January 11, 2019

My Father’s Road: The Final Journey…

Category: News — admin @ 5:36 pm

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To lose the earth you know for greater knowing; to lose
the life you have for greater life; to leave the friends you
loved for greater loving; to find a land more kind than
home, more large than earth.

Whereon the pillars of this earth are founded, toward which
the conscience of the world is tending – a wind is rising, and
the rivers flow.

—Thomas Wolfe
_______________

It hovered over us like a dark and looming cloud as the holidays approached. The restless winds stirred, we knew that my father was old and very sick and wasting away. He had been around for a long, long time. Ninety-seven years. There wasn’t a lot we hadn’t seen, not when it came to his health, there wasn’t. He had dipped down before, he had drifted to the edge of death’s door more than once. But he had always pulled back, somehow. Always before, he had returned to attack life as only my father could speak it and live it. Until now. This time, it seemed different. This time, he kept sinking lower and receding faster as the days slipped by, and then the weeks. Until it became clear to all of us. This time would be the last time.

Time doesn’t stop. It never has, and it didn’t then. Before we knew it, Christmas was knocking on the door. And you wanted to celebrate with your friends, to exult in the great joy of all that Christmas is and all it means. And then, over here, you knew your father was on his deathbed and would never rise again. It was a formula that yanked your emotions from one side to way over there on the other. I’ve learned over the years. In such a time, you just keep walking. It’s the only option that makes sense. If you don’t know what else to do, keep walking. And so, I did.

Christmas Day. I always sleep in. As I did that morning. Then I got up and puttered about. Got my free coffee at Sheetz. They give away their weak black brew on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. You can just walk in and help yourself and wave at the clerk. Soon after eleven, I was ready to head over to my brother Stephen’s house for lunch. A big old Christmas meal, they always serve there. I parked Amish Black and walked in, holding a bag with a box of assorted Gertrude Hawke chocolates for Wilma. That’s my usual gift to my brother’s family. The sons and daughters had arrived earlier, to exchange gifts. And right at noon, we all sat around the large table in the dining room and enjoyed lots of rich good food. At a time like that, I move up my One Meal. Eat at noon, then not again until the following day at five. No big deal. I’ve done it before, and it always works out. I don’t think about it much at all. We sat around and talked afterward. Of course, Dad came up in the conversation. That, and my trip the next day. I’m packing tonight, I said. Loading my Jeep. Tomorrow, early, I head out. Stephen and Wilma wished me safe travels and told me to keep everyone informed. I promised I would.

At home, I took my time. Dragged out my big old suitcase and got started packing. Ellen and I bought a set of bright red soft-shell roller luggage many years ago. She took the cute little carry-on suitcase with her and left me the big one. It was all pretty laid back, how we divided things like that. My big red suitcase has been beaten around a good bit, from airline abuse and general wear and tear. The zipper gets stuck sometimes. It’s more than fifteen years old, which is probably old for luggage. But it does the job for a trip like this. And for a trip like this, I went with my natural inclinations. Throw in everything you might remotely need, right up to the kitchen sink. Jeans, khakis, T-shirts, socks. The black suit I got married in, that went into the garment bag, along with half a dozen good shirts, both dress and casual, black pants, a black sport coat, and a black vest. It got a little bulky, but no big deal. It would all get loaded into the Jeep in the morning.

And that night, it was on my mind pretty strong, where I was going. I thought about it. Here I am, all packed up to hit the road early in the morning. Me and my Jeep are heading up to Aylmer to where Dad is. These things all jumbled around randomly inside my head. I was preparing to walk into a place I had never seen before. Physically, emotionally, spiritually. Getting steeled up.

And somehow, the prayer came to me, in my head. I remembered the stirring majesty of the responsive chants that echoed through the vast cathedral dome at a Catholic service I attended many years ago. I could hear it in my head like I heard the priest reading and the people responding. Except in this chant, in this prayer, the priest and the people were one and the same. Me, talking to God. For a calm heart, a clear head, traveling mercies, and strength for the journey, I pray to the Lord. Oh, Lord, hear my prayer.

I slept fitfully. I usually sleep light when my brain knows there’s a full day’s travel ahead. That night, I barely dozed off. At one point, there early in the morning, I woke up and thought maybe I’ll just get up and go. Get a good start. I must have dozed off again, because the next thing I knew, my phone alarm was buzzing at 5:45. I wanted to be on the road by seven. I shook the cobwebs from my head and got up and showered and dressed. Comfortable clothes. Jeans, a nice checkered shirt, my Danner hikers, and a decently heavy hooded jacket. I was ready. I carried my stuff outside.

I grumbled a good bit at my Jeep that morning. Those things just don’t have a lot of room. And they’re hard to load. Why, oh why, didn’t I get a four-door while I was at it? Next time, I’ll know better. I slid the seat up and swung the heavy suitcase onto the back seat. I had to squash it in back there. Then the garment bag on top, then boxes of this and that. A couple of dress coats, including my Burberry trench. If I was going to a funeral in Canada in late December, there would be some elements of style involved. Didn’t matter how full the Jeep got. I may or may not have skinned a knuckle, getting everything fitted in. I grumbled some more as we pulled out and headed over to Sheetz for my obligatory coffee. I gassed up, too. And a few minutes before seven, we were heading west on 23, on the way out. The little Jeep jitters in and out of traffic like a frightened bug, I’ll give it that. I sipped my Sheetz coffee as we bucketed around Harrisburg and north toward Rt. 15.

And I thought about things, as me and my Jeep cruised with the traffic. I had made this trip a lot of times before. Way back in 2012, I think, was one of the first times I drove up to Aylmer to see my parents. Mostly, I went for Mom. She was pretty much out of it with Alzheimer’s, and I remembered how it was. How I recoiled from going to see her, or being around her, for a few years, there. But eventually I went. Walked in. Absorbed the fact that I was a stranger to my own mother. It doesn’t get much more brutal than that. And I went again, the next summer. And then again, this time to her funeral. And then only Dad remained alone.

Since then, I drove this same road many times with whatever rental car the Enterprise people gave me. To see Dad. And we went to a few places we hadn’t been before, me and my father. We got some things hashed out, or at least discussed. As old as he was, I figured he probably didn’t remember much of what we had talked about for long. But we talked about those things, such as they were, in the moment. I told him some things I never figured I ever could. And he talked to me honest like he never had back when I was growing up around him. I am beyond grateful that the opportunity came, and we both took it. One could write a book, I think, about some of that stuff. And every time I left, I thought this might well be the last trip like this. It never was. He always fought hard to stay alive and stay alert. It was a matter of some pride to him, lately, that he had lasted more years now than any of his siblings. Not that it makes any difference, in the end. Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust, like the preacher says. All that is true.

And now. Now I was going to see him again. Maybe this would be the last such drive north. I didn’t know, that day. And I didn’t fret about it. I did think about it as I was driving along, though. What should I be focused on as I’m going up to see my dying father? I mean, surely there are profound things a son would naturally mull over in a time like that. It was kind of funny, there. I remember thinking. The primary thing you focus on right now is the road. Keep your mind sharp on that. It won’t do you any good to go see Dad if you don’t get there. And I thought, too. God. I know Dad’s suffering. I ask you to take him, even right now, this minute. I’m completely at peace if he leaves before I get there. So feel free. I mean, you are God. Take my father home.

Up north and north we drove, me and my Jeep. The phone rang soon after I hit the road. Rachel. “Are you on the road?” She asked. Yep, I am. Heading on up. And she thanked me for going up there like I was. It’s OK, I said. I want to go. Maybe he’ll leave before I get there. If he does, I’m fine with that. And halfway up Rt. 15, the phone rang again. Titus. I answered and we spoke. He thanked me, too, for going to where Dad was. I’m going to talk to him, I said to Titus. I’m telling him it’s OK to go. Titus agreed. “I think you are the man to go see him,” he said. “I’m glad you’re going. Tell him I can’t come. You are representing me, too.” That’s a great idea, I said. I’ll just tell him I’m here for all the boys. They can’t come right now, so I’m here for them all. We chatted a bit more, and Titus wished me well. “Keep us updated,” he said. I promised I would. Amish Black rolled on north into New York, then west toward Buffalo and the Peace Bridge.

I thought about a few other random things, too. I remembered what my friend Levi had told me, what I wrote at the end of the last blog. How his elderly mother had passed a few months before. How the stress of caring for her had rolled off like a vast burden breaking free. “You don’t realize,” Levi had said to me. “You don’t realize how stressed you are until someone like that passes on, and you no longer need to care for them. Physically care, I mean. Emotionally, you always care, don’t matter the circumstances.” And I thought about what Levi had said, and I thought about how much care Dad had required over the past number of years. And Mom, too, before she died in 2014. She had to be cared for like a baby. Fed like one, too. And the bulk of that burden, whether it’s fair or not, the vast bulk of that burden fell on one family. My oldest sister Rosemary and her husband, Joe Gascho. It was their family and their clan who took care of Mom and Dad in their final years. After Mom passed, they moved Dad’s little house over to the farm of Rosemary’s oldest son, Simon, over on the southwest corner of the old community. And that’s where Dad stayed when he was in Aylmer. Which was the majority of the time.

