Leave the cocoon, a caterpillar flies
Sleep to bloom, a morning glory must
Shed its layers, a grain of wheat thrives
Yes from life comes new Life, not death
Leave the cocoon, a caterpillar flies
Sleep to bloom, a morning glory must
Shed its layers, a grain of wheat thrives
Yes from life comes new Life, not death
I was following behind Dad as he took charge of the walker that has lived for two years in the basement storeroom. Anytime we made the slightest suggestion to get it out for him, the answer was, “No”.
He’s good at getting around with it now though and with the wheels, I call him Billy Speedster. As he makes his way around the tight corner between the bed and the dresser I hear him muttering, “It says in the Bible, when you get old, you’ll need help.” These days are blending together and like Dad, I lose track which day is which. But there is some freedom in that, even joy.
I want to have the scriptures Dad treasures engraved in my heart and I spent yesterday morning reading through his favorites–the Book of John, Chapters 14-17. It begins with Jesus comforting his disciples and I love how, all these years later, the words sound as though they could be spoken directly to us. The first verse is one of Mom’s favorites, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me.” Jesus says he is going to prepare a place for them and will come back for them. When Thomas says that he doesn’t know the way, Jesus tells him, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
These are the words Dad has lived his life by. Ask a cashier at his grocery store, a neighbor, my son or my husband, or even one of my best friends who might just happen to run into him at CVS, Dad will want to know how your faith is and isn’t afraid to ask if you know Jesus. Dad’s touched hearts and ticked others off.
“Love each other as I have loved you,” Jesus says in Chapter 15:12. I counted seven times that he says, “Remain in Me.” And three more times, “Remain in my love.”
I have the privilege of spending these holy days with Dad and I can’t help but want to share them. Dad is sleeping now so I can’t ask him but I would guess that if he wanted to share anything from his heart to yours today, it would be just that–remain in God’s Love.
“Debbie?” I hear Dad’s voice calling from his bedroom.
“I’m here, Dad,” I yell back as I run down the hall. He’s sitting up and turns his head. Out of the corner of his eye I catch the twinkle.
“I thought this was a Bed and Breakfast ”
“You ready for breakfast, Dad?”
June 19, 2016
The storm passed through in the night and I didn’t even notice. I woke up this morning and the light in Dad’s room was on. He was sitting up reading his devotions as he used to do. He hasn’t been able to sit up on his own for a while.
“Dad?” I walked over and he looked up at me.
“I’m not dying! This is exactly what I was afraid of.”
“Well, you have a little energy. This is a good thing.”
“I swung my legs around and sat up.”
“But I told Dr. Tschopp I was dying.”
“Well Dad, it’s true, we all are.”
“But I told her I need hospice.”
“That’s good. I think we do.”
“Joanie’s coming home. I’m supposed to be dying.”
“You’re hardly eating. You don’t have much strength. I think we do need Hospice and it’s great Joanie is coming. She wants to see you. I guess God’s giving you a little extra time to get your heart right. If that takes ten years…well, what can I say?”
The doctor called then and we talked through a few things. By the time I hung up the phone he was back asleep. Do you think he’d notice if I make a single serving of Cream of Wheat…?
“It was a Thursday morning in 1984 and I was at a breakfast prayer meeting at church,” Dad said. Seriously, I thought, thirty-one years ago and he can remember what day of the week it was?
“I was sitting next to my friend Ahmed Haile who was born and raised in Somalia. He was director of the missions program that our church, Eastbrook, had established with the government of Somalia and we got into a discussion. He asked me if I would be willing to go to Bula Berdi and help with architectural type needs. We happened to be low in work at the office at that time but had a pretty strong cash position, so I said yes.
“I was also serving on the board of Habitat for Humanity which was just getting started in Milwaukee. I had learned from that program about a project in Kenya that did not require the corrugated metal roofs that were typically used on the Habitat homes in Africa. The Habitat builders in Kenya were making everything out of brick and I was curious to see if it would be applicable to our work in Somalia.
