Last Words

About two weeks after Mom’s seventy-third birthday in 1998, I had a phone conversation with her. I had just been out to visit her on Labor Day weekend, which every year fell near her birthday, which was September 3. Two weeks later would have been September 17, which is today, thirteen years later.

Anyway, during the conversation we talked about my recent visit. Then I pointed to the family visits happening in Des Moines right now. One or more of my siblings was there, and I spoke in my usual hurt tone that it wasn’t fair I should miss all that just because I’d been there a couple of weeks earlier. Mom said, “So what you’re telling me is you feel left out.” I responded, “Yeah, that’s right!

Mom died on October 3, 1998. That short conversation on the phone turned out to be my last one. You can’t tell at the time it takes place which will be the last time you talk with someone. We all knew my mom didn’t have much time left. That’s why her children came to Des Moines to visit. But you still can’t tell which conversation will be the last.

I started to think about my last conversations with Dad, who died June 3 this year. That was twelve years and nine months after Mom’s death. In Dad’s case, I remember three conversations. Each one has different associations, a different significance. Let me tell you about them.

The first one occurred in Chicago on April 9, 2011. It was at Rob’s wedding reception at the Hotel Sofitel. Dad and I were sitting down near the middle of the reception area, at a small table not far from the food. He told me a story about when his father was in the army.

We called Greff’s dad Albert Frank, to distinguish him from Greff, who had the same first name. Albert Frank was a mess sergeant in the United States Army during World War I. He went over to Europe with his unit in the first half 1918, when he was thirty or thirty-one years old. He ran a field kitchen that fed about two hundred soldiers three meals a day. I sometimes wonder if the men called him Cookie.

As my dad told the story, the mess sergeant didn’t have a lot of latitude about what was on the menu. You did the best you could with the food on hand. The U. S. Army bought a lot of its food from the British. At one point, the British had a big surplus of sheep, so they sold a huge amount of mutton to their friends from the U. S. As a result, the soldiers had mutton morning, noon, and night. It was the never-changing item on the menu.

Well the soldiers don’t know how the food gets to their tray. They just know they’re seeing the same thing for every meal. Pretty soon they start to give the mess sergeant a hard time about it. “Why do we have this same meat for every meal?” You can imagine when two hundred soldiers start to complain, the target can start to feel a little beleaguered.

So the unit’s commanding officer got the troops together to explain to the men that the mutton morning noon and night wasn’t the mess sergeant’s fault. He didn’t plan the menu; he only prepared the food. Essentially the officer said, “Give the sergeant a break. He’s doing the best he can.” He ended on a slightly stern note, and asked the members of the unit if they understood they needed to lay off the cook staff.

From the back of the crowd came a single, loud bleat: “Ba-ah-ah-ah!!”

One hopes the commanding officer smiled at that response. I know my dad smiled when he reached the end of the story. We all know the way his eyes looked when he told a humorous anecdote.

I have to insert another story about Albert Frank here, even though it wasn’t among my last conversations with Dad. It’s another war story. On the way over to the U. K. from the States, my grandfather contracted the flu, as so many soldiers and civilians did during that time. The soldiers lived close together on the ship, and the bug spread quickly in that environment.

We know from our own experience how hard the flu hits, how weak you become as your body tries to fight off the virus. When my grandfather’s ship reached the U. K., he was extremely weak, ready to go to the infirmary and not to war. But he wanted to stay with his unit. My grandfather’s commanding officer told him, “If you can pick up your duffel bag and carry it down the gangplank with the rest of the troops, you can stay with the unit.” That’s just what he did.

I think sometimes that if Albert Frank had gone to the infirmary, that would have been it for the Greffenius troops. So many soldiers languished and died during World War I from the flu. My grandfather showed some real grit to stay with his buddies, and that resolve may have saved his life.

Thirty-six years later, in May 1954, Albert Frank died of a stroke. It happened six months before I was born. Since I didn’t meet my grandfather, I always appreciated when Dad talked about him. I’m happy he talked about him at Rob’s wedding. Of all the stories he might have told on that occasion, he picked a good one.

The next story about last words evolves over two visits to Des Moines during the first half of 2011. It involves the old Maytag dishwasher in the kitchen at 641 42nd Street. My sister and I came to look after Dad in February, when the last round of radiation treatments for multiple myeloma had taken a big toll on his vitality.

The more Dad’s health declined, the more he became frustrated that he couldn’t do things for himself. He had to depend more and more on help from others. That’s great, actually, to have others help you, but it’s not so great if you want things done a certain way. That was Dad’s difficulty during these months: he wanted things done a certain way.

For the dishwasher, the soap had to be loaded a certain way, and you had to manually move the cover on the soap dish at a precise point in the dishwasher’s fill and wash cycle. I didn’t pay a lot of attention during February instruction session, as I knew the dishes would get sufficiently clean no matter how we coordinated the soap dish with the fill and wash cycle. I also knew that running the dishwasher was a subject to stay away from.

