Saturday, May 9, 2009

Leif's Memorial Service at St. Petersburg Unitarian Universalist Church - April 29, 2008 - "Farewell to My Gentle Giant"

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It was hard to write a speech that captured my thoughts and feelings about Leif, and even harder to give it without completely breaking down. When I planned Leif's memorial services, I knew I wanted to be a part of them, to honor his memory and my love for him by talking about him and his life, but I wasn't sure I could keep enough composure to get through it. In the end, I decided it didn't matter, that what mattered was that I wanted to do it and wanted to try.

People at funerals and memorial services expect tears and grief, not polished performances, and saying goodbye to my son and honoring him in this way was far more important to me than sitting quietly in a pew and trying to be composed while someone else spoke words that were not mine. I wanted to tell those who were there with me about my son, to bring some measure of understanding to his life and who he was. His death is such a huge and terrible loss. It deserves the depth of emotion and thoughtful observations about him and his life.

I posted the text of my speech last spring, not long after the memorial service. At that time, my grief and the blog were so new that I wasn't sure what I was going to do with either of them, how I would go on. When I started the blog, I thought I would just "remember the good times." I posted my "Farewell to My Gentle Giant" text thinking I was saying goodbye to the sad parts and would focus on the happy parts of his life, leaving behind the memorial services and sadness.

As I've said before, it didn't take long before I realized that was not going to work. It wasn't real. If I was going to write about Leif and his life, I had to admit his death and bare my grief. I would have to write about it. I have done that now for over a year. When the anniversaries of his death and memorial services arrived in April, I knew I had to tell the truth about the events of his death and post text and videos of the memorial services. It's time.
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(For consistency about the memorial services, I am posting my speech text again below.)

Farewell to my Gentle Giant

I can't listen to that sad, poignant song [Who Wants to Live Forever] without crying. It is so quintessentially Leif. He loved the movie, The Highlander, and there was a time people said he looked like Adrian Paul. He loved swords, was a romantic at heart, and was devastated when loved died. He wanted to be a hero, wanted to be needed, wanted to be strong. Through so many disappointments and crises, he held his head high and did not let others see his pain and frustration. Finally, it was too much.

From the day he was born, Leif was, in a sense, larger than life. He was such a large newborn that the nurses at the hospital where he was born joked that I was supposed to raise my kids after I had them, and teased me about what college he was going to.

He dwarfed the other babies there. I thought it was a fluke, that he would slow down to the family average size, but Leif was always the tallest in his class, even taller than his first grade teacher, and was 6' 1" by the time he was only in 7th grade.

He also had a piercingly smart mind. His teacher at the Montessori school he attended in Nurnberg, Germany when he was two years old told me at a conference that initially she thought Leif paid no attention to anything, didn't join the circle time, and wasn't getting anything out of it because he was puttering around by himself. Then, when they did their learning assessments, she was amazed to discover that Leif knew everything that had been taught to the class while he was silently working on his own.

Leif had a nearly photographic memory, and an amazing auditory memory that allowed him to quote movie lines, not bother with note-taking in school, and recall even how people spoke, not just what they said.

He was a beautiful child, so beautiful that people would literally stop us on the street and tell us that, but I don't think he ever sensed and would have been embarrassed it he had. By the time he was an adolescent, reaching puberty long before the other boys in his class, and spent years with a bad case of acne that he was teased about, he didn't believe he was attractive.

I don't know what kind of perspective a child growing up like that gains on the world, how it feels to be the giant, both physically and mentally, but I know he felt a kind of distance from others and an inner conflict that probably lasted all his life. He was only partly at home in the world of his peers, whether as a child, an adolescent, or an adult.

I called him my gentle giant, for with his size and enormous strength, it would have been all to easy for Leif to be a bully or use his body and mind to dominate or torment others, but he never did, not after the day in kindergarten when he lost his temper, threw toys at other children, and then was so mortified and ashamed of himself that he crawled under a table and would not come out. It was clear he had made a decision that would not happen again, that he would not hurt anyone.

Leif became in some ways a very traditional man From babyhood he loved vehicles of all kinds, and became an expert on cars and motorcycles, driving either as though he were in the Monte Carlo Grand Prix. He could never have enough gadgets and even built his own computer. He loved guns and was a certified armorer and a passionate believer in the Second Amendment. He practiced martial arts and earned a black belt in judo, and loved fighting in medieval armor in the SCA, even wearing a 50 pound chain mail shirt he made himself. He loved movies about superheroes, men who saved the planet, the universe. He joined the infantry to fight for his country, to defend his beloved Constitution. Leif needed a focus for his intellect and his emotions, a defining purpose and a lofty goal, but unfortunately, he never really found them. He yearned achingly for someone to love, but a lasting relationship was not meant to be. He was deeply hurt, but he always forgave.

Yes, Leif wanted to be the hero, the gentle giant who would fight to defend his family, his friends, his country. His personal code was to never show weakness, and he kept his deep and towering emotions inside. He wanted to be needed, to be respected and loved.

Leif made many mistakes and he often lived life on the edge. He seemed to need and crave strong sensations, speed, danger, everything larger than life, as if life had to be over the top to be worthwhile, and yet he could patiently explain and teach almost any concept in a way the listener could understand, to an adult or a child.

I have been touched by the comments posted on my Remembering Leif blog, and I've asked one of Leif's friends for permission to quote her post because it captures some of how people saw him. Lorelei Siddall wrote:

“I met Leif in 2001 at the KSU Computer store where we were both employed. The computer store was a dim and humorless place at first, but then came Leif, a bright spot. I was intimidated at first since he was such a rambunctious person... full of ideas and interesting facts, philosophies, and an overwhelming presence that was almost bigger than the tiny alcove the store was tucked into.

“He quickly became the most interesting person in the store to talk to and work with, and soon my boyfriend at the time was coming up to the store specifically to talk to him as well. He spawned a sort of viral effect... whereas one person could meet him, then tell other people about this guy 'you just have to meet', and a sort of legend develops.

“I cherish the time I (had). You and your husband raised an amazing person, a person who has had a profound and global impact on the lives he had touched. He was a natural teacher, although this last lesson is the hardest one I think.”

It is indeed a hard one, one I don't want to learn. I don't want to learn to live without Leif, but I know I must. I don't want to miss his presence, his intellect, his humor, his dimpled smile, and most of all, his love.

As parents, we brought our sons into the world full of hope for them, and it is hard to accept that our dreams for Leif will never be realized, that he will never find his purpose and defeat his demons, that he will never have a family, that he will never be there for a birthday or a Christmas, never be there to teach us about the latest technology and set things up for us, never tease me about driving like an old lady.

It is hardest of all to know that our love was not enough to save him, that no matter what I tried, I could not help him be happy, or take away his pain. I knew it was there, but he would not admit to me how bad it was.

In many ways, he lived a life rich in experience, though it was also drowned in depression and loneliness. In many ways he engaged the world and wanted much from life, but he was also bitterly disappointed. In the end, he was overwhelmed.

I can't really talk to you about my feelings about Leif, or I would be overwhelmed. I brought him into with world with hope and love, how I wish he would have had the hope I had for him. He was and always will be larger than life, my gentle giant, a tragic would-be hero, and I will be grateful for the 33 years of memories I have of him, the things he taught me, the bear hugs he gave me. I will miss him every day of my life.

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