Upper Left Coast

Thoughts on politics, faith, sports and other random topics from a red state sympathizer in indigo-blue Portland, Oregon.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Goodbye, Dad

After holding a brain tumor at bay for almost seven years, my dad joined the bass section of God's chorus last week. He was 62. I wrote this as a tribute to the man who shaped my life in so many ways.

I love you, dad.

==========================

Hello, my name is Ken, and I’m an internet-aholic.

I know that’s an odd way to start a memorial service tribute, but bear with me — it’s true. I’m an internet nerd. I spend way too much of my own time reading what people with too much time on their hands decide to write. I even have my own blog, so I can spend my time writing things for others who have too much time on their hands.

Most of the time, I read and write about politics. But shortly after I learned that my dad would soon join the great Barbershop chorus in the sky, the ‘net was suddenly filled with stories of life and death, and of people who managed to fill every nook and cranny of their lives with joy.

I've also been reading a book called Wild at Heart, by an author named John Eldredge. The book’s premise is that men are endowed by their creator with three innate desires — a battle to fight; an adventure to live; and a beauty to rescue.

As I’ve thought over the last few weeks about my father’s life, I’ve realized that I could see those desires in him.

So, since all those writers were so kind to provide material just for me, I’m going to use their wisdom and talent as I attempt to talk about my dad.

Going slightly out of order, I first want to talk about the adventures my dad has lived.

I didn’t realize it until I sat down to write this out, but dad really was more adventurous than I gave him credit. Much of that adventure came before the tumor as a younger, stronger man, but he loved the outdoors and the adventures that the outdoors provided.

Perhaps his most obvious adventure was camping. I don’t know if this activity preceded my mom, but they actually sought out the opportunity to set up camp in the middle of nowhere.

Over the years, we took camping trips all over the western United States and Canada, and I have wonderful memories of those trips, even such simple things as playing Frisbee with my dad, or fishing with him on a Colorado lake while trying not to get carted off by the mosquitos.

As my parents got older, they upgraded a little bit, moving from a tent to a camper to a tent trailer, and finally to the ultimate camping experience — a timeshare. (Is that camping?)

A few years ago, after mom & dad upgraded to the timeshare, my family inherited the tent trailer. This gave me a new appreciation for their efforts; frankly, I don’t know they did it. It’s hard enough preparing for a trip to the beach, much less a 2,000-mile drive to the Rocky Mountains and back. But I firmly believe dad did that because of his love of the outdoors and his love for his family.

There were other adventures as well. Some of you know dad was a soap box derby racer as a boy, and those cars hung in his step-mom’s garage for years before he put them in his own garage. I remember seeing those as a kid and thinking they looked cool and would be fun — now I remember them and I think: “He rode downhill in those? Without any brakes? What was he thinking?”

Another activity was skiing. As a boy, I remember dad waking up at o’dark thirty to join his buddies on a day-trip for skiing in the Sierras. He even took me skiing once as a boy, but I was too chicken to head down the hill. Without showing the frustration I might feel in his shoes, he just stuck me between his skis, and led me down to the bottom.

I’m scarred to this day from the terror of that run, which might explain why I never went skiing with him again until I was an adult. However, I have great memories of that activity in more recent years. The best time was shortly after my nephew Joshua was born. Mom and dad came to Salt Lake City to see their first grandchild, and I flew out for an early birthday present to myself. Dad skied three straight days, the first one by himself, but still skied circles around his boys despite the fact that he was almost twice our age at that point.

After the tumor, these things became more of a challenge. I think this was disappointing for him because he still wanted that life of adventure, but his body couldn’t keep up with his desires.

I was reminded of his adventurous side just minutes after learning of dad’s death. I was in my office at work, so I locked up and walked outside, slowly coming to the realization that the inevitable was now permanent reality. As I walked out into the parking lot, I was almost startled by a gorgeous Fall afternoon. The colors seemed more vibrant, the sunset more stunning, the crisp fall air more soothing. It was as if God was saying, “I know you are in pain. But I am here. I made all this for you. And if you think it’s beautiful down there, just imagine how it looks from your dad’s perspective. Your dad is getting a taste of adventure unlike any he’s ever seen.”

So those were some of his adventures. Now, to the beauty he lived to rescue.

The beauty, obviously, is my mom. Perhaps more than any other character trait, the thing I admired most in my father was his commitment to and love for his wife. There has never been a time — and I do mean never — when I doubted his love for her.

When we were kids, they never argued in front of us, but they always made a point of smooching in front of us, leading to groans from my brother and me.

