Sunday, March 9, 2014

Confessions After a Funeral

I miss my dad.

He hasn't been gone for long, but I miss him.

There was so much activity as we planned the funeral; focusing on logistics and liturgical options--not to mention the luncheon and musical choices. It seemed there was rarely a moment to dwell on the enormity of the loss. It was ever-present, yet it loomed more in the corners and shadows of each day. And after the funeral and all of guests there were thank you notes to write and other details that required attention.

And then comes the lull. The condolence notes begin to taper off and as you try to go about your routine you remember that there's a void the size of the entire universe in your heart.

I suppose as daily life gradually begins to approximate "normal," the moments of staggering heartache will be fewer and farther between. Maybe not. I don't know. I can't imagine it ever totally goes away. And I'm not sure that it should.

Upon reflection, though--and having had a few days to look back--there are a few things I am pretty certain about.

1. Live your life fully and make a difference in the lives of others and you will be remembered and missed. My dad is missed. And not just by my mother and I. Of this I am immeasurably proud. I am also very grateful for all of the track athletes and coaches who gathered at St Francis church to bid my dad farewell. It was a send-off he'd have loved.

2. Eulogies don't always need to be prepared in advance. Sometimes the occasion calls for spontaneity and in the best of outcomes you still leave the assembled mourners both laughing AND crying.

3. The smallest gestures may mean the most. Including stamps (for the copious thank you notes that a family will need to send) in your condolence card is easy and thoughtful. As is sending a pizza. Seriously. A neighbor rang up and asked what time was good for a pizza to be delivered and that was that.

4.  You really do see the true colors of people in moments of sadness and grief. It becomes clear (sometimes painfully so) whom your friends are. And the venomous and toxic people of the world are only made exponentially more so during difficult hours. Not letting them poison the love and good will that surround you in times of need is paramount--and harder than you'd imagine.

5. Let yourself lean on people a little. When people ask if they can do something, they actually want to help. Providing an ear to listen or a shoulder to vent/cry on might be the best things you can offer a friend. It's a good thing to be needed and a good thing to need others.

6. There are not enough ways to say Thank You to all the people who have shown us all such kindness in the past few weeks. For helping with the snow removal; for sharing remembrances; for sending loving, happy, and silly thoughts; for sending pizzas and stamps; for unexpected flowers; for phone calls and emails, texts, and messages. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

GBA and Beaujolais in their beloved blue truck. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Pack Up the Moon and Dismantle the Sun

Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood...

My father, a Nordic force of nature in his own way, departed this earth in a flurry of snow this afternoon. And while I'm incredibly sad, I'm also immeasurably grateful. I'm grateful for the various emails that always populated my inbox, for his daily critiques of my Flickr photos (he is, after all, responsible for my shutter bugging habits, having bought me my first SLR after teaching me how to develop photos in our old darkroom); for his love of skiing and skating and all things winter, and for my first pair of skis at age 6. Is it any wonder this Tyger is a winter girl?

I already miss his wonderful advice and thoughtful replies to my family history questions. Our genealogical conversations were epic and varied and I loved every minute of them. I'll always feel a little pang of regret that I was never the all-star track athlete he'd have loved me to be--my loves were elsewhere. It probably bothers me more than it ever concerned him--he was a coach in the truest sense of the word and whatever I was involved in he was there to motivate, educate, and otherwise light the fire under my derriere. I've decided this is a very special trait to have in a parent and if you are or were lucky enough to be thus gifted, you know how much it means.

As I said to a dear friend today, the snow squalls today that ushered him out of this life were most à propos--it was as if the Norse deities were reclaiming one of their own, bringing him back to Valhalla amidst a commotion of snow.

What I will say, happily, is that nothing remained unsaid between us. He knew I felt like he'd hung the moon, just for me. Another intimate, beloved to both my father and I, commented to me that my father "loved me the way the night sky loves the stars." Who would dare ask for more?

