Eulogy for My Brother

Delivered by Steve Awodey
2 November 2012
Unitarian Church, Burlington, Vermont.

I’d like to say a few words about my dear brother Cello.

When he was in second grade, they used to call him “Porky”; and a gang of kids who ran around the playground, terrorizing the girls I suppose, called themselves the “Porky Patrol”.  In third grade he started playing the cello, and you would see him carrying it everywhere: on the school bus, in his little league uniform, and they started calling him Cello instead, and that stuck.

I’ve been thinking about him a lot the past two weeks, and one of the things I’ve wondered is why people called him nicknames.  No one every had trouble calling me “Steve”, but people liked to call him something different.  And they weren’t teasing him — rather it was a sign of affection, a kind of endearment.  And really, throughout his life a peculiar thing about him was that most people who’ve gotten to know him have liked him.  And so I’ve wondered what it was about him that was so special, so endearing.

I suppose I’m trying to understand what made him special because, now that he’s gone, I’m trying to somehow hold onto it, and maybe by putting it into words I’ll be able to do that.

So, one thing I’ve come up with is that he was extraordinarily sensitive.  He was also unusually gentle, never mean, and incredibly good-natured.  “Tender and mild”, as we would joke.

Another thing was that he was extremely awkward, in a way that’s difficult to describe.  It’s not just that he was physically clumsy — although he was certainly extremely clumsy — but he was also somehow always out of place, he never quite fitted in.  He was somehow a little bit different — for lack of a better description.

This combination of sensitivity and differentness gave him a child-like quality that perhaps goes part way toward describing what people found so endearing.  But it also caused him to suffer in ways that most of us don’t:

– He experienced the world around him and his own emotions with an intensity that was at times, for him, unbearable.

– His differentness left him always on the edge of society — as an artist anyway, a disheveled eccentric — but even as an artist he was never in the mainstream, but always an outsider, a difficult character.

– And of course, this life outside the work-a-day world and the art establishment contributed to his chronic financial difficulties, which always weighed heavily on him — on top of his poor health and various accidents and injuries.

But by the same token, it was of course this combination of traits — his sensitivity and differentness — that gave him his distinctive perspective as an artist.  And there was something more: a strength of charater, of intellect, a drive that led him to develop his native talent, perfect his technique as a painter, hone his skill as a writer, add to his knowledge of the theory and history of art.  And that is what allowed him to produce such works of great beauty: the Apple Pickers, the Ice Walkers on Lake Champlain, the Circus Elephants.  At it’s best, his art is transcendental.  It has a tranquil harmony, a serenity, that reveals none of the turmoil or struggle in his life.  It is as though the turmoil was the price he was paying to produce the art.

Unable to function within the groves of normal society, he created for himself a way of life that suited his needs and talents.  A life of meaning, of value, of dignity.  And he thrived, in his own way, as an artist; a writer, poet, and musician; a teacher; a friend; a lover; a father, uncle, son, and brother.

The Germans have a word: Lebenskünstler — it’s one of those German words that doesn’t really translate, something like life-artist.  It’s often used as a joke, or even a put-down — but to him it applied literally.

I’ve been trying to find some meaning — not in his death, there is no sense in that — but in his life.  Some lesson he taught us, some inspiration, for myself, my children, and perhaps for you who loved and admired him.  And this is what I’ve come up with:

He took what was given him: the special sensitivity, the awkward differentness, the misfortune — and the good; and he found within himself the strength, the patience, the drive, the beauty, the love, the wit, the peace, to make his life a work of art.


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