Wayne Barrett: A Son’s Remembrance


I delivered the following eulogy for my father, investigative journalist Wayne Barrett, on January 27, 2017, at Our Lady of the Presentation Church in Brownsville, Brooklyn:

My father is listening, making a note, adding another to the cosmos of scribbles covering his calendar; he is answering the phone so abruptly you are unprepared to speak, bringing the full brunt of his attention to the world around him, belting out the Boss, Rod Stewart, Neil Young, his voice reaching full gravel; I am a child and he is swinging me around the dining room to Born in the U.S.A., pumping a fist on a wedding dancefloor opposite the love of his life, complaining, tailgating a tailgater, making the road just, late for my mother’s fundraiser, changing the city alongside her, each protector and adviser to the other, two inexorably entwined unstoppable forces.

He is shouting my mother’s name to celebrate her return from work, or mine, calling from his bed to lament the latest Knicks loss, disgusted by the disregard of the league for its own players, mourning the death of Tom Hayden and Nat Hentoff, sharing a pastrami lunch with his hero Jack Newfield, salivating over an FBI dossier, bent over the keys, staring down a sentence, an alliterative phrase, as if to take his eyes off the keyboard would be to let something, or someone, escape; enormous, guileless pointer fingers in full flight, stabbing down at the truth as if to try to pin it to the desk, visiting with an intern from thirty-six years ago, putting her in touch with another intern from twenty-eight years ago, passing a tip to a fellow reporter, meeting a source called X in the middle of the night on the shoulder of a highway, knocking on the door of a person he does not know, staking that person out when she does not answer, rifling through campaign donations on the beach, tanning toward the truth, being attacked, arrested, befriended, avoided.

He’s taking me boogie-boarding in a hurricane, chasing down the five hundredth rebound of the day, passing it back so we can leave on a make; he’s setting up one young intrepid journalist with another, smiling with delirious joy at the first intern baby; he’s a mailman in a high school play dying an unscripted death as he crosses the stage to make a delivery, watching Fox News so we don’t have to, getting furious at what MSNBC has not said, calling it a race game, plain and simple; he’s a kid reporting on an event for black farmers in Lynchburg, Virginia, watching his editor tear the piece to shreds with all the pride of his ignorance; he’s being woken up in the middle of the night alongside my mother by an FBI raid, driving members of the Black Liberation Army to safety, hiding them in the backseat under mounds of The People’s Voice, the publication he started right here in this neighborhood; he’s calling out the landlords who mistreat their tenants, welcoming interns, friends, and virtual strangers to stay in our house.

He’s not paying for parking; he’s picking up my mother and taking her home safely, her lifelong designated driver; he’s a St. Joe’s college student pretending to know how to fix a car to get a woman to like him, delighted with himself, mailing her an engagement ring hidden in a giant box of foam nuts; he’s making us mad, he’s making us laugh, he’s making us uncomfortable, questioning our focus, our dedication, criticizing our inability to answer our cellphones, but also that we have cellphones in the first place, pulling into Brooklyn Bridge traffic at the very last minute, flicking off the driver who dares not let him in, insisting that I not come home early to prepare him dinner, running across the Beesley’s Point Bridge, Chris Christie’s power plant fuming in the background, sitting breathless in the living room, sweating on the brick floor, calling out to my mother for “kisses.”

Just a few weeks ago, he’s eulogizing my mother’s beloved brother Johnny, making palpable once again Johnny’s presence; he’s dedicating a book to her father, who hated him; he’s eulogizing my grandmother, helping us to say goodbye to all those to whom we are not ready to say goodbye, surrounded by politicians and press at the 2017 Second Avenue Subway opening New Year’s Eve party, more or less jokingly blaming the governor for making him sick with a so-called Sicilian kiss, being fired, difficult, refusing edits; he is explaining, yet again, that the struggle is its own reward; up to the very end, he is reporting from his bed, but to say that is to suggest he could somehow have stopped: To report was to breathe, to take in the world, the information around him, and exhale an analysis, a money trail, an indictment, the exposure of another power-abusing public official. 

My mother is holding his long fingers on one of his final days, whispering to herself, and him, and me: “So many words.”

I am writing this in the office at our house on Windsor Place where so many of those words were written, which I inherited as my own when he became too ill to climb the stairs. Ironically, it is here, where he chased down facts, that I come to make things up, to write fiction. 

But over the course of the week since his death I have been in here compulsively reading everything written about him, including thirty-some beautiful odes and a Reddit thread that speculates he was murdered by the president. You might say I’ve been doing a bit of freelance fact-checking, even calling in corrections. He did not die of lung cancer, I told several major media outlets. He was a runner, not a smoker. He died of an illness you all have not heard of: interstitial lung disease. Yes, I can spell it. I stare in awe at words like legend and icon, so much more complicated to corroborate. The facts are important, though, even despite how they resist connection, and even though no pattern can be made of them. He was healthy and then he was sick and now he is gone, and he is still here too, and no amount of dogged investigation can satisfactorily explain it.

I am unable to make distinct this, the deepest, most profound personal loss of my life, from the realities of this national and global political moment; my grief is inseparable from whatever inarticulate force, or longing or rage, finally motivated me and my girlfriend, Sheila Joon, to get in the car, less than twenty-four hours after he had passed, to make the sojourn down to D.C., to join hundreds of thousands in forming a massive, undeniable voice of resistance and dissent. 

We stood for a long while, wearying, waiting for the march to begin, hearing a rumor that it may not, but when we did finally begin to inch forward, I closed my eyes and I felt him among us, with me. I had come to shout my disapproval, to add my voice to that of my people, but I fell quiet instead, let them do the shouting, and a deep solemnity came over me. To march was to mourn, and to mourn to march. 

Sometimes I found myself frozen by the intensity of his attention, unable to do what it is I have in me to do, but I am enabled and emboldened by the warm glow of his memory, by his ongoing presence, and by all of you. It’s now up to us, those who knew and loved him, as well as those who simply followed the countless miles of his copy, to embody his tenacity, his moral ruthlessness, his dogged heart, his restlessness for justice. Thank you all for coming. It means a lot to me, it means a lot to my mother, and it means a lot to my old man, the defiant trespasser, the viper, the legend.