Thoughts On Life and Saying Goodbye

It has been nine days of lots of emotions.  The drive to Idaho helped me reflect and gather my thoughts.  My dad lived a full life, and contributed to the lives of so many people by simply being a fun-loving, caring person.  This was very evident from all the messages we received, and the packed church for his funeral.  The service truly reflected my dad…religion was downplayed, but evident in the caring and sharing.  There were some moments of reflection, and laughter broke out several times.  We had a photo display with pictures that spanned his lifetime, from a very young boy growing up in a working class home through the stages of his life through being a grandfather.  Photos from his grandparents’ house, with his mom and her sisters, from the navy, his wedding to my mom, their first child, the growth of the family and its contraction as my sister no longer appears and then my mom deteriorated before leaving us.  But it also showed how his family grew with my brother’s family growing and then my own and then my sister’s.  There were photos of his active life, goofy faces he would make, even a “fashion show” he was part of for Mother’s Day at the church.

There were people there from throughout dad’s life, and people I have known all my life.  There were also people I had never met before, people whose lives he touched in his simple, caring way.  Dad always liked to see people laugh and be happy.  He hated to see  anyone sad or down.  It did not matter who you were, he did not care.  If you were sad or unhappy, it bothered him and he would do what he could to help.  It was the essence of the man.

We had a closed casket funeral.  We wanted to remember him as he was, not as a lifeless body in a casket.  And the photos brought him to life, back into our lives.  He was present with us, in the thoughts and hearts of everyone there and everyone remembering him this past week.  It was also the time I broke the most.  My dad was one of those people who is everyone’s friend, every kid’s father, and the town shared it with us.  It was still very deeply personal, feeling the pain of loss, of not having someone in my life who has been there for me for fifty years.

We have also spent the past week working on his effects…in his house, in a storage unit, the knickknacks accumulated over seventy-nine years.  Some things have only emotional attachment, loaded with memories, and you look at some things and think “why in the hell was he keeping this???”  But that was also my dad, the ultimate pack rat.  But even the things we want to keep, that mean something to us, are just things.  Dad lives on in us.

Dad’s funeral was on Friday.  On Saturday, I stopped in to see a friend I have not seen in years to talk and catch up.  He was doing well, back to his normal jovial self after getting through years of medical issues I can definitely understand.  It could not have been two hours later that I received a call from him…he had just learned his father had died as well, a week after mine.  His father had been sick for years, and now my friend and his sisters and just beginning to go through the same things I just went through with my brother and sister.  My friend and his family are definitely in my thoughts.

I also found out today another friend’s parents are in bad shape…people I had seen at my dad’s funeral.  His father suffered a severe stroke while driving with his mother, crossed the median and oncoming traffic before hitting a tree.  His dad is in pretty bad shape from the stroke, and his mother has a compression fracture in her spine so she is in considerable pain.  It has not been a good August.  But that is also part of life.  These people enter our lives, and they never leave because they are part of who we are.

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The Long Road Home: Day Four

I’m finally all set in my hotel room in Coeur d’Alene.  I drove into the Dave Smith Car Lot Kellogg right around 12:30 this afternoon.  Some things change…some things stay the same.  One thing that has definitely changed in Kellogg over the past 30 years is that it is MUCH greener than when I grew up.  It is in fact much greener than it has been in almost a hundred years.  But that really should not be a surprise.  Nature has a tendency to bounce back once we stop polluting the environment with toxins, even if it takes decades (or in the case of some places centuries).

Dad loved Kellogg, warts and all.  It did not matter that the canyon he grew up in was called Deadwood Gulch, and for good reason.  That little gully is basically blocked off from all access now.  He enjoyed the people, the memories, all that Kellogg had been.  He was tied to the place, and tomorrow the place will celebrate his life and all he contributed to the lives of so many who grew up there as it says goodbye.

We have received countless notes, messages, cards, text messages, and emails from people whose lives dad touched.  Those people live all over the world now, but started in that little town tucked in the western foothills of the Bitterroots in northern Idaho.  Dad had a full life, with lots of ups and downs, just like the little town he called home his entire life.  He saw his wife nearly die from chronic diseases, buried a daughter, watched his other children get college degrees, buried his wife, and had one son move to Texas and then Ohio while the other son went overseas to the Middle East.  He watched his town thrive, even when it was choking on industrial pollution, watched it nearly die from an economic catastrophe, and witnessed it slowly creep back into being a viable community.  We could have never convinced him to leave, and we never tried.  It was home.

