Little Van

A lot of miles were put on Volkswagons in our family—from Bugs to Carmen Ghias to Westfalia Vans—Dad loved them. My parents made many trips to Tucson in their white Westfalila to visit my sister and her family. Dad, the Eagle Scout, liked to camp, Mom liked hotels. Dad liked to sail, Mom preferred B & B’s. He usually won because, well, because he was Bill. Once he had an idea, he was set on it. Mom was a trooper.

Dad loved road trips and could drive straight through from Milwaukee to Tucson with just a few hours’ rest while Mom took the wheel. He had a CB radio and worked his way into the truckers’ VIP circle with a little van as only Dad could. He would talk through the night to the truckers while Mom tried to sleep—like pilot to pilot, or sailor to sailor, only this was trucker to the guy in the VW van. He told me he’d have great conversations and would sometimes get help with directions. Halfway across the country one night, on wide open interstate, Dad heard, “Little Van, Little Van! Your turnoff is just ahead!”

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After that van was sold, Dad regretted it, and before long was on a search for a new one. When he found a used one in California, he talked Mom into flying out with him to pick it up. With a couple boxes of camping equipment in tow so they could take their time and enjoy the drive home together, they were off to California. They landed in pouring rain, loaded their equipment into a taxi and went in search of the van owner’s address. It was still pouring when the cab driver dropped them off with all their equipment, and it was still pouring when they discovered the van was filled with mildew. Mom said, “You can buy it if you want but I am not riding in that vehicle with you.” She called a Honda dealership and bought a little bronze CRV  which she loved and they had a great trip home staying in B & B’s and hotels.

It’s the same little Honda that arrived to pick me up every Sunday morning for church with Dad these past five years. It’s the same little Honda that would pull up our driveway to pick up Sam and me for trips with Dad to the Island. It’s the same little Honda that Todd and I drove  out to 80th and Capital this afternoon to have shipped to Tucson for my sister’s daughter, Kira.

And now it’s the little Honda named Billie Dee. I know Mom and Dad are smiling.

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Preparing for Landing

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)

Oxygen is Low, Time to Go!

“Your oxygen is 90.”

“That’s low,” Dad said to the nurse. “It’s normally around 97.”

“We need you to be working your lungs.”

He stared straight ahead like he knew the drill but said nothing.

“She wants you to expand your lungs, Dad.”

“I hear her. I hear her,” he snapped at me then turned towards the nurse. “Bettina, I’m not going to be at my best when I’ve been lying in bed all night!”

This is true—Dad’s lung capacity was decreasing because he was in bed so much. I was doing all I could to get him discharged.

“You need to work your lungs, Bill,” Bettina repeated.

“Well, I need to get up out of bed to do that, but I can’t do that without setting the alarms off all the time!” He was so ready to get out of this hospital.

“And you know why we did that……right? Because you fell at home.”

“I know I fell at home, but that’s history!”

“You are high risk.”

Dad rolled his eyes. He took several deep breaths into his plastic breathing machine, pushing the little rattling balls up to the proper level in the air chamber. Then he took a few careful swallows of water and was ready to finish the story of the sailing trip to Washington Island. He was hoping the nurse would move on to her next patient. She seemed satisfied with his effort and made her exit.

“So, we were motoring through the fog without too much difficulty.” Dad’s breathing seemed to naturally improve as he started in on the sailing story. “As we got around the tip of Door County and changed course for Washington Island, we could hear the fog horn of the Ferry Boat. We couldn’t see it, but we heard it. Because the wind was so calm in the fog, we were motoring with the Atomic Four, which was the name of the standard motor on boats in those days.

We stayed alert to avoid the ferry and any other boats. According to the Rules of the Road, I would occasionally give a blast on my boat horn. This was the proper procedure during these conditions. We never saw the ferry boat, but sure enough, right off our bow, at my estimated speed, there it was—the tripod light of the Washington Island Harbor. We got into the Harbor and found a place to tie up at Outfitters. We walked around a bit to get a feel for the Island, spent the night in the boat and then headed back the next day over the same route.

We had a beautiful sail and as we were coming through Ship’s Canal, the water was quite calm. We got to the end of the canal in Lake Michigan, when substantial wind and waves began. I had the hatch over the V-birth open. The first good wave we hit pushed the water right in that hatch and into the V-birth. So here we were, once again, with many of our things soaked.

We continued along Lake Michigan shore and by the time we got to Manitowoc, the weather had built up. The stretch from Manitowoc to Sheboygan was some pretty hard sailing. In those days, Sheboygan didn’t have such a nice harbor for transit boats because it was a large harbor for commercial shipping. When we arrived, we found a place to tie up alongside one of the old coal docks.

We had just about settled in after supper that night when there was a rap on our cockpit. We looked out, and there was our son Ed. He knew our sail plan and figured out exactly where we were and that we had had a very hard sail that day. He told us the storm was picking up speed and that he had come to take over for Mom. He suggested that she take his car home.