With that said, I bid a heavy-hearted farewell to my father. Requiescat in pace, Pops. Your legacy lives on in those who loved you, the athletes that you helped guide, and in your wonderful capacity for love and laughter.

Glenn Bernhardt Amundsen, a well-respected local track coach and lifelong Rochester resident has died at the age of 78. He will be fondly remembered and much missed.

Glenn was born in Rochester on December 24, 1935, to Norma M. Evans Amundsen and Glenn O. Amundsen. He graduated from Rochester High School 1953. He attended RCC and Hamline University in St Paul, MN before joining the US Air Force and serving in Japan with the 39th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. While overseas, he competed on the Air Force track and field and football traveling teams, winning both Pacific and US Air Force titles. Returning stateside he took a job at the City of Rochester in their Engineering Office where he worked until his retirement in 1994.

Glenn enjoyed many hobbies throughout his life--pursuing each of them with his special combination of energy and devotion. As a young man he was active in the fledgling Rochester Civic Theatre and garnered praise for his portrayal of Happy Loman in Death of a Salesman and as Luther Billis, the great comic role, in South Pacific. He was also instrumental in the formation of the Rochester Track Club and the All-Comers Track Meets. He organized The Kelly Games as a benefit for Brian Kelly, a Rochester Lourdes athlete paralyzed in a diving accident. Among the notable guests for the event were Jesse Owens and Hubert H. Humphrey. 
 After his retirement, he spent much of his time painting, drawing, woodworking and woodcarving, often with the family’s beloved Golden Retrievers at his side. Recently, he devoted hours each day to designing and constructing intricate wooden boats and airplanes. Always an early adapter, Glenn loved new technology and would use it in both his artwork and his coaching.

His greatest passion, though, was reserved for his work with young track athletes in the field events of shot put and discus. For many years he volunteered to coach high-schoolers from across southeastern Minnesota; he’d gladly assist any athlete who had the drive and desire to improve their throwing technique. His innovative and motivational coaching style led to great success for his athletes. Under his thoughtful tutelage, athletes went on to the Olympic Training Camp in Colorado Springs as well as to successful college track and field careers at Purdue and Oregon among others. Over the years he coached 12 athletes to 16 Minnesota State Track and Field championships.

His decade at Stewartville High School was, perhaps, the highlight of his coaching career. The Glenn Amundsen Invitational Track Meet, held in Stewartville each year, is named in his honor. Among his great joys was seeing athletes that he’d coached become coaches for the next generation.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Course of True Like

You know the old saying about the course of true love never being smooth? Well, sometimes getting around to like is no easy bargain, either.

To get to Boston or Hartford--most any point northeast of me--I must run the traffic gauntlet that is {cue dramatic pause followed by menacingly dramatic music} I-84 in Waterbury. The dreaded Mixmaster, where eastbound and westbound are equally fraught with peril. It's a double-decked spaghetti junction that is half traffic misery and all poor road manners at most any time of day or night. The Mixmaster at peak commute times is, and I'm certain Dante himself would concur, a special and singular circle of hell. As one friend says, regardless of when I'm traveling through, "There'll be traffic in Waterbury."

My most recent passage through Waterbury, however, was incredibly smooth. There were no speeding cars from Massachusetts in the slow lane, no insane trucks hell-bent on merging in awkward places, and no Jeep sized potholes. In other words, it was nearly pleasant.

It's terribly unfair to judge an entire city by the couple of minutes--or longer--I spend traversing it and I realize this. I also realize that with the little I know of Waterbury, there's probably something I might find to like about it. As an old city with industry, clocks, watches, and brass in its history, it's possible Waterbury and I could even be friendly-ish.

A few things had caught my eye on my previous drives through town: interesting cemeteries I spotted from the highway, the Timexpo (a museum devoted to the history of Timex watches) and Harpers Ferry Road. The cemeteries and Timex museum have been recorded on my Nutmeg State To-Do List and I quickly looked up a little info on Harpers Ferry Road.

