Wednesday, April 17, 2013

My Dad's Passing

It's been said a job of a child is to help their parent die, one way is to tell them they did a "good job" even when as a kid it wasn't what we wanted, but that it helped us grow, we learned, and became better human beings.

Eulogy ~ Alden Fredrick Wagner Jr.
June 15, 1930 – Jan. 23, 2013
~Mark Lewis Wagner

(longer version for retirement home service)
I was born right here in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, USA. I grew up in Holtwood where my dad was working at the PP&L hydro and then coal plant. The Susquahanna River was always near and part of my life,  I’ve called her my second mother. I remembered dad would come home with a box full of Indian relicts, arrowheads, tomahawks, and beads that he bought for $5 at a farm sale.  

On the weekends in the spring we'd go down to a recently plowed field by the river and come home with pockets filled with arrowheads. Dad once found an old trilobite that the Smithsonian dated at around 360 million years. It was a magical treasure hunt.

I remember as kids my brother and I taking turns sitting on dad’s lap and driving home from church. I started my girls driving when they were real little, and now I am proud to say my high school senior is a great driver, she even drove for the first time in the snow here last week.

I remember growing up hunting and fishing with dad, small game around the house, and deer up at my grandfathers. I shot my first and only deer when I was 17. It was a male initiation experience for me, I felt seen by my dad in a new way as a young man. We butchered the deer that night in my grandfather’s garage and ate venison over the next year. What I learned from hunting with my dad was how to be comfortable alone in nature, to be quiet and listen, to let the surroundings settle in after humans come crashing through and then see what happens, and to deeply respect animal life.

I’ve fished all over the place, one time in Canada my brother and I took off early in the morning and I came back with a fish wondering if it was big enough to keep. My dad answered by jumping out of bed reaching for his fishing rod. 

As a family we spent a lot of time on the water in boats. I remember being so small as a kid that I couldn’t get up on water skies. I had the idea of sitting on the edge of the dock and telling dad to “hit it” when the rope went tight – worked like a charm. In the summer mom would make a picnic meal, Paul and I would get the boat ready, we’d meet dad at the Pequea docks and we'd ski until we were hungry, eat on a tiny island in the middle of the river, and ski until it got dark. That was heaven on Earth.

In high school, and I still can’t really believe my parents let it happen, but I was able to take the new car and the boat and go water skiing alone with friends. I was moved by that level of trust. And then there was the time when I lost that trust being a silly teen. The police called at 2am and told my dad to come down to the station to pick up his son. He said I think you have the wrong boy until he looked into my room and saw an empty bed. The next day I was with my dad when he started to tell me some of the ways he got in trouble when he was young, stories I’d never heard and I felt closer to him. I heard more about him as a young man, about his friends and cousins he hung out with, more about my grandparents, college days, and about the Korean War.

I remember wrestling in high school and looking up in the bleachers and often seeing my dad there. I remember camping every summer and shoveling snow with my dad every winter.

I grew up more like my mom, an artist, and my brother was more like my dad, an engineer. I grew up in a safe house and knew I was loved. My dad also felt far away on some levels. He and mom never fought, I never heard him swear, I never saw him get angry. I also never saw him cry, or laugh, or get wild. As an artist I didn’t feel he understood me until to my surprise he bought the first painting at my graduate thesis show. It was a piece about community and working together.

My dad was promoted to vice president for PP&L which was beyond his dreams of being the superintendent of the power plant. It took him away from the river - the place he knew like the back of his hand. He took off his hard hat and his boots and put on a tie and sat behind a desk in the city. And he got into trouble, it’s been called a nervous breakdown, I called it a break through.

I was living in California by then and jumped right in to support him like he would of done for me. I wrote him letters about the dark night of the soul, reminding him to reconnect with nature, to watch the wind blow through the trees, and to just surrender and trust the process. He later said I was saying the same things that his therapists were saying. See my day was a doer, he always was working with his hands. He’d visit my brother and I with our families and want projects to do, it was part of how he knew himself in this world, and how we knew him.

