At his funeral on Monday, our good friend Jeff Zaslow delivered his last lecture, one more powerful than the oration that vaulted him to fame.
Randy Pausch, the subject of Jeff's internationally best-selling book, The Last Lecture, tutored us about how he achieved his childhood dreams: floating in zero gravity, publishing an article in the World Book encyclopedia and designing theme park rides for Disney.
Speaking through those who knew him best before 1,500 hushed and rapt mourners at Congregation Shaarey Zedek in Southfield, Michigan, Jeff taught us about something more important: how to lead a good and emotionally resonant life.
The eulogies, of course, were given against a surreal backdrop painted with dissonant colors, the darkness of our grief contrasting wildly with the vivid and bright hues that defined Jeff's life and personality. So shocking, so unexpected was Jeff's death, so immediate are our memories, so dominant was his personality -- none of us could easily reconcile the paradox of his looming presence in, and his absence from, the sanctuary.
Weren't we with Jeff just yesterday? So readily do we summon memories of the depositions to which we willingly submitted, the idea factory that operated around-the-clock, the allegro vocal patterns, the attentive gaze and dancing eyes, the prods and encouragement, the joyfulness.
As Rabbi Joseph Krakoff suggested during his tribute, we half expected an impish Jeff, like Tom Sawyer, to appear at the funeral, laughing, playfully letting us know that the joke's on us. The same prankster who, when underneath the boardwalk in Atlantic City, would thread dollar bills through the esplanade's wooden slats, tantalizing passers-by and then pulling the money away.
But, still, Jeff spoke to us on Monday, commandeering the giant room, his bravura performance facilitated by the mediations of his three daughters, other family members, colleagues and airline pilot Capt. Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger, the subject of one of his recent books.
Jeff often befriended the people about whom he wrote. My friendship with Jeff grew out of two columns that he authored for the Wall Street Journal and were based in part on interviews he conducted of me and members of my family.
A former journalist, I appreciated his intense but unthreatening interrogation. Jeff was not the mercenary intent on getting a story at any cost. He wrote about intimate subjects, always careful to balance what he saw as two competing obligations: crafting an evocative narrative and safeguarding the integrity of his journalistic sources.
Thus, it came as no surprise to learn that the girls from Ames, the subjects of another best-selling book penned by Jeff, also traveled from out-of-town to attend his funeral.
No speaker at the ceremony focused on Jeff's celebrity or status; no one tallied awards won or books sold. The resume fodder that we so often use to assess a life's worth went unmentioned.
Awards, plaudits and achievements did not define Jeff, because they were not of overriding importance to Jeff. Nor did they dictate how others saw him. Instead, we listened to tributes that limned his capacity to touch and generosity of spirit, his impact, his love of words, his insatiable curiosity and, most importantly, the empathy and warmth that fueled his writing and the relationships in which he luxuriated.
"Can you tell whether someone is well-dressed?" Jeff once asked Bill Blass.
The designer immediately answered, "You're not."
"My dad was the least materialistic person in the world," Jeff's daughter, Alex, told us, as if we didn't know.
We learned that two things gave Jeff the most contentment: his family, first and foremost, and, second, his constant companion on the beach, amidst the crowds of Disney World and wherever else he happened to be... his cherished newspaper.
When they traveled, the five Zaslows stayed in one hotel room. Sherry and the three girls shared the two double beds. Jeff slept on the floor. But that was okay, because sleeping there would be good for his back, he said.
Jeff's phenomenal professional success comforted him; he knew his family would now be taken care of, no matter what, but success did not otherwise change him. The international acclaim that came late in his life did not make him less emotionally accessible; he did not use it to ascend to a loftier place, out of reach.
He remained grounded. His love of ideas and people were the epoxies that kept him glued to the rest of us, that made each one of us in his orbit feel special, that allowed him to shun the baubles and bangles that transfix so many. Perhaps it was his commitment to all people, not just A-listers, that placed him on the snow-swept road in Northern Michigan in the dead of winter.
During his last lecture, Jeff modestly suggested that ideas, curiosities and relationships are the stuff of happiness, the building blocks of a well-lead, meaningful life.
After the symphony of words ended, after the pall-bearers rolled the casket up the aisle, we rose from our seats and silently exited the synagogue -- uplifted and humbled by Jeff's example, still mesmerized by our loss but resolved to try to honor his ideals.
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