And it’s been that way practically from the moment they met. Mom told me recently of their courtship, and it made the half-year courtships that my brother and I had with our wives look drawn out in comparison. They met in mid-November, had a first date two weeks later, and were engaged about two weeks after that. Granted, they didn’t get married for another eight months, but they got the important stuff out of the way quickly. By comparison, my brother proposed to his wife after 7-1/2 weeks, and I waited an eternity — four months.

Mom and dad’s love affair started four decades ago, and never stopped. I think Mom always felt part of the adventure, always knew she was dad’s beloved. So it was only fitting that God gave her a little extra time to demonstrate a few final acts of love for her husband — to care for the man who had swept her off her feet 41 years ago next month. And it was an honor for me to be a small part of that.

One feeling I think of when contemplating my parents’ relationship is joy — the joy they took in each other. I read something about that emotion recently while perusing a blog called Sand in the Gears, which is run by a man named Tony Woodlief. Tony and his wife Celeste live in the midwest, and are the parents of three boys — Caleb, Eli and Isaac. But before those three boys, just two days before my 29th birthday, Tony and Celeste gave birth to a baby girl, Caroline. The joy of their firstborn turned dark a few months after her third birthday, when Caroline was diagnosed with a brain tumor on her brainstem. The doctors gave her half a year, and then only with chemotherapy, but she lasted just four short, painful months. She died on Oct. 19, 1999 — just three months before my father was diagnosed with his tumor, and seven years to the day before dad’s death.

I don’t pretend to compare the death of my father to the pain of losing a little girl, even if the cause was similar. But I tell you this to note where paths unexpectedly cross, and so you will understand what I’m about to read. This is a recent piece by Mr. Woodlief about the joys and sorrows in his life. He wrote:
I remember after Caleb was born, and the pain of losing Caroline was still so sharp, that I avoided loving him. It wasn't on purpose, and I only realized later that I had done it, but there it was, a wall to protect against ever facing the terror again.

But that little boy's smiles are like an ocean, and each wave piled into the next until I found myself loving him as fiercely as I had ever loved my daughter . . . I used to think I would never laugh again. I thought there could never be joy again. And yet my house is filled with it.

So we're back to the slow, quiet miracle. Sometimes when I am alone I whisper "thank you," over and over. I never knew it could be this way. And do you know the most exciting thing, the realization that makes me tremble as I consider it? It's the fact that there could be other miracles ahead, slowly building until you or I recognize them for what they are, and find ourselves stumbling about in a world that isn't as dark as we once thought it, whispering: "Thank you."

. . . It's a nice feeling, isn't it, to know that there's joy, even in the midst of sadness? Tomorrow night will mark seven years since she breathed her last in our arms. I realized the other day that I've been deeply sad and soul-weary for weeks, and that it's always this way when the weather cools and the light changes and my body remembers. You think it will fade and then you smell her or hear a squeal that sounds like her and it hits you full in the chest, and you remember that she is etched into you so that it will never not hurt.

But there is this joy, in the midst of it. I think somehow they're intertwined, and I don't understand why. I only know that now, even in this immense sadness like a black lake, I can whisper thanks. Even here there is hope, for me, for you, for anyone with eyes to see it.
Tony Woodlief has found a way to rejoice, even in the midst of incredible, lingering sadness. And I want to tell you that even as we weep over my dad, we have a lot to be joyful about. We can take joy in the fact that my mom had had five extra years with the man she loves, and that his children and grandchildren received similar gifts. We can take joy in the fact that dad is sitting at the throne of heaven, worshipping the Creator, not because of anything dad did on earth, but because the Creator took such joy in his children that he offered a way to spend eternity in paradise. And we can take joy in the fact that — as Mr. Woodlief said — there could be other miracles ahead, miracles that will give us no choice but to recognize that the world isn't as dark as we once thought. The joy and sorrow may fade, but they are etched into us such that they will never fully disappear.

So thus far, I’ve talked about the adventures he lived and the beauty he rescued. Now I want to finish with the battles he fought.

The most obvious was his battle against the thing that eventually took his life. When dad was first diagnosed with the tumor, he did everything the doctors suggested — surgery, radiation, chemotherapy. He dealt with the nausea and the exhaustion because he saw the larger goal.

And then, when the doctors said there was nothing else they could do and that he should say his good-byes within a year, he figuratively stuck out his tongue and gave them a raspberry. He and my mom explored every alternative treatment they could find, and participated in several.

