Following is a transcript of a memorial service held for David Foster Wallace on 26 October 2008 at Underwood Park in Normal, Illinois. Twenty-one friends and relatives attended, including Jim and Sally Wallace, the author’s parents. The first speaker, whom I’ve identified as J, recorded and transcribed the event. The transcript has never before been published. I believe it will be valuable to the many writers and fans who have taken an interest in Wallace’s personal life.
Wallace taught at Illinois State University in Normal from 1993 to 2002. He hanged himself five years ago today, on 12 September 2008. As will be evident, he was active in local AA meetings in Bloomington-Normal, and it is mostly for this reason I’ve used only first initials when identifying speakers from the community. I’ve also edited certain passages, denoted by […] or [redacted]. —SRJP
Dave was a writer. And you know, I’m a compulsive reader—D1 will tell you about that a little. I can’t walk by a book without stopping and picking it up and starting reading it. One way or another, I went out—and Dave was trying to, I didn’t know this, but he was trying to finish this great big huge book Infinite Jest. But somebody, I don’t know who in the hell in was, suggested that Dave needed something alive in that house to kind of get his juices going. But he got a black lab pup, adolescent, just breaking out, just becoming aware of his sexuality—the dog was. He just couldn’t handle life. And Dave was down to his last few I think. And he was trying to type on the computer and he was kicking the dog.
I said “Dave”—later on I found out that Dave was truly a genius. He knew everything about everything. But he didn’t know a damn thing about dogs. And who was it? I went out and bought a cage for a dog. And that helped a lot. But this pup needed, I thought, maybe a little exercise. And that’s when I fell in love with Dave’s pup and Dave and the whole scheme of the thing. And I’d take that dog to Miller Park and let him loose, and he’d run like crazy. I’d chase him all over the place and we’d go out to one of the lakes around here, an of course he’d go out flopping into the water, get green slime all over him. I’d bring him back and Dave would get madder than hell and goes, “Why do you do this? Why do you bring this dog back so dirty?” I said, “What am I supposed to do?” He says, “Well clean him up.” Well, so I start—Dave said, “Put him through a car wash.” […]
And I’ve got so many stories. I’m not going to do them all except that for a while—I wish J2 were here. I’d invite 3 or 4 guys over and we’d—I’d have baked chicken. And I’d tell these fellows that I baked the chicken. But I’d bought them at Schnucks for 4 bucks. Dave would always—we’d finish dinner and Dave would look around and say, “By the way, can I?” And he got pieces off of every plate, all the scraps, for the dog. […]
But he acquired another dog Drone, a big one. And Drone got sick. Drone got leukemia. Dave puts this mutt through—well, anyways, he’s trying to save him—he had a course of chemo and the dog got well and everything was fine. But about 6 months or a year later, Drone came out of remission. Dave wanted the vet to try another course of chemo and she wouldn’t do it, she says, “No it’s not going to help.” And so she had to put the dog down. Came out to the house. And he had, you know, put the dog down—Dave was holding the dog, and that guy couldn’t write for 6 months. […]
I think Dave was the first friend of my crazy new step dad that I ever met. Umm, and it just kept getting stranger. Dave was always at our house on all the holidays, filling us with useless information. But when times got hard, we went through those trying teenage years, Dave was there. Dave gave me a lot of confidence, and a lot of strength, and a lot of really good advice. He was my Uncle Dave and he always took care of us, when we needed it. He always made sure that we knew how important we are, and how special we are, and how smart we are, and he was always there.
[…] So what I knew about Dave maybe 5 or so years as his sponsor and talks we had, some trips we took, short trips. I remember one. And we went to a campout in Memphis. And there was a bunch of us on the motorcycles. Dave took my car with a few guys that didn’t have a ride and we went down there. And while we were there, we went downtown. And we were on Veale St. and the conversation we had had nothing to do with the blues and the partying and the things like that. But what upset Dave there was the horses and carriages. And I have no doubt if he had brought enough money, he’d have bought the horses and turned them loose. […]
I also remember when I was at his house—I don’t even remember if we were renovating or moving a TV tower, but we were doing something with it one day and how into it was like he could be. I mean, I remember when he went to the bread store and stayed there working because he was going to write a couple sentences about it. And more or less work there if you will. But this TV tower was—and while we were there—the dogs again, of course always his dogs and I used to shake my head, you know, and see him. But building the steps so they could get into bed with their bad hips. Because that was Dave. Dave wanted steps so the dog could have an easier time getting into bed to sleep with him.
