A memory of Lee Eshleman- lunchtime, May 21, 2007
I got to be with Lee over the past 10 years, and I feel fortunate for that interaction with this wonderful person. He was kind, thoughtful, creative, and too many dozens of other great/admirable qualities to mention. I even got to collaborate with him and Ted in some of their creative projects. Especially in the last year or two, when we'd both be picking up our kids from Sunday School at the same time, or whatever, it was always a joy to see Lee.
And a part of my regret is related to that same thing. I had way too many opportunities to talk with the man, about anything either of us could have wanted to talk about (funny or otherwise), and I wasted them. Instead, I'd usually provoke him into doing improvised shtick in any of his 100 hilarious characters, where he was brilliant. Lee was one of my heroes, both personally and professionally inspiring, and so much fun.
Now this fine acquaintance/dad/colleague/inspiration is gone. And instead of spending time with his characters and masks and talent, I could have (should have) made more effort to get around all that and be with the real guy. It's only been four days. The sides are still splitting, and it's not from laughter this time.
There are so many people who were inspired by Lee's life, sometimes in just one brief meeting or a couple of shows or a video, and that's a terrific tribute to how great he and his material both were. [Guestbooks: tedandlee.com, and EMU] He accomplished amazing things. That all lives on, and we his fans will keep quoting his bits all over the place. And yet -- beyond appreciating him for the excellent things he did at his best, I can't help feeling that we all could have done better at holding onto him as a person, somehow. Or at least, seeing him more than 200 times, I could have done. Well, who knows?
It's gonna be hard to do even simple ordinary things, like reading Green Eggs and Ham (the theological allegory!) or Cinderella to my kids, without spinning off to the way Lee treated them. Bong! Bong! Bong!
The last performance of his that I saw was the "Name Sketch" that he and Ted did a number of times, for our own congregation over the years. This was just two weeks ago, on Sunday May 6th. Ted conducts Lee and three other singers as a choir, and they sing a song that eventually names every one of the more than 100 children in the congregation. The song keeps getting interrupted by all kinds of hilarious stuff, of course; but every kid is honored to hear his/her own name as part of the piece. And the way Lee always declaimed the name of Gabe, his own son, so proudly as part of that....
Well, I got to greet Lee in the hallway both before and after that classic and profound bit, that Sunday two weeks ago; and instead of focusing on that wonderful piece they were doing, for all the kids, it was just one more occasion where I "could have" pressed for more connection with Lee the man. He was so good at his job, at doing his real/transparent/vulnerable characters with so much depth, I couldn't read him...to find his reality beside his characters. But, I should have been paying better attention anyway, not so easily distracted by the way he touched everybody so deeply, whether he was making them laugh or not.
Now instead of reliving his performances, and rehashing his seemingly limitless potential as a creative person, I'd rather have him just walk back in and be around for the next 40 years or so. I got to be with Lee over the past 10 years, and I feel fortunate for that interaction with this wonderful person. I wish I had got to know him better. The future was supposed to allow that.
Enough moping for the moment; time to go to his funeral.
Bradley Lehman (age 42; Lee was 43)
p.s. May 22: The funeral yesterday was beautiful. There were more than 1000 people there, and doubtless many more in spirit. I was especially touched by the 20-minute video tribute played twice before it started. And during the service, the new songs written for the occasion (and so sensitively performed/improvised) each by Jeff Raught and Ken Medema. And Ted's writing and reading of a biographical sketch of Lee. Perfect.
Friday night May 18th at Community Mennonite Church, we had a 90-minute and wordless candlelighting service for Lee and the congregation. During that, I offered three piano pieces as portrait/memory of Lee, and for the edification of the congregation: Scott Joplin's "Solace - A Mexican Serenade", Johannes Brahms's Intermezzo in E-flat (Op 117 #1), and "Nimrod" from Edward Elgar's "Enigma Variations". Several people told me afterward, about that very slow Joplin piece: it was like having Lee go ambling up there, in the character of a sad clown.