On Thursday, January 15, Beth Chanock, the mother of my closest friend, Stephen, died abruptly and unexpectedly of heart failure at the age of 80 in Maryland. Anne, Kate, and I flew down the next day. When we arrived Stephen picked us up at the airport and asked me to deliver the eulogy at the memorial service the next day. I wrote this late that night and early the next morning, and I am posting it here in Beth’s honor and in gratitude for everything that the Chanock family has meant to me — and to hundreds of others.
If we know one thing about love, it is that in this world love takes many forms.
And if we know one thing about love in a single person’s life, it is that love is made manifest in many ways.
We are all here because we loved Beth Chanock. And we are all here because we were loved by Beth Chanock.
I would like each of you to pick an image of her in your mind, and to hold that image for a few minutes while I speak about her.
I would be willing to bet that most of you have chosen an image that includes her beautiful smile. I see her whole face glowing with delight, with the remarkable widow’s peak that crowned her dark and then grey hair and her sparkling eyes crinkled with amusement – a face animated by the generous laughter that bubbled out of her when she thought something was funny.
And she thought a lot of things were funny.
Over the last two days, as people have learned of her death and have reached out to her family, Stephen and Lizette have noticed how many people use the metaphor of family to describe their bond to Beth.
She “made me feel like a member of her family,” so many people have said.
“She was another sister to me.”
“She was a second mother to me.”
“She was a grandmother to me and to my circle of friends.”
And we were all family to her.
Each of us has our own particular memories, our own stories about how she changed us. Each of us can point to a moment when she entered our lives and how our lives were never again the same.
For some, like Bob or Stephen or Lizette, or Nicholas or Christopher or Alexander or Sabrina, Beth’s presence and Beth’s gifts quite literally give birth to a whole new universe of life and joy.
For others, like me, like so many of you, Beth swirled into view with the brilliant energy of the dancer that she always was. It was almost like being seated on the edge of a party, and having this fantastic woman sweep out of nowhere and grab your hand, and tug you with laughter on to the dance floor.
From the moment I met Beth Chanock she embraced me unconditionally. Then she drew me – as did all of us — round and round, through her humor, and her delight, and her absolutely inexhaustible generosity, pulling us, no matter how clumsy or resistant we might at first be, through new steps and new places on the dance floor of own lives.
Each of us has our own memories. Mine include those first moments when I met the astonishing Stephen Chanock and – was it possible? – his equally astonishing brother and mother and father. They all welcomed me with magnetic warmth. Bob gave me a nickname and told me funny stories and opened new doors to palaces of the mind and of culture. Foster teased me with some wry comment and challenged me always to be better than I thought I could be. Beth met me at the door with food, and books, and towels to protect my lap from the drool of their four St. Bernards.
And what a patient family they were. More than thirty years ago, when Stephen and Foster were going to be away for a summer, and Beth found I needed a place to stay, she placed me into their rooms – for three months.
I never found out whether they had been informed of this in advance.
Around this time I was taking Chinese and Vietnamese cooking lessons and knowing of Bob and Beth’s love for these cuisines, I decided to express my appreciation through an eight course meal. I think it is fair to say that in launching on this project, in almost every sense including the literal one, I had “bitten off more than I could chew.”
In the course of my preparations I used every single bowl and pot and plate and platter in the house. I wore out the blade of every knife and fired up the oven and every burner on the stove and the grill on the porch. I emptied and filled and re-emptied and re-filled the refrigerator with concoctions. I covered every inch of Chanock kitchen with evidence of my culinary genius.
I think I splattered enough sesame oil and minced ginger and chopped vegetables and marinated meats and exotic spices on myself and on the counters, floors, and some even say the ceiling of Beth’s kitchen to have served at least twice the number of people who came that night. But even as her amusement – and horror – mounted as she witnessed the well-intentioned devastation being visited on her own home, she offered me nothing but encouragement.
When at about 11 PM – four hours late — I finally presented them with my hot and sour soup, my shrimp toasts and spring rolls, my salted black bean spiced chicken, my five spiced marinated drumsticks with apricot sauce, and my beef with oyster sauce all accompanied by mountains of singed rice and some colossally inedible failure of a dessert she complimented me on this stupendously foolhardy project. I beamed with pride as Bob and Beth ate.
