What follows below (used by permission) is the homily delivered at a Celebration of Life Service last year for Eric Watson. The included pictures were graciously provided by Eric's wife, Gail who included these comments:
"The first was taken on Fathers Day before he died. The next ones are my Eric . He was given 7-9 months in January of 2009 and lived his life for five years more . Never complaining or asking why me. Thank you again. And hope the reunion is successful."
ROBERT ERIC WATSON
Celebration of Life Service
1 Cor. 13:1-13
June 7, 2014
Good morning. Thank you for being here to honor and celebrate the life of Robert Eric Watson.
At the outset, it's rarely easy to adequately describe someone's life in a funeral homily. That's because most people have complex personalities and because we each regard people differently. How I view someone may be totally different than how you regard that same person. While I may praise someone, you may not have such a high regard for this person. That's why a preacher is always doing a balancing act when he or she gets in the pulpit to describe the narrative of one's life.
However, Eric made the job easy for me. I had no problem coming up with a theme that does justice to his memory. Simply stated, Eric was a good and "gentle" man. Now here in the South we might say he was a "good old boy," or a "fine fellow." However, a Yiddish term came to mind that to me best describes Eric. Eric was a mensch. A mensch is a person of integrity. A mensch is someone to admire and emulate. In short, a mensch is a stand-up guy. Leo Rosten in his book, The New Joys of Yiddish, said the "key to being 'a real mensch' is to be an upright, honorable, and decent person."
I'd like to talk briefly about the genesis of this stand-up guy and then describe why Eric was a mensch. Robert Eric Watson was born in Pana, Illinois on February 8, 1949. His family moved around some in his early years but finally settled in Huntsville, Alabama when he was about twelve. Following his graduation from Lee High School in 1967, Eric attended Jacksonville State University. While at Jacksonville State, he met his future wife Gail. She said she'll never forget that first meeting. She was moving into her dormitory at the time and saw this guy wearing a pink Jacksonville State jersey. Apparently it had faded from washing. Only a true mensch would proudly wear pink in public.
Gail said their first date was an eye-opening experience for her. For starters, Eric cooked supper for her. It surprised her to learn this young man was so practical. Even more surprising was how immaculate his apartment was. She said it was clean and neat with everything in its proper place. So not only was Eric a mensch, he was an obsessive-compulsive mensch!
Gail and Eric soon became a couple and developed a loving relationship. Interestingly, Eric never asked Gail to marry him. While attending a friend's wedding, someone asked Gail when she and Eric were going to get married. Gail said, "in November." To this Eric replied, "okay," and they did.
Following graduation from college, Eric went to work at Bud's Menswear in Oxford, Alabama. He eventually transferred to the stores in Huntsville and finally in Mobile. He later worked for an engineering firm in Huntsville until he transitioned into the telecommunications industry. He worked in telecommunications for the next twenty-four years. It was that work that brought him to Loxley, Alabama in 1996.
Eric and Gail had their first child, Ryan, after they had been married for ten years. Evan soon followed and both boys were active in sports, especially football. Interestingly, Eric never participated in organized sports as a child. However, he was very supportive of his sons and attended and videoed their games. He and Gail would then open up their home to the football team after the games to watch the videos. Eric also was President of the Robertsdale High School's Booster Club.
The fact Eric never played sports growing up always bothered him. That's why he was so supportive of his sons. He would always say, "I just want to prove to my sons I can finish something."
Gail, Eric, Ryan and Evan had a happy home life. Eric was a loving husband and father. He loved his boys, even though he always wanted girls. He even named them before they were born. For example, Ryan was supposed to have been "Stephanie" and Evan was supposed to have been "Shaniqua." Actually, I made Evan's other name up.
Evan said Eric was like a "TV dad"---calm, patient and understanding." Eric also developed a parenting style that worked for each son. His parenting was measured and controlled. Even his discipline was restrained. When he had to spank the boys he would calmly direct them to get "Charlie-the-belt." It was as if "Charlie-the-belt" was punishing them and not Eric. But when corporal punishment was administered, he did so with a gentle hand.
Though Eric was generally a calm person, he also had a playful side. Eric was a practical joker. In the 1970’s he and Gail would camp at Gulf State Park with his family. He would make prints in the sand around his little sister’s tent and tell her it was alligators that had come to see her in the night.
He loved to jump out from behind doors and shout, "BOO!" and make you jump. He continued to do this until he scared a friend who had a plate of food in his hand. Eric startled the friend so bad that Eric ended up wearing the spaghetti.
Once a coworker placed a recently deceased snake near his desk. When Eric saw it he just walked by and did not react. Eric had his revenge, however. Two days later he placed a bucket with a lid on it next to his desk. Nosey co-workers could not resist opening the lid to see what was inside. Eric had tied a large plastic snake to the lid so when it was opened the snake came up with it. Yells and screams were heard all day long. Eric just grinned with delight.
Eric also loved spiders. Once he lowered a large rubber spider over their second floor railing to the first floor where his great niece Pricilla was sitting. Priscilla heard barking just as the spider fell on her. This is remembered as the "barking spider" incident. On another occasion, Gail found small Halloween ring spiders in her car air conditioning vents. Though she didn't mind the joke, the service techs who worked on the car did. Eric would also leave rubber spiders all over the house for Gail to find. After finding them she would hide them again and is still looking for some of them. But if you open the refrigerator door, don’t scream. Evan carries on the tradition because there is a big spider hanging inside the refrigerator.