He took a tremendous, tremendous amount of care. And he was more than half cranky, much of the time. Old people get that way. I’ve wondered often, watching both my parents live into their nineties. Will there ever come a time when the Amish take their old people to live in an assisted home somewhere? I think they should. Not knocking any part of the care Dad got, not at all. But still. The stress had to be intense. It just had to be. I guess I forget a little bit how nonnegotiable that whole issue is for the Amish. You take care of your own, for as long as they are here. Period.

The border came at me right on schedule. And it wasn’t all that backed up. I pulled up to the guard shack and handed over my passport and my Canadian birth certificate. Like I always do on the way up. You can’t keep me out, I’m telling them. I was born up here. (On the way back, of course the Canadian birth certificate stays out of sight when I hand over my passport.) The guard was polite enough. Where was I going and how long did I expect to be in the country? Not sure, I told him. I’ll be up for a few days, at least. Maybe a few days longer than that, if my father dies. He’s in a coma. So I don’t know. The guard handed back my papers and waved me through. And this time, if I remember, the day was cloudy and cold when I drove into the land of my birth. Not sunny and clear, like it often was going up there.

I always take Highway 3 West. It’s two-lane, but it’s the most direct. It’s six of one and half a dozen of the other, the time it takes to travel either route over to Aylmer. I take the two-lane road because I like it. And we moved along, making good time. At this rate, I’d be out at the farm where Dad lived a few minutes before four. And now my mind was not on little things. Now I was focused, getting close. Focused, and focusing on getting emotionally steeled up for what I was about to walk into. It was a new place I never saw before, the place I was going to. And it was a new road, too, getting there. Amish Black pulsed along, holding steady in the light flow of traffic. Tillsonburg, coming up. That’s getting close. Next town after that was Aylmer. Just east of Tillsonburg, they got that silly little traffic roundabout. I detest those things. I also know I’m getting real close to my original home turf when I pass through this one. It came and went. Onward, westward.

Carter Road was coming up. The next one would be Walker. That’s where I’d turn, and then a mile or so to the drive that led to where Dad was. I signaled, then turned. The side road was paved, kind of. And driving along there, I did what I sometimes do when things are getting heavy in the air. I crossed myself. I admire and respect the sign of the cross as a gesture of communication with God. The Catholics got that one right. And I spoke in my heart to the Lord. I don’t know what exactly is coming at me. But you do. I know you are with me. Guide me. Guide my heart and guide my words. I trust you. I am not afraid.

It’s a long lane, from the road back to the farm where Dad lived. And that lane was winding and bumpy and wet and muddy. We bounced along. As I neared the buildings, a long top buggy came at me from the other way. The buggy pulled off into the grass as we got close. I stopped and rolled down my window. Who were these people? The buggy door rolled open. It was my cousin, Edwin Wagler, the elderly widower. One of Abner’s older boys. The back door of the buggy opened, and Fannie Mae stepped out. She’s Edwin’s sister, and my cousin as well, too, of course. Fannie Mae has been Dad’s most faithful assistant with his writings and all four volumes of his latest works. She helped him get it together and keep it together, and she helped him get the books published and distributed all over the Amish world. It really was an astounding accomplishment for Dad, and he never would have gotten it done without Fannie Mae. I chatted very briefly with them both. Said hi, basically. And that I’m here to see Dad. They assured me that my arrival was greatly anticipated at the house. I rolled up the window and drove on.

I’m trying to remember, now. It was a few minutes before four when I pulled up to the buildings and parked my Jeep off to the side on the grass. And it was also basically dark. I hadn’t connected that before, how dark it was, that early. I walked across the yard and up the deck to the front door, well, the only door, to my father’s house. The place was well lit. I could see people in there. I opened the door and walked in. I was immediately greeted with a big hug from my sister Naomi. She had arrived a few days before, and she and Rosemary were here now with Dad. Rosemary came, too, hugged me. Both of them couldn’t get done exclaiming. “We are so glad you came.” Yes, yes, I said. I wanted to, and here I am. I walked around and shook hands with a few others seated in the small room. My niece, Ida Mae. Her sister, Naomi with her husband, Peter. And then I was at the door of the tiny bedroom. Doorway. There was no door. This was the room where Dad always had his desk set up, before. They made it into a bedroom. The old bedroom, where he had always slept before, the same exact room where Mom died, that bedroom had a nice bed for the people who came to be with Dad to sleep on. Usually two people came, maybe husband and wife. And one of them slept while the other one sat up with Dad. Anyway, that’s why the little house was laid out like it was when I got there.

I walked to the door to the bedroom. Rosemary came close behind. A small bed was there against the wall. Rosemary’s husband Joe sat at the foot end of the bed, on a chair. And I stood there at the head of the bed and looked down on the frail and wasted shell of the man who was my father. I didn’t recoil. Well, inside I did. But outside, I tried hard to make it so you’d not notice. He was on his back, covered with a thin blanket, you could only see his face. This was the way of all flesh. I barely recognized him. His beard was a mere wisp, curled under his chin. His cheeks were gaunt and sunken, his eyes were closed tight, and he gasped for air through his nose and mouth. Well, maybe gasping isn’t the right word. He was breathing hard, as hard as I’ve ever heard any man breathe. But he was breathing steady.

And they told him, with forced cheer. “Dad, Dad, Ira is here. Ira is here.” They had told him I was coming. And they were pretty sure he had heard them. And now I was here. I went to the other side of the bed, tight against the wall. He could feel that hand, they said. So I held that hand in my own. It was scarred and old, his fingers frozen in place. But I squeezed it. Dad, it’s me. Ira. I came to see you. There was nothing, not a hint of response. I held his hand for a few moments, looking down on his tortured face, then gently set it on the bed. Somewhere about here, Simon and his wife Kathleen came over from the big house. They smiled and welcomed me. We shook hands.

And they told me, all of them, as we stood there looking down. How the man had suffered. He was on his back, they couldn’t move him. There were sores. He had not eaten food in a week. And he had no water for the last three days. They could only swab his lips. If he swallowed water, it would instantly flood his lungs and drown him. This, then, was the ugliness of death. That’s what Pastor Mark called it, back when he prayed for Dad in church. The family awaits the ugliness of death. This was it. This is what the pastor was talking about. I sat down on a chair at the head of the bed, almost in a daze. And just about right then, they started singing, the others in the house.

Their voices echoed through the small house, haunting, surreal, and beautiful. There were half a dozen people, maybe ten. And they were singing for my father in his pain. It was enough to make you weep. I know I wiped away a few tears. Lord. Look at this poor, tired, broken shell of a man. Look how he suffers. Can’t you just come and take him? How beautiful heaven must be, they sang. I sure hope it is, to make this worth it. Oh, my. Look at how hard he works to draw the air in and push it out. There is rest, by and by, they sang. How about sooner, rather than later, Lord? Some sweet day when life is o’er, we shall meet above, they sang. Yes. Yes, we will. But Lord, look how hard he suffers.

Somewhere, early on, I had mentioned. I want a little time alone with my father. Of course. No one made any fuss. And soon Rosemary told the others. “Let’s go over to the house and give Ira a few minutes alone with Dad.” They all filed out and walked across the deck to the big house. I waited until everyone had left and the front door had shut. Now. Now I was alone with Dad, just like I’d asked for. I stood and held his hand on that side. His right hand. The unresponsive one. I stood there, looking down on the wasted shell of a body that was right on the threshold, right on the precipice of death’s door.

There were no tears. I did not weep. I simply held my father’s hand and looked down on his face. His eyes stayed closed, his mouth was open, and his labored breathing came steady but hard. It was work, every bit of air he drew into his lungs. I did not have a speech prepared. I knew what I wanted to say. The words would have to come on their own. And I simply spoke my heart in my native tongue. In our native tongue, the language I heard my mother speak from the moment of my birth. Dad. It’s me. Ira. I came to see you.

And I told him, then. I’m here for your sons. Titus told me to tell you. He can’t make it today. I’m here for him. I’m here for all the boys. They would come if they could. But they can’t. It is time to go to where Mom is. You must go. There is nothing for you here, Dad, not anymore. You are suffering a lot. You must go to Mom. You have to go. And he may have been afraid. I don’t know. He never made any motion, never indicated that he was afraid or that he heard a word I said. Still. I spoke calmingly. Du musht nett angst hava. You don’t have to be afraid. Mom is there, waiting. Jesus is there, too. You can go to them. Just let go. You have to let go, Dad. Let go of the pain. Let go and rest.

