The Writing Life

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Remembering My Dad

My grandfather was born and raised in Norway. Many years ago, during a 6 month backpacking trip through Europe, I visited the house where he was born and many of my relatives who still live there. My father was quite envious as he had always wanted to visit the homeland.

In October of 1989, he got his wish. He was in Germany for an international food convention (Dad was the president of a vegetable canning company and this was his first trip to Europe) so he arranged a side trip to Norway. The convention over, he fulfilled a lifelong dream. He walked the same paths as his father, slept in the same bedroom, and finally met all of his cousins. A couple of days after returning to Wisconsin, I spoke to him on the phone. It was his birthday, Friday, October 27, 1989. I asked him about his trip and wished him a happy birthday. He was full of excitement, talking about many of the people I'd met on my trip there. It was a great conversation (even though we were both at work when I called, we didn't care. My bosses allowed personal phone calls and since Dad was the president, no one was going to tell him not to talk on the phone to his daughter). It was a beautiful conversation and one I thank God that I had.

The next day, October 29, 1989, the day after his 65th birthday, Dad went outside to mow the lawn on one of his favorite toys -- his big sit-down lawn mower. Mom went to the store to buy the fixings for a big birthday dinner. He was in the backyard when the neighbors heard a strange and ominous sound. The lawnmower was butting up against the side of the house. Two different neighbors converged to find my father lying on the lawn, dead. He'd had a massive heart attack. The doctors told us that he probably lived all of 15 seconds and that even if it'd happened in the hospital, they wouldn't have been able to save him.

I flew to Wisconsin the next day, to begin a surreal week of grief, tears, laughter (our family deals with every circumstance with laughter. Dad would've approved more than anyone of this reaction) and bewilderment. It's so difficult to accept sudden death. There was no warning. He had all the appearance of a healthy man. His parents both lived to age 94. He thought he was going to live forever. Instead, we all attended his funeral on Halloween. I've hated that holiday ever since. I find it difficult to celebrate, have fun, and get into the spirit of things when all I ever think about is my Dad.

And now a tangent that will soon make sense. A little over a week ago, my landlord called me on the phone and told me she was going to evict me so that she can put her handyman into my apartment. I've lived here for 16 years. I love my home. This was a difficult blow for me and I'm still coming to terms with it. But, without any choice in the matter, I immediately began packing all of my belongings.

Tonight, I'm working on some boxes of stuff from the hall closet. Most were filled with laughably unimportant documents that once meant a lot to me. Business items, like old pay stubs, or interoffice memos. Some paid bills, a lot of bank statements, insurance information -- all antiquated and without value 16 years later.

After going through 2 boxes of this stuff I began to think I should just dump everything without looking at it. What could be worth anything in a box I haven't opened for 16 years? I just had one more in my stack, so I dutifully opened it, expecting more of the same old trash. This one was full of manilla envelopes instead of loose papers. One of the envelopes was white and familiar. I picked it up.

It was an envelope from Dad's canning company. Inside were a collection of photocopied obituaries from various newspapers. Dad's longtime associate at the company had given it to me. It also included that friend's reminiscences of my father. They'd known each other since Kindergarten, had gone to school together, were roommates in college, went to war, and then ended up at the same company. Among the papers was a letter. Perhaps the last letter Dad ever wrote. It was addressed to the cousins he visited in Norway, thanking them for the trip. His enthusiasm spilled from the page. That trip had made him so happy and in two single spaced pages, he told them how much it had meant to him. He mentioned me in the letter, telling them about our phone conversation. Dad and I were the only two family members to have ever gone to Norway, so we shared that bond. He was already planning another visit in a couple of years, and including me in those plans. But that was never to be.

I miss my Dad. Last Friday would've been his 82nd birthday. It was also the anniversary of the last time I spoke to him. Saturday was the anniversary of his death. And today, Halloween, was the day we buried him. The timing of finding that packet of information about my Dad, specifically about his death, is unnerving. It's been 17 years but reading it made it seem like yesterday. He is frozen in my mind at age 65, never feeble, never ill, never anything but gregarious, robust, and sporting the bluest most incredible eyes I've ever seen in my life.

Now I must move on. I have to find another home. And in that home, I'll probably have some file boxes with papers that will become meaningless as time passes them by. But not that envelope. That one I'm keeping. It's difficult to look at, even more difficult to read, but the one thing that never becomes meaningless with time is a lost loved one. Watch over me, Dad, and help me find a new home.


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