Part of me thinks he understands why the world was too hard for Dave. Certainly he was plenty good for it. So I wish him well. And his family. That’s all I have.
I just wanted to more or less pay homage to Dave as a writer. Writing is always something that I’ve cared about deeply. I know how difficult it is to write. I know how much feeling he had to tolerate really to write even the simplest thing. And of course we all know that he wrote very complicated things, very intense things. And I think it takes a lot of integrity, and I think it takes a lot of resilience. And Dave showed a lot of those character traits merely by making the choice to write. It was a choice to consciously feel, really until he could no longer, I guess, tolerate that. Some people—you go through life—I’m [redacted], we’re a similar age, and I respect him and admire him. And really there’s no words for it, when it comes right down to it. Thanks.
I didn’t have the pleasure of knowing your son, your brother. Being here makes me wish that I had. I can remember the first time I ever heard his name, though. We were on D’s porch and there were beetles in the corner and they were alive. And he caught me like sneaking them in my hand and throwing them out the door and he says, “Do you know Dave Wallace?” And he started telling me about this man and I didn’t really understand the connection. But what a gentle soul.
I think my favorite thing to remember about Dave is his sense of humor. I can’t count all the times I laughed, you know, at the things he’d said. But he’d just moved into that house on Woodrig and his heat was broke. Something was wrong with the house, with the furnace. So I went over there and I was working on the furnace. And like true Dave fashion, he asked me everything about what I was doing, trying figure out what it all was. And a little later he goes, “You know, I think I’m afraid of my house.” And he’d just moved in, he hadn’t been there a month or so. He was kind of thumbs with the tools. And so he’d said, “I got a problem with a door bell”—I think it was. So I opened up his electrical panel for him and it was a nightmare. And I started telling him that there’s a couple things that were very dangerous. I told him about it and I could just see his eyes getting bigger and bigger and bigger. I said, “Don’t worry about it Dave. I’ve got a friend that’s an electrician. I’ll call him for you.” And then he calmed down a little bit.
I really got to make an apology to him because I got a cruel streak in me. And Dave, you know as free of a thinker that he was, he was really a creature of habit. And when we’d go to the meeting he’d always sit in the same chair, same corner. So if I get there early, I’d go sit in his chair. And I’d do it because I knew it made him nervous. And he’d come in, he’d talk to me, and he’d fidget on one foot and the other, and then he’d go over and look at another chair and come back. And I’d say, “Dave, do you want me to move? Sorry, I know you like this chair.” He says, “No, no you can stay there.” So I’d really make him squirm for a few minutes before I’d get up and give him his chair.
I met Dave through all of you. I didn’t know him well. But the thing that I remember the most is when we would be at a party or gathering or something, he would come into the room and there was just a light. He just had a lightness about him and I don’t know if it was sense of humor or what. But he just made the room brighter. So I’m going to miss that.
I can’t say that I’d known Dave that well. But I do have a lovely story of sitting in an airport, reading a book, and Dave comes over, sits down, and starts talking to me. And of course he poses the book so he can see the title and he says, “This is J’s recommended reading, isn’t it?” And it was Studs Lonigan. And, you know, he had a way of putting people at ease. You know—I don’t know. I miss his voice. I loved to listen to him share in meetings. And the fact that it came from a different angle. And for those of us that come from a different angle, it’s always nice to hear that. And I’ll always be grateful for that. And I am so sorry for your loss.
I remember when Dave first came to Bloomington and was coming to meetings at St. Matthews. And I shared something in a meeting and he came up to me after the meeting and said, “I think we’re like minded.” And when Dave would share in meetings, he and I would really connect. And we would talk about it after the meeting. And there seemed to be this—something symbiotic about it. But I would say, “You know you should come over for dinner sometime. K and I would love to have you.” And I think that kind of intimacy was more difficult for him than the intimacy which was really our truth that we shared at meetings. But I loved him. And I know he loved me, I know he loved us. And I was so angry. I was so angry when he didn’t call us and when he didn’t know how loved he was. Because that light that S1 was talking about, it just emitted from him, it just beamed from him. But there was such a darkness in him, that he did so many things to relieve, to light up.