“I talked to our pastor, Marc Erickson, and decided to combine the Habitat project in Kenya, sponsored by the churches in Milwaukee, with the new mission program sponsored by Eastbrook in Somalia. Marc and I agreed on a time that he would be in Somalia to get the Eastbrook team settled which could correspond with my trip to Kenya. I planned to take care of my business for Habitat and then meet up with Marc.
“I called the National Office for Habitat and said I was aware of the houses they were building outside of Moi’s Bridge in Kenya. They told me it would be alright if I came to check them out but I would have to get there on my own because their volunteers didn’t have time to pick me up. I could take a bus to Moi’s Bridge, and then perhaps find another means to get to the Habitat site.
“I got directions to the site, which were pretty vague, and prepared for my trip. At the time, a client of Wenzler Architects’ was the Usinger Sausage Company. When Fred Usinger heard what I was going to do, he said, ‘Bill you need to take along some sausage in case you get stuck somewhere. Our all beef summer sausage doesn’t need to be refrigerated.’ So I put a significant amount of sausage in my suitcase and was ready for my trip.
“Marc had arranged for me to meet a friend of his who was a missionary in Nairobi. I arrived a few days before Marc and joined in the missionary sidewalk work. There were many students coming from class. I would talk about Jesus, if they’d listen. I don’t think I won anybody over but you never know. It was a good experience.
“The next morning, I took off on my trip to Moi’s Bridge. The first bus was standard, like a small greyhound. That part of the trip went well. Then I had to transfer to a small matatu which was a pickup truck with a cabin on the back. The directions I received from Habitat were to take the bus going to Kitali and get off at the first major intersection outside of Moi’s Bridge. I caught a local bus and talked to the driver who fortunately spoke English. He knew where I was going and said he would watch with me for the ‘first major intersection’.
“We started off for Kitali. When we reached the first intersection the driver asked me, ‘Here?’ I looked around and said, ‘No.’ We reached the second intersection in the middle of nowhere and again he asked, ‘Here?’ I looked around and again said, ‘No.’ Then he suggested I go to Kitali and call someone to come pick me up. I had been told to get there on my own and I didn’t want to interrupt the work of the Habitat volunteer so we drove on to a third intersection which looked more like a major intersection. I told the driver to let me off. He looked at me and said, ‘Are you sure?’ It felt right.
“I got off the bus and just then, along came a matatu that was making a turn the direction I wanted to go. My driver honked his horn to get the other driver’s attention and the matatu stopped. I got in and sat next to a woman who I discovered spoke English. We got into a conversation and I told her where I was going and that I was looking for the Habitat volunteer. She pointed at some metal roofs off in the distance and told me it was Jerimiah Wamachio’s compound.
“As we were sitting there waiting for the matatu to take off, I noticed two women coming across the road with their cages of live chickens. Now, from time to time, I have claustrophobia and it was quite crowded in this matatu. When the women climbed into the bus, I got up and said, ‘Let me off.’ But I got a nudge from the woman sitting next to me. She said, ‘No. Too far. Stay with me. I take care of you.’ So as the ladies with the chickens got settled, we took off down the new road, now heading west.
“It turned out to be about seven miles to Jeremiah Wamachio’s compound which was where the Habitat volunteer was staying. The matatu driver stopped and told me, ‘This is where you get off,’ and pointed me towards the path to take. I had with me, a duffel bag which contained a sleeping bag, a sheet in case there was a bed, my first-aid kit, a canteen with water, a change of clothes and the Usinger sausage.
“I was ready to head down the path when another matatu came along and a young man got out. I told him I was going to Jeremiah Wamachio’s compound, he nodded and we started off down a path through the grass. We came to a small stream, crossed it and continued west for a while before he stopped and pointed for me to go north. After a short distance I saw a group of grass huts. Just as I entered, a man came out of one of the huts and said, ‘Bill Wenzler.
