January 10, 2020

My Father’s Passing; One Year Out…

Category: News — Ira @ 5:32 pm

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We are the sons of our father, and we shall follow the print of his foot forever.

—Thomas Wolfe
________________

It came sliding in kind of sideways, I thought. I wasn’t particularly looking for it when December came. And it came rolling in like a flood, the memories and the loss. I was surprised by the intensity. Then again, there is no road map for such things. You absorb it all as it comes. Or try to. The trigger that set off the charge in my head: A little over one year ago, we put my father in the ground.

It was good, the first year without my Dad. And I don’t want to hang on in an unhealthy way. I mean, the man was ninety-seven when he passed. He lived a full life. What he did, he did with all his might. And he sent a few tremors through the foundations of his world, too. He was such a man as that. But, in the first anniversary of his passing, the memories came roaring in pretty strong. One year out, I think, it’s OK to remember a bit. After that, more randomly. But there’s something about a year. Stop. Look back. Reflect. Write.

The memories were powerful and intense, when they came knocking on the door. It’s hit me, since Dad left. I get a little better grasp of how human he was. He was flawed, sure, and he made a splash with those flaws as he made a splash with just about everything around him in his life. Whatever he did, it made noise. That’s the kind of man he was. So his flaws are a given, right up front. Yep, there are plenty of bad things that can be recalled and relived. If that’s what you want. But still. Like I’ve said before, and like I wrote in the book. He was so much more than the sum of his flaws.

He had a real gruff exterior, but he was kind. I’m sure it was all a bit overwhelming at times, to be the father of eleven children. That’s a brood. A crowd. All flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. There wasn’t a lot of individual attention in him for any of us, but he made sure we all got our turns when they came. When it was my turn to go along with him to town, when it was my turn to do this or that, he generally made sure some semblance of order was followed. And I’ve never really thought about it much. It’s not a question he would even have considered. But did he enjoy his children? Were we special to him, any of us? Or all of us? He came from a place where such things were hardly considered, let alone asked right out in the open. I think the question is fair, though. It’s fair for any child to ask of his father. Do/Did you enjoy your children? If so, how? If not, why not?

I don’t know if Dad did. And now, I can’t ask him. I can only speak of how he treated us. And when I look at that, I got no call to complain. I’m talking for the younger children. Maybe the older ones had it harder, as they often do. The first journeys are tougher. I remember hearing this and hearing that, from the older children. Hard things, a lot of it. Their stories are legitimate, and their stories are their own.

For us younger ones, though, he often heard us when we begged for things. Our family wasn’t rich, by any standard. Compared to a third world existence, we were wealthy, of course. But not by any other. Cash flow was tight, usually. Dad nipped and tucked around and bought ripe, blackening bananas by the bushel to feed his ravenous clan. Mom always had a large, and I mean large, garden. Some of my very earliest memories, when I was probably three, come from being in the garden with Mom. “Helping” her, more of a bother than I was worth, I’m sure. She would never let on, though. That’s how we were taught to work. Starting right there in the garden, getting underfoot, but lovingly taught. We were never, never hungry, except in the ordinary course of things. After a hard day’s work, before a meal. But we were never without food. Never. We never felt that we were poor, either.

I think of it now. Dad often got us things, simply because we asked. When I was twelve, I wanted a new rifle. We were never afraid to make suggestions to Dad. So I’m sure I told him more than a few times. I’d like a rifle. He never made much noise, but one Tuesday evening he came home from the sale barn and town with an oblong cardboard box. We peered at it curiously. “It’s for Ira,” Dad said. I pried it open eagerly. A brand-new Mossberg single shot .22 rifle, that’s what was in that box. I think I hugged it close to me all that first night. I can still see and smell the varnished wooden stock, the shiny black barrel and the oiled bolt. You pulled the bolt back and inserted one shell. Long rifle, usually. That gun and I went on many a great adventure, lurking in the pasture fields and meadows, stalking groundhogs and crows. And shooting sparrows, too. It wasn’t really my gun, but I had more of a claim to it than any of my brothers. Dad didn’t have to buy that thing. But he did. I don’t know where it ever got to. I’d give something to hold that old gun one more time.