The others came back in soon. And I can’t recall the exact sequence of things, here. In such an eventful trip, some details will be a little foggy. The small details, I mean. At some point in here, Simon’s wife Kathleen came over with a great tray of food. It was almost precisely my time to open my eating window. Bread, crackers, meat and cheese, and sliced pickles. Everything was delicious. I helped myself and ate and ate. And at some point right in here, my sister Naomi’s husband, Alvin, arrived from their home in Arkansas. Just pulled right in, in his big red Dodge pickup. Made me a little lonesome for Big Blue, that did. Alvin was shown in to Dad’s room, just like I had been. He absorbed the brutal scene. And then we all sat around and ate and talked and caught up. Soon, plans were made for the evening and that night. Alvin and Naomi would go get her luggage at Rosemary’s, then go get a room at the Comfort Inn over by St. Thomas. Then they would come back to the house, here. At ten o’clock, my niece Naomi and her husband Peter would come, and my sister Naomi and her husband would leave. Meanwhile, my sister Rosemary and her husband Joe would stay with Dad until Alvin and Naomi got back around eight. And I chose to stay there in the house with them. I had just arrived. Might as well hang out here with Dad. He’s the man I came to see.

People scattered. And then it was just me and Rosemary and Joe in the house with Dad. Just the three of us. Joe sat on a chair at the foot end of the bed, facing the front. I sat in a chair by Dad’s head, facing the back. Joe and I visited sporadically about this and that. Rosemary sat in the tiny living room just outside the door, a few feet away, facing me. I talked to them both, first facing Joe, then facing Rosemary. And I sighed, a little dramatically. The way Dad was breathing, he’d be around a few days. Of that I had no doubt whatsoever. I sighed again. And I told Joe. Well, whatever happens, I’m here until it’s over. I’m not going anywhere until Dad leaves. Joe looked at me.

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something. Dad had stopped breathing. He breathed again, then stopped. Rosemary looked in, staring keenly. “What’s happening in there?” She asked sharply. He’s not breathing, I said. I got to my feet. Joe did, too. Rosemary came through the door. We stood in line beside the bed, looking down at Dad. Me at his head. Rosemary in the middle. Joe at his feet. We stared at his face intently. Clearly, something unusual was going on. He breathed, then stopped. For what seemed like a long time, but was only seconds, probably. Breathed, then stopped.

Rosemary turned to her husband. “Joe, go get the others,” she said. Joe turned and disappeared. An instant later, the door slammed and he clumped across the deck to the big house, where Simon and Kathleen and their children were seated at the table, eating supper. My niece, Ida Mae, was with them. Joe ran up to the screen door. He never bothered to open it. He simply pounded hard. When everyone looked out, he motioned them. Come. And he turned and ran back to the house. Everyone clamored after. In the back of my mind, I heard them rushing into the small kitchen toward us.

They filed in, Simon and Kathleen and Ida Mae and some of the children. And Joe. We all stood, close around the bed. Dad had gasped a few times when Rosemary and I stood there alone together. “He is dying,” she said softly to me. Are you sure? I asked. He’s quit breathing before, you all told me. “Not like this,” my sister half whispered back. “This is different.” I looked at Dad’s face. There was no recognition of anything, but simply an emaciated body gasping its last. The ugliness of death in a broken world, that’s what was coming down right before us. A few small catches of air when everyone stood there around him. We all saw him breathe his last breath. I had never seen a person die before, not up close like that. And now I watched my father leave. There was no struggle. He simply stopped breathing. Then his face set, and his body relaxed.

It was over. My father was dead. David L. Wagler had left his earthly body.

Waves of relief swept through me. Dad was released. Right that second, Ida Mae, standing at the far end of the bed, asked sharply. “What time is it?” She stepped out of the room to look at the clock. I pulled out my phone and turned it on. Precisely 6:30. That’s when Dad passed on. I had been here for less than three hours.

I kept sagging with relief. Dad’s suffering was over, apparently. But I was suspicious, too. Paranoid, almost. Do you think he’ll start breathing again? You said before that he’d stop breathing for a long time, then start up. Lord, don’t let him come back to this life of pain. That’s how intensely I wanted Dad to be released. The others reassured me. No. It never was like this before. After five minutes or so, I stepped outside to make some calls. I was glad that my phone had been upgraded to international. I was sure gonna need this thing. The first person I called was my sister Magdalena. She was the next in line in age, after Rosemary. The phone rang and rang. Maddeningly, there was no answer. I tried Janice. She was probably with her Mom. Again, no answer. I called my sister, Rachel, then. She was waiting. And I told her. Dad passed away at 6:30. “I’m so glad you were there,” she said. And we talked. You call Jesse and Rhoda. I’ll call Stephen and leave a message for Titus and Joseph. You can post it on the family site, I said. She said she would, and we hung up. And we both made more calls to share the news. Our father had died, passed on. Finally, the time had come that he could leave.

I’m not sure what all the protocol is up there in Aylmer. The Canadian system. My nephew Simon dashed off somewhere to a phone to call the nurse and the undertaker. A few neighboring Amish people came and went. We sat around in the tiny house. Now and then I stepped outside to make a call or answer my phone. I had tried to call Alvin and Naomi, too. They couldn’t be far away. The first time, no answer on his end. Ten minutes later, I called again. This time, there was a click, and he spoke. And I spoke. This is Ira. Dad died. There was a pause. “We’re at the motel, getting a room,” Alvin said. “We will be right out.”

And that was the randomness of it all, and it just didn’t seem right. Not that anyone could do anything about it. Here my sister Naomi had come days before to help care for Dad. She had no wheels, they trundled her around in a buggy. Those things aren’t safe, in my opinion. She stayed out at Rosemary’s house. Then she stepped away for a few minutes with her husband to go get a room at the Comfort Inn. And right then, Dad died. Meanwhile, I had waltzed in for a little over two hours. And there I stood, closer to the man’s head than anyone else when he passed away. I told Naomi. I feel bad. I’m sorry you weren’t here. There’s nothing really that I can do about it. She was most gracious. No one can blame anyone for being where they were. It all just happened as it happened.

At some point then, I took off to book my room at the Comfort Inn. Dad’s body was still there when I got back. And around 9:30 or so, the lights of the hearse came bumping up the long lane. Joe Gascho stepped outside the house with a lamp to wave them in. They backed the big black vehicle up close to the front door, just off the deck. Two men dressed in long black coats got out and extracted a gurney from the hearse. They came clanking in and introduced themselves. Joe showed them into the back room. They pulled the gurney in and set it beside the bed. Dad’s body had stiffened some, you could tell. Joe stood at the doorway, holding the lamp high for light in the little bedroom. I peeked over his shoulder. The men lowered the gurney beside the bed, lifted Dad’s body over, placed it in a large bag, and zipped it shut. Then they covered everything with a blanket. Rosemary handed them a bag as they clumped out through the kitchen. “Here are his clothes,” she said. The clothes Dad would be buried in, all packed and ready to go. Joe stepped outside with his lamp. I followed him and watched as the gurney came out, pushed by one black-coated man and pulled by the other. They wheeled it right up to the open door of the hearse, folded up the front wheel frames, and pushed it in. Then they shut the door. And out the long lane they drove into the darkness. I sure wouldn’t want a job like that.

I remember, growing up, the words the Amish preachers often said at the beginning of a long service. Like Big Church or Ordnung’s Church. Both went late into the afternoon. And I remember hearing the preacher hem and haw, getting started. Or the bishop, in Big Church. He would get up, clear his throat, and make a few noises about how humble he feels, standing up there, talking. Others could do it so much better. And then he would speak those fateful words. “We have a big field to cross today.” Which basically meant that no one in that house was going anywhere soon. We were all trapped until the last second of the last minute of the last hour of the service. We have a big field to cross. It’s enough to send shivers down the spine of any Amish child. And that’s what I feel like saying right here, about this blog, writing about the next few days leading up to and through to the other side of my father’s funeral. We have a big field to cross. Maybe there are a few shortcuts. We’ll see, I guess.