Why Harpers Ferry Road? Why indeed. I'd made a mental note to check on any Harpers Ferry connections many times, but I'd never followed up. Waterbury is nowhere near Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, where John Brown's raid took place. But as the Internet would reveal, famous abolitionist John Brown was born in nearby Torrington, Connecticut (The Torrington Historical Society's site is  good for some background) and while Harpers Ferry Road doesn't seem to actually lead to Torrington, the John Brown revelation does make it both more interesting and more sensible.

Point: Waterbury. (For good historical interest.)

As I was hunting for more information on Harpers Ferry Road, I saw a mention of Rosalind Russell. Auntie Mame...Hildy in His Girl Friday. That Rosalind Russell? Connected to Waterbury? More digging.

It turns out that Rosalind Russell was born and raised in Waterbury, Connecticut. (I'm guessing this isn't so newsy to many others as it is to me, but I was intrigued.) Her pre-Hildy Johnson and Mame Dennis days were spent in the area--at Marymount College in Tarrytown, NY, in NYC itself, Hartford, and Boston. She was a local girl who made good, often playing women who had all the brassy wit and spirit of Waterbury itself.

Several points: Waterbury. (For Roz Russell.)

Full disclosure: I love Auntie Mame. The novel, by Patrick Dennis, is a go-to read for me if I'm having a blue day and I've seen the movie with Ms. Russell dozens of times and enjoy it more with each viewing. (I'm much less fond of the 1970s movie version of the musical, but the soundtrack of the 1966 original Broadway musical featuring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur is a splendid listen.) That Waterbury--a town I'd written off from my (often not-so) quick breezes through on I-84--gave the world Auntie Mame incarnate? Magnificent. And if you add fast-talking hard-boiled Hildy Johnson from His Girl Friday to the equation, then I'm all in. Waterbury, you and I can be friends.

As with any new friendship, there's more to be discovered. But when you start with John Brown and Rosalind Russell it's bound to be an interesting trip. Perhaps the best friendships start off awkwardly and only when you start to really look and share your common interests do they begin to click. The Waterbury getting-to-know-you phase is in its infancy, but this might be the beginning of a lovely friendship. For a fun browse, the links below will send you to a great old map of the town and a charmingly old-school website devoted to Waterbury's history.

Waterbury 1917

Waterbury Time Machine II

And any Waterburians out there, if you know more about the story (if there is one) behind Harpers Ferry Road, I'd love to hear it. Know of a great place I'd love in Waterbury? Let me know that, too.

As a final thought, Waterbury was also home to Holy Land USA. And while the Holy Land aspect of it interests me not at all (loses points), I do so love an abandoned place (gains points back!) and this one looks like it might be wonderful to explore. (With permission, of course!)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Wee Small Hours

The past month has been a blur: the drive west to Minnesota on Christmas Eve, navigating the rabbit's warren that is St Marys Hospital, the daily--sometimes hourly--ups (his white count is down!) and downs (his hemoglobin is low...) of hospital stays. And then there's the uncertainty. It's crippling. And the fear. It's palpable and sometimes it feels like it's piped into the room via the hvac vents. Grief, sadness, exhaustion, and occasional bemusement all joined us in my father's comfortably large room.*

To try and reach some small level of sanity (for lack of a better word) I started writing little snippets--on paper or on my laptop when I had it with me--moments I wanted to remember and feelings I had to document somewhere. Holding hands with my father while we watched the Minnesota Wild game. The odd peace of hearing the machines beeping and pinging to assure us that whatever they were monitoring was "normal." The bone-chilling sub-zero mornings when pulling my boots on to go out and start the Jeep seemed to require extra effort, as if the gravity of the days was pulling, pulling, pulling at me--dragging me underground, the familiar suffocation of being in a place where I simply am not at home despite being technically "home."