It’s all random anecdotes, the memories that I have of Dad’s interactions with his young children. His relationship to us was distant, I guess because he was old school. He provided for us. What more could there be? When I was probably ten or so, he bought us a pony. A dark brown round little tub we named Cricket. I remember he bought the pony at the public auction of Ale and Mandy Hostetler, when they sold their stuff and moved out of Aylmer. Ale (Eli) and Mandy had moved in from Ohio somewhere, Millersburg, I think, some years before. Mom and Mandy were best friends. We children often played together when we were little. Anyway, the Hostetlers sold their farm and had a sale and moved out at about the time the mini exodus of other families was leaving, too. In the early 1970s.

I’ve wondered, since then, now and then. What were the tremors that swept through Aylmer, when so many people left over such a short period of time? How did events shift like they did, and how did they settle like they did? I guess it was just a lot of individual people making a lot of individual choices. I don’t know. I was too small to take much notice of such things, then, except I was sad when my friends moved away. I saw that a few times before I was twelve. I did notice, though, when Dad brought home a pony. It was a completely unexpected thing. All the children were delighted.

Cricket was the perfect pony for young children. Fat, slow, lazy, completely, and I mean completely safe, and quite smart. My sister Rhoda, of course, connected with Cricket like she connected with all animals. She soon had Cricket performing all manner of tricks, and she stood on the pony’s back, barefoot, as it went galloping along the farm fields and lanes. When Mom got wind that Rhoda was standing on the pony’s back like that, she immediately enlisted Dad to sternly forbid such a thing. I think Rhoda stopped, mostly, except for the occasional infraction when no one was looking. She was a natural. You can’t quench a natural from doing what she’s going to do.

Cricket was wickedly smart. There were several close shaves when the pony broke his way into a feed bin and almost foundered. He also finagled the pasture gate open now and then, and got out. Early one morning, Cricket nosed the gate open, meandered down the road a ways, then bolted out of the darkness, right in front of an oncoming car. Our beloved pony was instantly killed. I remember waking up at 3 AM to flashing police lights outside. The next morning, it seemed like a bad dream. It wasn’t. The children were very sad. And it wasn’t a sorrow that faded lightly. We got over it in time, as children do. There never was another pony like Cricket. But we always had a few riding horses around, there in Aylmer and later in Bloomfield.

And what about today? What would Dad say today? At first, I thought and wrote mostly about how it was when we were little. And then it hit, after I thought I was done, pretty much, with this little story. What about when we were adults, all around? I think Dad enjoyed all his children at the end, when we came to see him. I know he always asked. What’s going on in your life? He asked my brothers, businessmen all, about how their sales were going. And he talked to me, not about business, I never owned any business. He talked to me about writing.

Before the book even came along, he read my blogs. He talked about what he had read, asked how it went for me. The process, what it means to write. It was super special, all of it was, when it came to me and him chatting about something we both loved. I knew I was talking to a master. I wanted to do what he did, and do it better. The thing was, he was genuinely interested, when he asked. He talked from his heart, when he talked about writing. And for an old man who came from where Dad came from, well, it’s usually pretty tough to talk from the heart about anything.

The day slipped up on me, one year out. Christmas. Last year, things were heavy in the air. Last year, I was packing up to head up to where Dad was lying in a coma. This year, not much was going on. Christmas Day came and went. And then the next day dawned. And the emotions came rolling in strong. I thought about it all day as the minutes passed, then the hours. Now I’m heading out and up to Aylmer. Now I’m reaching the border. Now I’m approaching Aylmer, the place where Dad was dying. Now I’m crossing myself. Now I’m there.