The Long Road Home: Day Three

Dateline: Butte, Montana and 546 miles farther down the road.

I feel the need to explain something before proceeding.  Although a writer is not bound to offer explanations for their work, I believe that such is necessary for this post.  I want to avoid as much confusion and misunderstanding as possible.  I know that readers come to any work with their own preset baggage, and view what they read through the prism of their own lived experience.  It is something I have worked to avoid, and avoiding as many of our pre-existing prejudices as possible was part of my training in history.  One must be on constant alert for them, or at least recognize that they can color our interpretation of anything we read.

What should be understood, if it has not become apparent already, is that I loved my father very much.  He was on balance a wonderful, caring person.  But I also have the ability to do what psychologists call “compartmentalization”.  I can be in a given situation or relationship, “put” it in one part of my brain, and analyze it separately in another part of my brain.  This can lead me to new or novel conclusions that others would not have considered.  While this might sound kind of cool, my second wife can attest to it also being problematic.

Further, I do not accept the concept of having anyone as a hero.  When we put someone up on a pedestal, we hold them up to an unreasonable standard and make them a caricature of who they really are.  We take away their humanity and replace it with our own wants and desires for someone to follow.  I cannot remember a time of having a hero, but rather people I respected and admired…people I knew had their own faults.

We all have faults.  It is the essence of being human.  I recognize a plethora of faults in myself, and while I try to work on them I realize I will never rid myself of them all.  I can only minimize their impact.  Knowing that we are all less than what we want to be, and less than what anyone who idolizes believes us to be extends to everyone, including our parents.

With mom’s illnesses in the 1970s, we learned at very young ages that our parents were not perfect, indestructible beings.  We saw just how fragile we all are, including our parents.  We understood that our parents were regular people, with their own flaws and shortcomings.  I find it interesting that some people never fully recognize this about their parents.

Dad was no exception (none exist).  As I mentioned yesterday, I know he had his own self-doubts.  He was unsure of himself in many ways, and avoided taking any risks as much as possible.  I believe this held him back, kept him from realizing much of his own potential.  I accept it was his decision, but I also sensed some regret on his part.

Another aspect of my father that virtually no one ever saw was his temper.  He had a terrible temper when he was younger.  And most people do not know he spent a night in jail because of it.  Those of you who know me from when I was much younger might also remember my temper, and my son has one as well.  But we all learned to control it.  Dad never gave anyone an inkling of what he was capable of, and both I and my son have our tempers under strict control that rarely gets loosened.

Dad avoided situations where his temper might erupt.  He avoided confrontation as much as possible.  He never disciplined us growing up, leaving that to my mom (who at 4’11” could still swing a paddle pretty damn hard).  We were always told it was because he was afraid he would break our bones – he had rather large hands for a man who was at best 5’5″.  But I think there was more to it.  I think he was afraid of losing control.

Dad also had trouble with “caring too much”.  He found it difficult to tell people “no” (guess who we went to first when we wanted something).  He would give well beyond his ability to give and give too much.  I know – he did with me when I was going through the roughest patch in my life.  Just ask my brother and sister.  This could often result in dad doing without and suffering himself.  The problem was that he would do this when some of the people asking were not really in the dire situations they claimed and it would get him in financial trouble.

This wanting to please could also get dad in trouble with mom.  He never was much of a heavy drinker, and almost always kept it to a few beers when he did go out.  But there were a couple of times while we were growing up where he would stay out with some of his friends who came to town and drink way too much.  I can only remember it happening once or twice, but it did (and to be honest it is rather funny to remember it now).

His dedication to being involved in the community could also be a two-edged sword.  I remember times as a child when it felt like he was more a father to everyone else in town than to us.  It could be painful at times.

But then as is very evident from all the support we have received the past few days, dad was creating a much broader legacy than simply in his own family.  Everyone who has kept us in their thoughts and wished us all the best has a piece of my father living in their spirit.  You are sharing his passing with us.  Dad was never wealthy, never held any position of public office, and never achieved any lofty presence in business.  What dad did was much more important: he helped make a community that includes all of us.  He was not perfect, he was not a hero, he was not a caricature: he was a flawed, loving person who added to all of our lives, and I will miss him terribly.

