Here's the text of the eulogy I read at Denise's service this morning....
WORDS FOR DENISE
--Her eyes: playful, wry, soulful.
--Her belief in beauty. Her apartments, her furniture, the art on the walls. The way she dressed: black, preferably.
--Her intelligence, her belief in her opinions, her principles. And the way those hands moved!
--Her charisma. Let’s just say it: a movie star.
--Her spacious heart.
--Her pride in Austen. Her love for her family, for her mother, her father. For Joey and Mary. Nancy, Shannon, Bob, Nicholas, Michael, her Uncle Bob and Aunt Eileen. Bill and Wayne. Andreas. And more and more and more.
--Her generosity, her eagerness to say, I love you deeply, and not be afraid to say it.
--Her old plea, the old accusation, “Nobody loves me.” Or, worse: “You don’t love me.” And the joy on her face, when we rolled our eyes, or gave her that look that said, I’ve had all I can take of you.
--Her goofiness, her quickness to laugh, the laugh that came from deep in the body.
--Her cup of hot coffee, held with both hands, close to collarbone and throat, even if it was 96 degrees outside.
--Her sleekness, her sexiness. (Can we say that in church? Why not.)
--Her courage. Enough courage to pack a stadium.
--Her ability to walk into any room, to change the particles in the atmosphere. A ray of sparkling energy moving right into you.
How does one represent a life force? It can’t be done in sentences. The sentences aren’t big enough to contain her. They’re too orderly, they move too predictably. Not to mention that there are many Denises. Denise as parent, Denise as daughter, Denise as writer, editor, lover, book reviewer, friend, teacher, mentor, cook. As for a eulogy? You don’t write a eulogy for someone whose spirit is bigger than death.
Still, we try. Here: two letters, which came to me last Saturday.
From Christine Carr:
Stunning is the word—vibrant, life embracing. God, she had to be the most entertaining person I’ve ever known, and one of the most generous of souls. Rest in peace? Not in her vocabulary. I hope she’s creating a storm wherever she is.
And from David Groff, the editor of her first novel:
As a young editor, Good Deeds was important to me; I learned a lot about the working of fiction from how Denise wrote and revised. She was wonderfully open minded—and open hearted—about her writing. I met her again in recent years at a reading and remember being so happy to reconnect, even briefly. I hope you and her family feel nourished by her vitality and her accomplishment.
Her accomplishment. In the last year, I’ve thought a lot about her accomplishment—or even the larger story behind it. What did Denise believe in? This was not something we talked about much directly. She might have known she was dying, but I don’t think she wanted me to know she knew. But aside from her attachment to family, there was the Word. The Word, as in the project of fiction. For Denise, fiction was religion. Fiction the way to defy limit, the way to bring wholeness and order to the daily chaos. It was about narrative, emotional logic. But first and foremost: empathy, the reach outside the self, the attempt to plumb the minds of characters whom we might have otherwise dismissed as self-absorbed, unlikable, unworthy of us. In writing such work she gave us something more profound than entertainment. Her three novels are not only acts of attention, they’re celebrations. They’re reverent, though they’re a little sneaky about that. They tell us, Hey. You. Wake up. There’s wonder in front of us, even in the oddest creatures. Maybe especially in the oddest creatures.
And if that’s not a kind of faith, then what could faith be?
Before I close, a story.
Last November 6th, I took the train down from New York to spend the day with Denise. It was Election Day, the results hadn’t yet trickled in, and as such, we were nervous and excited about the future. I hadn’t known that both her mother and Mary were coming in from New Jersey for dinner that night, but we had the sweetest afternoon together, just the two of us. We were side by side on the sofa. She swung around, lay down, put her feet up on my lap, and slept some, but not before asking if she could do it, which struck me as sweet. There was a big night ahead. Later, the four of us took our places at the table. Candles were lit. Napkins folded. Boxcars screeched on the tracks across the water. It was the first dinner that Denise had cooked since her diagnosis. The day before, chemo. In two days, food would be the last thing she’d want. But not yet. We carried the bowls and dishes to the table. Stew, salad, macaroni and cheese, pound cake. A work of art, but casual. What a relief it was to be casual, relaxed amidst the grave story that had brought the four of us together. Denise smiled, laughed, content to see us sitting together. The flames of the candles wavered. We passed the bowls and lifted our knives, forks, serving spoons. We passed the salt and pepper. Music was on. Marvin Gaye? Joni Mitchell? Then, what-- What was it? A harmonic shift, a melodic leap? She got up. Maybe she was going to bring out another dish from the counter, but no. Instead she started dancing. I’m not talking about a timid dancing, but a life-large, it’s-great-to-be-in-my-skin dancing. She grinned the widest grin her face allowed her to make. She lifted her chin. And she would not stop. She kept right on dancing by her corner of the table, even when we cried, “Denise! Denise! Be careful!”
That joy, that defiance: those two things, in tandem.
And we loved you deeply.