Monday, May 6, 2013

"I've Got to Go"

My father had a fondness for Wilson.  Not the volleyball variety of the movie "Castaway" with Tom Hanks, but the plain gray sweatshirt and t-shirt shorts variety.

In the two May/June weeks before he died, Dad lived with my brother, Ernie, and his wife, Sarah.  Each morning, Dad would come sit at the kitchen island dressed in a pair of gray t-shirt shorts, brown leather slippers, and his winter coat.  His long and spindly chicken legs extended from his 6'4" frame like an ostrich's support.  He'd lean in, feet resting on the stool's crossbar with crossed arms leaning on the counter preparing to give what Sarah came to lovingly entitle "The Morning Report".  The Morning Report was a clear indication of just how cooperative his bowels were proving to be that morning.  Often, they were not.  Sarah would just chuckle and ask unneccessarily for an update that was sure to come anyway.

I thought about the Morning Report tonight.  I'm sitting at my own kitchen island as the spaghetti sauce simmers on the stove.  It's a slightly chilly, early May evening in Indiana, so I don something warm to take the edge off the cool breeze coming in from the open patio door.  I toss on my father's old Wilson sweatshirt and am reminded of all these things.  As I type, I realize that it was this week five years ago, that I spent my last few days with Dad.  I'd decided last minute that I needed to take a leave from work and spend two weeks in Maine with my father.  My intention had been that I would come back from the trip to Germany sans Dad and spend that summer in 2008 with him, documenting and videotaping his stories.  Thank God I decided to go sooner, as the summer would be too late and the stories would have gone undocumented.  I choke with tears at the memory.  God is good.

In late June 2008 when the family all gathered to bid final farewell to a truly great man, we would sit together and reminisce.  It was then that I learned about the Morning Report and Dad's final days and his final moments.  Sarah recounted her treasured time with Dad at the kitchen island.  My father died on June 9th. His goal had been to make it until June 7th, the date that would have marked my parents 65th wedding anniversary.  He'd not had much appetite in the days leading up to that special day, but on the morning of the 7th, Sarah cooked him a full breakfast.  He ate a good lunch and even managed to eat a decent meal at supper time.  He headed to the bedroom for a good night's sleep.  The morning of the 8th brought a different story.  Dad was not himself.  Exhaustion permeated his every breath.  Ernie and Sarah and their grown daughter, Amy, spent that Sunday afternoon with him, what came to be the last moments he was awake and aware.

Have you ever wondered what your final words will be?  We laugh at Dad's; he would have chuckled, as well, at the mixed message, had he the opportunity.  He loved a good laugh.  As he laid in bed, his breath labored and his words betraying his exhaustion, he looked at those gathered around and, with a final burst of strength, he said, "I've got to go".  There was a slight pause of uncertainty before Amy leaned in and asked, "Pepere, do you mean you have to go be with Memere, or do you have to go to the bathroom?"  She never got her answer.  Dad closed his eyes and rested.  Twenty-four hours later, he was gone.

So, I sit here tonight, leaning against the counter of the kitchen island, sipping a glass of Malbec and slurping spaghetti, wrapped in the warm embrace of a worn, gray Wilson sweatshirt, thinking of Dad and all that was and all that is.  And it is good.

Love you, Dad.


Friday, July 2, 2010

"All I Have Is A Fifty Dollar Bill!"

There is a cartoon I cut out of a magazine in 1992 and pasted into a scrapbook I made for Mom and Dad for their 50th wedding anniversary of a husband and a wife on separate sides of a dollar bill.  Both are tugging on the dollar like two teams in a tug-o-war.  It was such a fitting cartoon to describe moments with them.  They didn't really fight much about money (at least in the later years), but there was always a running conversation regarding whose money was going to be used for a purchase.  Dad would usually tell Mom to pay for something small and her comment would always be that she had too big a bill or she hadn't cashed a check yet or she didn't have enough cash was usually something.  Dad would always respond in argumentative fashion just to give her grief.  He didn't deny her money or try to control the spending, it just became their banter.  Dad always enjoyed it more than Mom did.  She often didn't recognize the humor in his approach.  Hmmm, sounds familiar.  Anyway, this banter happened often enough that when I saw the cartoon, it immediately seemed fitting for the scrapbook.

