Color Guard’s Greatest Gift: It Helped Me Eulogize My Dad

debaseinstallPersonal Reflections

General Omar Bradley once said that bravery is the capacity to perform properly even when scared half to death. I’m not sure I truly had a grasp of that statement until September 25th, 2015. I have always believed strongly in the lessons I’ve accumulated over the years of performing and teaching in the marching arts, but the the lessons that remains steadfast and sits atop of them all, are the ones about having grace under pressure, recovery, and stepping up to the plate when you are most needed. My marching arts career has been a dream. I admit and have always admitted that it’s been a statement of luck, so much more than it has been a statement of skill. I was lucky that my parents bought a home where I was zoned for a high school with one of the best marching bands in the state of Tennessee, that made me a state champion and BOA finalist. I was lucky to have performed in the Star of Indiana  and I was lucky to have performed with the Pride of Cincinnati. It was location. It was money. It was luck. I admit that. My teaching career followed a similar path that brought me into circles I didn’t deserve to be brought into. The universe gave me this gift of the marching arts and I have no right to do anything, but say thank you.

On September 25th, 2015, I had to say goodbye to my dad. Anyone who has gone through this level of loss knows that it is without a doubt one of the hardest damn things you can possibly experience. The days headed into the funeral I functioned. I did what I had to do and went through the steps necessary to stand up strong as people offered their condolences. During the days post September 25th, it has taken everything in my power to just get out of the bed. I want to turn back time and I want to hear his voice again. I want another lecture on how I need to save more money for retirement and to remember to lock all the doors before bedtime. As we know however, time cannot go backwards. It can only go forwards.

On the day of the funeral I was prepared to sit back and listen as the minister offered words of comfort and my uncle told funny stories. I was ready for as my mom says, a good cry. The good cry however, would never come. One hour before the service was to begin, we got word that the minister couldn’t make it. My uncle asked me to help him speak so there would be more than one voice for people to hear. I was standing near this large picture of my dad from when he played high school football when the question came and to be honest, I nearly passed out. I felt the blood rush from my face and could feel my heart race. I said yes without even considering what I was saying yes to, while my mind was screaming, “You have got to be kidding me!”  The yes from my mouth came from a place deep inside, that was taught to me through many rehearsals and performances, from many instructors, when I was asked to perform when I didn’t think I had the courage to manage it.

“Yes. I will catch the toss.”
“Yes. I will perform this phrase tonight, even though I just learned it today.”
“Yes. I will get this phrase clean for the regional, although you just wrote it two hours before showtime.”

For every kid I had taught through the years and asked them to raise their own standards of excellence, I found myself looking down the same hole of fear.

From the moment I was asked to eulogize my dad, to the time we were moved into the chapel, which was about 45 minutes, I took an old sheet of paper from my purse and furiously started taking notes. I texted a friend or two for support. They coincidentally were pageantry people as well.

As my uncle spoke to open the service, my hands shook like you wouldn’t believe. In my mind was every motivating phrase I ever heard David Baker, my old high school guard director say, and every word I ever said to a scared performer, “You can do this. Remember…It’s only 5 minutes of your life.”  I knew a few things about what would happen next. I knew that my family needed me to be strong. I knew that I didn’t have the opportunity to say goodbye to my dad and this was the one thing I could offer him and I knew that I had been in tough situations before and could do this. I just had to pull from every performance I had ever done and harness the fear.

I knew in my mind that if I let myself cry before I spoke that I wouldn’t get through the eulogy. Even as the music played Leader of the Band and in the lyrics I heard the words, “…and papa I don’t think I said I loved you near enough,” I held back the tears; while my body shook. I kept thinking, “I can do this. I can do this.” It’s another thing you learn that in color guard. Keep staying positive. Believe in yourself. You have to stand up for the team, even when you are afraid to walk on the floor and do the solo, knowing it might just be a 50/50 shot you’ll catch the toss at the big moment.

When the song ended, my uncle stood up and introduced me. I had no idea that I would be speaking in that very moment. In my humorous voice I thought, “Oh my God. This is like the moment they call your guard in Dayton in 13th place, when you were expecting 8th. What do you mean they are calling our names this fast??” My feet, I think, literally froze to the floor. I can’t tell you how I made it up to the podium. I don’t even remember it. All I remember is that I had my notes and started speaking to a room of about 75 people, with mom right in front of me. Oh the moments mom and dad watched me drop a rifle or fall off a balance beam. I remember thinking as a kid, how I must have disappointed them with every drop. As an adult, you learn that they were only there to support you. They didn’t care about your drops or falls. They only cared that you were having fun and doing your best. They were simply proud of you. This however, was not a color guard show. I needed to pull this off for the family. I needed to do right by the man who always did right by me.

When I opened my mouth to speak, I looked out into the audience and did exactly what we ask every performer do in every guard and at every show. Stand up straight. Lift your head up. Make eye contact. Find the judges and make it personal. Make them want more. Don’t be afraid to show emotion and remember to smile. Enjoy yourself. Once you take care of the basic elements of performing, everything else seems to fall into place. I spoke to the audience as if I were speaking directly to my dad and telling him everything I wanted to tell him all along. I thanked him for supporting his kids and always keeping us safe. I told stories to illuminate who he was as a dad and mentioned how when I was in drum corps, it was one of the best days of my life when he came to see me win. He told me I was always a winner to him.

My dad was not a showy type of person. His daughter however, is. I get that from the activity I’ve been so richly blessed to be a part of and the activity he worked his ass off to afford me the opportunity to participate in. I thanked him for that as well. I told those who were there to offer support, that I wish I had told my dad that I loved him more and that he did it right. Just like the song says. I thanked God for helping me win the family lottery; that brought me to an activity that became my second family. It was that pageantry family that has always been there in the hard days and the ones there to support me in my loss.

In the end, I’m not sure I could have spoken on behalf of my family if it hadn’t had been for the marching arts. Sitting at the airport on my way home, I thought of every stammer, ummmm, and pause that wasn’t intended. I thought of every thing I should have and wish I had said. I was rather hard on myself, but what I did was what every performer out there in the history of the activity has done. We question every moment of our performance, because it has taught us to learn and grow through every rehearsal, performance, and moment. So dad, this is for you. Your money was well spent and thank you for always being there, even when I dropped my rifle.

Oh and FYI…Apparently I did a pretty good job, because I have had several offers to be put into people’s wills so I will speak at their funeral. I think I’m looking into it as a new career choice. Give me a call if you need a good eulogy.