Why did he do that? Because he still had life to live. He was 56 years old, and had every intention of living well beyond 57. He wanted to spend more time with the woman of his dreams. He had grandchildren to play with.

But perhaps just as importantly, he had an example to set. In the words of Winston Churchill: Never, never, never give up.

And it worked. Instead of succumbing to his one-year death sentence, dad lived another six and a half years.

For several years after the initial tumor, I kept track of dad’s surgery anniversary, keeping the deadline in my head, waiting for the message that the tumor had returned. I was so thrilled that my father had outlived the diagnosis, so thankful God had given us more time, that I even called dad to wish him a happy anniversary.

By the fourth or fifth anniversary, I thought about it in passing, but it did not hold the same weight as previous anniversaries. It was becoming old hat. And this year, I’m not sure I even thought about it. I suspect I began to take his survival as a given, instead of the miracle that it was.

That said, it never completely escaped my attention that his continued survival was a blessing, and nowhere was that more evident than the past year. Last Christmas, my parents were at our house. This summer, my parents joined all their children and grandchildren in Utah for a family vacation. My two favorite memories from those times were watching dad play with his grandkids in the swimming pool in Utah, and observing him sitting on the floor with my then-3-year-old daughter at Christmas to help her put together and play with a dollhouse.

I love the fact that my girls have known their Grandpa Tim, even if they don’t always retain that memory, because it wasn’t clear six years ago that he’d be around to see them. I love the fact that God saw fit to allow my mother more time with the man she loved. We were given extra time with the husband, father and grandfather who held the unsurvivable at bay, and he was given more opportunities to touch the lives of his family.

That’s not to say the last few years were easy for dad. The tumor did a number on his ability to remember everyday words, and the constant battle for memory took its toll on dad’s confidence and happiness. Dad always had a keen mind – he could remember dates and events seemingly without effort, he could handle any math problem you threw at him, and he knew how to fix things like he was a walking Home Depot manual. That was always a part of his identity, and when he lost the ability to draw on that part of his mind, his discouragement was tangible.

And yet, he still refused to give up. Until the tumor intervened once again, he was taking a community education course that helped adults with brain injuries learn how to maneuver through life with their new challenges.


Earlier this year, I attended the funeral of my wife’s grandmother, and I noticed that a common refrain was regret — regret over actions taken or not taken, words spoken or unspoken. If I have a regret, it is that he seemed to feel I was lacking compassion regarding his struggles, and I was not very good at expressing the contrary. As he dealt with the limitations imposed by the tumor, I think he came to consider himself old, whereas I looked at 62 as a long way from the finish line — I kept expecting him to act his age, and he kept thinking he was.

His perception saddens me, but I think what he misread as a lack of care was really a choice on my part to rejoice in his continued place in the dinner table of our lives, rather than dwelling on his limitations. I believe we have had much to rejoice in, much to celebrate, and the current pain does not lessen that.

That’s a long exploration of one significant battle, but there were other battles that centered around his desire to lead his family.

Dad was strict, but it was not until well into adulthood that I understood some of the value in that level of discipline. When I was in high school, some friends and I joined a local drum and bugle corps. The group practiced about 20 miles away, so those of us with vehicles took turns carpooling. One night as I was driving home from practice, one of the guys talked me into driving over a traffic cone that was a little too close to my lane of traffic. I hit the cone, we all laughed, and headed home.

Two days later, my dad summoned me to the garage: “Did you run over anything in the car recently?”

Sporting my best innocent look, I answered: “No, not that I know of. Why?”

Dad answered: “Because there’s a dent under the car.”

At this point I’m thinking to myself, “Lordy, does the man do an undercarriage inspection every time I go out?”

Apparently he didn’t believe me, because I was grounded from the car for a while. That became a source of amusement among one of my drum corps friends, who joked: “Kenny has to get more flying time before daddy will let him drive solo.”

That story is a good example of dad’s careful, meticulous nature. This sometimes drove people to the point of pulling their hair out, but I have gained some appreciation for it. When dad started his phone business, I don’t know that he had a tremendous knowledge of telephones, but he had a mind that could easily grasp those things, and he learned quickly. He gained a good reputation because he was thorough, and he could solve problems. I remember going on coin collection runs with him, and it was never a quick stop. He’d collect the coins, check to make sure everything was functional, clean the phone, clean the booth, clean the ground around the booth — heck, he’d clean everything within 10 feet of the booth.