“The man was a Habitat volunteer from Canada. He greeted me and said they had been expecting me the week before. I said, “I know, but things got changed in Milwaukee. I’m here now.” He showed me where I would be staying then told me that President Moi would be coming through the country the next day. He wanted to get his truck washed in preparation. He invited me to come along and told me the easiest place to wash the truck was in a nearby river. When we got to the river, he drove the truck right into the water which was already being occupied by a small herd of thirsty cows.
“We got back to the compound in time for supper. Among the suggestions that Marc Erickson had given me before I left Milwaukee, was to be sure to drink good water. He gave me some water purifying pills to take in case the source of the water was doubtful. The safest way to drink it, he said, was to get bottled water.
“One of Jeremiah Wamachio’s wives was preparing the evening meal. He had four wives and had married them all before he became Christian. Each would take a turn making dinner, as was the custom. I was pleased to see a large bottle of water on the table. I was also aware that we were very much into a rural countryside and asked, ‘Where did you get the bottled water?’ He said, ‘From the river!’
“The next day, he took me around to the Habitat houses I had come to see. I found out that they substituted brick vaults for the metal roofs. The clay they used for the bricks was unique to their climate so it wouldn’t work for us in Somalia where the land was mostly sand. This approach to constructing roofs wouldn’t help us. So, my trip to Kenya was eventful but not helpful. However, I did learn it was important to take a purifying pill when the source of the water was doubtful.”
There were so many details in this story I had to put it away several times. Dad would become impatient with all my questions and I got impatient with his. ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ He would ask holding up his hand to signify the direction he was travelling. He bought a map to make sure I understood that west was west and north was north.
I went to bed that night, wondering if it was silly to write these stories down. I laid there thinking about all the hours we’d spent on them. Was I just clinging to the past, and to Dad?
When I woke up the following morning, I reread what I’d written. Dad had few instructions on the direction he was headed. Every intersection provided a choice, and just as he has lived his life, it was a trip of trust—he was off the bus before the matatu showed up at that ‘first major intersection’.
When claustrophobia crawled into the matatu with him, a person was there to calm his fear.
When the matatu driver told him he had arrived at his destination and pointed to a path, Dad got off with his duffel bag to head into the woods. At the right moment, a young man showed up to lead him on. And then, when he finally arrived at his destination, the first words he heard were, Bill Wenzler.
I stared up at the ceiling and felt my eyes well up. There in the quiet of the morning, I understood that, like all of Dad’s stories, this was an adventure but also a story of faith. I know what it is to wander around unclear of my direction. I have come to many intersections in life, free to choose and taken the wrong turn. If there’s anything I can learn through Dad’s life, it’s that God’s purpose is always bigger than ours and sometimes we just won’t see it at the time. But, like the man who greeted Dad at the hut, I believe God knows us by name and is always there ready to guide us.
After two years of Sundays and many other days with Dad, I climbed the steps to our attic thinking of him flying his plane upward to see the forest from the trees. Living in a house filled with so much history—not to mention the sleds, skates and saddles, my mom’s wedding dress and a filing cabinet we can’t open—I knew it was time I did the same. I have held onto things to keep memories alive.
I walked first to a little corner under the eave where on one sentimental Saturday I pulled a bag of dolls from the attic to take to Goodwill. I organized them into a tea party instead. Seeing the hand-stitched clothes and miniature china dishes I had paid for with my allowance reminded me of the dreams I had then. Pack them up, Debbie, for the children. It’s time for new dreams.
I moved on from the eave to my late brother’s bedroom filled with the boxes of photos, papers and relics I have gone through over and over and thought of the thousands of words I have written about my family so I wouldn’t forget. Release the beauty you have discovered through writing your stories. They were never yours to keep.
I have been given a great gift of love—time with my parents, first with my mom and now with my dad as he lives out his glory days on earth. I have been able to hold them in their frailty and feel their strength, absorb their love and gather up their wisdom and the experiences of their—not perfect—but well-lived lives. I will remember with peace who they were and are, and can only imagine who they will one day be when we are all together again celebrating endless life with love and laughter, no fear, no pain.
