My dad passed away on June 19, 2012. These are the words I shared with the community as we paid final tribute to him on June 23, 2012.
On June 3, 2012, just about three weeks ago, Dad turned 76 years old. He seemed always to rally for the weekend get-togethers we’ve held since his diagnosis and his birthday weekend was no different. I’m a lot like my dad, and my mom of course, as is my brother John. It is true that we as children find ourselves evolving into our parents – physically (those ugly Gettel feet – that Hungarian (hunky) hair!) and in personality and character.
My dad, often had a hard time speaking about his feelings. As Pastor Jackie will mention, he showed his love in many other ways and most often with delicious meals – our favorites served so many times. I’m was a lot like my dad when trying to tell him about how proud I have been to be his daughter and to be part of the family that he and mom have fostered. I have an easier time writing it down, so that’s what I did. And as I gave him a hug and kiss to head back to Chelsea that birthday Sunday, I gave him a letter which my mom read to him.
These are what I call, “the big three life lessons” that if I’m asked about what I learned from my dad, my mom, or growing up in a farm family that I try to convey. There are more lessons to be sure, but these are the ones I share most with my friends and colleagues.
Work like a farmer – I believe I was a senior in high school and I overheard my dad talking with Uncle Earl or perhaps Uncle Tom. I was in the side room probably studying notes from one of Mr. Thies’ science classes. I heard him tell his brother something like, “No, I don’t have to get on her at all. She’s so busy she doesn’t have time to get into trouble. It’s hard to keep up with her and sometimes I think she should slow down.” I recall being a bit shocked that he didn’t think that I had time to make trouble. Why I was rebellious, I thought. I’d show him, after getting through my science notes, I picked up my flute and only practiced for a half hour. (I had planned to practice for an hour. This was my rebellion.)
The truth of it is that I learned to work this way from him. I work like my dad – like a farmer. I prepare and practice like I am planting or harvesting all that I can before the rain comes. And when it’s raining, instead of moping around complaining that the rain is interrupting my progress, I make progress on things that the rain doesn’t impact. I work ahead such that if an unexpected break-down happens, and it always does, it doesn’t severely hamper the process. This has served me well in so many instances from being well-prepared for final exams to being over-prepared for work deadlines and presentations such that my project managers always wanted me for their projects (cheap labor!) and when things like “downsizing” came along, I somehow was overlooked.
Even if you mess up, we still will love you – This is that story that we still laugh about where on a sunny day in July, I found myself mowing over one of the new apple trees that had been planted in the spring. After the shock of the sound of a shredding fruit tree between the blades of that old riding mower, I remember running into the house to find the file in the grey file drawer that had the information and map of all the apple trees. Desperately, I tried to find the price of the tree. I could not but went and found all the money I had and asked John if he thought it was enough to cover the cost. He was sure it was not, and dejected, I went up and packed a few things as I figured I would be excommunicated from the house. I then went and lay down on the couch dreading my fate and waiting until my dad or mom got home. He arrived first, and upon hearing my story asked me one simple question, “Did you mean to do it?” I responded that no, of course I hadn’t wanted to mow over the tree. You said, “Then why would I be mad at you?” The weight from my shoulders lifted and the sickness in my stomach went away. Shortly thereafter, mom drove in from her hair appointment (those were the bu-font days – they call them up-do’s now!) that had been lengthened from a persistent Alec Kovach who insisted on buying her a birthday drink at “George’s.” Not only was Mom not upset with me, she felt terrible because I had suffered so long waiting for a return of a parent to let me know my fate – that even if I messed up, I’d still be loved and still be welcomed into my home. And that brings me to my last point today.
Go ahead and try. You can always come home. There isn’t a specific incident here. It’s really just a feeling I’ve had of unconditional support. And while I hope to demonstrate the two lessons just noted above to Nicholas and Alexander, this lesson is what I hope as a parent to duplicate most. I want my sons to know that they always will have a safety net as long as they are trying their best. As a girl from the small town of Owendale, heading off to Alma College was one thing, but taking a job in downtown Detroit, then heading to Duke in North Carolina along with a stint in California had a lot of risks. But I always knew in my heart that if things went terribly wrong and I needed to, I could always come home and start over. There would always be a tray of lasagna, a crockpot of clam chowder, or a fresh batch of fudge that would help me find my way. This feeling of home and unconditional support has freed me to take risks (let me emphasize calculated risks that didn’t include bodily harm – except for the skydiving incident, of course!) – to take risks even when I had no confidence of my own success, and this has made the difference in what I have become.
Thank you – So Dad, I wrote, as you celebrate your birthday today, in addition to wishing you a “Happy Birthday,” I also want to thank you for all of the life lessons that perhaps you didn’t know yourself that you were teaching me. It has and will make me a better person and a better parent.
Welcome home Dad – So that was my birthday gift to him just 21 days ago – a simple thank you with words that I found difficult to share out loud. And as I think about dad today, there is sadness since from this day forward, so many things will be different for me and for my family. The family gatherings may take on a different flavor as we try, but just can’t exactly replicate the clam chowder and lasagna and dishes we’ve come to savor; Aunt Mary may have an easier time keeping her Christmas auction gifts since Dad won’t steal all of them; and we’ll likely to struggle with the fine details of our memories of the old days since it was Dad who always recalled even the smallest of details.
There is a sadness for sure, but there is also comfort as I imagine him going to live with Jesus (as we explained it to our boys) and reuniting with his community and friends and farmers who have gone to live with Jesus before him. I can imagine as he made his way that he may have heard a loud, familiar yawn and sigh coming from Windy Weinlander, that Alec Kovach invited him to play a game of euchre, or that his deer-camp buddies and friends welcomed him home and handed him a pan & told him to get cooking. I can imagine my grandpa and grandma Gettel smiling at him with their gentle, approving smiles as he came their way. I can imagine Grandpa Retford giving him the “Grandpa wave” before he gave him a hug and a welcome. And I can imagine Grandma Retford taking him in his arms, giving him the familiar hug that only moms can give and saying, “Billy, you always knew you could take some risks and then come home to us when you were ready. Welcome home Billy. Welcome home son.”
Welcome home Dad.