But again, he was setting a great example for me. I don’t think I would have considered moving from employee to business owner in my own life had he not shown me the path. I don’t necessarily have the work ethic of my father, but through him my eyes were opened to the idea of business ownership, and the ethic of serving customers with quality work. That has had a huge impact on my family, as it has given me the ability to work at home, and thus the option of keeping kids out of daycare. (How successful and effective I am as a work-at-home dad is another question...)

Dad unquestionably wanted the best for his boys, and when I decided to study journalism at the University of Oregon, I think he wasn’t entirely sure about that decision. I don’t recall the specific substance of our conversation, but I vividly recall walking around the U of O campus with him at a summer orientation and having to defend my choice of majors. I suspect he knew a little bit about the salary of a journalist, and tried to steer me toward something that could better support a family, such as technical writing. I don’t know if I wore him down, or if he was satisfied with my answers, but he gave me his blessing that afternoon. He was teaching me the importance of a battle to fight, meticulously forcing me to defend my decision, and that blessing continues to be a special memory for me to this day.

Oh, and dad was right — journalism pay is pathetic. That’s why I don’t do it any more.

Well, by now I’ve gone on way too long, so I want to close with another recent piece by Tony Woodlief. In it, one of his sons is in despair over the imminent death of a goldfish. Mr. Woodlief writes:
Caleb came into the kitchen last weekend, sobbing and holding his fishbowl. "My goldfish is dying!" His mother took the bowl and brought it to the counter, where we watched the fish, whose name is Gold Star, alternately puff and roll to his side and float. . . .Caleb buried his head in my stomach and cried the hopeless, dejected sort of cry that we've all experienced, the kind where there's not even the strength to raise your hands to your face, there's just the limp-armed, mournful cry of someone learning that the world isn't as lovely as he thought.

The wife immediately went about trying to resuscitate the fish, which involved putting it in fresh water and telling it to breathe. "Caleb," I asked, "when did you feed him last?"

"I don't know!" There was a fresh round of sobbing. "He's going to die!" From where I stood, the fish was already more dead than alive. The wife took Caleb's hand and told him we should pray for the fish. Great, I thought. Teach him early that there are no miracles any more. So they prayed an earnest little prayer for Gold Star, and I stood there with my hands on Caleb's head, already angry with God for letting him down. When they were done, they looked up to see Gold Star staring at them through the clear glass of the bowl, with that perpetual look of fishy surprise on his face. "God made him better," said Caleb with confidence. Then he took Gold Star back to his room and fed the poor starved thing.

I'm sure it was the clean water that did the trick. Or perhaps all the wailing shocked the fish out of his coma. To Caleb, however, it was a miracle, and when he prays he expects God to move. I confess I don't ever expect miracles when I pray. I don't even expect things to go right. I expect disappointment at every turn. I expect disease. I expect an early death. I suppose one day Caleb's prayers won't be met with a miracle. By then maybe he'll understand what I'm still only learning, which is that the very fact that we have any life and love at all is itself a quiet miracle, one that we usually forget because we are so intensely focused on the one that never comes, the great audacious miracle that will finally set everything to rights. So my question for you this Monday morning -- and I hope you understand by now that my questions are always as much for myself as you -- is simply this: what will you do with your miracle today?
That’s the end of Mr. Woodlief’s story — except, I might add, that the goldfish died the next day. Nonetheless, his point remains, especially for me — what will we do with our miracle today? Despite what I consider an early death, dad’s life was an answer to prayer, and I believe he'd want us to live our lives not with a hopeless, dejected cry, but by remembering that our opportunity to live and love is a quiet miracle.

4 Comments:

  • At 10/25/2006 2:04 PM, Blogger terrance said…

    Ken,

    I'm so sorry to hear about your dad's passing--and so young. But, what a legacy he has left in you and for your family and all who knew him.

    Those seven extra years is a blessing better than gold.

    My prayers are with you and your family.

     
  • At 10/25/2006 10:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ken, So sorry to hear about your Dad. What a beautiful tribute to him. Thanks for letting us share in something so personal. It is a real blessing!

    Lois

     
  • At 10/26/2006 10:44 AM, Anonymous Vonski said…

    My deepest sympathies go out to your family. As a man in his 30's who never knew any of his grandparents, I can't begin to tell you how not knowing them has disappointed me over the years. I am so grateful your children will have those memories.

    You wrote a beautiful and moving memorial to him. I'm sure he's smiling on you, knowing that the blasted journalism classes paid off after all.

    Thanks for sharing your father with us, Ken.

     
  • At 10/27/2006 12:10 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Ken,

    Such a loss is difficult to deal with, yet you've done so with grace and evident tenderness of thought.

    You - and your father - have touched many lives.

     

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