I always marvel when I look back. At how it went, at how Dad settled down and quietly passed away a mere few hours after I got there. I’ve always thought. I think he was waiting for one of his sons to get there to tell him it’s OK to leave. I just happened to be the son that came. It could have been any of the others, I feel. And one year out, I thought about these things from the perspective of that time. A year. When you’ve had a little time to absorb, to feel, and to grieve. To let go of all the pain and loss of so many barren and desolate years, and to hang on to the good things that came toward the end.

And I think of a thing I didn’t know, driving up there. This past summer, after the first draft of my book got done, I chatted with my editor, Virginia. She wanted me to get some copies to all my siblings, so they could check out my story for accuracy. Just to make sure there were no glaring errors or omissions. There were no hard copies at that time, so that Sunday after church I took a draft over to Staples and told the nice lady I needed ten copies. That evening, I stopped and picked them up, all nicely spiral bound. The first hard version of my book, that right there was. It was something, to feel and hold. The next day, I mass-mailed copies to my brothers and sisters. There is a chapter in the book about Mom, how she sank and how she died. How we buried her. After he read the book, my brother Jesse gave me his feedback and reflections. He told me a story of what had happened as Mom’s last hour was fast approaching. It was a detail I had not heard before.

They knew the end was imminent, that night. As the hours slowly passed, they stood around her bedside. No one dies alone in the Amish culture, not if it can be helped. As dawn approached, they sang to her, as we later sang to Dad in his last moments. Jesse told me how it went, as the morning hour came. At some point in there, Dad came stumping in to speak to Mom. He could not walk that well. They gave him room. He went right up to the head of the bed. I imagine that he reached down and gently stroked her tired and wasted face. And Jesse told me. “He spoke tenderly to her.” I don’t know if they gave him space, so they couldn’t hear his words. Or if they stood around close as Dad spoke. But something about that detail, that frozen instant in time, something about it hit me hard. Just seeing that scene in my mind. It hit me hard.

Death brings out what’s real in us, I think. And here stood a 93-year-old man, speaking tenderly to his 90-year-old wife as she was fast approaching that great dark river. She was crossing over. She was leaving him after they had been together for seventy-three years. There would be no return. He had to let her go. And he spoke tenderly to her, the man who could find few tender words to speak in life to anyone. In that moment, though, he could walk that broken road. And he did.

It is a powerful and moving thing to me. To know that.

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(16 Comments) »

  1. You have left me teary-eyed again. This was a touching memory and so lovingly written. You managed to step back in time and see your father walking through his life and remembering him as he was, and bringing it all to your obliging readers and once again gave us all a chance to walk along the cobblestones of your life with you in your memories. Thank you.

    Comment by carol ellmore — January 10, 2020 @ 6:18 pm

  2. I fought tears.

    Comment by Rhonda — January 10, 2020 @ 6:53 pm

  3. So unfortunate that we wait until the very end to find those tender words. May we all learn to do better. But, in the Old Order culture, we are not well trained in showing emotions and tender words.

    Comment by OSIAH HORST — January 10, 2020 @ 7:11 pm

  4. I truly, truly love this blog. Your Dad was not so different from lots of old school folk. They were a tough lot. When we look back to where they came from and what they had to overcome, it gets a bit easier to understand. Unfortunately, it’s after they pass away when we have the most questions.

    Comment by Gail — January 10, 2020 @ 7:53 pm

  5. Great blog. All the feelings you have happen when someone dies. And they don’t end with the first year. These feelings sometimes crop up years and decades later. Of course, they get better as the years go on.

    Comment by Rosanna F. — January 10, 2020 @ 8:07 pm

  6. This tribute to your father is a skillful combination of painting death’s harsh reality with the gentlest pen strokes. Wow. I’m looking forward to your sequel.

