The kitchen phone rang on a frigid Christmas morning, slicing its way through the warm voices of the big, loud family packed into Susan's Omaha home.
The phone rang long ago, back when people mounted telephones on their kitchen walls.
It rang when Susan didn't know what this sort of phone call felt like, what she would lose from phone calls like these, what she would gain.
The phone rang, and so Susan did what you do. She answered.
Your dad is gone, said the doctor's voice on the other end of the line.
The Koenigs went on with Christmas dinner that day. They quietly chewed their way through bites of turkey and mashed potatoes and so many conflicted memories of the family patriarch who would no longer occupy his seat at the Christmas table. Between bites, they spoke in hushed tones about the funeral.
Who among them would write the eulogy? Who would stand up and read it?
Eyes turned to the fifth of the eight Koenig kids, the one-time college activist, the then-28-year-old lawyer who could write or talk or argue her way for or against anything, the host of this Christmas gathering. Susan felt the eyes on her and made her decision — a choice that she didn't yet know was lifelong.
She nodded her head, and answered.
Sure, I will do it, she said. I will be the family eulogist.
Susan's First Rule of Eulogies: Tell the Truth in a Big-Hearted Way.
Dad was a drunk. Not a hapless-but-lovable drunk. A drunk who lost jobs and wasted most of the family's money. A drunk who sat sullenly in his recliner inside their little house at Sixth and Cedar for years. A drunk who parented by belt.
A mean drunk.
This presented Susan with an understandable problem as she sat down to write Paul Anton Koenig's eulogy on the day after Christmas 1983.
On one hand, she didn't like phony eulogies, the kind that portray the man in the casket as a saint when everyone sitting in the pews knows he's a sinner.
On the other hand, this was still her father. This was still the husband of her beloved mother, Sally, who had worked tough jobs and raised eight kids while he drank.
What would mom want to hear? What about her siblings, most of whom had strained or nonexistent relationships with their dad? What would they want out of her eulogy?
As she struggled to write, Susan kept returning to a single memory from childhood.
In the memory she was a first-grader, and she had gotten suddenly, inexplicably ill. She needed to see a doctor right now.
And in her memory her father scooped her up in his strong arms. He scooped her up and he carried her to the car, and together they drove to the hospital.
A copy of her dad's eulogy — the first of four that Susan would give for members of her immediate family — no longer exists. But what Susan remembers is that she didn't sugarcoat it.
She talked about how her father fell short, but she pointed out that in some way we all fall short. She talked about his lost dreams, but she pointed out that we all lose dreams, too.
She talked about the pain, the struggle, the ever-present disappointment. But then she told the story of her sickness, and her dad's reaction, and how she felt as he carried her to the car.
In that moment, she felt loved. For that briefest of moments, her dad made her feel safe.
“I think it gives some comfort to people, to let them know they shared something with the person who is gone,” Susan says. “Even if we only got glimpses of their talents and their dreams. Even if all we really shared with that person was their suffering, and ours.”
Susan's Second Rule of Eulogies: Don't Let What Already Exists Determine What You Will Create
Tim fixed things.
The sixth of eight Koenig kids graduated from Omaha Central, moved south, traveled home to visit friends ... and, without fail, ended up on a ladder at the family home on Cedar Street, reshingling mom's roof.
When he moved back to Omaha in 1990, after many of his friends and a boyfriend had died of AIDS, Tim installed a picket fence in midtown. He retiled bathrooms up and down Dodge Street. He installed eight chandeliers in a Fairacres mansion.
And even as the fat melted off his body, even as he lost the vision in his left eye, even as he grew so fatigued that he could work for only an hour, he kept fixing things.
He took the screened-in porch at his sister Susan's house in Country Club, built walls, put in a skylight and installed some beautiful doors that opened out to the patio.
It became Susan's family's favorite room. The room where they all piled onto the love seat. The room where they talked and laughed.
“Don't let what already exists determine what you will create,” he counseled Susan as he remodeled that screened-in porch into a family room.
He quit fixing things for good in November 1994, another victim of a virus back when that virus usually ended one way.
Susan's thought about Tim's advice the day she sat down to write his eulogy. He had packed so much into his short life: Lived in three states, opened a restaurant, collected friends and fans, grew close to his nieces and nephews, and spent every Wednesday of his last year with Susan, eating at restaurants and shopping for groceries and, mostly, just talking.
But what he had built with his hands would live on, even after the nieces and nephews grew up and some of the restaurants closed and the conversations faded.
What would remain was the advice, which was on its surface about home remodeling and in truth about so much more.
And so at the funeral Susan told a story from the last month of Tim's life. He came home from the hospital to his west Omaha apartment. He asked Susan to grab him a calendar.
She wondered: Why do you need a calendar?
So I can choose a day, he said, a day that won't interfere with a holiday or anyone's birthday. I will die on that day.
“Don't let what already exists determine what you will create,” Susan repeated recently.
Tim fixed things that way, his own way. He lived that way. He even managed to die that way, too.
He passed away peacefully inside his apartment on Nov. 26, 1994. It was no one's birthday. It was two full days after Thanksgiving.
Tim was 35 years old.
Susan's Third Rule of Eulogies: Follow the Leader
An interesting thing happened after Susan's dad died.