Jim and I were driving around his hometown of Springfield, Vermont yesterday when I found myself smiling and laughing as I remembered a time with Mom and Dad in the Walmart in Sanford.  Poor Mom, it was a total set-up.  The three of us headed to Walmart for a few purchases.  As was usual, we ended up with a few more purchases than planned.  There were only one or two cashiers at registers and the lines were long.  For whatever reason, the three of us had drawn the attention of the other people waiting in line ahead of us.  Mom remembered something she forgot and quickly headed back to grab it.  As soon as she was out of hearing distance, my dad turned to the other customers and said in exasperation, "Watch.  I'm going to tell her to pay for this stuff and she's going to tell me that all she has is a fifty dollar bill.  She does it to me all the time.  She never wants to pay for anything."  He went on and on in comical fashion "entertaining the troops" so to speak.  Soon, Mom returned and she asked Dad how he wanted to pay for the items.  "Why don't you pay for it, Theresa," he said.  IMMEDIATELY, Mom said vehemently, "Ernest, all I have is a fifty dollar bill!  I can't pay with that!"  Uproarious laughter ensued from both lines and my dad just turned to them and shrugged like, "See what I told you?"  Mom just looked confused.

The thing my dad neglected to inform the crowd of was the fact that he'd just given my mom that fifty dollar bill before they'd left the house.  Total set-up. 

Dad always enjoyed a little joke.  Mom was often confused.  Gotta love 'em both.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Time Goes By

Two years ago today, I woke to the beautiful view of the Austrian Alps rising outside the window of the inn where Jim and I were staying.  It was the morning I was to open an email which confirmed what I had felt strongly the night before---that my dad was gone.  To think two years have passed since then does not seem possible.
                        The day Dad returned from a year in Seoul, Korea.  I was 10 y.o.
When I remember the last time I saw him, I always remember how his hands felt in mine.  Dad's hands always seemed massive to me, but as he aged they seemed to become more soft and gentle.  On his ring finger was simply a well-worn gold wedding band and his Army ring with the dark red stone.  I can picture those hands so easily and several snapshots come to mind.

The day I got married, both Mom and Dad walked me down the aisle.  I thought Dad would loop my arm in his as is the tradition, but no, that was       Mom.  Instead, Dad took my hand as we made our way toward Jim.  There was incredible comfort in feeling the warmth of my hand in his.  I was not nervous and I did not have doubts, but still I found comfort in his touch.  I knew as he took my hand that he was saying, "I love you, Jan-Marie."  I think Dad still had a few doubts about Jim in that moment, but he grew to love and appreciate the goodness of his son-in-law with time.

When Jordan was three months old, we held her baptism on Father's Day.  Back at our house afterward, Dad stood in the kitchen holding her up, his large left hand holding her head and his right hand holding her bottom while the gown Suzanne had made draped down.  He was talking to her tenderly and calling her "Little Girl".  My heart twinged with happiness to catch the sweet moments of the gruff and grumbly Army man holding this tiny baby girl.

When I was five or six, I watched those hands strum his guitar at Uncle Min and Aunt Simone's house while I sang "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star".  Those hands were often strumming that guitar at family gatherings or playing that organ that I hated on Christmas Eve.  We could depend on a rousing rendition of "Look Out the Window, Look Out the Window, see the snowflakes fall..." or some other festive song while the rest of us loudly chatted and paid him no nevermind.  Of course, this moment of inattention was always addressed with Dad saying sarcastically, "Your applause deafens me, I'm sure!"

Oh, Dad.  I miss you.