    Comment by Maria — January 10, 2020 @ 9:16 pm

  7. Thank you again for a beautifully written piece…you leave me in tears each time. Thinking of my parents, of my grandparents…and eventually, my husband and me. We all reach that inevitable time when the parting comes. The tender words, the tender memories after…knowing we will be together again in the Lord’s presence makes it bearable. Reading your words is always so powerful.

    Comment by Jennifer Saks — January 11, 2020 @ 2:26 am

  8. Once again, a beautiful story of a love that never dies.

    Comment by Cynthia — January 11, 2020 @ 7:46 am

  9. An amazing piece, Ira. A truly amazing piece of writing! Thanks.

    Comment by Amos — January 11, 2020 @ 9:31 am

  10. Wow, I have tears in my eyes and a sob in my throat. I understand what you are saying, but I can hardly find the words to reflect those feelings. My parents are both gone. My dad died when I was a little girl, only eight. My mother when I was 32. Saying words of affirmation and love didn’t come easily for my mom. She also grew up in the Amish culture where you just didn’t act sentimental about things. I struggled a long time wondering if I mattered or was loved by my parents. She communicated a lot by telling me stories and I think it was because she didn’t have the vocabulary to identify her feelings. It’s now since I have children of my own that I understand the depth of love and affection parents have for their children and the joy they experience just to see them grow up.

    I recently heard a definition for love that I have reflected on a lot and think its the best definition I’ve come across. “Love is the sacrificial zeal for the ultimate good of another.” If I wonder if my mother or my father, whom I barely knew, actually loved me, I just ask if they lived with sacrificial zeal for my ultimate good, I have my answer. Absolutely yes. There were probably times my mother didn’t like me very well, but she never turned away from her commitment of sacrificial zeal for my good.

    Comment by Sharon — January 11, 2020 @ 11:50 am

  11. Beautiful, thoughtful reflections. I think I would love your sister Rhoda.

    Comment by Karen Regling — January 11, 2020 @ 2:28 pm

  12. They teach us how to live.
    They teach us how to die.

    Poignant.

    Thank you, Mr. Wagler.

    Comment by Jan — January 11, 2020 @ 7:20 pm

  13. So very much to take in here! When our parents pass away, we take stock of how much or little they loved us.. as little kids again. The orphan in us wants to put it all in perspective; tidy it up and make that our lasting memory. It’s never that simple with complicated, flawed parents. I try to do what Ira wrote… find the good, overlook the harsh realities, and realize that forgiveness is the most powerful form of love. A year out blog is perfect for gratitudes! Thanks, Ira!

    Comment by Pam Moore — January 12, 2020 @ 3:46 pm

  14. Oh, Ira, Ira, Ira!

    I am trying to write a book. Trying to create a memoir of my life, and if my writing could move another even half as much as you move me, I would consider it a huge accomplishment.

    And thinking back to one’s parents: My father called, “Somebody, help me!” as he collapsed and died, seventeen years ago in the hallway of a rest home, and many miles from anyone in his family; and then you ask me if a father “enjoyed” his children.

    Comment by Jonas — January 13, 2020 @ 8:58 am

  15. Thanks Ira, for sharing your gift with words to help me remember my father Eli went home with Jesus five years ago. I too, struggled with feeling like I would never measure up to His expectations, until I learned that my heavenly father sent his only son to make sure I measure up when I put all my trust in Him alone and all he has done for me and not in what I do for Him. God Bless You on your Journey

    Comment by Roger Otto — January 13, 2020 @ 10:29 pm

  16. Your story brought back to my memory something I found in my mother’s papers a year after her dad died. She typically didn’t write things down but this time she wrote that until that day in 1986 she was not sure if she truly even loved her dad. That Feb when he didn’t call to wish her a happy birthday, she realized that she DID. I had no idea she ever felt that way. It must have been too deep to share even with us. She was one of his 13 children. We have heard since of how much he would brag and beam each time a “big fine” new baby arrived. Some people are just hard to understand.

    Comment by Janet Bell — January 26, 2020 @ 10:49 pm

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