Mom lived for a quarter-century. And she didn't just live. She lived.
She saved money and retired early from her job in the central supply department at Bergan Mercy Medical Center. She saved more money and started making small upgrades to the little house on Cedar Street. She stayed in that same home. She didn't have a car, so she navigated all over town on Omaha city buses.
She took the bus to see new friends, and when those friends started to die, she made more. She met her grandchildren, and then her great-grandchildren, and then a great-great-grandchild. And she met a new man. She fell in love.
After she turned 85, mom talked to Susan about her funeral. It needs to be at St. Frances Cabrini, obviously. And I would like “Ave Maria” sung at the service, please. Thank you.
Her polite manner, her gratitude at small kindnesses, her happiness never failed, even as her heart did.
So when Susan sat down to write Marcella Ann “Sally” Sandman's eulogy, it came easily.
Her mother's life was a long, full life. And it contained countless clues for the mourners who would crowd into the Catholic church's pews.
And so at the funeral, Susan read that life out loud, like you read an instruction manual: Gratefulness. Generosity. Pride. Independence. And most of all, an ability to take so many of life's punches — body blows that would drop so many of us to the canvas — and remain standing. Remain standing, and smiling, and hopeful.
“Mom was a gift, and you were a gift to her,” Susan began her eulogy at her mother's funeral. “Who Mom was is the best of who I long to be.”
Susan's Fourth Rule of Eulogies: Remember to Breathe
John never did like taking directions.
That never mattered so much as on a day in 2000 when a grim-faced doctor stood before Susan's second husband, the man she planned to spend the rest of her life with.
The 55-year-old seemed the picture of health: He ran, lifted weights. Took supplements. Loved vegetables.
But his stomach had been bothering him, so he reluctantly agreed to a rare doctor visit.
That exam turned into a test, and then a wait for lab results and then the grim-faced doctor who stood before Susan's husband.
You have prostate cancer. Stage 4. Radiation, chemo, surgery ... none of that will work, because the cancer is all over your body.
You have two years to live. Maybe two and a half.
Except John didn't like to take directions. He liked to make his own.
I'm going to heal, he told Susan.
John sold his small business. Didn't need the stress. He traveled to Massachusetts to study macrobiotics and to San Diego to learn about the raw food movement.
He started eating vast quantities of wheat grass. He started to grow wheat grass to eat. He started to grow so much wheat grass that he supplied restaurants with the leftover.
He flew to Canada for experimental injections, and to Mexico to check out experimental treatments, and to Italy for a three-week dream vacation with Susan.
He kept doctor visits to a minimum because they made him feel sick. He traveled to the couple's country retreat outside of Crescent, Iowa, because it made him feel well.
He enrolled in a wellness program. He trained as a wellness coach. And then he did something that stunned even Susan, who had long since ceased to be stunned.
He started to counsel other terminally ill cancer patients. He counseled them through their final days. After they were eulogized, he counseled their spouses and their children.
He continued even as he started getting tired quickly, and started losing too much weight, and started to have trouble walking.
By 2010, Susan would get out the necessary folders, arrange his papers for him at his desk, and then help him to walk across the room so he could sit down and answer a call from another cancer patient.
It happened in stages, life's last great unfolding. First Susan lost her dance partner. Then her companion on walks around the neighborhood. She lost her lover.
And at the very end, maybe most painful of all, she lost the voice of the man she had spent so many years discussing the world with, talking about love and hatred, hopes and fears, problems and solutions, life and death. The only person in the world around whom she could be completely and fiercely honest. Whatever she said, she knew John would understand.
“That's a wonderful thing if you can find it, and I was able to have that with him until the very, very end.”
John David Mixan had been given two years to live. He lived 11.
He died in the middle of the night on Sept. 14, 2011, as his wife slept next to him.
So when Susan sat down to write her husband's eulogy, she had so very many things to say. She wanted to tell them that he was Superman, and also how hard he prayed as his body collapsed in on itself. She wanted to tell them that he was perfect, and that he also sometimes fell into deep depression. She wanted them to taste the crunch of the vegetables from his garden and see his view of the Grand Canyon and feel the way she felt when he would look at her and say, “You are bee-you-teee-full!”
But maybe the most fascinating part of the six single-spaced pages are the 16 words she typed on her computer but never read to the congregation.
She wrote the words to give her a little nudge forward and inserted them into the text in places where she thought she might double over with grief. She typed them in parts where just glancing at the eulogy made her sob so hard she could no longer speak.
It's a single word, cloaked in parentheses. The same word, 16 different times, to remind her.
Armed with that reminder, Susan strode to the lectern. She remembered to breathe. She read her husband's eulogy in a loud, clear voice, so that even the people in the back row of the packed church could hear.
She did it because she now understands the fifth and final rule of eulogies.
They aren't for the man in the casket, even though a full two years later she still misses him every single hour. They aren't even for the widow steadying herself at the lectern.
They are for the people out there in the pews, people struggling in the darkness, people searching for the strength to get up tomorrow.
At their very best, they are a tiny nudge forward for all of us, a reminder to breathe.
“And that,” Susan says, “is what a good eulogy can do.”
Susan Koenig just turned 58. She's a lawyer-turned-life coach. When we talked recently, she told me she hopes to live to 100.