So when Laura told me the subject came up for discussion after I left Des Moines, she had my sympathy. That was an unfortunate turn, but probably bound to happen. You get focused when you’re old and less able to do things for yourself. That’s especially true when you’ve focused hard for your whole life.

Laura and I returned to Des Moines in May for the same reason: to look after Dad as he became weaker and weaker. Shortly before I arrived at the airport, Dad said to Laura, “When Steve gets here, we’re going to run the dishwasher, because you don’t know how to do it.” When Laura picked me up at the airport, she said, “I want to warn you, when you get home, Dad wants to run the dishwasher, because he says I don’t know how to do it.”

Well by now I realized I should probably listen. All of Dad’s powerful personality concentrated on this machine, which needed precise management to function properly. If everything else in Dad’s life seemed to be in decline, at least I could help him make the dishwasher work right.

So after dinner that Wednesay evening, we sat together in front of the old brown dishwasher as he explained with genuine energy how to run the dishwasher properly, and why you had to do it that way. I listened carefully this time, and told Laura afterward, “Now that was the real Dad. He was focused. Did you see the energy he put into that?”

The next day, Dr. Heddinger told Dad that he would not receive any more treatments for his illness. The doctor told Dad, “We don’t know if they’re doing you any harm, but we know for sure they’re not doing you any good.” Dad had fought the illness for three and a half years at that point. During that visit with Dr. Heddinger, Dad knew he had little time left.

Pastor Ruhe brought a lot of wisdom – and humor – to our family during Dad’s last weeks. He commented, “We die as we live.” Dad illustrated this truth. He showed plenty of frustration when he was not able to do things for himself, but he also showed that driven desire to make the best of it. The session in front of the dishwasher on Wednesday night, the evening I arrived in Des Moines, was the last flare of the flame above the embers, the last positive effort to fend off frustration and loss.

The last story is a happier one. On the Saturday before Memorial Day, I took a glider lesson at the Greater Boston Soaring Club in Sterling, Massachusetts. I had planned that lesson throughout the spring, and I was excited when it happened at last. The lesson had gone well, and I wanted to have a second one soon.

By that time, I was hesitant to talk with Dad on the phone. It was only nine days after the visit to Dr. Heddinger, but throughout the spring I had become less eager to pick up the phone for a call to Des Moines. It was too hard to hear Dad’s voice become so weak – every sentence took a fair amount of effort. During one call, he said briefly, “I feel awful!” If Dad would say something like that, you knew it was true.

So I didn’t call on Saturday to tell Dad about the glider lesson. I didn’t have firm plans to call on Sunday, either, but Laura called while I was out at Ponkapoag, and I’m happy she did. She asked if I wanted to talk with Dad. I realized I hadn’t missed my chance: I could tell him about the lesson the next day. It was good news no matter what.

So I talked with Dad on the cell phone as I paced near a little campsite on the shore of Ponkapoag Pond. I told him about the lesson, which was a surprising bit of good news for Dad. He knew of my interest in soaring, but I had not wanted to highlight it. As I told him earlier about glider lessons and a holding a job, “If you’re not working, you have time but no money, and if you’re working, you have money but no time.” Given that bind, I’d been uncertain whether I could take any lessons at all.

As I recounted my successful trip to Sterling and the flight high above Massachusetts, Dad exclaimed, “That’s great!” I think he said it twice. I’m grateful Laura asked me to talk, and handed the phone over to Dad. Just five days later, Dad was gone. Our phone conversation about my first soaring lesson turned out to be our last one.

I want to close with some last words of a different sort. These are words I spoke by Dad’s graveside in Valley City, North Dakota, where we gathered on Sunday, September 4 to inter Dad’s ashes. Part of the service was a military ceremony to honor Dad’s service as a fighter pilot in World War II. Before the military portion, family members had a chance to say some words of goodbye. When you stand at the graveside, you know you won’t have another chance:

Dad, your spirit lives here in the great northern plains surrounding Valley City, your birthplace. You grew up in Valley City, married Adriana Heyboer in your family’s church, and matured as an attorney here. Your spirit lives in the sky above the plains, where you loved to fly. So it’s fitting that we scatter ashes from your plane above Iowa, and from your son’s plane above Louisiana. Now we place them in our family’s burial ground in Valley City, next to your mother Lora, your father Albert, and your wife Johnna. Now we say goodbye to your living body, but not to your good spirit. We thank you father and mother, Mom and Dad, for the care you took to to create and nurture such a strong family. You raised us well, taught us, and endowed us with the blessings of a rich life. Thank you. Amen.

Goodbye, Dad. We love you.

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