Thursday. First, there was a meeting with the undertakers at 8:30. I’ve never had much to do with funeral homes or undertakers. I drove Amish Black east on Rt. 3 to Aylmer, followed by Alvin and Naomi in Alvin’s big Dodge truck. I pulled in at the Tim Horton’s there on the west edge of town. The drive-up window was deserted, oddly, so I pulled through and ordered a large coffee, black. It was thin and weak. I was disappointed in TH. I thought you guys had decent brew. Naomi got out of the truck and I cleaned off the passenger’s seat in my Jeep. We drove through town, to the east side of the main traffic light. And there, on the left, right at the end of the row of storefronts. There it stood. Kebbel’s Funeral Home. It’s kind of tight, getting in and out of the place. I pulled in, drove around the back, and parked on the east side right up front outside the doors. We won’t be long, I told Naomi. We walked in. The large front room was empty. A bell must have rung in the back. The son of the father/son team stepped out and walked to greet us. Bob, he’d told me the night before, when he was picking up Dad’s body. He was very calm and smooth and efficient.

He led us to a back room and we sat at a conference table. I handed him the envelope Rosemary had given me the night before. The obituary for our father. Rosemary and Naomi had written a rough draft in the past few days. I handed it to Bob, and we went over it. He took it to his office for his secretary to type up. And then we discussed the details of Dad’s funeral. It would be on Sunday morning at 9 AM. I know it’s a little horrifying to Lancaster County Amish, the thought of a funeral on a Sunday. But in most midwestern communities, it’s not a big deal. For a funeral, Sunday works just as good as any other day. The funeral home would print up little folded paper obituaries to give to people who came to the viewing and the service. Naomi and I checked out the potential covers for the notice. I liked the Dove of Peace. She liked a sunset scene. Why don’t we use both? I asked. Half of one, and half of the other. Bob the undertaker was most accommodating. He handed us draft copies of each. We need to take this out to our sister’s place, I told him. We need approval. I’ll be back later today to give you the go-ahead.

Bob’s elderly father, Herb, came in to meet us, too. He’s in his 80s, and he remembers when the Amish first arrived in Aylmer in 1951. He remembered Dad from back then, he told us. I know Dad’s Mom died in Aylmer. They took her body to Daviess by train. Herb was probably involved with all that. We chatted about his memories. And I pulled out a copy of my book, then, and signed it to father and son. This is about my experience, growing up, I said. Dad is a big character in the book, as you might imagine. They thanked me for my gift. They would read it, they both promised. I guess I’ll never know if they do or not, and I guess it doesn’t matter that much. An undertaker works with death every day, he sees it, lives it, and deals with it intimately. I wonder if they see and hear things that would freak out the rest of us. I wouldn’t be surprised. But they are always so smooth and polished, at least the ones I’ve seen. Herb and Bob were no different.

Moving along, that Thursday. Naomi and I drove out to Joe and Rosemary’s house, then. Everything is a bit of a jumble in my mind, as far as what happened exactly when. The details. We went over the little obituary notices, and I ran back to town with the final corrections. The funeral home people told me. The copies would be ready to pick up at the printers at four that afternoon. I rested at the motel and drove around a bit. Just before four, I stopped at the Aylmer Express offices. The printers. They had two little boxes ready to go. I trundled on out to my sister’s place. Somebody had dropped off food for supper, a large casserole. We would be eating around six, Rosemary said. After sipping black coffee all day, I was hungry for my meal. Around five, my brother Stephen and his wife Wilma came around. They had already checked in at the motel. The extended family was gathering in. Most would arrive on Friday. I told Stephen. Tomorrow morning at 9:30, they are bringing Dad out to where the service will be. We might as well be waiting on him. Stephen agreed. We ate, then. And later, I headed to my motel room. The first full day on site was done. I slept fitfully that night.

Friday. This would be a big day. Well, all the days were big, on that trip. You only got one father on this earth. It’s a big deal, to get together and bury him when he dies. I headed east into Aylmer and stopped for hot black coffee. McDonald’s this time, and every time after that. A large for two bucks. Tim Horton’s blew it, with their thin weak water the day before. I headed east out of town, then north on Carter Road. Past the woods, then past the fields that had been the western edge of the farm I was born on. The west forty got sold when we moved. A new homestead was started by Omar Eicher and his wife, back then. I’m not sure who lives on that place now. Might be English people. Then north, to the next crossroad, where the school is beside the Herrfort farm. Cross that intersection, and there was the big gazebo manufacturing warehouse where the funeral would be. The exact same place where Mom’s funeral was. It has stood empty and unused for a few years. From what I heard, it took the menfolk a few days to get it cleaned up.

I parked my Jeep out by the road and walked in. A few people were busy getting ready. An Amish funeral is an amazing event. A model of teamwork and efficiency. A temporary kitchen had been set up in the office entrance area. Cookstoves and tables, and a dozen married women and single girls milled around. They would serve lunch and supper today and for the next two days. Dad wasn’t here, yet. The hearse should be out any time. Stephen arrived, and Alvin and Naomi. I’m not sure if Rosemary was there right then or not. Like I said, I can’t remember every detail of every minute. I walked around, inspecting the place. Lots of benches were already set up, with room for many more. Some young men bustled busily about. They greeted me. Asked my name. I’m Ira, I said.

I stood around with the young men, and we talked. Almost immediately, one of them got to telling me a story. I didn’t know his name. Later, I heard he was Paul Stoll, son of the bishop, Peter Stoll. And he told me. A few years ago, Dad would drive around the community in his own buggy. Back when he could still get around. It was freedom, for him. Anyway, the young Stoll man was driving along in his own buggy that summer day. On the gravel road, there north of the graveyard. And off to the side, there was a field of watermelons. Some local Amish farmer was raising them to sell. Dad had decided he could use a few of those watermelons, so he pulled in with his buggy and got out. It was no big deal. The owner certainly wasn’t going to grumble if David Wagler stopped and picked a few melons. And the young man told me. He was watching, and about then, Dad stumbled and fell. Right out there in the field. He couldn’t get up, so he started crawling along on his hands and knees toward his buggy. The young man stopped, then, of course. He tied his horse to a post and walked out to help Dad get up. And there was my father, not particularly alarmed, moving toward his buggy as best he could. “There was David Wagler,” the young man said. “Crawling toward his buggy on his hands and knees. And he was pushing three watermelons in front of him.” I threw back my head and roared. If that’s not a perfect picture of who Dad was, I don’t know what is. I mean, he was going that way, anyway. Might as well push along a few watermelons while he was at it. I told that story many times to my family over the next two days. We all howled every time.

Minutes later, the hearse arrived. Those things are always big and black and long and bulky and spooky. This one had taken a lot of bodies on a lot of last rides. Two attendants got out and opened the back door. I hadn’t seen either one of them before. We greeted them and told them where to take the body. They pulled out a gurney on wheels. Dad was all covered up. They rolled him in, then back into the little temporary plywood room where the coffin was set up. They disappeared behind the plywood. Stephen had arrived, and we lingered around. Waiting for the OK to walk in and see Dad. The attendants emerged ten minutes later or so, and waved us in. Dad’s face looked sunken and wasted the last time I’d seen him. I was curious. Real curious. Could the undertakers work some magic? Stephen and I walked into the little side room. The coffin was there, on two small sawhorses. We walked in and looked down on our father. He looked amazingly natural. His face had been filled out, however they do that, and his great beard was combed and fluffed and swept cleanly to his chest. He looked half imposing, like he was going to get up and start managing things. Stephen and I stood there, without a lot of words. Others drifted in, too, and stood around us. There were murmurs. He looks good. So natural. And he did.

A funeral Steve Dad
Stephen and Dad.

Friday was the viewing day for the locals. Anyone can come at any time, but the first day, it’s just assumed that many people are traveling to get there. So the locals come. Many come on both days. At noon, someone stood and announced that the food was ready. We all stood and someone spoke a prayer, then people filed through. I didn’t eat, of course. Just black coffee. I visited with many people that day. Two stood out to me. Joe Stoll, and Bishop Ike Stoltzfus. I had a real nice long visit with Ike. But I sat with Joe first. He smiled and smiled. I’m sure a lot of memories were flooding through his head. He is my cousin and Dad’s nephew, in his 80s. He was cofounder of Pathway Publishers with Dad.

And I asked him. We always heard that it was out in the threshing field, when you and Dad dreamed up your vision of Pathway. Is that true? Joe smiled again and settled in. “We were threshing at Johnny Gashcho’s farm,” he said. Johnny is married to Joe’s sister, Martha. “Your Dad had the team and wagon, and I was out in the field with my pitchfork, loading. And every time your Dad came out to the field with his wagon, I made sure that I was pitching for him.” I listened, absorbed. And he told me. Later that next winter, he walked the half mile to my parent’s house on a bitterly cold January evening. Jake Eicher came, too. The three of them had a meeting. The first one. Jake told Dad and Joe that he couldn’t write, but he could keep the printing presses rolling. Jake offered an acre of land for the print shop. That night, my father’s impossible dream was officially launched.