My dad’s cook, Kay, recently told me how grateful she was for her daughter and didn’t know how aging parents get along if they don’t have children who are willing to help care for them. I told her I didn’t know how adult children get along without the parents who had cared for them.
I circled around the attic haven of memories and artifacts and prepared to make my descent like a plane preparing to land. Checking in with Control Tower, I said a prayer and as I walked down the steps, I knew that my fears of loss and emptiness in life, in me, in death, were overcome when the Easter tomb was found empty. The light of understanding what that fully means will continue to grow in my heart. It’s reflected all around us—from herbs to wheat to Morning Glories—that from death, springs new life which is God’s boundless gift.
Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord rises upon you.
(Isaiah 60:1 NIV)
The inner stirrings of new life and pain woke me in the night and in a fog, I thought I was pregnant. I remembered the feeling, clearly, from all those years ago as I made my way to the bathroom. I knew it was Eastertide—a time of wonder and hope—but even in my haziness discerned there was no way I could be pregnant. After some time, I made it back to bed and curled up in the shaky chills running through me.
I have come to understand how woven together birth and death are in the great tapestry of life. Losing a parent is as painful as childbirth; it’s just a different kind of pain. Through struggle and exhaustion new life comes.
The gray cast and chill of Good Friday has passed—that dark night of day, the noon to three o’clock hour that is so hard to think back on. When Saturday morning arrives, there’s a ray of light working its way through the blinds above my mother’s desk, hinting at the hope of resurrection to come.
The day before, Dad told me he wanted me to help with his business matters. He has also told me he knows he can’t go on living where he is. He has prepared for this next stage of his life as Mom had before him, and I need to keep up with him. What he and my mom both taught me about the security of God’s love in all situations feels out of reach to me as I think about the inevitable—losing Dad.
I lay awake in the room beside him listening for his noisy breath, a snore, his cough. In the quiet, I imagine my reaction if it doesn’t come. Is my faith strong enough this time to be strong?—I wonder. Will I be able to, along with Dad, discover new life within me as I move on to the next stage? Will I find peace in the understanding that Dad has arrived at last to the home his entire life has been leading him towards?—reunited with Mom and Ed and finally united with his Lord.
I get up to layer on a hoodie and socks, feeling the weight of my heart. We had an argument, the first in half a decade, maybe more—neither of us is good at conflict. Angry and stubborn, he quietly fumed. I cried. I tried to hold back my tears but then I couldn’t speak, couldn’t breathe. I left for a walk, leaving him to put groceries away and finish making his breakfast. I called my husband and my sister who both reassured me that I was being strong and patient and loving, though they aren’t the words I would have chosen to describe what I was feeling.
Fear is something to be fought. It doesn’t just go away because you want it to. The battle ensues and it’s the fight that brings strength and then peace comes. I try to imagine what it would be like to surrender control. I imagine my mind not being as clear as I’m accustomed. I imagine having to leave my home of many years, to go somewhere new when I am older and tired. It’s hard enough when you’re younger and strong.
I want to do all I can to protect Dad from this but I realize I have no control over it. We move through the anger, fight through our unspoken fears together. He has prepared for this next stage of his life and now so must I.
As I lay in my bed recovering at home two days later, I realize I may have been right. The pain that woke me was a sort of stirring of new life inside me—a time to release what I’ve been holding onto so Dad and I can both be free to move on. I wonder if like the nine months of pregnancy, there are nine stages of releasing a parent into their new eternal life. I wonder which one I am on as I text Dad to tell him to get mashed potatoes and gravy when he goes to the store later today, to have with his leftover meatloaf tonight.
My heart pounded as I swerved into the parking space. “Is there a fire?!” I shouted running up to the front window of the fire truck.
“We got a call about condo 108.”
“My dad?!” I flew up the steps, my mind suddenly racing. Everything’s fine over here, Debbie, Dad had just said an hour earlier. We had been to the doctor that day. He was okay, his doctor had said. His cough had mysteriously vanished for the hour and a half we were in her office—no crackling in his lungs, she had said. It came back as soon as we were in the car but we took a drive to look at our old church. We did too much; he was still weak from his trip to Arizona.
