a eulogy by jeffrey's sister
this eulogy was delivered by presca ahn at jeffrey jr.'s funeral service at the church of the holy family, new york city, on june 28, 2012
And what should I do in Illyria?
My brother he is in Elysium.
This was not how it was supposed to happen. Now I am lost, I find myself on a strange shore. I had heard about what it was like here, mostly from books. But I was not prepared.
From this shore I can report back to you that it’s true what they say, about the pain that you feel when the person you love most, the person whose life you value more than your own, is taken from you.
But there is something surprising here as well, in this new world I am in: there is a feeling of madness. Every minute, I am tossed between wildly disparate realities. He is here and not here. I rejoice in him, I grieve him. I can remember the hang of his shoulders, his jaunty walk, his wince when I pinched both his cheeks, the smell of his hair. I can remember his ringing laugh. But now I also remember him as a corpse, as one who is cold and lies still and says nothing. I see his room at home, filled with the things he loved. But I also see his coffin, I see all these mourners gathered with sorrow in their faces, and I know Jeffrey is not going to come into the room, late as usual, and charm the pants off everyone.
I was telling someone last night that I had not realized how much I had planned my life around my brother. I do not know the way forward from this. I have no plans, no interests, no ambition. I have nothing that I plan to do. This is a new feeling for me. Unlike Jeffrey, I have always been a planner.
Sometimes it occurred to Jeffrey that he ought to plan more, especially in the last year, when school, his family, and the world seemed to be telling him that he needed to make a plan. But it wasn’t in his nature to do that. He liked to follow his instinct, and trusted that instinct to take him to the right place.
That special surprise has gone out of my life, of same but different. There were a lot of things my brother and I had in common: my father’s hands, my mother’s love of a good party. Also, a fondness for walking through the city, for music, for museums, for the sea. In many ways, we were the same. But oh, we were so different. And what a delight it was to have a person whose life you absolutely recognized, but who was always surprising you with his little twist on it all.
When you are eight years older than your sibling, it is hard not to act like a parent. But in my relationship with Jeffrey, the student became the master. I did try to influence my brother. But even when I did, and succeeded, he always turned around and did me one better. When he was little, I took him to the Met for the first time, and talked to him about the paintings. But before the day was out, he had gathered a crowd of museumgoers around himself as he sat on the carpet, a tiny boy in a baseball cap, drawing the Picassos in his little sketchbook. When he was younger, I influenced his music taste, and he stole all his music off my hard drive. But within two years, he was lecturing me what was new and good, listening to bands I’d never heard of, and telling me I was passé. When we were doing a college visit in late March I carted him to Yale, where I went; while he was there, he sat in on a seminar I had taken, and Jeffrey walked away from it with several pages of brilliant, thoughtful notes on Shelley and Hazlitt that I could never have made, and to top it all off, a remarkably life-like pen drawing of the professor’s head. He was always impressing me like that.
Since this is a party in Jeffrey’s honor, let me tell you some of the things my brother loved:
He loved Central Park — lazing on the Great Lawn with his friends on a nice day.
He loved indie music.
He loved making art, and the state of mind he entered when he was working on a painting or drawing.
He loved crappy TV: Bones, Dr. Who.
He loved sitcoms, anything that made him laugh; he loved a good joke, especially the dry and British kind.
He loved amusement parks, was always asking to be taken to one or to be allowed to go.
He loved putting on his headphones and letting music wash over him.
He loved walking the halls at Trinity, saying hi to people he knew and feeling like he belonged there.
He loved the ocean, looking at it, swimming in it, surfing with my father.
He loved practicing on my guitar, which he was constantly stealing from my room. He loved biking in the Hamptons, in the city.
He loved snowboarding, which he learned very young.
He loved the word anthropomorphic.
He loved baking pies— cherry, apple. Recently, he branched out into cheesecakes and macarons. As expected of someone who is both an artist and a brilliant chemist, his pastries were both beautiful and delicious.
He loved decorating his room as his own space, furnishing it, filling the cork boards with ticket stubs and Trinity paraphernalia and pins and doodles, chalking words and to-do lists on his wall in rainbow colors.
He loved junk food— Qdoba and White Castle burgers and these terrible Hungry Man meals that we had a really hard time finding in most supermarkets, probably because they are so bad for you.
He liked rich food: a good steak, rack of lamb, tartare.
He liked wearing colored socks, gingham shirts, tight jeans.
He liked fixing things around the house— electronics, especially, but really anything. He was always the one who threaded the needle on the first try, fished out something that had dropped into a hard-to-reach place.
He liked Alan Ginsberg’s “Howl.” He liked Catch-22. He liked Shakespeare.
He liked comic books.
He liked talking about his dreams over breakfast. When he was little, he went into them with a level of detail that exasperated us all; it would take ten or fifteen minutes.
Recently, he leaned more towards delivering a very dry punchline.
He loved taking long walks through Manhattan, emptying his mind from time to time and letting his thoughts take over.
I do not say this just because this is his funeral: at seventeen, Jeffrey was already a good man. With what wonder did I observe my baby brother, whom I had held in my arms when he was a small reddish infant, become a young man who surpassed the rest of his family in grace, wit, and generosity of spirit.
Then, too, there was his wisdom. Jeffrey seemed instinctually to know things that it takes most people half their lives to figure out. He knew it was more important to be good than to be great. He knew about love. He was not riddled with the spiritual narcissism that afflicts most teenagers, but looked outward all the time, at the world around him, at the people.
