

I love that you have been able to have some normal moments this past week. Moments with your cousins. Getting to go to girl scouts on Friday and art class on Saturday. Hanging out with your Shen sisters.

I have loved watching you grow into the beautiful girl you are now and look forward to what you will become. Your mom and I felt the same about Elena. Our sadness is not for anything in the past. You guys were the best. Our sadness is for the future where we won’t get to see Elena at things we anticipated.

When the kids line the halls to clap you out of Boulevard, we will be so happy and proud for you and yet I don’t know how we will stand it. Your sister wanted so much to be in the halls clapping you out and with her gone it means that mom and I are being clapped out of Boulevard too – three years before we’re ready.

Your mom and I will talk and cry about Elena. You do what you need or want to.

I remember you in my lap rubbing my beard and chanting “love and affection” while Elena separated my hair on the back of my head and said “Maggie, I sawl daddy’s balb spot.”

There are going to be ordinary moments where you feel the loss of Elena in weird ways. As you said the other night – now you’ll always have to take the first bath or shower. Macaroni and cheese won’t even taste the same. Remember how mom makes you  macaroni and cheese  from a box because you won’t eat the good stuff. She won’t need to take out a bowl full for Elena and so your mac and cheese won’t taste as cheesy as it used to.

Elena knew how to annoy you more than any other person in this world. As much as she wanted to be like you – she also wanted to be different.

As much as she loved being bossed around by you – she also wanted to take control.

It always bothered you that she got away with things that you didn’t. That’s because she was a  pleaser. She ingratiated herself with people and so she could get away with a zinger.

There are people who read some of the  stories I wrote and said “that’s cute she didn’t understand.” She did understand. She was very playful and revelled in getting a good dig in.

Maggie, you were first at so many things but she beat you to communion. While you played by the rules and studied and waited for your first communion, she put on a big smile, held out her hands and said “body of Christ” and was rewarded with a wafer. She popped it in her mouth and turned around and taunted you.

I think you will miss moments like that. Normal moments of one sister being a brat to another.

I will miss moments like the father-daughter girl scout dance. Not even a month ago. Do you know how many people I told about that dance and sent the picture that mom took of the two of  you in the hall. I loved dancing to Y M C A with you. I loved when Elena came up to me, hands on hips and said “dance with me big boy.” The three of us did the Chicken dance and laughed and lost ourselves in the moment.

I could go on forever about the two of you. Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me knows that I generally do.

Being a dad is the best part of my life. Being a mom is the best part of Kim’s life. You gave us that gift. You made us a mom and dad and every day you continue to give us that gift.

We’ve included two of Elena’s favorite songs on the program. I look at the lyrics and for “Do you believe in magic” and still see her.

“Do you believe in magic?
In a young girls heart
how the music can free her
whenever it starts.”

That was Elena with her music playing loud and her dancing with abandon in our living room or in her bed room.

Remember when we went to see “The Lion King”. Both sets of grandparents, me and mom, you and Elena.

I love that you know your grandparents. You are the eldest grandchild on both sides. You not only made me and mom parents but you made four people with lots of love to give, grandparents. They spoil you rotten because that’s what grandparents do and we tell them not to because that’s what parents do.

But you don’t just get stuff from your grandparents. You get attention. Each pair loves to have you over. They listen to you when you speak. They have great pride in what you do. They frame the pictures that you make. They tell their friends stories about the clever things you do.

Elena – I used to tell people – that’s my happy child. How many times has she played the Lion King cd over and over. She looks seriously at me as she pronounces the African words at the beginning of some songs. She had an ear for language and accents. She loved to speak Australian or to imitate Hermione from Harry Potter. She loved Chinese class and could hit the tones.

I can see her twirling around to “The Circle of Life”. She would reenact the opening scene of Lion King and then do an interpretive dance. Often she would ask that I hold her up at the end of the song like I was showing her off to those gathered at pride rock.

“From the day we arrive on the planet
And blinking, step into the sun
There’s more to see than can ever be seen
More to do than can ever be done
There’s far too much to take in here
More to find than can ever be found”

I could go on, but there is more to say than could ever be said.