The last time I was with Dad was when I went home for two
weeks the April/May before his death.  My little friend, Clella, was there the night before we returned to Indiana because she'd traveled with me to visit her daughter in Maine.  Clella slept in the guest bedroom and I slept on two loveseat cushions on the floor.  I didn't sleep well that night.  I truly didn't want to leave, but I also wanted to get on the road early in order to miss Massachusetts rush hour traffic and get home to Indiana in good time.  I was afraid my cell phone alarm would not go off and I would oversleep.  Well, that didn't happen---unbeknownst to me until after I'd already showered, I'd set the alarm for 3 a.m., not 4.  Clella and I decided to just get up and get on the road anyway.  I went into Dad's room  to let him know we were heading out.  Again, he held my hand and gave me a kiss goodbye.  I told him not to get up and he asked, "You don't mind?"  That killed me like a stab wound to the heart.   Those three words told me so much in that instant that I did not want to hear.  Dad always, always got up to make us breakfast before each trip back to the midwest.  It was just his way of showing his love (and it helped to dissolve some of his worry for our traveling).  For him to not have the energy to even get up to say goodbye told me just how far his illness had progressed.  But he still held my hand and he told me to drive carefully.  Before I left, I grabbed a little yellow 3" x 3" sticky note and wrote "I love you, Dad".  I stuck it to the coffee pot just before I headed out the door.  When Clella and I pulled out of the apartment complex parking lot, tears streamed down my face.  I believed it would be the last time I would see him.  I didn't want that to be true, but I knew and it was.  In all the years of living in Indiana, I never left a visit to Maine without knowing that I'd said what I needed to say.  I did not ever want to look back and say, "I wish I'd told them this or that".  Mom knew.  Dad knew.  My only regret is not being able to be with each of them when they died.

I left Sanford that morning the first few days of May.  When I returned to his apartment the week of his funeral at the end of June, that sticky note was sticking to the front of one of the kitchen cabinet doors.  I lost my breath and cried to see it still there.  I couldn't take it down in that moment, that would make it too final.  I would wait until it was time once again to leave Sanford for home at the end of the week.
                                                                On the visor of my Honda

December 27, 2007, Mom died.

June 9, 2008, Dad died.

October 21, 2008, Jim's mom died.

December 29, 2008, Suzanne died.

All in 367 days.

So, here it is two years later and I find that I don't miss Mom, Dad, Suzanne or Barb any less.  I just appreciate the memories and the photographs of them all the more.

The hands of time move on.  The hands of love hold us forever.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Knowing God

Cafe Chat posed a question for answering today: Tell of one specific time in your Christian walk that you were overwhelmed with God’s love for you.

I had to think for just a second when the answer came to me. It's not the only time I've felt this way, but it might be the first time I consciously realized the fullness of God's love.

Twenty-four years ago, on a late January night, my older sister was driving home from work as a nurse. In the flash of an eye, her life was changed forever by a drunk driver. For six months, she battled between life and death as she lay in a coma, her skull crushed, brain stem damaged. She lived in Florida, my parents lived in Maine. My father flew immediately to West Palm Beach, arriving in the wee hours of the morning to the ICU. It was evident that the doctors, nurses and the priest had given her up for dead. Everything changed when Dad arrived. Then began their unease when they learned what they were reckoning with in the form of a father on a mission. Dad was livid and everyone within earshot knew it. Three months later, Dad had Suzanne flown back to New England by air ambulance so she would be close to home. For twenty-four years, my father cared for this girl. His love and care of her never wavered. It took a full decade for him to accept that she would never walk and talk again, but this never undermined the care he insisted she receive.

Before I go on, I must explain a little bit about my dad. He was a towering man with a booming voice. He had a successful career as a commanding officer in the U.S. Army. We followed rules at our house and we six kids were expected to toe the mark. We did not run around in our underwear.
Dad, second from left.
Ladies did "not drink beer from bottles" and you were expected to respect your elders. It sounds much fiercer than it was, I just want to give you an idea of a man who, on the surface, did not seem like a warm fuzzy. I was eighteen before I remember hearing my father actually tell me that he loved me.

One beautiful, breezy, late summer afternoon, I had the great honor of witnessing one of the most tender moments of my life. I had gone with my dad to visit Suzanne. She'd come out of her coma a few weeks before. Dad wheeled Suzanne outside to enjoy the sunshine. I watched as my father lovingly tended to her as he sat facing her. He filed her fingernails as he spoke tenderly to her, calling her 'Little Girl'. My sister was 36 y.o. and my father was calling her "Little Girl". They looked into each other's eyes as he spoke. Have you ever watched love electrically pass between the eyes of two people? This is what I witnessed. I could not speak, I could only observe. I felt suspended in air looking down on this scene. I then watched as my father carefully painted Sue's fingernails. My father, the Colonel, was painting my sister's fingernails. Gently, tenderly, he swept the brush across her nails. Tears streamed down my face. My eyes water at the memory. It was at this moment I felt the enormity and fullness of God's love. I saw Jesus, and he was painting Suzanne's fingernails.

