losing father

February 21, 2015

 

February 21, 2015

 Happy 89th Birthday

This is one of those days with more significance today than when I wrote it; there was so much we didn’t know, couldn’t let ourselves imagine. This breakfast/lunch would be the last time I’d see and speak to my father while he was still mobile and able-bodied. Sam and I were lucky to get there at all. I was sound asleep on a Saturday morning when Sam darted into our room and said she just received a text from Janet – we were invited to breakfast for Daddy’s 89th birthday, starting five minutes ago. We threw on our clothes and raced over – even so, we were last to arrive and CD and Alex missed it entirely.

With grand-daughters on birthday

The word I used to describe it in this diary entry is so bland – pleasant. Foxy’s is a long-standing Glendale coffee shop on Colorado Blvd. It was another sunny day in California. In a large group like ours, it’s hard to indulge in much intimate conversation but – as he always did – my father engaged everybody at the table individually about what was going on in our lives. As usual, he said next to nothing about what was going on in his. He certainly didn’t mention he was in pain.

Vance & Geneva 2-21-2015

If anything, he might’ve urged us to spend more time with my mother, who was struggling to adjust to the nursing facility where she landed. (It would be weeks before we could move her to Solheim, the Lutheran nursing home they had selected for that far-off day in the distant future when they might need one.) Right now, all my mother wanted was to return to her life at their condo. None of us knew that life was already over. None of us knew we were already counting down hours and minutes.

89th birthday with some of his girls

If I’d known, what would I have said? The question haunts me because contemplating what I would’ve said if I’d known  makes the banality of what I did say painfully obvious. We probably said “I love you” in the casual hello-goodbye way we always said it, not in the heartfelt way I wish I’d said it. Not like I’d say it if I’d known it was the last time. I would’ve told him he was the best father ever and the greatest blessing in my life. I would’ve said, please stay. I need more time to study the kindness in your face, so I can reflect a fragment of what you gave to me and anyone else who was lucky enough to drift into your orbit. I would’ve said, the world is a colder place without you. Nothing will be the same when you’re gone. I hunger for the sound of your voice. I’ll miss you every day for the rest of my life.

Celebrating his 89th birthday

Instead I said, happy birthday. Thanks for lunch, what a great idea. Let’s do it again for my birthday and Janet’s, coming up in less than two weeks. We didn’t have two weeks. In retrospect, I see his tumble during the photo shoot as foreshadowing but on that sunny day in February, it seemed like a careless mishap, nothing to worry about.  We had years of sunny days to brunch in our future. Next time, the whole family – including my mother, who’d surely soon be ambulatory – would gather. We’d get everything right next time.

Sam admires Bree's handiwork on Grandma's nails.
Sam admires Bree’s handiwork on Grandma’s nails.

December 18, 1966

December 18, 1966

With sisters during construction of Hope Lutheran in 1966.
With sisters during construction of Hope Lutheran in 1966.

This is one of my most vivid memories. My father’s caustic criticism was the angriest thing he ever said to me – which says a lot, because I gave my parents plenty of reasons to be angry. They tended to be “disappointed” instead, which more effectively motivated me to change my behavior.

My father and I on my Confirmation Day.
My father and I on my Confirmation Day.

Most parents would respond to my obnoxious attitude somewhere between irritation and fury. I suspect very few would have the grace to apologize when he was in the right.  (At worst, he tried to manipulate me into being more generous. Hardly child abuse.)

Me with my dad and mom
Me with my dad and mom

Unfortunately, this was neither the first nor the last time I behaved like a selfish brat. I’m the one who should’ve apologized to him and my sisters. At most, it would’ve cost me a couple hours to do the right thing but I was fifteen, stubborn and intent on doing “my thing.”

My family
My family

I don’t remember if I said I was sorry but I think he knew I was (the tears were a give-away.)  My father taught me all I know about how to act with integrity in this world – simply by being himself. Deep down, I knew I couldn’t measure up to his example – I haven’t known many people who could – but growing up with him made me a better person than I could’ve been otherwise.