Dave shared a story once with—there was a newcomer in a meeting—no, I think somebody had come back from a relapse. And he shared this story about when he was in the halfway house. And he said they always had like these people that’d come in and they would kind of educate you about some life skills. And this person talked about the AIDS virus and how it lives in very dark places, dark, damp places. And that it’s not airborne. And he made the relationship for the newcomer about alcoholism. And that once you talk about it, it loses its power over you. Once you talk about what’s going on, it loses its power. And that person just lit up with this confidence that they could, you know, stay sober, they could do this. He was very generous with sharing his experience with people, his struggles, and—I don’t know.
I don’t know what his life was like in California. I only would hear stories from J every once in a while. And I think I dropped him a Christmas card. I don’t know what was going on for him. But I know that when he was here, he was connected. He was connected. And he made a lot of effort to stay connected. And I’m just so sorry that he was in so much pain and that we weren’t with him. That’s all.
I remember meeting David for the first time at the Lighthouse at the Sunday night meeting that I chaired. And David used to come all the time. And he was like one of the few people from the outside besides myself and N. And he was there every Sunday night. And one of the things I always liked was, like what J said, he stole my thunder a little bit because I really did like the way he shared things and the way that he was able to express himself and articulate in a way that I was able to relate to. And I didn’t know anything about him, what he did for a living or anything, for like a year. I just knew that he seemed to be awfully bright. As time went on, I got to know him better. And I knew the intensity of him going to meetings on a regular basis. It’d give me a lot of hope. And it was a good example for me to continue to do what I was doing. And I’ll miss him in a way that probably—you know, only in my own way. And I think everybody here will, you know. That’s about it. Thanks.
I’m going to miss Dave. And I loved him. That’s all.
[…] I think the one thing that I read of Dave’s that I enjoyed the most was when he took the cruise and he was fishing off the back of the liner. And they thought that he was some kind of an inspector because he kept appearing in different spots in the ship, asking questions. And he was just gathering material. But then—some things that I have read of Dave’s and there was an entirely different, if I could hear it. And C had a tape that she’d picked up somewhere. And to hear Dave read his own work was extremely moving, extremely moving. Now I couldn’t get the same from just reading it. And I always loved to hear him talk. I miss him and love him.
I met Dave at St. Matt’s also. And I always wondered—he would sit across the room from me and he’d always, whenever he got up to get coffee or go to the restroom, he’d have that case with him. He’d carry it. And I thought, “What the hell is he doing?” And that’s when he was writing and he always hung onto it. […]
I met Dave even before I met AA. Some friends of mine had recommended that I go to this therapy group. And I was going to this group and I really didn’t think that the group was listening to me and everything I said was attacked. And I was really feeling unsure of myself and really getting pretty hopeless. And there was this one guy in the group that when he spoke, everything he said made so much sense. And there was one day when I had gotten to the point where I wasn’t going to open my mouth anymore. I was just going to sit and listen. And all of a sudden, he started talking in a very vague way, without naming names or giving any specific incidence, but he described exactly what I’d been experiencing in this group. And I sat there shell-shocked. Because this group had been telling me that I was wrong, I was dishonest, I was—all kinds of things that I didn’t think were true. And here was this guy that I didn’t know except his name was Dave. And he was speaking the truth about me and for me. It was in that moment that I fell in love with this guy.
And a little while later, I decided that I needed some help. I went to a psychiatrist to see if he could help me. And he sent me to AA. He thought drinking every day was a problem. And I start going to the St. Matt’s noon meeting. And Dave was there. And so many times—it’s like we all experience, so many times I would be sitting there listening to what people were sharing on the topic and all of a sudden, Dave would share and he would be sharing a lot of what I’d been thinking, only he always said it so much more eloquently and clearly than I could have ever organized it. And yet it never sounded organized when he said it. It was always so beautiful. And he always said the truth, which just amazed me. […]
You know, and I am just in awe of the fact that Dave got to be part of my everyday life. That he was there for a lot of our Christmases. But it’s going to be really hard to get out our Christmas box this year because we always put Dave’s stocking on the mantle with everybody else’s so that if he decided to come visit, his stocking would be there. […]
J had asked me to read a poem that K2 had written:
Our Dave is dead; that youngish man
We ne’er shall see him more;
He used to wear his socks with holes,
And college sweatshirt torn.
His heart was open as the day,
His knees to feet quite lanky;
His hair was some inclined to gray,
He dressed it in a hankie.
The fairer sex he misconstrued,
So late in life he wedded;
In friendship he was brave and true,
His underpants were shredded.
He modest merit sought to find,
Yet craved and dodged regard;
Such countervailing plagued his mind,
And made the earthly hard.
