It has been over a year since my last post here. Sooo much has happened. The saddest was the death of my 89 year old father, Joseph Egger. I have his sense of humor and sense of irony. I have his ornery. Sadly, I also have his kidney issues and arterial issues. Tishie and I took him ‘home’ to NE Minnesota on his 89th birthday. Here is a reflection I wrote:
You cannot make Remembrance grow
When it has lost its Root —
The tightening the Soil around
And setting it upright
Deceives perhaps the Universe
But not retrieves the Plant —
Real Memory, like Cedar Feet
Is shod with Adamant —
Nor can you cut Remembrance down
When it shall once have grown –
Its Iron Buds will sprout anew
However overthrown –
The smell of pines. It was everywhere. The open pit mines. They were everywhere. The red dust. It was everywhere. The quiet…the still…it was overwhelming. Dawn and I took my father home the last weekend in April, 2012. Northeastern Minnesota. The Mesabi Iron Range. This body of iron ore runs perpendicular with the north shore of Gitchigumi, Lake Superior, which lies 60 miles to the southeast. The Range is dotted with small towns, four to ten miles apart, all along its length. It is an isolated place, and this isolation hangs in the air, palpable to the stranger. I hadn’t been to the range in twenty years; neither had my father. I felt like a stranger, an observer looking in from the outside. The isolation I felt was more than palpable. It was almost nauseating. Some words rang true for me, and the words still haunt me: You can’t go home again.
The unspoken conversation between father and son was that this may be my father’s last trip home. He turned 89 the day we drove north. His health is not good and since mom died he’s been having a slow, steady decline in his memory. It is painful to watch this once sharp mind and clever wit struggle in and out of confusion and memory lapse. Sometimes he is my father, the man I know, talking baseball and telling stories. Other times he is a little boy, confused and scared. Dawn and I felt parental at times. We wouldn’t dare leave him alone. He didn’t want to be left alone either. He’s aware of his memory lapses. “You two take me places, I don’t want to have to decide.” This mental disquietude he feels must be burdensome. When I talk with him, I look into those brown eyes, the brown eyes he gave me. Eyes don’t lie, and sometimes I can see the dulling of memory in the way he looks at me. His pride prevents him from telling me about this dulling, but I am his son. The son knows the father just as the father knows the son. It hurts this son to see his father steadily decline. My father does not deserve this. Selfishly, neither does this son.
We spent the better part of four days visiting family members, dead and alive. On the trip up we met at a restaurant in Minneapolis with my cousin Dennis and his wife Kay and my mom’s cousin Jennie. Dennis and Kay are wonderful; they’ve always been good to my family. I remember Jennie as being much bigger than she was. Again, aging and frailty, but her mind was sharper than my dad’s. (She remembered something I’d forgotten: that her and I share a birthday.) Sitting in that very good restaurant in Minneapolis, the six of us spoke in memories and we spoke of those who were gone. After the four hour drive from Minneapolis to the Range, we arrived at Koke’s Motel in Eveleth. The motel was cramped and our toilet didn’t work properly. Sitting outside, I was amazed at the quiet. Fayal Road used to be full of almost constant traffic. I could have sat in the middle of Fayal Road for an hour and would not have been hit by an automobile.
Dawn and I drove my dad around Eveleth and Virginia, then through my hometown, Gilbert. The trees are bigger, but the houses are smaller than I remember. We drove by the house I grew up in. Someone had shrunk it. The flagpole my dad put in was still there, along with the awning on the living room window and the TV aerial. The house had a new garage in back and the alleys had been paved. The streets were not in good condition but the alleys had been paved. Range thinking. Go figure. I was still amazed…no traffic. The town, all the towns we saw, were run down and full of empty businesses. The old Lopp’s Store, on Gilbert’s main street, was the same way it looked when I last saw it 20 years before and it had never been open since it closed in the 1970s.
While in Gilbert we stopped to see my cousin Karen. She didn’t know we were planning the trip. She saw my dad and cried “Joe-Joe!” I’d forgotten that she had always called my father by that name. They hugged for a long time. Karen resembles her dad and her husband Jerry still had that smile which, when I was younger, looked like a perpetual smirk. He’s a cancer survivor. We talked about medical things. I found out that Karen has lung sarcoidosis, the same thing I have. I found comfort, not schadenfreude, in this. At that moment, I was no longer the medical anomaly in my family. Sarcoidosis is genetic and I know now that it was from my dad’s side of the family. I never knew my grandfather. He died when my father was six months old, in 1923, at the age of 43. Karen wasn’t sure what he died of. “Maybe pneumonia,” she said. People with lung sarcoidosis die of pneumonia. He died young. I wonder. Did my grandpa have sarcoidosis?
Karen told a lovely story about how when my dad came back from the war, when he and her dad went out “on the town” on Saturday nights, he always bought her a bag of candy and set it on her pillow for her to have on Sunday morning. For the longest time she didn’t know who got her the candy. She asked my dad why he did that and he said, “Because you were my favorite niece then.” Such kindness was a part of my dad that made me feel good. I think I got my kindness from him, along with a whole lot of ornery, but that’s another story.
The next morning, April 28, was bright and sunny. We drove to the Eveleth cemetery and I quickly found the graves of my mom’s parents. My sister had prepared a small box of mom’s ashes so we could spread them on the gravesite. I opened the small box, said a prayer to myself and turned the box over, releasing the ashes. (If you’ve never scattered ashes, even in the lightest breeze they go everywhere.) Mom’s ashes fell softly to the grass and symbolically, on her 81st birthday, in some sense, we had brought her home.
We drove back to Gilbert and spent some time driving around the Gilbert cemetery. It’s gotten bigger and has a new section full of the names of people I knew as contemporaries or parents of my contemporaries. My dad had us drive him around several times. He was looking for his sister’s graves, and the grave of his Karish nephews and his friend Bill Keller. Dad was unusually quiet at this time. Too much death for such an old man?