He valued his relationships with people: he knew that love, and all the good things that come with loving a place or a person, were what really mattered.
There were some great relationships in his life, the ones he lived for:
With kids younger than him, both at school and at this church, whom he always took care of.
With his teachers, whose esteem and friendship he so valued.
With his close friends, all of whom are here today and helping our family send him off, for whom he would do anything— take any call, at any hour, put himself out, give of himself— and defend them loyally against anyone. He was a mild mannered kid, but he knew how to have anger on other people’s behalf, to insist, to stand up.
With Penelope. He had such concern for her, such joy in her company. When my friends, usually female friends, would ask me if my handsome little brother had a girlfriend, I would inform them that he was having a far more mature romantic life in high school than any that I had managed in my whole life. I was so proud of him for choosing to love a girl who is so smart, so mature, so obviously kind.
His relationship with my father, with whom he shared a dynamic that was equal parts combative and worshipful. They were always bickering about how Jeffrey ought to be managing his life, his time. But they bickered because Jeffrey worshiped my father, and thought the world of my father’s qualities: his confidence, his intelligence, his skill at leadership, his strong sense of duty. Moreover, they were friends. There were so many things they did together: putting down the Jeep top in Amagansett, surfing, biking, watching scary movies, playing table tennis and foosball.
My mother may not realize it, but Jeffrey also worshiped her. He was guarded with my mother of late, protecting his secrets, since all teenagers have a number of secrets. But in fact, he resembled my mother in spirit more than he resembled anybody else. His joyousness, his warmth, his love of being amid a group of people, his willingness to make a fool of himself if it will make somebody laugh, his inability to hold a grudge. They also shared what I will call a very casual attitude toward linear time. When Jeffrey was little, my father and I used to call my mother and brother the Dynamic Duo— such a brilliant double act, but always a little bit late to arrive. In strange cities and on trips, it was imperative that my father and I split up and take charge of one member of the Dynamic Duo— or they’d veer off course, exploring whatever caught their eye, losing track of the time. Jeffrey always had trouble getting up on time, leaving when he said he was going to leave, and the rest of the family worried about that. But I guess he had some instinct that told him that counting the minutes was a fool’s game.
My brother made me a better person. In many ways, I lived for him— lived in the knowledge that he looked to me, and wanted to be proud of what he saw. I don’t know if he realized this, but he was the person whose respect I most wanted. Here are two sentences from Middlemarch:
Even much stronger mortals than Fred Vincy hold half their rectitude in the mind of the being they love best. “The theatre of all my actions is fallen,” said an antique personage when his chief friend was dead; and they are fortunate who get a theatre where the audience demands their best.
I have been very fortunate to have had, for seventeen years, an audience in Jeffrey. I know I speak for my parents as well when I say that I would like to continue living as if he were still around to watch, to continue living in a way that would earn his respect.
No one can tell what my brother would have done if he had had more time. But I can’t stop thinking about the possibilities. There were a lot of things he meant to do: travel, for one. He wanted to visit me in England; we were always talking about how fun it would be. He was smitten with the Renaissance artists ever since St. David’s, and he wanted to do WWOOF, maybe in Italy, after he graduated high school— travel around, make lots of sketches, and read some Latin literature, maybe learn Italian. He wanted to go to the Uffizzi again; he wanted to try sculpture, which he hadn’t had much chance to do. What else would he have done? He wanted to start a podcast for the Storyteller’s Club. Make his room look even cooler. Get his driver’s license. Get better at playing the guitar, branching out from that one Vampire Weekend song he knew. Build up his colored sock collection. When he died, I was initiating him into the world of coffee; to my disgust, he liked the very sweet espresso drinks— a honey latte at Jack’s Coffee in Amagansett, a caramel macchiato at the East Hampton Starbucks. College? He might have gone to Yale, or maybe somewhere else. Whatever career he had, it would have been something that drew on his creativity, his concern for others, and his ultimate coolness. I am certain he would have had a family. I was so looking forward to seeing what he would make of his life.
But a life is not made of deeds. It is made of relationships. I know that, with absolute certainty, because Jeffrey’s life showed it to me.
Before Jeffrey died, I had been away from New York a lot— away at college in New Haven, frequently traveling, and for the last two years, living in England. This was hard on both of us. On an impulse that I am infinitely grateful for now, I came home for an impromptu trip the week before he died. It’s really such a coincidence; there was no reason for me to come back, but I felt this sudden impulsive Jeffrey-like desire to just do it, and I did. That week we went on a long walk around Central Park; we went to brunch at Barney Greengrass; we talked about his future plans, and the novel I’ve been working on, and his painting. In Amagansett, we went out on a morning coffee date and worked on our writing, side by side, in Amagansett Square, under a chestnut tree. We played a game of tennis, very badly, since neither of us can play; but it was a good opportunity to hang out.
That weekend before he died, Jeffrey drove us from Amagansett back into the city. When my brother died he was learning to drive, and I was often the designated person riding shotgun, yelling at him every time he did something wrong. But this time, for the first time, I didn’t have to yell at him once. He was perfect: not one mistake, not one shaky move, and I felt so safe when he was driving, and told him so after we got into Manhattan. That was a memorable drive for another reason. At one point, when everyone else was asleep, we talked about how fun it would be when we were both adults, all grown up, and we could be friends. I was so looking forward to that.
I’m going to end with a poem.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground. So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains, — but the best is lost.
The answers quick & keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,
They are gone. They have gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.