Joe told me one more little story. This was when he was a child of ten or so. Dad was at a CPS Camp as a conscientious objector in WWII. Two of his married sisters and their families were living in Jerome, Michigan, at the time. Joe’s parents, Peter and Anna Stoll. And Albert and Mary Stoll, too. The families got a letter from Dad, when he was in the Camp. The letter was typed. Typing was considered very modern back then. Somehow, Dad had taught himself how to operate the typewriter they had there at the Camp. And Joe told me. Mary and Anna, Dad’s older sisters, were deeply grieved that their younger brother was slipping so badly. So modern. They would much have preferred to just read his handwriting. I laughed and laughed. The Waglers were staunch, plain people, even way back then. They had hard blood. Dad never backed down, though, when his older sisters admonished him. He always, always typed his stuff. I can still hear his old manual typewriter as he clacked away, slamming back the carriage after each loud warning ding.

The day drifted on. The family arrived in spurts and fits. Rachel and Lester and many of their children flew into Detroit, then drove across the border from there. And soon after five, supper was served again. The thing about an Amish funeral is, everything is done for you. The food shows up, the funeral service site is cleaned and organized and heated. The grave is dug by hand. The grieving family just sits back and experiences everything. It’s beautiful. We ate, then, and I was hungry. I loaded a plate with salad and hot casserole food. Everything was delicious. One little note, though. I don’t think the Aylmer people eat a lot of meat, because it sure was sparse in those dishes. A tiny speck of ham floated around forlornly now and then. But it was all good. When you’re getting fed like that, eat and appreciate. That’s what I did, or tried to.

Magdalena and her husband Ray Marner arrived then. Jesse and Lynda had driven in from South Carolina earlier. And my family sat in two rows of chairs, facing each other, about eight feet apart or so. The line came down one side and back up the other and round and round. Sometimes it was busy, sometimes it wasn’t. I chatted with Marvin and Rhoda, who had arrived with the others from Kansas. Titus and Ruth arrived late in the afternoon with their boys. They had started off early that morning and made good time. I repeated the story of Dad’s death to all my siblings as they came. Teared up a bit, in the memory and the telling. And we hugged and spoke of who the man was and his vast, almost limitless, impact on our lives. Our father. He was gone. It seemed surreal and impossible. He was survived by all his children. It was nip and tuck, there, more than a few times over the years. Almost, one or two of us went before him. But he never had to know a loss like that, even though he reached ninety-seven.

The youth came, too, after supper. Or maybe for supper. I can’t remember. They came, dozens and dozens of single boys and girls. They sat in rows in the main part of the great room. And they sang. Aylmer never did allow singing in harmony, or parts. The original bishop, Pete Yoder, frowned on such things. They sing with one voice, in one key. And that night, it was beautiful. German songs first. Then English. And after half an hour or so, a minister stood with a German prayer book. I think it was Christian Stoll, Joe Stoll’s youngest son. He spoke briefly, then asked everyone to stand. We did. He prayed a long German prayer aloud. I appreciated again the rituals and traditions of an Amish funeral. It’s old, it’s rare, and it’s beautiful.

The youth had all filed through to view Dad and to shake hands with us. And the crowd dispersed after a while. People left. Soon it was time for us to leave. And we gathered in the little plywooded room with Dad, all the family. The children who were there, and their children. We milled around a bit. Why don’t we sing a song? Someone asked. And Alvin Yutzy led a few verses. Some of the voices were cracked, like mine, but we sang. I will meet you at the eastern gate, over there. We stood in somber silence, then. Joe Gascho stepped up beside the head of the coffin, by the wall. It was time to close the hinged cover. (Lid seems a little harsh. So hinged cover it is.) And he said somberly. “It’s time to close the coffin. Titus, will you help me?” And Titus rolled up and he and Joe gently lifted the cover and set it down. Rituals and traditions. We filed out.

I drove to the motel soon. Almost everyone from out of town was booked there. The first night, after Dad passed, I came in and chatted with the Indian owner. They had been told there was a funeral coming soon. Rooms would be needed. So they were looking for us. I got there that night, and stood at the counter. Wagler Funeral. What kind of discount can you give? Deal with me, now. I got lots of family and friends coming in over the next few days. He gave me 10%. I could barely get my room booked, because the phone kept interrupting us with my kin calling for reservations. We got it done eventually. The phone kept ringing. I wasn’t kidding, I told the man. My room was very nice. Recently remodeled. Clean as clean could be. The bed was firm, just as I like it. That first night, I hung out my clothes for an extended stay.

We gathered in the conference room, then. All the Waglers and their kin and their friends. I had asked the owner, back the first day. Can we use the conference room every night? And make sure to rent the rooms around the conference room to my people, so no one gets upset. He claimed he would. It didn’t quite work like he’d promised, but in the end, everything went pretty well, considering. Loud times were had. Calls were made to the front desk with irate complaints. Warnings were issued and it got quieter for a while until it wasn’t anymore. My people don’t take all that kindly to being told to be quiet. We tend to get louder.

Saturday. We move along, here, about as slow as the actual days went. Every minute of that trip was loaded with so much of so many things. Emotions. Memories. Meeting old friends. It almost becomes a blur. Rosemary wanted us out at the viewing around eleven. I meandered out with my old friend and brother-in-law, Marvin Yutzy. We always like to take a few minutes and talk alone. We chatted as we cruised around the community. I took him around the block from the east, past our old home place. Only two buildings remain from my childhood days there. The vast old frame barn, and the block wash house. Oh, and the old shop and shed. We had just built that shed new the year we left. So only three actual physical things remain. It’s like a different place. Still, I pointed out the pond where we played hockey, and the north banks where I caught my first little mud catfish when I was about four. My sisters, Rachel and Naomi, took me fishing for the first time. I pointed out that spot.

A fuenral Maggie Titus Ira Stoll
Visiting at the viewing. Magdalena, Titus, and my namesake, Ira Stoll

This day was pretty much a repeat of the day before, except there were more people. Friday was a little slow. Saturday was much busier. Everyone arrived from my family, the ones who had to travel a distance. All of them got there by Saturday afternoon sometime. My brother Joseph came with Iva, accompanied by several of his sons and his youngest daughter, Rosanna. He was not well. He could walk some, they also pushed him around in a wheelchair. He didn’t shake hands with anyone. Germs. He had to be extra careful. We welcomed every one of them as they came. This was it. This was Dad’s funeral. We would all make it. A lot of the grandchildren, my nieces and nephews, a lot of them showed up, too. There are fifty-nine. Not all could make it, of course. But a lot did. It is noteworthy that Alvin and Naomi’s son, Gideon Yutzy and his wife Esther and their infant youngest daughter flew over from their home in Ireland. From Dublin to Toronto. It used to be years ago that people couldn’t go more than a few hundred miles for a funeral, what with news traveling slow and slow transportation. Now, you can fly in from anywhere in the world, if you’re of a mind to. I got to chat with Gideon some. At a funeral like that, you’re lucky to visit with any single person for much more than ten minutes.

I invited three people, personally, by reaching out. Jerry Eicher, my cousin and author friend. John Schmid, the folk singer from Holmes County. And Mark Ernest Burr, who I last saw when I was a child in Aylmer. He was one of those “wacky” English converts who had in mind to join the Amish. It didn’t work. We’ve reconnected online, Mark and my family, and it felt right to invite an old friend from way back to my father’s funeral. I told Schmid about it because he got to know Dad down in Florida. In Pine Craft, at Birky Square, where the singers come around every winter to play their stuff. Dad loved John’s singing. He went to all his concerts that he could make. He particularly loved John’s ballad about Howard Grey, a boy who was bullied about like Nicholas was in my book. Dad always requested that song, when John stopped by to see him. It’s pretty ironic, when you think about who my father was in my childhood, that he would openly listen to and enjoy any musical instruments. It was always in there, that desire and enjoyment. He just quashed it for many decades. It is what it is, I guess. Or was what it was.

I invited those three people, not that anyone else would not have been welcome. In most Amish communities, you don’t need an invite to go to a funeral. Lancaster and its daughter settlements are the exceptions. Before I got here, I never heard of having to be invited to a funeral before you go. You just went if you wanted to. I was happy that all three of my friends showed up. Jerry and his wife came on Saturday, John and Mark didn’t make it to the funeral site until Sunday morning. I chatted with Jerry after we ate supper Saturday night. Another delicious but meat-challenged casserole. Jerry was strolling around and I waved him to a seat beside me. I thanked him for coming. He said he was seriously considering it, then my text made the final decision for him. And we just caught up. I always ask for his take on the publishing world. The man has been around and has seen a lot. I respect his opinions. He asked how my book’s coming along, of course. It’s coming slow, I said. The thing was, I’ve known for a while now that there will be no closure for the book until we bury my father. Now that’s happening. Now, I guess we’ll see what comes. I don’t know. That’s just how I see it. Jerry nodded. And he told me again, like he’s said before. “You should get a book published of a bunch of your best blogs. That would sell.” I looked dubious. I listened, though.