I would continue to feel this fullness throughout the long years my father cared for my sister. What an example of fatherly love my own father exhibited. There is much to Suzanne's story, before and after the accident. She made choices that would cause my parents to rescue her on several occasions. My father and she battled frequently, each convinced that their own stance was right. Theirs was a love-hate relationship of major proportions. She was the lost sheep my father would go and seek. But all the battles didn't matter at Sue's life-changing moment. Nothing mattered but Suzanne's care and well-being. It was this relationship which brought understanding of God's love to me.

I know that Jesus would paint my fingernails, too, if I could not paint them for myself.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

My Little Mum

(This post was originally a piece I wrote just for myself the week I went home to help my dad move my little mum into the Greenwood Center in May of 2004. Mom had been in declining health for several years as a result of dementia. She was a sweet little thing and a really good mom. She died one year ago today. Thank you for reading. I know it's a wee bit long. I wish I had more of the pictures scanned so I could include them.

I’ve heard it said that when a person is drowning, their entire life flashes before their eyes in a matter of seconds. I don’t think it takes drowning to do it. Sometimes, it just takes watching an 83 year-old woman to do it, too.

After days and days of rain, the sun now shines from behind white clouds in a blue sky. It is my mother’s second day in a nursing home just a mile or two down the road from her home. I watch her as she sleeps. She’s a tiny thing. She seems tinier still as she lies in this bed. She is not aware of her left hand as it finds its way to the usual comfortable spot on her cheek, her pinky finger seemingly separate from the others as it rests across her lips. It’s a position I’ve watched absently for many years, but have only come to realize is “Mom’s” in recent months. Each time I notice it now, I see photographs snap by in my mind as I picture her in this same position, only in my memory she is sitting in a rocker, not laying in a bed.

In my mental photo album, she s
its in her rocker holding babies, rocking them to sleep to the familiar humming of a tune of which she’s never known the title. I’ve often contemplated ways to determine its origin, yet I hesitate, wondering if knowing will take away the sweet mystery of it. It’s a melody Mom has hummed while holding her babies, grandbabies, and my own two bundles. It’s the melody she used to soothe them all.

I turn a page of memories. There she is, learning to ride a bike for the first time. I’m about thirteen, my younger sister five or six. Mom must be 49 or 50. It’s my sister’s bike, a lavender one with one of those silly banana seats and elongated handlebars. Somehow, Mom doesn’t seem out of place with her gray hair rustling in the wind and her bony knees jutting as her muscles push hard against the pedals. We laugh. My sister claps in excitement. Mom did it! She really did it! We would experience this same excitement several years later when Mom finally got her driver’s license. “Grandma D” would be her choice of license plate until she felt like a marked woman by the local police department, more her imagination than anything else. That plate would later be changed to something non-descript, easing her mind a bit. My guess would be the Sanford PD still knew when she was on the road. Mom was never comfortable behind the wheel of a car. She drove only a few years, finally giving up after the side of her silver Buick Skylark showed the bump, bump, bump of intimate contact with a telephone pole after turning a corner on her way home from church.

I steal another glance at her sleeping form, my eyes resting on her once-silver hair, now much closer to white. I travel back to the day in 5th grade when Mom came to Notre Dame School to be a lunchtime monitor. Inside a brown paper bag was the lunch she brought me--a tuna sandwich, slightly warm, the l
ettuce a bit wilted. Had she brought a gourmet meal I could not have eaten, my stomach in knots wondering what my friends would say about this gray-haired lady, such silly imaginings of the paranoid running through my brain. “Is that your grandmother?” “Why is your mother so old?” “Why is her hair that color?” It is funny how the subject of such paranoia—my mother’s gray hair—would turn into such a source of pride. I wear my silver inheritance proudly, giving credit where credit is due—“I got it from my mom!” my mantra. I've loved my silver hair since the first strand visited when I was 18.

Quickly, pictures change to my wedding day. It’s a perfect Maine day in late August. Mom and I are in the basement of the church waiting for the moment we are to move upstairs to the sanctuary. She looks at me, studying my face for a long moment. “It’s not too late to change your mind, you know,” she says to me with all seriousness. I look back at her, realizing that she is speaking it to me, but wishing she’d known to say it to my sister, Suzanne, as well. I love her so much in this moment, knowing she is saying the same to me without so many words. “I’m okay, Mom,” I say as we climb the stairs to where my Dad is waiting. Mom links her arm in mine, Dad takes my hand and the three of us walk together down the aisle.