The Long Road Home: Day One

As many of my friends and acquaintances know, my dad passed away early Saturday morning.  This is not the first death in our immediate family.  In fact death has been a constant companion.  My mom was diagnosed with lupus in the summer of 1970, and battled in the rest of her life until complications from a prior stroke took her in 1997.  There were times in the early 1970s when us kids would spend the night at our neighbors’ house for weeks with our mom in the hospital 70 miles away, not knowing if we were going to be told she was gone when we woke up.  When you are 8 or 9 years old, that tends to have an impact on how you view life.

Death tried to take dad in 1978 when he was diagnosed with cancer, but death was again thwarted.  So in January 1979 it struck my parents’ oldest child.  My older sister died a couple months before her 22nd birthday and being the first in  the family to get a college degree.  The circumstances were mysterious (she died in an apartment fire), but there was really nothing anyone could prove.  CSI only works on television.  So my sister died in 1979, my mom in 1997, and now my dad in 2014.

We all handle death differently, and through experience I have learned we handle each death differently.  When my sister died, I was literally in shock for a few months.  We had been woken up early in the morning by people from our church coming to tell us what had happened.  My dad’s Uncle Bob was the one to tell my brother and me that “there had been an accident and Debby was gone”.  I was the last one to break down after holding it in for months.  It was not until late one night, I am not sure if I had turned 15 yet or not, and I could not hold it in any longer.  The tears flowed, and I had to go upstairs (my brother and I shared a bedroom in the basement) to find my mom for comfort.

It was different when my mom died.  I had watched her suffer with all kinds of chronic illnesses for years, several of which could have claimed her life at any point.  When she had a stroke in 1995, she fought through it for two years.  If anything, it freed her to be more vocal about some of the things we had only mentioned in the house.  Or at least she now had an excuse.  I was living in Houston at the time, and flew back to bury her next to my sister.  It was strange when mom passed…we had anticipated it for years.  When she was gone, I missed her but I also felt a sense of relief for her.  I had watched her suffer for so long, with little or no break from the pain, discomfort, and exhaustion that accompany chronic illness.  I am sure I cried at missing her at some point, but I cannot remember when I did.

And now our dad is gone.  Many people know he had to deal with a pseudo-aneurysm around his heart this past March.  He had “arrested” (died) several times then, but they had always brought him back.  He successfully went through surgery, and although he had some setbacks and was severely weakened by the experience, he was continuing to improve.  My sister had even seen him with doctors and Friday and he was in good spirits and had a decent prognosis.  And then he was gone.  The attendants at the rest home he was at had just been in his room, and had gone to get him something and returned to find him on his room’s floor.  They tried CPR, but there was no rhythm at all coming from his heart.  There was nothing to shock back into working order.

And so we are all returning home to northern Idaho to bury another family member.  My brother is flying in from Oman with his wife.  Their daughter is flying in from elsewhere in the country, and my son lives in Seattle so he will be able to drive over.  I live in Ohio, and I had a decision to make on how to get home.  I chose to drive the 2,000 miles.  It’s a four day drive, but I find the solitude refreshing.  I have often been accused of thinking too much (when I find such a notion ridiculous).  It gives me time to think and reflect on life, on my parents, my sister who’s gone, what I have done with my own life.  I know I am still a little in shock about dad’s death.  It was not unexpected.  I had anticipated receiving the news ever since his episode in March.

But no matter how much you anticipate someone’s passing, it still comes as a shock when it occurs.

So today I drove the first 725 miles of the trip back, sitting here in my hotel room in Albert Lea, Minnesota, thinking about the things that ran through my mind on the road:  my dad, my mom, my sister, my living siblings, my son and his fiance, my new grandson, where I am at in life, the beautiful formations clouds make as they prepare for summer storms, the unique beauty of the rolling prairies of Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa as I drive through them.

How do I feel?  I honestly do not know yet.  I miss my dad, and I knew many people would.  The text messages and posts I have received on Facebook all tell the story of a man who had a huge impact on the lives of countless people by just being himself.  Do I miss him?  Absolutely.  But in a sense he is not dead.  He lives on in the memories of all the people he touched, and the lives of people he never met because of those people who knew him.  He lives on in me and my brother and my sister.  He lives on in my son, and he will live on in my grandson because of my son, and not just genetically.   He will live on in my brother’s daughter and her daughter, in my sister’s son.  Whether you believe in an afterlife or not, his spirit lives on in us.

I will try to post again tomorrow from Spearfish, South Dakota.  I am on Interstate 90 now, so no road changes from here to Idaho.