The Knutsens

All of my life, I’ve been lucky – blessed. My father and mother were the biggest blessings of all.

November 12, 2013

November 12, 2013

I remember this dinner, which might be impressive if it was more than 4 years ago. It was one of the last relatively healthy celebrations of my mother’s birthday. There was no way to know it was one of the last although the fact it was an 88th birthday might’ve raised a red flag for some.

My mother's birthday in 2013
My mother’s birthday in 2013

Not me. The prospect of my parents not being here was too unbearable to consider. Would occasions like this be sweeter or more painful if we knew it was the last time?

Out for a meal with the family.Out for a meal with the family.
Out for a meal with the family.

In 2013, my mind was on more mundane matters than mortality. I noticed how differently my children act in restaurants compared to my sisters and I. My parents never suggested we couldn’t afford to eat out, but all three of us intuitively ordered the cheapest entree on the menu and requested water instead of an expensive soda. How did we all receive the same explicit message without words?

My sisters and me.
My sisters and me.

My children didn’t receive it. Two out of three never so much as glance at prices. Apparently, they feel worthy enough to order what they want to eat or drink. No crisis has ensued. On the contrary, my father smiled and picked up the tab for the whole group (usually numbering 16 to 20 depending on how many significant others accompany their grandchildren.)  He probably would’ve been equally accepting if my sisters and I ordered appetizers, drinks and other extras, but even today I’d call myself a cautous diner. Other people might call it cheap.

My kids and I - looks like a family meal at the now defunct Marie Callendar's.
My kids and I – looks like a family meal at the now defunct Marie Callendar’s.

It would’ve been fun to rehash these silly observations and memories with my parents, now that it’s long ago and far away and we’re all adults. I wish.

Another big family dinner.
Another big family dinner.

 

October 15, 1964

October 15, 1964

Dueling teachers

Hmmm, “Stage-struck.” Based on the sizzling synopsis, I’m baffled it failed to become an international sensation. Unfortunately, the title – the characters – and the story-line – are all too typical of what I generously considered “creative” writing at thirteen. My oeuvre was stories about junior high girls, one popular and one brainy, frequently involving show biz.

Sandy and I could make almost anything fun - or funny.
Sandy and I could make almost anything fun – or funny.

Mr. Uebel was one of my favorite teachers although I was a nervous wreck in his room, I was so desperate to impress him. Mr. Call, our Spanish teacher, was great too, as evidenced by their musical duel. The innocence of these times seems unreal from the perspective of 2017 yet I can unequivocally swear life actually was this innocent, this simple – at least at Jefferson Jr. High.

My family circa 1964
My family circa 1964

At thirteen, it never crossed my mind to rebel against a teachers or authority figure – and to the best of my knowledge, none of my classmates did either. Maybe Jefferson got lucky and employed teachers with big personalities who loved teaching.

This shot clarifies where I found inspiration for my fictional character - the unpopular brainy girl.
This shot clarifies where I found inspiration for my fictional character – the unpopular brainy girl.

Full disclaimer – far from being anything close to a radical dissident trouble-maker, I was a kiss-up sycophant who idolized my teachers. I made it my mission to be teacher’s pet (not exactly a fast track to popularity, in case you’re wondering). More often than not I succeeded, not because I was so special or brilliant (although I liked to think so) – I just tried harder.

My dad giving sister Janet a horsy ride on what was probably a family night.
My dad giving sister Janet a horsy ride on what was probably a family night.

Looking back, I regret how eager I was to be free of our Friday family nights. Little did I know that once gone, those nights could never be recaptured in quite the same way. I should have treasured and prolonged every last minute.

Unpopular nerd girl captured in family setting.
Unpopular nerd girl captured in family setting.