More quickly now, the pages turn. I remember…the day when I was ten and mom had a big feast for my brother’s friends. Candlelight, spaghetti, and laughter abounded. Mom hurries into the kitchen to find what she smells burning. A glance in the mirror above the sink proves it is her own hair, smoldering with
the telltale sign of having bent just a little too closely to the candles on the dining room table. Another feast, Thanksgiving, I think, and I hear my brother Ernie yell once, twice, three times, “Would somebody pleeeezze pass the mashed potatoes?” only to find that this much beloved favorite somehow never made it to the stove top. A temporary pause of disbelief by those at the table is met by the laughing voice of my mother as she roars, “Oh! I forgot to cook them!”

The pictures running through my mind surprise me, that it is these memories which flash by in an instant. So many other memories I think might come instead: the tender moments spent encouraging an insecure teenager; the regard felt as she warmly opened her home to anyone brought there; the familiarity experienced within moments of walking through her doorway; the tears she shed over the unrealized slight of a child or the harsh word of a relative; the agony of watching her child close to death. Her voice comes to me. “Offer it up to God, Jan!” “Oh, it must be mental telepathy! I was just thinking of you!” “Has anyone seen my purse?” These thoughts also come, not in a flash, but in moments lost in thought traveling back over the years.

One more memory come
s. It is a picture of my mom sitting on her bed, her Bible on her knees. I want to touch the picture with my finger for the image is so vivid. The Bible she holds is one of those massive Catholic Bibles frequently given as wedding presents in her day. It swallows up her lap. Her fingers slowly skim the page. She is seeking comfort. She is seeking peace, the agony she feels etched in the lines of her face. I know this intuitively as an eight year old. Little children have big ears. We know more than is realized.

The images and memories pause. I sit in the chair beside her bed, brought back by sounds in the hallway, the quiet hustle and bustle of caregivers going about their business. Once more, I look at her face, her eyes closed, sleep undisturbed. A nursing assistant stops in briefly to check on her. She leaves and once more I’m drawn into thought, but this time the memories come more slowly. My heart brims with love for this frail being lying in bed. I see that I am slowly losing her to this nasty disease called dementia. I’m sad, but oh, so grateful. She has been a good mom and such a faithful servant: to her family, to friends, to God. It is from her I received the foundation of a faith deeply rooted. It is from her I learned about God. It is from her I learned to lean on a power greater than myself. It is that gift from her that allows me to release her into the hands of Jesus. It is because of this that I can “offer her up to God”.

Love you, Mom.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

Seeing Ghosts in IHOP

Originally posted November 16, 2008 on my other blog.

Jim and I went looking at sinks for our reno project at Menard's, Home Depot and Lowe's this cold Sunday. Afterward, we made a quick stop at IHOP for a quick breakfast-lunch. We sat down, I looked across the aisle and my heart skipped a beat. There were ghosts sitting in the booth across from us. It was a hopeful split second before reality set in. Tears began to pour and refused to stop. The menu before me became a blur. With stolen glances, I looked at his shoes, shiny black. Her hair was white and neatly, yet naturally coiffed. She wasn't as tiny as my little mum nor he as tall as Dad. He wore a tie with his dress shirt and a gray tweed sport coat, so familiar. Her face sweetly composed as she tenderly helped him with his overcoat, adjusting the shoulder as he shrugged his shoulders into it. Their eyes met briefly before they turned to walk away.

It would have been Dad helping Mom into her coat. He was a gentleman. No matter if he attended a church service or not, Sundays were made for dressing up and he did. A sport coat, shirt and tie and dress pants were his uniform for the day. There was always a comment made when Dad would arrive on Sundays to visit Mom at the Greenwood Center, her "home" for the last few years of her life. "Mr. D! Why are you all dressed up?," the staff would ask. "It's Sunday," was always his reply. Mom was a tiny thing, barely five foot in her stocking feet. Dad stretched out at 6'4." Mutt and Jeff the two of them were, yet they could dance like Fred and Ginger. Oh, how we all loved to watch them dance.