We had lunch at Solly’s. He shouldn’t eat butter burgers and fries!
Dad! I heard myself yell.
“She’s got a key.” Someone said from the crew of firemen standing outside his door. “We can hear him in there and we heard your voicemail on his phone so we knew you were on your way. We were just ready to break his door down.”
Break his door down?! That would not have gone over well with the man who still uses throw rugs so he doesn’t wear out his carpeting. I tried to steady my hand on the key as I turned the knob and opened the door. There he was, lying on his back, across the red runner. He couldn’t get up but his eyes were as bright as the rug. “Hi, sweetheart.”
“Oh, Dad.” His legs had given out, again. Dehydrated. No need to go to the hospital, he convinced the firemen, since he’d been to the doctor that day. After sitting up and drinking some water, the guys helped me get him to bed. His doctor started him on an antibiotic and I stayed with him for the next ten days.
“I do feel I’ve done a good job taking care of myself up to this point.” Dad told me just a few days later. “I can’t do no mo’.” He said then. “I’m done.”
“Oh come on, Dad. I think I’m going to give you a couple sips of wine tonight. That might help your appetite.”
“Or my attitude.”
“You’re like a cat. You’ve got nine lives.”
“Which one am I on?”
“I don’t know, the fifth or sixth.” I’ve worried at least that many times that Dad wasn’t going to make it. We didn’t think he was going to recover from his heart valve surgery in 2007. His valves were better but his lungs took a beating. He fought his way back. Then they told him if he ever got pneumonia that would be it for him. He got pneumonia and proved them wrong. (Whenever he’s in the hospital, he finds people to share his faith with. That always gets him back on track. He inspires and ticks people off equally.) Mom died not long after that—that hit him really hard. And then he got pneumonia again, and then again. Now he has fluid in his lungs that they can’t do much about but on he goes. I think that puts him on his sixth.
He wasn’t as fortunate as us with his own father who died at sixty-seven. The last time he saw him alive was in 1967.
“When Wenzler Architects was selected by the state to design the Fine Arts Center at Steven’s Point, I thought it might be a good time to learn to fly. That would turn a three-and-a-half hour drive each way into less than an hour.
“By this time in my career, I had developed a pattern for “programming” a new project. For academic projects, I would spend a number of days on the campus, in the classrooms with faculty and students. In addition to this effort to understand the project, there were many meetings with the client.
“I had completed this stretch with Steven’s Point—living in the dorm and staying on campus—and felt I had a very good grasp of the project. I was ready to find a concept for the design. This usually included spending nights alone in the office where I could think and sketch and try out ideas. This particular time, it was a Saturday afternoon when—bang—the Lord had given me the solution. I had the sketch and was sure it was the right one. The complicated part of the project was the theatre, so I called the chair of the theatre department, told him where I was at and asked if I could come up and show it to him. He said, ‘Come up. I can’t wait.’
“My Dad had recently had a stroke and was in the hospital at Milwaukee Lutheran. I stopped there on the way to the airport to show him my sketches. He wasn’t talking anymore by that point but he sure could see and respond. I showed him the sketches and explained the ideas and he smiled his approval.
“I had arranged to rent a Bonanza at the Waukesha County Airport to fly up and was checked out for night flying but was still only flying VFR (Visual Flight Rules). I got to the airport and took off. I met the chair and committee when I arrived at the University, went over my plans and they were excited.
“I flew back to Waukesha after my meeting and drove home. It was a wonderful day and on the way, I was thinking about my visit with my dad and how grateful I was for our time together. I never got to see him alive again, but I was thankful I got to see him and for all the encouragement he always gave me. That was the last time I saw him alive.”
“I figured it out.” Dad said as he was beginning to get his strength back last week.
“What’s that?’ I asked.
“I’ll give my key to three neighbors. And, I’ll get one of those call things that you can wear on your belt. I saw it advertised in the AARP Magazine. Then I won’t have to move.”
“Okay, Dad, that sounds good to me. You’re ‘flying’ IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) now.”