September 3, 1978

September 3, 1978

 Board Games in Tahoe 1978

This is one of those vacations that passed without significant incident – no sight-seeing or hiking expeditions, just a few ordinary days in a beautiful environment away from the distractions of home. There was more “action” doing Tahoe with the Rowell’s, in part because there are more of them. John is the oldest of seven and all of them, plus his parents and his aunt Mary, were at Tahoe in 1977  – unlike John, at least for the first two days, who was not. He worked for a maniacal boss and couldn’t get away. When he did escape, he almost immediately got sick.

More board games in Tahoe 1978

The Rowell’s were more social – what I thought of as party people. No one would ever describe my family as “party people”.  I might as well be gauche and say it; they had more money. They dined out at swankier restaurants than Bob’s Big Boy a couple nights a week.  Unless it was Bob’s or we had a coupon, we rarely ate out more than once or twice a year. I’m not complaining; my palate was satisfied with a Big Boy. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t intrigued by my in-laws more glamourous life-style.

Joyce and me striking a pose and Captain Janet probably winning at miniature golf.
Joyce and me striking a pose and Captain Janet probably winning at miniature golf.

Our relatively quiet brood of five – six including the soon to be Terrible Two CD – were less cosmopolitan. Our idea of a party took place every Sunday night, when my father finished his duties at church. Instead of dinner, we indulged in a weekly “popcorn party” – the popping part involved more ritual before microwaves simplified everything.

CD - 1978
CD – 1978

Casinos were not on our itinerary but we played every board game under the sun. By 1978, Jani and I no longer burst into tears and accused each other of cheating. There’s something to be said for learning how to lose. Was this an exciting vacation? Hardly. Memorable? Not that much. I’ve shared as much as I remember.

We 3
We 3

Still, looking back, this low-key time assumes a bittersweet beauty – magnified now that I’ve lost both my parents. What I wouldn’t give for a few more of those beautiful ordinary days with them!

April 28, 1968


April 28, 1968

My nuclear family circa 1968
My nuclear family circa 1968

It’s difficult if not impossible to convey what life was really like in 1968 to people who weren’t even born then. IMHO, most films set in the sixties are cliched embarrassments. The best was “The Big Chill” but even that was nothing like my reality.

I never considered running away. My father made a concerted effort to stay close. He would sit beside me and listen attentively to both sides of a new Beatles album – not to censor my music but to stay connected to my world. He took me – my opinions, my passions – seriously. Since I was still a self-involved child, it never occurred to me to exhibit similar interest in his music. My loss.

My father and I on my Confirmation Day.
My father and I on my Confirmation Day.

Baby boomers like me – teenagers in the late sixties – weren’t all about sex, drugs and rock’n’roll although “revolution” was in the air. My friend JoAnn, an aspiring model, had been obsessed with appearances – her personal revolution was reflected in a new craving for more authentic relationships.

My friend JoAnn
My friend JoAnn

The times exerted a powerful effect on Tal Pomeroy, who drew a high number in the draft lottery. One of the smartest boys at Wilcox, he was successfully challenged in his efforts to help me grasp the periodic table of the elements.  He didn’t take a traditional route to his eventual M.D. like he might’ve in the fifties. Instead, he criss-crossed the US, worked all manner of jobs and got to know all kinds of people. Along the way, he handwrote long beautiful letters which could never be condensed to a text or tweet.

Tal Pomeroy
Tal Pomeroy

I’m grateful I came of age in the sixties. Were they better or worse than other times? I don’t know – but I doubt any other era could be as interesting.

Coming of age in the sixties

April 20, 2014

April 20, 2014

Easter 2014 - Me
Easter 2014 – Me

Easter Eggs

I wish I’d written more about this. Easter was my Lutheran pastor father’s favorite holiday, probably because it’s symbolic of redemption and forgiveness – the most important tenets of Christianity as he practiced and preached it.

Easter 2014 - Cousins & Dogs.
Easter 2014 – Cousins & Dogs.

Easter Eggs

I would’ve written more if I’d known this would be his last Easter but – as ridiculous as it sounds – I never believed there’d be a “last” anything for him. Even as he edged into his eighties and eventually turned 89, a world without him was inconceivable – which meant he’d live forever.