I miss them.


Doors, Rainbows and White Crosses

Originally posted September 28, 2008 on my other blog.

(The following is a copy of the initial report I am submitting to the Lilly Endowment as part of the requirement for receiving the grant. I don't think it is quite what they expect, but this is what I needed to write. It begins with the snapshot moment I have in my last post. Sorry, it's a long post.)
“A cool mist lightly caresses my face as we climb the slight incline of smooth red brick. Ten steps away, I spy another door. My steps hesitate as I approach, afraid to look, afraid not to. My eyes search hopefully from top to bottom, side to side, desperate in their quest for an answer. My heart grows heavier with each step past the door. I had so hoped that this would be the door. The weight in my heart grows heavier still as I blink back the tears. A stairway looms ahead, its mass of metal, bolts and taut wire pointing to a dead-end. .
My feet begin the slow pivot as I turn back. Something catches my eye, seeing, but not believing. My heart skips a beat then quickens, thump-thump-thump-thump in rapid succession. There is a slight shadow in the middle left panel of the door. My eyes zoom in on the shadow as I try to make sense of what they are seeing. A light touch of my hand pushes open the secret door-within-a-door. My heart is in my throat, a roadblock to the words I try to say. “Jim,” I whisper, “It’s the door.” Words deny me. Tears blur my vision and mingle with the cool mist on my cheeks.
In that moment, I lose myself and become a young soldier of so long ago, standing tall and brave and proud. The journey of four thousand miles and a year of planning bring me to this single moment. Raw emotions rise to the surface as the memory replays itself in my mind as a movie running in slow motion, frame by single frame.”
To the casual observer, this snapshot moment may not appear to have much significance. To me, however, it meant everything. It was the pinnacle moment of my entire proposal and ensuing trip. The hours that followed this moment also hold a special place in my heart. In those hours, I was able to walk the same path my father did, find that special door, drink “the best beer in the world” (according to my dad) and sleep where my father slept in the post-war summer of 1945. I was covered with a sea of emotion. Still, as I write this, the emotion sweeps over me again.
My husband and I arrived in Andechs, Germany on the fourth day of our trip. It had rained off and on during the afternoon. As we left our car in the parking lot at the base of the hill below the church, my stomach became a twist of knots. What if we came all this way to find that this was not the town and church we were searching for? What would I do? Fortunately, it was unnecessary to answer those questions for I found everything and more.
Once we found the door, we entered the Bräustüberl, or Beer Garden. Activity was high as people came in and out. Tables were filled with companions and travelers guarding steins filled with amber liquid. Pig knuckles, sauerkraut and gigantic pretzels engulfed the table tops. Jim and I each ordered a weissbier and a pretzel and found our way to a booth built for eight. I looked around at the people milling about. From everywhere rose the voices of German people speaking in their mother tongue. As I searched the crowd, I wondered aloud if any of them could be locals. We continued to peruse the crowd. Behind us in the next booth, was a crowd of older German men. “Jim, do you think they are from this town?” I asked. With a shrug of his shoulders and a “we have nothing to lose” attitude, he got up from the table. My heart filled with hope and hesitation as Jim approached the men with a photo in one hand and a German-English dictionary in the other. In halting German, which improved with each weissbier, Jim did his best to explain what we were looking for.
The photo he held in his hand was the only clue to where my father once slept. It was a photo of my father as a young soldier standing in front of a German gasthof (guest house). Only a portion of the building could be seen behind him and just a hint of its name could be read. What were the chances they would know it? What were the chances it still existed? Was it even in this town? Six old men crowded around the photo. Fingers pointing and excited voices rose above the din. Curious eyes from neighboring tables were upon all of us. One man, whose name we would learn is Hermann, did his best to explain. What we believed he was saying in rapid German was that he knew this gasthof. He would point to the picture and then point down the road. Soon, he waved us to follow him. As we walked down the hill toward the parking lot, we realized he was taking us to the gasthof. I so hoped he was taking us to the gasthof. Into our rental car we climbed, Jim and Hermann in the front seats with me sitting with anticipation in the back.