And he spoke about my father, too, Jerry did. He told me. “Your Dad was way more influential than people realize. He had a tremendous impact.” Yes, I said. I know that. Jerry went on. “Your father was flawed, and he knew it. He knew he was writing about the ideal, not reality. He knew that. He did it deliberately.” And Jerry made a fascinating observation. He has written a lot of Amish fiction in his time. More than a million copies of his books have sold. That’s a lot. And he told me. When he did research on some Amish community somewhere, to get materials for a new novel, he soon noticed something. If an Amish community allows its people to subscribe to the Pathway papers (Family Life, etc.), that community is on a higher moral plane than the communities that don’t allow the magazines. There was a clear distinction, Jerry claimed. The lower, hard core communities always had more issues with bed courtship, alcoholism, and just overall corrupt morals. He mentioned tobacco, too. But I don’t consider tobacco immoral, so I don’t count it as a corrupt influence in any Amish community. And Jerry told me. “That was your Dad’s work, right there, those communities with the higher moral standards. That’s the vision they had at Pathway, that’s what they were trying to do.”

There was a great gathering at the conference room that night, too, then. After the youth sang at the viewing and we stood around the coffin one last time as a family and sang a few verses of another song. Alvin Yutzy led us. As I dream of a city I have not seen. And after that, we all headed to the motel. The crowd was bigger than the night before. There was food and feasting. And much noise again. I think they kept it down that night, so no one got kicked out of anywhere. I went to bed a little late. Set the alarm for early. Tomorrow was the day. Tomorrow we would return my father to the earth. I slept fitfully.

Sunday. The big day. I got up before six. Cleaned up and shaved and dressed in my black suit. The one I got married in. I couldn’t get the thing on for years there, back when I was drinking hard. Way too much bloated weight. After OMAD for a few months, I fit right in. Well, and after quitting drinking. I buttoned up a clean white shirt. No tie, though. I like to wear a tie to church at home, and to other places where it’s OK to do so. A lot of ex-Amish I know won’t wear a tie to an Amish funeral. There’s just something about it. The people at home, your people, they’ll know you’re just showing off, if you wear one. Getting a little fancy there, eh? No one would say anything. But they’d think things. And this is one of those rare instances where you don’t do something you otherwise would have, purely out of respect for your hosts. I am free to not wear a tie. That’s how I see it. And that’s how I dressed. Black suit, laid back English, of course. White shirt, buttoned to the top. And no tie. I shrugged into my trench coat and walked out front to the lobby, where a good many of my family were flitting about, eating breakfast and otherwise making noises to go to a funeral.

A funeral motel
Sisters. Rhoda, Rachel, Magdalena.

A funeral morning at motel
A group of us.

My nephew, Ivan Gascho, had stopped over in London that morning to pick up my brother, Nathan. They were coming to the motel, and Nathan was driving out with me. They arrived, and I hugged my brother. Welcome. He spiffed up a bit in my room. It was time to go. We walked outside into about three inches of fresh, fluffy, white snow. It had come down the night before. And now, a chill wind blew. I huddled in my trench coat and buckled the strap across my waist. Nathan and I boarded Amish Black. It was cold, it was wet, the roads were about half slick. Thank God, now, for my Jeep. We turned north off the highway to bypass Aylmer and kept pushing east. East, through the community. East, to the funeral.

A funeral service
The funeral service for my father.

A funeral Naomi2
Naomi and Alvin.

A funeral rosemary
Waiting for the service to start, watching people file in.

A funeral Rhoda Nathan
Rhoda and Nathan

We parked and got out and walked in. The winds whipped cold around us. Nathan had invited his old friend Juanita Staken to the funeral to sit with him. She had already arrived. We took our seats with the family. I looked around. The great warehouse was filled with people. Benches and benches and rows of benches of people. The little plywood viewing room had been dismantled, that space was covered with benches. Over on the near east wall sat the preachers in a row. Dad’s coffin was there in front of them, covered with a clean white cloth. People filed in and filed in. It seemed like everyone was seated. It was ten minutes before nine. All was silent, and the place was full. And then the first preacher stood to preach.

It was Simon Wagler, my cousin and Dad’s nephew. The one who drove with him past the graveyard, like I wrote in my last blog. Where Dad said he could hear them calling him, the people buried there. The family had picked Simon to have one of the short first sermons. There would be three preachers; two would preach short, and one would preach long. There are some politics involved in choosing who gets to preach at an Amish funeral. And that’s about all I got to say about that. Anyway, the family had decided to ask Simon to preach, because he had been so kind to Dad. And that Thursday, the day after Dad passed, I was dispatched to go track Simon down and ask him.

I pulled into his drive sometime around midmorning. Someone there told me that Simon had gone over to one of his other farms to drop off some things. I knew where it was, so I headed over. Just a half mile down the road. A truck was parked outside close to the shop, there. And I heard someone banging around inside, unloading things. I walked in. Simon saw me and recognized me. We shook hands. Visited a bit, then got right down to business. I was sent here, I said, to ask you a favor. Would you preach at Dad’s funeral? It’ll be the first sermon or the middle. Simon acted very surprised and humble. “Well,” he said. “There are certainly others who could do it better than I could. But if you ask me to, I will be willing to preach.” Thanks, I said. That’s what I needed to know. We shook hands again, and I left to tell my family. Simon agreed to preach. I asked him. He said he would.

And now he stood, facing the crowd in the large warehouse, hands clasped to his chest. He never was a magical speaker, not golden tongued, like some. But he spoke loud and clear. And he spoke of some of his memories of Uncle Dave. Now our brother has passed on. He mentioned the graveyard incident. How Dad heard the voices calling. The clock was on the wall just above the preacher’s head, where everyone could see it except the one who was standing and speaking. I felt a little bad for Simon as he stopped and turned his head and craned his neck to check the time. He spoke for around twelve minutes, I think. Then he took his seat.

Next up, the next preacher. My cousin, Kenny Wagler, from Daviess. I’ve met Kenny and his father, Wally, before. Back a few summers ago. Full blooded Daviess people, they are. Kenny preached in a loud clear voice for about twelve minutes or so. He quoted a lot of Old German hymns and other poems. He craned his neck, too, to look at the clock behind and above him. Every preacher should be able to clearly see some sort of clock, somewhere. Oh, well. These guys all made it through OK. Kenny took his seat, then. And the third and final preacher stood and faced the assembled people.

Sam Schrock came with a van load from Bloomfield, Iowa, the place we moved to when we left Aylmer many decades ago. Sam and his family came around long after I had fled the place. From Oklahoma somewhere, I’m thinking. Sam is a bishop, there in Bloomfield, one of many. He knew Dad from when my parents still lived there a dozen years or more ago. They were friends. He had many memories of Dad. He spoke in a clear, cutting voice that reached every crevice of the vast warehouse. I don’t know how it happened, but he preached for a solid hour. That’s a long time, for a funeral sermon. I figure the presiding bishop probably told Sam to just go ahead and take his time. Talk for an hour. The thing is, Dad would have approved. He liked long sermons, or claimed to. A trait that bypassed most of his children, I think. It was all good, I guess. There is no testimony after a funeral sermon, except in some odd places like Kalona, Iowa, where the preachers ramble on incessantly. Not in Aylmer. After a final, rather lengthy prayer, Sam wrapped it up sometime around 10:30. Then the casket was opened. And the people started filing through.

A preacher stood off to the side and read scripture aloud in German. And then another preacher read some old German hymns. People filed through, then, by the hundreds. It’s always fascinating to me, how the Amish will bring their young children to a funeral. Death is a part of life. It will come for us all. This is ingrained in a child’s mind from earliest memory. And I saw it again, here. A father or a mother lifting a young child, so the child could see the body. My father, in this case. The little children stared and stared, then moved on with their parents. I’m sure some psychologist somewhere would say this is not healthy for young children, to see death up close like that. It’s how the Amish have always done it. I respect that tradition a lot.

I never heard an official count. Offhand, I’d guess there were around 800 people there. Hundreds more had walked through in the two days of viewings. Old Bloomfield was well represented. The people who had lived in Bloomfield way back when we first moved in. I won’t go naming names, because I’d miss someone. Another time and place, maybe. The family had looked forward to welcoming Rachel (Mrs. Homer) Graber, Dad’s younger sister and only surviving sibling. She’s ninety-four and lives in Kalona, Iowa. At the last moment, the widow Rachel had some sort of spell, and she couldn’t make it. We were of course disappointed. She would have been given a seat of high honor. Had the funeral been in the states, where people didn’t need to hassle with getting over the border and back, I’d guess there would have been a lot more. You can’t know for sure. But I’d say there would have been. The lines filed through. And then it was time for the family to get up and see Dad one more time.

