Eulogies are never easy to write. How do you capture someone’s life in a single speech? You are speaking about someone who can no longer speak for himself or herself. You have to get it right, and you only get one chance. The fear of leaving something out, or not accurately depicting a life that I didn’t know much about haunted me.
I remember giving the eulogy for my cousin Greg a few years earlier. Standing there in a church packed to the gills, I spoke on his character and how much he meant to our family. The biggest challenge was not writing the speech, but it was trying to keep it together and not let my emotions get the best of me. I was close to Greg, being that we were only two years apart in age. I knew firsthand his personality traits and how big of an impact he had on the Giblin family. Speaking for someone who died at twenty-five compared to someone who passed at eighty-two was a hell of a difference.
However, when it came time to speak for the man atop our family tree, Lt. Colonel Owen Giblin, I wasn’t comfortable. You could say I had anxiety. I barely knew my grandfather, but when my mother asked me to do this, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. She believed in me, and trusted me to tell his story, even when I didn’t trust myself.
There were a few things I knew about my grandfather. One was that he was in the Air Force and was extremely skilled at his job. (Even though I was pretty clueless on what that job entailed.) Next was that he was introverted, which means we didn’t talk much. Lastly, I knew how much my mother adored and admired him. He was her hero; her knight in shining armour. Yet, with all that considered, I didn’t have much to work with.
I began asking questions, soaking up as many stories as I could. All of this to help me paint a picture of the man who everyone would come to celebrate a few days later at his funeral. I learned of a man who entered the Vietnam War at age thirty-five and took the nineteen and twenty-year-old young men under his wings. I heard stories of how he took the more dangerous job flying, finding, and marking the enemy buried beneath the brush of the Ho Chi Minh Trail. He did this because this job required less training and allowed him to return home sooner. I learned of a man who not only loved to fly, but was extremely skilled at it. He was an F-106 Fighter Interceptor Pilot for the United States Air Force and managed to make it to 82 years old. That point alone baffled me. A man who was skilled enough to dodge danger and return home in one piece to his six children after logging that much time in air combat; that’s a fantastic feat.
Yet, for all the combat he engaged in while flying, he was a gentle and caring man who loved his family, camping, and animals. Heck, he even climbed a tree a few years back to retrieve his cat who happened to be stuck up there. The only problem was he fell out of the tree, as the cat nimbly jumped down after him. That was the type of man he was. No one would be left behind on his watch.
I gathered all the details and stories I could and began to put into action what I preach during my lessons on public speaking. Students always ask: what’s the biggest secret to successfully speaking in public? I reiterate Allen Iverson’s famous words from my childhood “We talkin’ bout practice- not a game, not a game- but practice.” Just with any skill, I’ve found the more you practice, the smoother things go. On top of that, communication expert and author of the phenomenal book Talk Like TED, Carmine Gallo, emphasizes the role that humor and stories play in syncing the minds of your audience and lowering their defense system so they are more apt to digest your message. Slowing down speech, utilizing pauses, and engaging eye contact are other delivery staples.
However, armed with all of this knowledge, I couldn’t stop the butterflies from fluttering throughout my stomach. To help with that, I put to use advice from the second most watched TED Talk of all time. Amy Cuddy revealed a technique to manipulate your hormones so you could increase your testosterone and decrease your cortisol (the stress hormone). She suggests having a large/open posture, no slouching, and rhythmic breathing. Armed with all of that knowledge, I sat upright in the pew and hoped for the best.
As I stepped to the altar, I took a deep breath and let it fly. Before I could truly register the moment, I found myself walking back to the front pew to the sound of clapping. I was relieved that the experience was over. The organ begins to play and we all exit down the center aisle. People pat me on the back, but I’m in a trance. All I hear are the bagpipes. I seek out my mother. She is the only one that I care to hear from. She gives me a huge hug, kisses me on the cheek, and thanks me. I’m relieved. She knew him best and I’m just glad I didn’t let her down.
As the funeral procession rides to the southernmost tip of New Jersey, the Cape May County Veteran’s Cemetery, five Air Force soldiers, who stand at attention as the small crowd gathers by his grave, greet us. Now the tears come. All around us are flags marking gravesites of those who served in the armed forces. With it being Memorial Day Weekend, my heart grows heavier than expected. I never cared for war or the armed forces, but through this experience I gained a newfound understanding and respect for those who serve and served our country. Although I never agreed with the principle of war, I realized that those serving are just men and women with families of their own.
The soldiers march to the grave, unfold and then refold the American flag, and march out. The guns and trumpet give way and everyone shudders some more. The procession finishes when my grandmother is handed the American flag, and as the soldier marches off I am surprised at the finality of the process. Structured and almost robotic- that’s what it felt like watching those men march to orders and work together. A better perspective of what my grandfather did.
Lt.Colonel Owen Giblin didn’t talk much about his time in Vietnam, and my uncle said it’s because he wanted to forget what happened there. A man with such a gentle soul, and huge heart, was indirectly responsible for hundreds of deaths. Although he helped keep his men out of harm's way, he was instructed to do the exact opposite towards the enemy.
He was a man who loved his family and would do anything for them. I still remember when he insisted on sitting through my college graduation. A day in the sun for a seventy-eight year old man wasn’t easy, but he did it because he loved my mother and our family.
Eulogies are never easy to write. Actually, writing about death always seems like a struggle. You get one chance to tell someone’s story, and I am honored to have learned much more about my grandfather by telling his story through the eyes of my family. May you rest in peace, Pop-Pop.