Easter 2014 - Alex and Dad posing for the camera - then in conversation.
Easter 2014 – Alex and Dad posing for the camera – then in conversation.

Easter Eggs

I wasn’t alone in assigning him immortality. On one family holiday, he distributed copies of his self-published autobiography to his children and grandchildren. Driving home with Sam and Alex, I told them to treasure their copies because “he won’t always be here.”

Easter 2014 - Serena.
Easter 2014 – Serena.

Easter Eggs

“No!” Sam said, genuinely horrified by this possibility. I knew exactly where she came from. There could never be a “last” anything for him, we needed him too much. So how could I have guessed this was his last Easter? And if somehow, I’d known in advance – what would I do differently?

Easter 2014 - Pies
Easter 2014 – Pies

Easter Eggs

A lot of things although I know he’d absolve me. After one memorable late night dinner, when my cousin Wayne, his wife and mother were in town and we stayed up until midnight talking, the subject of death came up. As a pastor, my father saw more grieving people than most. He said it’s universal – every single person who loses someone they love has regret about things said and done or unsaid and undone. Everyone.

Easter 2014 - Alex, Chris, Sam.
Easter 2014 – Alex, Chris, Sam.

Easter Eggs

Then he said – very clearly – “When I’m gone, don’t feel guilty about anything you could’ve said or done. It’s all right, exactly as it should be.”

Easter 2014 - Sisters & Mom.
Easter 2014 – Sisters & Mom.

Easter Eggs

So why do I feel guilty anyway? Not only about him – about my mother, who followed him less than a year later, and Yolanda, who left us a few months ago. I owed all of them more than I gave. I didn’t see the “last time” coming even when it stared me in the face. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I told myself I had plenty of time – I could say “I love you” or do that favor “later”. When it was more convenient.

Easter 2014 - Mom & Dad.
Easter 2014 – Mom & Dad.

Easter Eggs

But time ran out. It’s too late to write down what we talked about on my father’s last Easter. It’s easy to say, “No regrets.” It’s hard to let go of them when I miss him so much. What I wouldn’t give for one more chance to talk to him.

 

January 30, 1977


January 30, 1977

CD's Baptism

 

Because I’m a pastor’s kid (PK), my father confirmed me – married me – and baptized my children. Every time I stood in front of the congregation and looked into his eyes, tears welled and I teetered on the edge of complete meltdown. I wasn’t sad, just overloaded with emotion. The same thing happens when I think about him now. The memory of my father officiating at CD’s baptism makes me reflect on unique aspects of life as a PK.

CD with my father.
CD with my father.

 When I was two years old (before the Alien Baby[1] emerged, and ruined my life), my father took me with him to give communion to rural parishioners. Halfway through the ceremony, his communicant’s eyes wandered so he turned to investigate what caught their attention. It was me, toddling behind, imitating his words of blessing and passing out imaginary wine and wafers.

CD with me.
CD with me.
CD meets Joyce's dog Kuala or vice versa.
CD meets Joyce’s dog Kuala or vice versa.

We acted out Bible stories to amuse ourselves. The Good Samaritan was a favorite. My father played the battered victim near death by the side of the road. I took on multiple challenging roles ranging from a snooty priest to a snotty Pharisee and a self-absorbed Levite.  Basically, I pretended not to see the dying man by the side of the road. At this point my sister Janet, bobbing with excitement, took center stage in the starring role of Good Samaritan. Between you and me, a monkey could have played her part.  All she needed to do was hoof it as far as the kitchen and ask Mommy for a glass of water. When she accomplished this feat, dramatic tension peaked. Invariably she paused –  and guzzled most of the water, saving a few drops for our dying dad. And I’m the one who got typecast as being selfish?

CD finds this all a big yawn.
CD finds this all a big yawn.