I hadn’t paid any attention to how this would all come down. I know Rachel had badly wanted every family standing complete one at a time, from oldest to youngest. That hadn’t happened at Mom’s funeral. Not sure why. Like I said, I just never concerned myself with any of that. I figured me and Nathan could always go up together, or something. Anyway, that’s how they decided to do it. One complete family at a time. Rosemary got to her feet. Joe stood, too. They walked the few steps to the coffin and stood looking down at Dad. And their children and their families came up and surrounded the coffin with their parents. A few families at a time. Joe and Rosemary had a lot of offspring there that day. The most of any in the family. It took some minutes for everyone to circle through. Then Joe and Rosemary went back and sat down.

Magdalena and Ray were next. And Janice, who had flown in the night before. Magdalena had whispered to me when we got to our seats. “You and Nathan and Juanita can come up with us. We’re only a few people. So now, I stood. Nathan stood, too, then Juanita. Janice came walking from a little way across the aisle. And we all gathered around my father’s coffin. We huddled in a group and held each other close. We looked down on that strong, stern visage, and we all remembered. A minute or two, and we turned and walked back to our seats. Joseph’s family was next. His sons pushed him up in a wheelchair. Then Naomi and Alvin and all their children came. Then Jesse and Lynda and their sons, Ronald and Howard. Then Rachel and Lester and their sons and daughters. Then Stephen and Wilma and all their children. Then Titus and Ruth came with their sons, Robert and Thomas. And then Marvin and Rhoda at the end with their children. It took some time. There were tears, but they were mostly quiet tears. After the last of us was seated, the pallbearers stepped forward. Four of them. Youngish men, in their forties, I’d say. They stood at each corner as the coffin was closed. Then they lifted it by hand and carried it past us, out the door to the west.

We milled around then as the body was placed in a hearse buggy and the procession slowly drove out to the road and headed west. I got in my Jeep and drove south around the block. Then up the main drag west, then back north to the graveyard. I was among the first vehicles to get there. I parked Amish Black directly across the road. Just a bit back from even with the gate. And there I sat. It was bitterly, bitterly cold outside. I dug into a pile on the back seat and found a big thick stocking cap. I would take that with me, in case my head got too cold. Other vehicles flowed in then from both directions and parked all around on the side of the road. Huddled in my trench coat, I walked out to the grave and stood there with a few of my brothers and nephews. The hole had been covered overnight, to protect it from the snow. The men lifted the plywood and the planks and set them aside. We stood, looking down at the rough wooden box that would hold the coffin.

A funeral open grave
Inspecting Dad’s new house. Stephen, Ira, Jesse, and others.

My brother Jesse and his sons had stopped the day before, when the men were digging the grave by hand with shovels. Jesse and his boys got down and helped dig for a bit. When I stopped a few hours later, the hole was pretty much done. The four Amish men showed me, there at the bottom. Dad’s grave was very close to Mom’s, a mere two feet away, if that. The earth had caved in at the bottom. The men pointed it out to me. You could easily poke a stick in there and hit the rough box that held Mom’s coffin. Not that anyone did. It never occurred to me that anyone would. Wasn’t tempting at all. Still. That’s how close my parents would rest together in the earth.

And way up north, around the corner, came snaking a long, slow line of buggies. The lead buggy got there eventually, and they pulled off to the side a little, just outside the gate. The buggy stopped. Some men emerged. One held the horse. The pallbearers came and opened the rear door. They pulled out the coffin. Timothy Stoll, the funeral director, took the two sawhorses from the buggy and led the pallbearers into the yard. There, about halfway across, they stopped and set it up. There would be one last quick viewing in the bitter December cold.

A funeral entering gare2
Through the gate for the final time.

A funeral Joseph
Joseph, arriving with the help of two of his sons.

The coffin was set up and people filed through one more time. The last time. They walked by on both sides, so it didn’t take long. And here, I’ll say this. Pretty much everything that happened to me on this trip was unplanned. You can’t plan events or control them. You just walk. I was sitting in my Jeep across the road, staying warm and watching things. Watching people file past and gathering over on the left by the gaping hole in the ground. About then, my nephew, Titus Aden Yutzy, came strolling by. Rachel and Lester’s second son. A talented auctioneer, he is in high demand in his home area. A good auctioneer is like a good preacher. It’s easy to listen to either one. Titus had flown in late the night before, because there was a wedding back in Kansas in his wife’s family. As soon as he could get away, he hopped a plane to Detroit and drove over. He was determined to see Grandpa Wagler one more time. I rolled down my window as he walked up. We chatted. And he kind of grinned at me. “Are you going to put a pen in Grandpa’s hand?” He asked. I just looked at him. It didn’t register for a second, what he was saying. A pen? In Dad’s hand? And it hit me. Yes. What a grand idea. A pen. The writer would be buried, holding a pen. Dad’s older sisters would be pleased that it wasn’t a mini typewriter, or something scandalous like that.

A funeral the pen

You know what? I said. That’s a great idea. I have a pen right here. I had carried it the last two days. A little note pad from The Belmont Inn in Abbeville, South Carolina. I had stayed there a few years ago when my nephew and his wife, Steven and Evonda Marner, had their wedding reception there in town. It was an artsy little notebook with a plain, little artsy pen hitched to one side. I had actually taken some notes the last few days, a thing I rarely do. I just knew the event was too huge to try to recall it all from memory. Now, I had a pen for Dad. I’m going to do it, I said to Titus Aden.

Minutes later, most of the crowd had passed through. A few still lingered. A few more minutes and the hinged cover would be closed forever. The screws would be driven down hard and final. I walked through the gate into the yard. Janice met me somewhere, there. I told her. I’m putting this pen in Dad’s hand. Where’s Howard? Is he close? Janice went to find my nephew and her cousin, Howard Wagler. Jesse’s youngest son. He came over with Janice, and the three of us walked across the trampled snow up to where my father lay. We stood around close. No one seemed to notice. I reached down and slipped the pen into Dad’s hand. I thought about it as I was turning away. It’s in his left hand. That’s the wrong one.

The crowd ebbed and flowed past the coffin. I kept thinking about that pen I had left in Dad’s left hand. And I watched for my chance when no one was around close. Then I walked up alone and picked up the pen and placed it carefully in Dad’s hand again. The right hand, this time. It seemed like the right thing to do. Either one would have been OK, I learned later. Dad was born left-handed. He was forced to use his right hand, trained that way as a small child. That was probably a brutal thing for him. I don’t remember knowing that before.

Timothy Stoll stepped up to close the cover. I watched intently from nearby, just to make sure nobody snuck that pen out of there. A last glance at my father’s face, and then the door was firmly shut on Dad’s dark new house. The screws were turned by hand and driven in tight and hard. It was almost anticlimactic. I had seen and felt so many things so intensely that this moment seemed surreal. The family hovered around the open grave. Outside the fence, a large van had pulled up close and parked. Titus sat in the passenger’s seat and watched from the warmth.

The pallbearers approached. The four men who had carried Dad out from the service. They now picked him up with crossed boards and carried him over to the open grave. They set the coffin above the hole on those boards and placed their straps under. They lifted ever so gently, the boards were removed, and down, down into the earth went the wooden box that held my father. Back came the straps and down went the lid of the rough box the coffin was placed in. I waited for two of the men to step down into the hole, on the box. They always hand down the first shovels of earth, and gently place it around. It didn’t happen. First time I saw that at an Aylmer funeral. The men all took shovels and threw in the dirt from the top. Gently at first, until the box was covered. Then they shoveled hard. And then the family stepped in to help.

A funeral lowering coffin
The way of all flesh.

A funeral closing grave
Ashes to ashes, and dust to dust. Returning my father to the earth.

It was random and relaxed. I took a turn, then Stephen and Jesse did too. And a bunch of the nephews and nieces. Some of my sisters stepped up, too. And we got Dad settled into his dark new house, where the winds are always silent. (paraphrasing Wolfe, there.) After the grave was filled, Bishop Peter Stoll spoke briefly in a great booming voice. That man can sure preach. He spoke loudly and solidly and clearly for five minutes or more. The crowd drifted away, then. We stood around and sang a few songs, the family and a few others. The old hymns that Dad loved. We sang them to him for the last time. I wished later that John Schmid could have stepped up and sang “Howard Grey.” That simply wasn’t feasible. I have since asked John, and he has agreed. Next time he sings at Birky Square in Pine Craft, sometime in late February, he will dedicate that special song to my father. John, the family thanks you in advance.

