Editorial Note: My Uncle Steven Silverbrook passed away unexpectedly on Saturday, January 15, 2017, at the age of 58. Steve had Tourette Syndrome, and, though never formally diagnosed, likely fell somewhere on the Autism spectrum. Below is the eulogy I delivered at his funeral yesterday. I share this with the hope that its message – different does not mean less – reaches those who are, know, or love someone with a mental disability.
(This photograph was taken after Uncle Steve and I read the Constitution together)
During this past holiday season, while Uncle Steve and I were eating lunch together, in the midst of a conversation about a host of other topics, Steve turned to me with a very serious look on his face and asked – “Why do you think I’m still here? There must be a reason I’ve survived so many health scares over the last several years?” I was unprepared to reply, and as I fumbled for an adequate answer to his question, Steve moved on to another topic. And, so, I’d like to spend this morning answering Steve’s question.
For me, Uncle Steve’s purpose was to demonstrate to this family that different does not mean less, and his larger mission was for the members of this family to go forth and share that message with others.
Looking back, I can remember the precise moment Uncle Steve changed how I view people who are different, who don’t fit the mold. Cheryl and I were about 12 or 13 years old at the time, and we went to a shopping mall with Uncle Steve. Steve, as you all know, was a large man, and had a tendency to grimace and would occasionally have vocal outbursts in public places. I watched as some of the passerbys stared judgmentally at Uncle Steve or laughed or whispered. The first feeling I had was embarrassment, then indignation. I remember feeling angry that people were judging Uncle Steve solely based on his physical appearance and vocal tics; not on the beautiful human being he was on the inside. Then and there, I decided that I would never be like the other people at the shopping mall that day, and I would always stand proudly beside my uncle. I know Cheryl and Sean feel the same way.
Through the example of our parents and because of our love for Steve, we also learned that even though it is sometimes stressful, and, yes, even inconvenient to help and support those who are struggling with life, it is important to give your time and your love to those in need. And though he often asked for things – and he did like things – especially cars, he owned 43 of them, and diecast model cars, he owned over 400 – if you really probed him, especially toward the end of his life, Steve would tell you that what he wanted most was: time and attention.
And though, as all humans, we often fell short in this regard, Steve was always there pushing us (sometimes, perhaps, unwittingly) to be more patient, more compassionate, and more understanding.
And so even though Steve was different and did struggle with his life, and his health, he made an impact. Not just for our immediate family, but for all those who he came in contact with. Everyone in this room undoubtedly has a story or has heard a story that is so uniquely, entertainingly Steve.
Steve loved music and shared that love with those around him. Whether it was one of his unique original songs or raps or such classics – as Billy Don’t be a Hero or really anything by Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey – Steve was able to use music to entertain and even disarm those around him.
One of my favorite stories comes from Steve’s childhood when he apparently jumped on the lunchroom table and started singing the Crocodile Rock at the top of his lungs. Years later, when Steve accompanied me and Cheryl and some of our friends to a Dave Matthews Band concert, Steve was able to whip up the crowd by chanting “We want Ants” (one of Dave’s iconic songs). He got the whole audience to join in and Dave came out and played Ants as an encore. He made an impact.
Steve loved very deeply. He was a lover of animals, especially his 4 cocker spaniels – Sasha, Vodka, Winston and Caesar. I really do believe he cared about every person he met. Many of our childhood friends had the opportunity to get to know Steve over the years. He remembered every single friend who ever got into his car with us, and, every time I visited with him – including this past Wednesday – he would rattle through the list of names and ask me how everyone was doing. After my report, he would tell me how proud he was of “his kids,” and, in his typical cheeky way, he would claim some credit for the success of his nieces and nephew and their network of friends. In the days since Steve’s death, many of these friends have reached out to share their favorite memories of Steve. He made an impact.
I have the privilege of knowing that Steve’s deepest love and devotion was reserved for his two nieces and nephew. Steve really came into our lives shortly before my parents divorced and he proved instrumental in helping us navigate split custody arrangements. Steve drove us everywhere – to and from school, to and from different activities and friends’ houses, and, perhaps, most importantly, he would come to get us whenever we needed to escape a difficult situation. During that period in our lives, Steve was much more than our driver, he was also a teacher – teaching all three of us how to drive – a confidant, and our friend. And, in turn, we were his friends, confidants, and also teachers – teaching Steve anything from math and spelling to Jazzercise. It goes without saying, he made an impact.
In the last conversation Steve had with my dad the night before he passed away, Steve told my dad that even though they frequently bickered (as siblings often do) he loved my dad. My dad said, “I love you too” and went to sleep. My last words to Steve several days prior were also “I love you too.” Steve’s life was difficult and his death was sudden, but I believe in the last moments of his life, he knew that as a brother and uncle, he was loved.
My one regret, is that you seldom get the chance to share just how much a person means to you when they are alive. If I had it all to do all over again, I would have written this eulogy when Steve was alive and shared it with him, so that when he would ask me why he was still here, I could very clearly tell him why.
I only hope that the meaning that perhaps eluded Steve in life is found in his untimely death. Steve made me a better woman and I hope that in continuing to share his story, he will help make all of us better and more compassionate people. And, in that way, Steve can be as the title of one of his favorite songs – evergreen.