Speaking of his great niece Pricilla, she proved that Eric, besides being a mensch, was also a good sport. Uncle Eric allowed Priscilla to paint his fingernails purple and put pink hair extensions in his hair.
There is one other story about Eric Gail shared with me. A great woodsman he was not. Though he liked to camp out, he was intimidated by the creatures of the forest. On a camping trip with the Hoopers, Ryan's godparents, a raccoon pilfered their chocolate chip cookies. It had managed to get under the kitchen tent and pull a Tupperware container of five dozen cookies to the lake side and had a feast. Eric decided to deal with this marauding thief. So the next day he laid in wait with an empty propane canister to take care of this nuisance. Sure enough the raccoon returned and Eric sent the canister sailing toward the raccoon but missed it. This angered the raccoon and it turned and charged Eric. Eric ran up the nearest tree scrambling the best he could. The raccoon quickly broke off the attack and seemed to say "amateur " as he lazily strolled back to the woods. Joe Hooper never let Eric forget his "bravery" that day.
While his bravery might have waivered that day in the face of an angered raccoon, Eric was a brave man. He demonstrated his bravery after he was diagnosed with glioblastoma multi-form. Following his diagnosis five years ago, his physicians gave him about eighteen months to live with treatment. Despite the gravity of his condition and grim prognosis, Eric never complained, never asked, "Why me," and never got despondent. He remained upbeat and positive. He also learned to laugh at himself and his condition as the effects of his disease began to become more apparent, especially his memory lapses. When folks would see him he would sometimes say, "I may forget who you are tomorrow so you might have to remind me." Even as his physical condition continued to deteriorate, his sweet disposition did not. When I took communion to him about a month ago, Eric still greeted me with a smile and even made light of a recent fall in the home. When I asked what he thought about his situation he smiled and said, "It is what it is."
This brings me back to Eric the mensch. Eric was a mensch because he was absolutely devoted to his family and friends. He was a steady rock you could lean on in a crisis and was always there for you.
Eric was a mensch because he had a kind and generous spirit. He always looked for the good in people and for positive resolutions in difficult situations. He was, pure and simple, a decent human being.
Eric was a mensch because he was always helping people, putting the needs of others before his own. This was especially true with regard to his family. He worked hard to provide for his family and would move onto more lucrative positions to insure his family didn't go without things.
Eric was a mensch because he found true joy in even the ordinary things in life. He had a passion for cars and loved to slalom. He enjoyed tinkering with things. He loved going to the Thrift Shop, as much for the company as anything else. And he loved nature. His photographs of sunrises and sunsets captured his love for the beauty of creation.
Eric was a mensch because he was willing to learn from others, especially his parents. For his mother Marjorie's 70th birthday, Eric wrote a wonderful tribute to her. In this tribute he mentioned an incident from his early childhood. Rather than paraphrase, I'd like to quote Eric: "As I search my childhood memories, my mind goes back to an event that is a story often told by the family but never from this perspective. I remember you working side by side with Dad to paint and fix up the small trailer we purchased to use as our weekend retreat. When it was ready, each week you would tirelessly prepare food and goodies to make our stay comfortable in that tiny trailer. Surprisingly, you helped to search and capture elusive night crawlers and even allowed Dad to keep those huge fishing worms in the refrigerator after we arrived. I remember you being undaunted by the fact a couple of those big worms had escaped and chosen one of our favorite desserts, an apple crisp, as their new habitat. I vividly remember the look of surprise on your face and then the humor you found in the incident. Little did you know that someone would write a book years later that talks about not sweating the little stuff in life. You set this example many times as you prepared me for adulthood." Eric learned from her example and never let the little things in life bother him.
Eric was a mensch because he had integrity. He was a "stand-up" guy. Remember his desire to prove to his sons he could finish something? He did with flying colors. After his doctors told him he only had eighteen months to live after his diagnoses, Eric lived for another five years! He more than finished the journey that was laid before him. He refused to be constrained by arbitrary limitations. Greater still, he lived a fine and full life in his relatively brief 65 years.
Yes, Eric was a mensch. So how do we account for this? What was his secret that allowed him to be such a kind, upright and gentle man? I believe Eric was a mensch because he actually knew how to love. Like the Apostle Paul, he knew the healing and comforting power of love.
In his First Letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul writes, “And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.” (1 Cor. 13:13). Eric was a mensch because he knew how to love extravagantly and did, in words and action. He loved with a Christ-like love and blessed those who knew him.
Yes, Eric was a mensch and today, we have much to be thankful for. We give thanks for the life he lived. We give thanks for the fact that he now abides with perfect love, our heavenly Father. We give thanks for the beautiful love with which we have been given by Eric: in his earthly roles as son, husband, father, grandfather, uncle, friend, co-worker and guide.
We give thanks that death is not the end. As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. once remarked, "Death is not a period that ends the sentence of life, but a comma that leads to something more significant. Death is not a blind alley that leads us into a state of nothing, but an open door that leads us into love immortal."
Though death is a universal experience, so too is love. While death greets us at the grave, love reaches beyond. We give thanks Eric is reaching out to us in love now and will continue to do so throughout the remainder of our earthly pilgrimage. Through love we carry his spirit, and his spirit carries us.
Though death has brought us here today, know that love carries us forward. The perfect love now uses Eric to prod us, poke us, encourage us, and sustain us. Just know that where there is love, there you will find our gracious Father and Eric, that wonderful mensch.