Public speaking on the radio and public speaking in front of an audience elicit different emotions in me. Sitting inside of a studio in front of a mic is second nature and fits like a glove. Standing in front of a live audience is where I fit in with the majority of people; I don’t like it at all. I could walk into a studio, right now, sit down, and feel right at home. I don’t understand why I don’t feel the same way in front of a group of people. Maybe its the focus?
There have been several times when it would have been awkward or even disadvantageous for me to back out of a speaking engagement or live public appearance. I would rather cancel the event and go rock climbing or skydiving. Turning down the speaking event, though, would have been the cowardly thing to do.
For some reason, I am sometimes asked to deliver eulogies at funerals. These are situations that are a little less uncomfortable than other public speaking occasions.
My first eulogy was in 1988 during the funeral service for Ricky, a close friend and former roommate. When I received the phone call to request that I deliver the speech at Ricky’s service, I accepted. I felt honored to be asked to be a part of his sending off. It helped that I was on very friendly terms with Ricky’s family. It was also motivating that the location of the rites was in San Francisco.
I soon wrote out speaking points about what I knew about Ricky, his likes and dislikes. I made sure to center the speech around his devotion to civil and human rights. He was a very empathetic young man with a fiery dedication to whatever causes he embraced. The eulogy needed to reflect this kindness and the good humor with which he lived his life. This speech was going to be one of the most difficult things I’d ever tried to do.
I typed out the notes on index cards. (I didn’t have a PC, then.) Then, practiced the speech in front of my full-length mirror a few times. I felt reasonably confident.
Shortly after boarding the airliner in Omaha, I had the feeling that I may have left out some important detail or aspect of Ricky’s life. I ended up almost completely rewriting the eulogy in flight. By the time the plane landed at San Francisco International Airport, I was pleased with the speech’s content. After being greeted by Ricky’s sister, I borrowed her typewriter so I could type up the notes for the next day’s funeral.
I only remember the anxiety and unease during the first few hours at the hotel. It was impossible to drop off to sleep, so I went for a long walk. The sights, sounds, and smells of my favorite city on Earth were exactly what I needed to feel at ease. When I returned to my room, I quickly dropped off to a restful sleep.
The next morning, I awakened an hour before the alarm was set to buzz. There was no going back to sleep. The tension had returned. It was even stronger. I barely remember showering then dressing in my best suit. I got out the notecards and studied them again. I wanted to rewrite the speech, but fought off the desire. Downstairs, I ordered coffee and breakfast. I don’t remember consuming any of it. I was a bundle of nerves. Breathing exercises and calming visualizations served only to increase my anxiety.
I walked out of the hotel. Carl the fog was nestled at the peak of California Street, I laughed that San Franciscans had given their famous fog a name. The anxiety began melting away. Then, on a streetcar, I watched the blank faces of total strangers and felt more or less at home. By the time I walked into the church doors, I no longer wanted to faint away nor have an anxiety attack. I was glad that I’d applied an extra coating of anti-perspirant, though.
On cue, I walked from the front pew and ascended the few steps to the rostrum. Again, I felt tense. I looked over the congregation and just paused. I silently, but deeply breathed in, exhaled totally, then breathed in again. Determination and intent took over my emotions. I don’t remember very much about the delivery of the speech, except that it felt like I was on auto-pilot. There were two instances that the congregation appropriately laughed and chuckled. Mostly, I recall that every set of eyes were watching me. Best of all, Ricky’s family gently smiled.
I closed my eulogy and thanked the family for inviting me to speak. Then I returned to the pew. The sense of relief and fulfillment was almost overwhelming. The service resumed in the traditional, practiced manner of funerals. I don’t have any specific recollection of it. I was too consumed by euphoria to notice, anyway. Afterwards, the family graciously thanked me, then I traced my way back to the hotel.
The satisfying feeling of fulfillment stayed with me for the remainder of the day, and the next. As a reward, I visited some of my favorite places in the city. On the last day, I went to Sunset Beach in hopes of seeing the setting Sun.
However, I was greeted and embraced by Carl the fog. The last minutes, before heading to the airport, were spent in damp, but happy silence.