He decided to retire early which at first was difficult for him and later worked out. This transition opened him up to an emotional level that was beautiful. I started to really feel him, he felt more present, alive, and real. He settled into other part time work that suited his nature and kept him busy.

In the early 90’s I was awarded an artist-in-residency on the east coast. My parents were moving into this retirement community at Willow Valley. I packed up all my left over stuff I still had at their house and drove cross-country with my dad. He said maybe that was why he retired early, so we could do this trip together. There is nothing like sitting beside your dad for 4 days, driving for hours and hours, eating together, and getting a room. We talked of course, but it was also about the cellular experience of just being beside him, and it was also about the things we didn’t talk about, it was just about being together.

As a kid my Native American Indian experiences were all based in the past with artifacts and dusty old museums. Over the years I’d connected and became quite involved in Native ceremony, sweat lodges, and vision quests. Right after our road trip I had the unique opportunity to take my dad to a Sundance, and he got to see his son dance. It was a deep lifetime experience for us both. He just cried and said he didn’t know why and someone said that he didn’t need to know.

My dad was really nervous about going into a sweat lodge for the first time. We sat double row, 20 men, and when the door closed it got HOT. I said a prayer, “Great Spirit, this is my dad’s first lodge and I’d like it to be a good experience for him, if anyone needs to take some extra heat so he can be comfortable let it be me.” In the end there were 8 of us left, my dad said “that was great,” and I crawled out on my hands and knees and had to lay down on the ground for the next several hours – good prayers!

That experience shifted something, I sensed my dad saw me grow up more as a man, and I saw my dad grow up spiritually. Recently when I went through my dad’s top dresser drawer there was tobacco, sage, and other things from those times. I knew whatever had happened it still meant something to him and I felt something special, something beyond words, that I’d done a good job.

The physical pain in his lower back over the years drove him away from this world. He slowly withdrew from everything he cared about except for my mom. I could ask him questions and he’s answer with a yes or no but otherwise he was pretty far-gone and I felt like I had lost my dad. He didn’t read or listen to music, he’d hobble and moan all the way to the dining hall and then all the way back, and then he’d lay down on the floor in the only position that he found rest in and stay there until his next meal.  When I asked what he’s was daydreaming about then, he said hunting and fishing.

Lower back surgery helped but the hospital experience gave him a stroke, spinal meningitis, and had him in a coma for a month. But he slowly worked himself back and eventually made his way to the assisted living floor here at the Glenn, part of the retirement home, where my mom would visit him every day.

Over the last year something happened, his medication got altered, or as the flame burns bright at the end so did he. He started to talk, ask questions, he started to write, he wrote letters to people all over the country, like he was saying good-bye my Aunt said. He wrote an entire book about his life (even though my mom remembered some of the things that happened a little differently) still… it was a miracle. He started making charts of his blood pressure (over and over and over), and he got into innocent trouble on the floor which I couldn’t help think was sweet. Stealing the sugar and sweeteners, stealing white out, spilling it, using black markers to cover it up, covering his wheelchair, and covering his hands with black. As an artist you gotta love that!

I’m involved with a men’s group, a different variation on the Lion Club which my dad was part of for many years. One of our jobs as sons is to help our parents die. We’d say all the things to them that we needed to say, both positive and negative. I told him that he wasn’t really there for me as a kid in ways that I needed, but it made me be there for myself and I’m very comfortable being me now. Thank you dad, good job!”

And, “dad you were always working with your hands, fixing everything that needed to be fixed and enjoying the process. You always had projects going that kept you busy and engaged. I love working with my hands and see how it helps me understand the world and my place in it. I enjoy the challenge of trying to fix anything by first looking closer and understanding what needs to be done. Thank you, good job!”

My dad was a kind man, quiet, always helpful, and someone here said “a real gentleman.” The word I recently thought of was “sweet.” I think of him as someone who was always helpful. He had my babies on his lap, liked to drink a cold beer with my wife, and always stayed close to my mom. I think he stayed around as long as he could to be with her. Good job dad!

I have, do, and will always love you. I will be connected to you though my memories and through the stories I tell my grand children. I ask you to help guide me in my life, to look over my family as an angel and ancestor, and to help this world be a better place for all of us. 


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