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By Michael McQuillan

My male generation’s toolkit did not include tears. “You grit your teeth to do the best you can with what you’ve got,” Dad said when he and Mom fought. She left home with friends, her return uncertain. His stance left me at age ten despondent. I fancied myself stone to shield my younger sister from further conflict, wary lest it breach our shut bedroom door.

“I stand on a dime apart from the past without feelings, the future in fog,” I told a therapist at thirty. “Those emotions lie dormant within you but will emerge from our work, as raw as they were in your childhood,” she warned. The tidal wave that proved her correct depressed me in a clinical sense. I cried abruptly without knowing why, though athletic felt physically spent, paced myself through each hour, free writing my thoughts to assure my own safety. Medicine, therapy and my wife’s steadfast support were safe havens that launched my relative adult security.

Now I am coping with death. Pancreatic cancer killed my brother-in-law two weeks ago. He could converse on meaningful things – the ebb and flow of relationships, how our bodies change as we age, the chaotic state of politics, what we hope to have learned from our short time on earth to pass on. That he never set out to impress was impressive. So were his courage and dignity during the diagnosis’ four-year death sentence.

Death rose on the horizon, loomed over clouds, burst through denial. Hand thrust to heart at the night’s news as pain’s balm. When I feel bad, I write. I scrawled across legal pages afterwards all morning. I sought to get right what to say at the funeral, papers piled at my feet for no line had the depth he deserved. Not until sunset did the thought dawn on me that the rational mind had purged clutter to reveal the heart’s content. What I was meant to say was plain: like Jacob (Yaakov), the namesake of my conversion to Judaism who in the Bible had wrestled an angel, I was to argue with God. I would, without notes.

The aspirational God I believe in, I said in my eulogy, manifest in risen sun, ocean waves, an infant’s birth, is meant to spiritually shape our earthly acts, to lift, not to tear down. That God took my brother-in-law, younger than I, too soon. I should have gone first. He had more to give. My life’s work is undone but his sharing had much more ahead for his family, faith, community.

Laws should benefit people, not punish out of hand, he believed, a frayed concept that as an attorney he sought to restore. He took to heart our Jewish ethic of tikkun olam, healing the world, as his synagogue’s social action chair. He spoke with moral authority since he listened and reflected sincerely. “Those who are unhappy have no need for anything in this world but people capable of giving them their attention,” Simone Weil, the French philosopher and author of the 1930s and ‘40s, wrote. My brother-in-law would have had her regard.

He and his wife had their adult sons at home at the end. The extended family’s whimsical uncle caring for cousins, the guitarist who graced Sabbath worship, found joy at Guitar Camp with Jefferson Airplane alumni and accompanied his wife’s winning fiddle contest showings, is gone.

His absence – our loss – clouds sunshine.

My tear ducts fill. I cannot cry. Dad’s words haunt my anguish. I trust Eitan Katz’ evocative Jewish melodies on YouTube to scale my psychic wall but defense is ironclad.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel cites Hasidic teachings that mourning has ascending stages from tears through silence to song. I am not – like my brother-in-law -- a musician, I say in concluding my

eulogy, but I declare I can chant a niggun, a sacred wordless song that has meant much to my family. I invite the congregation virtually and in person to add voices to mine as a chorus to cradle my brother-in-law with love at mourning’s highest stage as he journeys on toward eternity.

My toolkit expanded with need as I found myself able to sing though I still could not cry.

May my brother-in-law’s soul be at peace.


Photo credit: Karen Greisdorf
Photo credit: Karen Greisdorf

Michael McQuillan, former U.S. Senate aide, Peace Corps volunteer and history teacher, chaired the N.Y.P.D. Training Advisory Council’s Race Subcommittee and writes for The Write Launch, History News Network, Harlem World Magazine and his blog (

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