After the last person had walked out of the graveyard, my brother Jesse stood by the gate. He swung it shut and wrapped the chain around the post and latched it back. A symbolic gesture from one of my father’s sons, the oldest son who was physically able. The gate has closed. It’s the end of an era.

And so we reach the other side of that large field, the one I warned you earlier we had to cross. It took a while. If you’re still with me, thank you for hanging in there. I try to not make like a long-winded Amish preacher, at least not often. Still. You bury your father only once, so this is such a time. I figured to write until the story was at least sketchily told. It takes a while to get even that done.

We all returned to the big warehouse, where a noon meal was served. I sipped black coffee and mingled. There were lots of people to catch up with from lots of places. Some of those details will just have to be filled in later, maybe for the book. The Aylmer Amish community came through. They were weighed, the people there, and not found wanting. They sure know how to host a large funeral in that place. They also know how to offer hospitality. I thank every single person involved, and I thank my sister Rosemary and her family one more time. Thank you for so tirelessly taking care of our father in his old, old age. Right into the sunset, right into the twilight. It was a long hard road, and a tiring one. I hope you all can get some rest.

Now, we reach the end. The warrior has laid down his sword. And now, at last, he sleeps. Right there beside Mom in the graveyard in the Aylmer community. The place his heart never left. The Amish world has lost a giant. His kind will not soon come again. We gathered from all around, his sons and daughters, and much of the extended family. We gathered, we remembered, and we mourned. And we buried the patriarch of our clan.

David L. Wagler, your journey was a long one. Rest in Peace, Dad.

A funeral Dad

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(22 Comments) »

  1. Thanks! Very sobering and real. My wife and I just finished reading this. I said to her when we ended, “The guy can write!” Keep on letting the stream flow and finish your book. We eagerly anticipate reading it.

    What a wonderful blessing a Christian funeral is. A great testimony to the faithfulness and blessing of God to a sinner saved by grace.

    Cherish your memories. We cherish your sharing them with us.

    Comment by Jim Eshelman — January 11, 2019 @ 8:25 pm

  2. I am sorry for the loss of your father. It is always difficult to lose a loved one. It is a blessing to be cared for at the end by family members. Nursing homes are institutions and even the best ones are awful places. Your father was blessed to have been cared for lovingly by family members. May God grant you and your family His loving peace.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — January 11, 2019 @ 9:51 pm

  3. Thanks for sharing this difficult time. As one who is still learning how to move on after recently losing both parents, I wish you peace. Emotionally, it’s a strange, new place to navigate; relieved that their suffering has ended, while feeling saddened and empty that they are gone. No matter what their age or ours, it hurts and we feel scattered. Again, my wish for peace to you and your family.

    Comment by Meg — January 11, 2019 @ 10:25 pm

  4. You are such a good writer that we travel with you where ever you go. Reading this we grieved with you…and we will continue to pray for you and your family. You are all blessed to have known him.

    Comment by carol ellmore — January 11, 2019 @ 10:45 pm

  5. Ira, since hearing of your Father’s passing, I have been looking for your posting. I really enjoy your point of view and writing style. Your gift for weaving words into a visual experience is 1 of many talents you inherited from your father..

    Keep writing….

    Comment by J Moore — January 12, 2019 @ 12:45 am

  6. Thanks for sharing Ira….having been to a few Amish funerals your style of writing had me right there with you!

    Comment by Elam Lantz — January 12, 2019 @ 9:04 am

  7. Thank you is about all I can say now. This is beautifully written, a great tribute to your Dad. It is also about the Aylmer Community, the community where I lived for 13 years.

    Comment by Katie Troyer — January 12, 2019 @ 9:07 am

  8. Beautifully written.

    Comment by forsythia — January 12, 2019 @ 9:53 am

  9. Thanks for sharing this Ira. Brought back memories from almost a year ago when we buried our oldest sister in the same graveyard! It was my first experience of “anything Aylmer”! Interesting to say the least. I do concur, the people there have a big heart and make it seem like they do it every day!

    Comment by Paul E Miller — January 12, 2019 @ 10:13 am

  10. Ira, your record of this is heartwarming, tender, epic. A real honoring of your father, as God told us to do. Makes me want to read your book again, to ‘meet’ your dad at a younger age. Impressive how you pulled off the covert photography too, by the way.

    Comment by Reuben Huffman — January 12, 2019 @ 10:55 am

  11. Thanks for the text “invitation.” I probably would not have come without that, even though I wanted to. A memorable two days. And placing a pen in his hand! What a beautiful symbolic gesture! May God continue to bless your family.

    Comment by John Schmid — January 12, 2019 @ 11:17 am

  12. Thanks so much for sharing!
    It is with mixed emotions that I read your blog.
    I am shocked and amazed at how your family treats you.
    We come from a more conservative community.
    We don’t have such communication.
    Praying for our people!

    Comment by John Miller — January 12, 2019 @ 11:19 am

  13. Ira, so beautifully written! I read it aloud to my hubby, like usual, and had to pause when the tears made it hard to see. It took me an hour, but it was worth reading every word. It is a wonderful tribute to your Dad! And putting a pen in his hand…how fitting, and a touching gesture!

    Comment by Ruth Ann Musser — January 12, 2019 @ 11:26 am

  14. A patriarch’s good-bye until we meet again. Blessings upon all.
    The flow of life continues.

    Comment by Sho — January 12, 2019 @ 11:29 am

  15. What a lovely poignant picture of your dad’s final crossing to the other side. The pen has passed down to you. You touch so many lives with your stories and blogs. We’re always waiting to read more.

    Comment by C Elyse Simpkins — January 12, 2019 @ 11:35 am

  16. Thanks for writing your memories of our Dad’s passing, and you are right. The Aylmer People were very gracious overall. I was deeply touched that 3 of Mom’s Yoder nephews and nieces chose to come. In spite of everything, they came. Eugene and Mary Catherine Stoll, Luke and Arlene Rhodes, Ed and Sharon Miller…words can’t describe my feelings when I saw them in the line.

    I was happy for Dad that he could go but we miss him already. It’s a new era. Lester and my parents have all left and now suddenly we are the old ones. Also a special Thanks to all the grandchildren who attended…especially my own. Our 1 son (and I) were holding our breath because his sister in law’s wedding was scheduled for Sat. He attended that ceremony then he and his sister left for the airport. They arrived at 11-ish Sat night at the motel and attended the funeral the next day….and thanks also to the many cousins and friends who made the trek from all corners of the earth. We appreciated all of you….

    Comment by Rachel — January 12, 2019 @ 4:22 pm

  17. So many rich layers of the complexities of life and love knit together in this blog post, Ira. What a beautiful gift for you to have these profound times with your father at the end of his life.

    It’s so fitting that your dad could be laid to rest in the community where his deepest dreams took life and form. After he had the courage and fortitude to leave it all behind for a long season, God reshaped his mind, then brought him back home for his final sleep. A circling of days. God’s tender and merciful everlasting love written out in real life. Years ago in a blog post about your dad, you used the lion metaphor. After reading your poignant story of his death and burial, these lines kept coming to mind:

    “Near the village, the peaceful village
    The lion sleeps tonight.
    Near the village, the quiet village
    The lion sleeps tonight.”

    Comment by Ava Shank — January 13, 2019 @ 1:59 pm

  18. I had a hard time getting through it, for the tears.

    Comment by Richard Miller — January 15, 2019 @ 11:19 am

  19. Thank you Ira for what you wrote about your Dad’s passing. Your nephew had called me and informed me of the death and I so wanted to come to the funeral, but I was fighting a bad cold and didn’t consider it wise. Your father meant a lot to me all through my life. I know he wasn’t perfect, but remember all men have failings and when the man is great, often the failings stand out even more. I wish you would consider the ideals your father stood for and try to follow those.

    Comment by Ray D Miller — January 18, 2019 @ 10:55 am

  20. The end.

    Comment by lisa — January 28, 2019 @ 9:34 am

  21. Ira: Can you tell me if you or anyone in the family remember when your father actually believed in Jesus Christ as His own personal Savior? Just wondered and wanted to have assurance that he is now in heaven. I love you all!

    Ronald Stonis
    former pastor in
    Rockport, Maine

    Comment by RONALD STONIS — February 13, 2019 @ 9:23 am

  22. Beautifully written. So very sorry. For me, it was a rough read, because my emotions are complicated and run deep. Very deep. Maybe more of a Daviess perspective. By the way: Answer=Yes. Sorta guessing I could tell you about personal experiences beyond your wildest dreams. Question=”An undertaker works with death every day, he sees it, lives it, and deals with it intimately. I wonder if they see and hear things that would freak out the rest of us.” As a teenager I used to live alone in a funeral home.

    Comment by Phyllisity — March 17, 2019 @ 10:21 am

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