His neighbors thought him far too left,
As he ran with hybrid mutts;
The mammals, they are so bereft
They howl each night at dusk.
His “Dave-ness,” hid from scrutiny,
He did not bring to bare;
At home he watched some bad TV,
Whilst fondling curious hair.
His worldly goods were theoretic,
He shunned the ATM;
O! his hammering was pathetic,
Much nimbler ’twas he with pen.
Thus so disturbed by anxious doubt,
His peaceful moments scant;
That soft-voiced, lovely, whiskered lout
Has left us here to rant.
I met Dave in 1996 and I picture him sitting in the corner. And a few weeks ago, a friend who hadn’t come around for a while, came in expecting him to be in the corner—and cried for a solid hour. And I understood that. I love him very much. And I just—I’m a mom—I don’t know what you say. Something T said about how he would say what we were thinking only did it so much better. And when I read his writing, I think how well he represents those of us who think differently but can’t say it. He speaks for all of us that have that peculiar twist. You know when I heard, a friend called me—a friend called because a friend had called because a friend had called. And within a couple days, we were all—I don’t know if I have ever been so sad. And my first thought was, I know what N said, “Dave, if only you could know how much we love you.” […]
But when—I know he struggled with the God thing because, you know, he liked to understand everything and it just defies understanding. So when he left, I found a quote from CJ Jung who is very important to our history. And it said, “Bidden or not, God is present.” And I gave it to him. And I think he understood that. I understood that. It doesn’t matter where I’m at today, God’s there with me. It doesn’t matter where he is, we’re there with him. And with you.
I’m so grateful to get to meet you. You know, when we go to meetings and we’re in pain, sometimes we talk about—we come and we bring our pain and then when we leave, it’s kind of gone. But the reason it’s gone is because everybody else took a little piece with them. And I hope we can do that for you today.
[…] I took him through the Firestone place out here. And I took C and her family through the Firestone place, they show you how to make tires and stuff. And I got her family and her mom and dad, all of them through in about a quarter of the time I got Dave through. He would stand there and watch every move somebody was making and then question, say, “Why do they do that first?” But anyway, he questioned every move. And I’m thinking, “He’s going to write a book about making a tire. He’s going to write a story about making a tire.” […]
Taking your own life, they say, is the most selfish thing in the world. I don’t believe that. I don’t believe that. I believe that the pain gets so unbearable, so unbearable, it can’t go on anymore, you know. And I believe that’s what happened.
He’s one of the most generous people in the world. The way he’d come dressed to meetings in bandana and all that stuff, you just knew it. And he did the same thing to me what B did. We don’t have chairs. We just sit in a certain area all the time, so people just think “that’s S2’s chair, that’s B2’s whatever.” So he sat in mine, you know. And I went and stood in front of him and didn’t say a word. He gets up and then I go sit in his. Just this little game. Just loved to have fun, you know.
[…] The world lost a man. And my family, if the person passes away, we’re on the ground two days later. And you guys will keep going through this over and over and over. And sometime, someday, you’ll get to rest. I hope this CD comes out. And that’s all I got.
Sally Wallace (the author’s mother):
I actually have a couple stories that might make people smile about David as a little boy. When he was about I’d say 2 1/2 or 3, you might imagine that David was not the most docile of little boys. He did not sit with his hands folded and tap his foot on a happy tune. So it had been quite a day. And I remember standing in front of him and leaning way over so I could look in his eyes. And I said, “Behave.” He took a step back and looked up at me and said, “I am have.”
And this one—T has heard these and I beg her indulgence. But here we go. When he was about 7, and Amy was about 5, they always had lunch on a school day. David would come home from second grade. And Amy would be all set to go to afternoon kindergarten. And we would usually read or talk or something. And David had been a little curious about the origins of life, particularly his. Asked some leading questions and I answered just enough to satisfy but not to over burden him.
But I knew, I knew, the big one was coming at some point. And I did my homework. I was ready for I thought anything. Well low and behold, one noon—and this might be relevant and it might not—we were having hotdogs, yeah relevant. I was standing at the sink and I heard David’s voice behind me saying, “Well, how does the sperm get to the egg?” And I thought, “Oh here we go.” So I turned around and I explained the whole thing, the physiology of the entire beautiful thing. I talked about how when people grow up, and they love each other very much, they want their bodies to be close. We had names for this, we had names for this, we had names for the act. And there, that was it.
And I looked at David and his eyes were this big. And he looked at me and said, “And you get upset when I put my finger in my nose?”