I did not learn until much later that it took Beth and a small army of cleaners about a week to put that kitchen back into shape. She knew that my errors flowed from my impossible aspiration to offer a proportional response to their unending generosity.
We all have our memories. At some later moment, when the transmission of my crumbling 1971 Buick Skylark finally fell abruptly out on to the ground not far from her house, she drove over to meet me, parked her car a block away, and then phoned AAA, a service to which I could not afford to subscribe. She calmly told them that she had been driving her friend’s car and something seemed to be wrong with it, and would they mind towing it to a service station? They agreed, thus saving me the $150 that would have represented a week of my salary if I had had it in the bank.
And that same summer, Beth sat by my bedside for most of two nights and three days as I battled a fever that shot up to 103 degrees. She calmed my hallucinations, reassuring me in her gentle, deep, soft voice, all the while stroking my head with a cold cloth and offering me timely medication and fluids.
And so it went, in large ways and small, through the thirty-five years I knew her. Through such experiences – and hundreds of others – that Beth manifested her love to me, a love disconnected from my own worthiness to receive it and my impoverished capacity to return in kind.
As Stephen reminded me last night, when I graduated from college, she gave me the key to her house so that I would know that the welcome that had been mine in the past would remain forever mine in the future. She did the same thing literally and figuratively to many of us here.
There is a secret here. Somewhere in her life Beth discovered how to drill right down through the bedrock that seems to limit many of our individual capacities to love. Unlike many of us she drew from some unlimited aquifer of compassion, and that enabled her to water and tend and feed such a huge botanical garden of human specimens that she discovered and collected throughout her life.
What a magnificent parade of people came through her house, many of them drooping and parched when they arrived but blooming with new strength and vitality when they left her presence and her care.
At the center of her garden was her husband Bob, into whose arms she threw herself with characteristic abandon as a young woman, and to whom she devoted a full lifetime of passion and attention.
And also at the center were her sons, first Foster and then Stephen. And then the daughters that her sons brought home, Dorie and Lizette, and then her grandchildren, for whom she felt the most expansive and thrilling joy and pride, and in whose honor I believe the verb “to dote” was invented.
Our lives seem to be bounded and organized by chronological time. We enter the flow of each other’s lives at particular moments, and we float together as the unstoppable currents of time carry us downstream, a great tubing party through the canyons of decades.
But in a rare moment like this, we are permitted to step off on to the bank, and to climb to some higher point, and from there we can suddenly see the canyons, rivers and tributaries from a distance – where they came from, how they intertwine. Time falls away and we can experience the unity of a person’s life.
We can think about Beth’s life from beginning to end, from her days in Massachusetts, to her time in California and Ohio and Japan and Maryland, all in one piece. We can feel, simultaneously, the joy of having known her and the sorrow of having lost her.
And if we climb a little higher, we can see how her the light from her life illuminates our own, not only in the past, but in the future, as we carry forward the gifts she gave to us and as we commit ourselves, in her name, to passing similar gifts on to others.
And if we rise higher still, we can see what a truly stupendous world we live in, all these lives bound together, through interconnections in time and space, held in unfathomable unity — from the most infinitely small pieces of life all the way out past our own world to the riotous galaxies in whose midst we are all swirling, at this very moment, and in this very place.
We navigate our lives in comfortable vessels of familiarity that are themselves floating across an ocean of mystery.
We don’t know the boundaries or limits of love, or whether such boundaries or limits even exist. We receive glimpses of the infinite from the intricacies that lie within and around us, from the songs of interwoven happiness and the light-filled rhythm of human lives, but at some point these eventually draw us out to the vast and silent expanses — beyond our experience and even our existence.
All seems bound together by a power and continuity that we do not comprehend and cannot master, and about which we can only speak through the limits of our language and the depths of our faith.
But if there is one thing we know about love, it is that in this world it takes many forms. And it has many names.
And one of those names was Beth.
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