Maggie, I guess the last thing we want you to know right now and to understand is that we don’t expect anything different from you than we ever did. Elena had unfinished business but you have a full enough life finishing your own business and becoming the person you will be.

Published in: on February 28, 2006 at 8:07 am  Comments (21)  

Preparing to Speak

Kim and I rose to speak at the end of the funeral yesterday. I had asked our friend Mark Ribbins if he’d be willing to finish reading what I’d written if I was unable to. Mark, like so many others, has been such a great friend for so many years. We did readings at each others’ weddings. Having him behind me and so many wonderful friends in front of me and Kim beside me gave me an unexpected strength to get through the piece without breaking down.

I had joked to Kim that maybe we should just wing it. She said that I could if I wanted, while giving me a look that clearly said “what are you thinking.” When Kim and I were first married, we both were working and in graduate school. My side gig was working as a radio d.j. – or as we were called by then “air personality”.

I’d worked for so many radio stations under so many different names that when I had to introduce musicians or a comic onstage at a concert event I would have everything written on a note card. I’d even write the name I was working under: “I’m xxxx from Wyyy”. This made sense when I was working under names that were not my own. But it looked pretty silly that I had to write my own name down at the end when I was using it on the air. But, I didn’t want to get on stage and not remember who I was.

Who I was.

People get to know you in different ways. There are people who used to listen to me at night who had a connection to my voice. For some it’s as if you are inviting this person on the radio into your house. You are trusting them to hang with you in the morning or at work or when you are getting ready for bed at night.

I was at a health club years ago and a guy came up to me in the locker room and asked “Didn’t you used to be Daniel Steinberg?” I smiled and said yeah that’s who I was.

Who I was.

Gary Raymont, Elena’s kindergarten teacher, spoke at the funeral yesterday. He never called parents by their first name. He always called out “Hi Elena’s mom” and “Hi Elena’s dad”. To him, that’s who we were. Gary is a giant of a man whose heart is too big for the body that holds it. You see the light all around him wherever he walks.

It didn’t take me much time to let the guy in the health club know that I’m still Daniel Steinberg. The community of people who have called and written to us have reminded me that I’m still Elena’s dad. Thank you.

More than twenty years ago, Mark Ribbins and I worked in Urban Contemporary radio together. I began working there under the name of Mac Johnson – the name of a childhood friend. Carol Ford began refering to me as “Vanilla Fudge” but people didn’t catch on. They just thought I was light skinned. So it was shortened to “Fudge”. I teamed up with Matt Morgan to do the morning show and Mark did the weekend gospel show. His family owned a very prominent Christian book store. He thought that we should all do a show together with his brother John and with Luke Owens so that we could call it “Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Fudge”.

Mark’s dad died while we were working together. It was one of the first wakes I’d ever been to. The line was out the door. It was there I first met his family. When I got to the front of the church Mark said, “mom, this is Fudge.” More than twenty years later Mark stood in line at a wake for my family. He and his wife Celeste are a part of our family. They are constants at our Passover table. They invited my parents to their wedding.

I knit a baby hat for his daughter Julia but had not yet met her. I finally went over to Mark and Celeste’s home to drop off the hat. The baby wasn’t there but Mark and I went for a walk and talked about her and so many other things. He said that it wouldn’t be long before baby Julia would be asking the four questions at our table.

The four questions. With Elena’s reading coming along lately, this was the year I had hoped she would be able to read that portion of the Passover Seder. So many little things will give us pause this year.

There were many times during the wake that I looked up because I felt someone’s presence in line. One of those was when Mark and Celeste walked in. I felt their hug long before they made it to the front of the line. And they brought us a gift. Mark was carrying their baby Julia.

She’s beautiful. She’s perfect. Meeting her was a gift that brightened Kim and me. Even in this difficult time, being a dad is just the best. I love that I can share this experience with such a great friend.

Published in: on February 28, 2006 at 7:20 am  Comments (4)