The drive was over almost as soon as it began. We pulled into a small parking lot across from a small grocery store and behind what I suspected was the place for which we searched. We entered a door in the back and walked through a small hallway. Doors led to unknown spaces on either side. Hermann pointed to one door and motioned for us to enter. We were greeted by a fair-haired man in his thirties. This man and his wife now owned the gasthof and the name had been changed from Gaststätte Zum Seefelder Hof to Gasthof Erlinger Hof. Hermann explained to the innkeeper why we were there. He showed him the picture of my father in front of the gasthof. The man looked at the picture then glanced about the room. He signaled us to wait and wove his way among the tables. He examined some pictures hanging on the wall in the
restaurant. He would look, give a slight shake of his head and move to another picture. At the third picture, he removed it from the wall and brought it to us. It was a picture of the gasthof taken in the same era as the one of my father. It was identical to the one of my dad, only the young soldier was missing from it. I just held that picture in my hand and cried. I cried even more and gave the innkeeper a hug. I think it was an awkward moment for him, but he was gracious.
After a few minutes, arrangements were made for us to spend the night at Gasthof Erlinger Hof. The innkeeper brought us back through the hallway where we first entered and through another door which led to a stairway. Once again in such a short span of time, I stood without breathing. The stairway my dad had described rose before me, strong and solid. “Dad,” I could barely breath, “I wish you were here.” Again, I wept. As we climbed the stairway, I pointed to a window in my father’s picture, indicating that this was the room he slept in (the window just above the front door). He pointed to the door leading to that room and indicated that that was now part of his family’s living space. Nevertheless, he let us go in. We stood looking out the window and I thought of my father. I tried to envision the world he witnessed when he stood in that very spot.
We were soon in our own room and I looked about. The room had been modernized and no trace of a bygone era could be found. It did not matter. As I stood in the room, I tried to absorb all that had transpired in such a short period of time. This had all been so easy. Within one hour of finding that door, I was standing in the very gasthof my father had been living in over sixty years before. The emotion was overwhelming. I had guarded my emotions as I planned this trip and as I began this journey. I knew the chances of locating the town, the church, the door were slim. To find the gasthof from an incomplete picture would be near impossible. Yet all this and more was found.
Writing this report has been incredibly difficult. With each word I type I relive those precious moments. The waves of emotion sweep over me again and again. Tears pour.
Fortunately, the very evening after I found the door, we located an internet café. We had but 30 minutes to closing, but the owner graciously gave us a bit of extra time. In a mad dash, I jotted down a quick email and sent it to my dad. My sister-in-law read it to him as he lay in bed. He was pleased and was able to laugh at a few of our antics and at a few stories I shared with him. I looked forward to talking with him about our adventures and to sharing the photographs we took. I wanted to see his face and to hear his laugh.
Four days after these few hours in Andechs, my father died. Jim and I were staying in Kuchls, Austria when I learned of his death. I believe it was the hand of God that brought us to such a beautiful place to hear heartbreaking news. We were there only by serendipitous events. We arrived in Kuchls in the late afternoon. After having settled into our room overlooking the Austrian Alps, we took a walk around a small lake on our way to dinner. A light rain had come and gone and the clouds were clearing. I stopped dead in my tracks. Over the Alps arched a beautiful rainbow. I looked at my watch --- 6:30 pm, Austrian time. I didn’t say a word to Jim, but I knew when I saw that rainbow that my father was dying. Though torn with sadness, I felt a great peace.
The next morning, I woke quite early. Jim was still asleep, so I lay there a bit. From our bed, I could look out the window and take in the beauty of those mountains rising above. My waking thoughts were of my dad. I knew what I would find when I opened my email later that morning. Again, a great peace blanketed me. I took my laptop and my camera out to the patio and thought and wrote and prayed. I was drawn again to the beauty of the mountains stretching before me. I sat in awe. After a time, my eyes were drawn to a small object reflecting the sun nearer the base of the mountain. A simple, white cross stood as a sentinel overlooking this little town. Tears flowed as my heart ached.
It feels as if I were an actor performing in an over-melodramatic motion picture. The Alps, the rainbow, the simple, white cross all symbolically crafted to tap within the viewer great emotion. But I wasn’t an actor. I was just a daughter who loves her father, a man mighty and brave with a keen sense of duty. All I wanted to do with this trip was to honor him. What I could not know was that this journey would result in my ability to grieve his death in such an enormously fulfilling way.
My gratitude to the Lilly Endowment cannot be expressed in words.