Sometimes Janet and I played Israelites in search of manna. Confused about what constituted manna  – was it vegetable, legume or dairy product? We agreed it probably resembled chocolate chip cookie dough and hid globs of it in the sofa cushions for the Israelites to discover and devour. Who knew about salmonella in the fabulous fifties?

(Future blogs will explore other aspects of growing up P.K.)

[1] See Kathy Vs. the Alien Baby footnote

December 31, 2012

december-31-2012

Bill Connell directing traffic (center) before the wedding - Carly Salter Govind in purple to his right.
Bill Connell directing traffic (center) before the wedding – Carly Salter Govind in purple to his right.
The Bride and Groom
The Bride and Groom
Another romantic and very happily married - for 66 years! - couple, my parents.
Another romantic and very happily married – for 66 years! – couple, my parents.

The day was almost perfect, aside from the fact my sisters and I knew our father wasn’t feeling well. (I’m not sure anyone else noticed – being Norwegian, he did a masterful job of putting everyone else at ease by pretending he was fine.

It was the following day – January 1, 2013 – all hell broke loose.

Gil Gundersen provided magical music.
Gil Gundersen provided magical music.
Geo Ackles kills with a poignant and hilarious toast/speech
Geo Ackles kills with a poignant and hilarious toast/speech
All eyes and ears were on Geo Ackles as he took us through years of his friendship with CDR
All eyes and ears were on Geo Ackles as he took us through years of his friendship with CDR
Alex and Chris
Alex and Chris
Chris and Sam
Chris and Sam
CDR with Yolanda
CDR with Yolanda

My father was hospitalized and diagnosed with prostate cancer after a trip to the ER. Bill Connell, who helped set up for the ceremony, was hospitalized with heart problems. Yolanda Hernandez, virtually a member of the family for 30 years, discovered she had an aneurism and was hospitalized to await brain surgery. What are the odds? Three people, all essential to mounting the wedding, immobilized 24 hours later.

Rowells came from far and wide....
Rowells came from far and wide….
Tables full of Rowells
Tables full of Rowells

Aside from the collective health crisis, everything went as well as it possibly could.  It was a pleasure to get to know Jerry and April Ekins, Serena’s father and stepmother, as well as her brother and adorable niece and nephew. A large contingent of CD’s aunts and uncles – the geographically extended Rowell side – showed up to lend their support. CD was thrilled his oldest friend Geo Ackles and newer friends from UCLA’s film school were there to celebrate with him and his beautiful bride.

Chris Varaste gets in front of the camera
Chris Varaste gets in front of the camera

On a purely selfish note, it was a great opportunity for me to catch up with some of my dearest friends who moved out of state (or at least out of my zip code). Weddings have a way of bringing people together. Christmas and the holiday season don’t hurt.

The Ekins family
The Ekins family

After one of the longest courtships on record – 21 years, I kid you not – it was clear to one and all that Chris and Serena are as romantic and madly in love today as they were when they met. So, here’s to love and the future!

Parents of the groom
Parents of the groom
The Happy Newlyweds
The Happy Newlyweds

 

December 28, 1967

december-28-1967

 My father rarely talked about himself; he preferred listening. He had a gift for asking questions people wanted to answer (maybe all clergymen or psychology students master this technique).

my-father

 

Invariably, when a boy came calling he found himself seated opposite my father, awaiting my entrance. My dad charmed them all. “Your father’s a great guy!” they’d enthuse –  surprised, because he was so much more amiable – so much easier to talk to – than they assumed a religious figure might be.

my-father-laughing

None of them realized how skillfully he drew them out, inspiring them to excited monologues while he revealed nothing. I like to think I learned from his example, although self-publishing my diary entries argues against it. If this isn’t talking about myself, what is?

my-father-the-pastor

 

He didn’t dwell on himself at home either, preferring to draw my sisters and me out about our feelings and interests. On those rare occasions when he did, I wrote his stories down in my diary. This one had a profound effect on me.

 

my-dad

I miss his calm wisdom and understanding more than I can express. Publishing my memories of him is as close as I can come to letting him live again.


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