And then there's the guilt. The guilt felt over giving any voice to your own feelings, wants, and needs when you have an ill parent confined to a hospital bed. The focus--and the energy, especially the positive energy--needs to be on them. We, my mother and I, became cheerleaders. (If you knew my mother this would be far funnier, but trust me, it's a sight.) Keeping my father's spirits up and not focusing solely on the challenges became our daily regimen. When needed, I was bad cop (Really? Would you let your athletes quit because of a setback? NO. Now let's try it again!) and my mother the extra nurse. Quietly, yet firmly--she is, after all, fully German and a Scorpio--she encouraged, cajoled, managed, nudged and glared my father into eating, trying, and cooperating. Regardless of how exhausted she was--sleeping on a cot at the hospital many nights until she realized she was putting her own health at serious risk--she persevered. She was advocate, helper, nurse, questioner, and all-around watch dog. In short, she was The Spanish Inquisition, but in a good way.

St Marys (those of you with apostrophic here) is a teaching hospital and part of the Mayo Clinic system. It's the farthest afield of the Mayo Clinic properties in downtown Rochester, Minnesota, but it's a wonderful and grand old building. Another method of keeping my modicum of sanity (again, for lack of a better word) was wandering around taking photos. A few are on my flickr page (here) and some are up on my Instagram feed as well. The quiet of the St Marys Chapel and its luxury--really there's no other word for all the carvings and marble--made it a great spot for photos. Sometimes leaving the room was necessary for both patient and family. Returning with Lifesavers to soothe a scratchy throat can feel like returning the conquering hero, trust me. And don't underestimate the value of finding a can of ginger ale in a pinch, either. A bottle of sparkling Catawba Grape Juice is also a totally fabulous way to ring in a new year.

Reader, I am happy to report that my father left the hospital on January 10 and is doing well in a rehab center with the hope he eventually makes it home. I got to spend a few days with him and meet his physical and occupational therapists before I left to return to Connecticut and he's in good hands. And we've told him, the perpetual coach, that trying is the thing. All we ask is that you try. It's what you would've told all your track athletes, it's the best you can expect and hope for. And remember what you did when you did it right. Visualize the result you want. The nuggets--both trite and tried and true--that he used to motivate generations of track and field athletes have now been turned on him. Not sure he's always thrilled with that, but he's a trooper. Track season is ahead...and the coach needs to be around for it. He's fond of quoting a note left by a waitress on a lunch receipt from a Lake City, Minnesota drive-in many years back: "The 10 most important two letter words...If it is to be, it is up to me." Go get 'em, Pops.

Now that I'm home, ensconced in my beloved East Coast, I can look back and be grateful. Grateful for friends who let me vent without judgment, played Scrabble to keep me occupied, sent me funny quips to make things seem a little normal and those who simply asked how we were all doing. It meant more than any of them can ever know. They know who they are and I am in their collective debt. It's no fun being away from your support system, but when they can tweet, text, email, and iMessage you, it's much better. Never underestimate the power of quietly being there for another person.

OH. And about the * and room size. Fun factoid ahead. (Especially fun for my Republican parents!) In September of 1989 Ronald Reagan visited the Mayo Clinic for his routine physical. They found some fluid on his brain--likely due to a fall from a horse that same July--and he was sent to St Marys for a procedure to remove said fluid. While he was at St Marys he was visited by Boris Yeltsin. The Mayo Campus is no stranger to hordes of security and secret service, but I have to imagine this was a memorable day for all concerned, regardless of party affiliation. All this to say that my father's comfy, spacious room on the 3rd Floor, Joseph Wing, was once the lodging of Nancy Reagan. The President was across the hall (in a room occupied during my father's stay by a very nice family from Oelwein, Iowa who told me stories of horse-drawn school buses in North Dakota!) and Nancy was in my father's room. The Secret Service agents were in the lounge that was kitty-corner across the hall. One of the nurses shared this with us and I quickly verified the details. Not quite the "George Washington slept here" tales that I'm used to in Connecticut, but it'll do nicely.

So here's (belatedly) to a fresh, new year. One filled with possibilities. And here's to the attempt. To trying and to celebrating the small victories that warm our hearts in the wee small hours. And to my father--long may the Bear flourish and thrive.