Then we drove to Lakeside Cemetery in Biwabik, to find the Egger gravesite. Lakeside is a small, compact cemetery. It is a quaint place, full of pines, and the comforting smell fills the air. We looked for a long time until I found the headstone. It had a cross on top and a rosary circled the name Egger. I’d never seen this grave before. I stood there, said a silent prayer and began thinking about my paternal grandfather. I’d seen only two photographs of him. What did he sound like? Did he have a sense of humor? What made him laugh? Was he kind? My father was happy that I found the grave. There was an empty plot in the site, with no foot stone. We assumed that’s where my grandma is buried, but no marker? Maybe she’s buried in another part of the cemetery. In my father’s mind, though, that spot was where his mom is buried. He took off his hat, raised his cane and said, “I finally found you mom, have a good trip.”
That weekend was Patriot’s Days at the Gilbert VFW club. My father was a commander of the post in the 1970s, and he and my mom managed the club for a long time, so his memories there are deep. There were many people there and quite a few of them recognized my dad. He had his old VFW jacket on and spent some time talking with his old buddies. The younger guys were very glad to see him. The commander of the post was very kind to him and they spoke for a long time. As Dawn and I sat at the bar, I began to reminisce about all the times I had been in the club. A woman approached us and asked me if I was Joe Egger’s son. I told her that I was, and she asked me if I remembered her. I did not. She was one of my classmates from high school, Cindy Klaras. She looked older, but I recognized her voice the more we spoke. I felt sad. She has a job as a crisis counselor in the schools, but she looked wistfully pensive as we sat and talked. I asked her why she never left the Range. She said something about family ties and I awkwardly mentioned that I had seen her dad’s grave at the cemetery and that I was sorry for her loss. Our dad’s worked together and she reminded me how fortunate I was to still have mine around. We also stopped to see my cousin Toni Marie. She is doing well, living with her dog in the house she grew up in. The living room walls were the same color I remember them being when I was younger. Again, we spoke of death. Families which were broken apart and memories of long ago.
My father also got to spend some time with my cousin Donna and her twin daughters, Carrie and Shannon. The last time I had seen them they were in a stroller. Now they are quiet, pretty, young women; both LPNs and both working in the same nursing home. Donna looked and sounded good. Like her sister, her husband has had health issues, too. It was good seeing them. My father has always been so very fond of both of his nieces and he told me that seeing them was the high point of our trip.
That Saturday evening we drove around Gilbert some more. My father was tired and his memory lapses were getting to him. He was frustrated. He wanted to go back to the VFW club, but he also wanted to get back to the motel. As we drove to the motel he wondered out loud if we should have gone to the VFW. We assured him that if he wanted to rest a bit, we could go to the club later. By the time we got back to the motel he was ready to head home to Missouri.
Sunday morning we began our trip home. I felt odd. I hadn’t missed a Sunday of church in ages; it’s my job now. We decided not to stop in Minneapolis for the night. Our plan had been to stop by the VA Cemetery in Fort Snelling the next morning and get dad’s burial arrangements out of the way. Instead we drove to Winterset, Iowa, Dawn’s hometown, to spend the night. It was good to see her sister and my niece and nephew. The next morning we drove the three hours to Blue Springs. My father was so excited to be going home. He missed his cats and he missed Jean. This trip was hard on him, and on me. I don’t know how much time he has left, but I hope it is good time.
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At this writing, it is now October 30, 2012. My dad died on Sunday, October 7th, at about 4:20 in the afternoon. I had been by three hours earlier to give him his vitamin B shot, as I did on the first Sunday of every month. He looked well, but was bothered by the recent death of another of his old friends from Gilbert. Dad died suddenly and at home, as I had hoped. He looked good in death. My mother died in hospital and did not look like herself; father looked at peace. Several years ago, when his last sister died, my father came over to the house. He sat in my dining room, looked me in the eye and said, “I’m an orphan now.” I reminded him that he wasn’t an orphan, that he had his wife and his children and his grandchildren. “I’m still an orphan,” he insisted. I remember thinking at the time, that yes, in his time, children without parents or families were orphans and they did not have good lives. Maybe that’s what he was thinking? As I sit here and reflect, I realize that two circles in my life have come to completion…the life of my mother and the life of my father. They both got to see me get sober and I was able to make amends to both of them, and continued to make living amends to them until they died. When each of them died, I was “all square” with them, and there is no better feeling in the world. Mom and dad are in Heaven now, but they live on in my dreams, where they have both appeared to me, happy and smiling. In the passing of my parents I have been overwhelmed with the loving support of my various extended families and there are no words to express how much this has meant to me. It’s all about those connections, those circles of love that hold us and keep us. It used to be that when I sent my children and their spouses emails, I would sign them with “Love, yuroldman.” Now I sign off with “Love, theoldman,” as this title has now passed on to me. I do not wear it well, but I feel that I will grow into it. Someday my circle will come to it’s completion and my son will be theoldman, and life will go on. I received word today that a friend of mine, Bishop Andy Doyle, of Texas, has lost his father. I sent him an email and included some words that are so important to me that they are written inside my Book of Common Prayer/Hymnal: The wounds of loss never heal, but time and grace salve awful pain. When those circles in our lives come to completion, and those we love pass through that thin place to Heaven, time and grace hold us together. And so I mourn, amazed that the death of a mother and a father can feel so different. Mothers and sons have an incredible bond. My father and me never really saw eye to eye until I had a child. Then I began to understand him in a new light. As I mourn, some days are good, some days are not. Everyone mourns differently, but as we mourn, I pray that we all may mourn well.