Dolores was such an incredible sport, she would have—like she had done so many other times—stuck it out. But she didn’t argue with Ed.

I don’t have any idea how Ed found us that night. I guess he had just figured out what he would have done had he been in my spot. Ed was that way. Always anticipating, always offering, always helping. I wonder what he’s assigned to in heaven…..?

Dolores drove Ed’s car home. Ed and I spent the night on the boat and enjoyed a challenging sail the next day. The storm grew and the wind and waves were really rough. We had a great time and it was good Dolores listened to Ed and drove home.

To think now, how she was raised on a farm in northwestern Illinois, far from any body of water. She never had the opportunity to learn how to swim, never particularly liked the water, yet still she was always willing to share with me and my joy……….”

I had a big lump growing in my throat and my eyes welled as I thought about my mom and brother……..

“That’s a great story, Dad,” I finally managed to say.

Just then, as though he had been waiting in the wings for us to finish so he could make his entrance, an aide named Bruce walked into our room.

“Do you know what the date is, Bill?”

“I have a suggestion for you, Bruce,” Dad said. “You guys should put the day of the week up on the board there, along with the date. It’s really difficult to keep track of life outside when every day inside the hospital is the same. When I was at St. Jo’s, they always had the day of the week along with the date written on the marker board. That really helped.”

“Kind of defeats the purpose doesn’t it, Bill?”

“At this hospital, you’re supposed to figure out the day of the week by counting forward from the day you came in?”

Bruce didn’t respond to that question but took a look at the symbol on Dad’s wristband. “So you want to be resuscitated, if necessary, when you die, Bill?”

“You guys seem more worried about me dying then keeping me alive.”

“Bill, you just don’t want to get that wrong.” Bruce walked over to the board and added Friday to the date.

A small victory but it felt good to have witnessed it. A patient’s feedback is important.

We had been at the hospital since Monday. I had pushed for getting Dad released as soon as possible because I was sure he would recuperate better at home. His resident physician and head doctor both agreed with me. I had a 2:30 appointment that Friday I didn’t want to miss and they helped expedite Dad’s release.

His Resident happened to be from Ghana and his Head Doctor was from India. They had become like family to us and both came to say goodbye. “I don’t know the tradition in your country,” Dad said to each of them. “But as we often do in our country, I’d love to give you a hug.”

Each had replied, “I could use a hug.”

They managed to get us through the discharge process so I was able to make my appointment which was somewhat of a miracle in itself.

It’s funny, I feel sad to be ending our unexpected experience of being a High Risk Fall patient. There was a little rough sailing but all in all, we ended up arriving safely back into our harbor. And as always, those whose hearts touched ours will always stay with us.

Thank you Dr. Richard and Dr. Joseph—God bless you.

March 14, 2014

Run With the Storm

“Dad… awake?”


The door to the hallway was closed, the room was dark. Dad had been tossing and turning so I figured he was having as much luck as I was falling asleep. I had my computer on top of me—if I angled the screen right, it gave off enough glow and I could see the keys. I had just finished typing what GPS stood for.

“When did you buy your first sailboat?”

Dad loved to sail. He was the one who introduced my husband Todd to sailing. Todd and my brother Ed along with their best friend Ray crewed for Dad’s client, Ensie. Dad had met Ensie when he designed Central Methodist. Ensie was the pastor of the church and had a boat named Holy Smoke.

Captain Bill, we called him. Dad sailed like he designed buildings—with great attention to the details and with boldness.

Captain Bill with the kids from Long Island Dr.

Captain Bill with the kids from Long Island Drive, our church neighborhood

“Well….,” he adjusted his mass of blankets. “The first summer after we had moved to Milwaukee we wanted to take a vacation. We still had the farm so we set up our camper behind the barn. It was fun camping on our own land with a beautiful view to the north and the west, protected by the large barn on the south, with a view of Holy Hill in the distance.

During these days, our lives were beginning to focus more on Lake Michigan, the beauty and uniqueness of the Great Lakes, along with the city of Milwaukee. It was Mom who brought up the idea of getting a sailboat. We decided to take a trip to view some of the marinas along Lake Michigan and look for boats.

We eventually settled on a twenty-seven foot Catalina, which had a cabin to sleep six and a thirty HP gasoline engine. We were told that would be adequate to make headway even in a heavy headwind. It was $17,000, and the price included the rental of the slip on the F dock in the McKinley Marina for the rest of the year. It cost as much as our house on Shepard Avenue. We didn’t have the money, so I did what I always did…went to the bank…..” Dad’s voice trailed off then. He was quiet so I turned over and we both must have dosed off.

We couldn’t have been asleep long when I was awakened by Dad’s startled voice. “Oh!” There were two aides standing in the room. “I’ve been waiting to tell you what a great job your kids did singing at church a couple weeks ago!” He said to the one preparing to take his blood pressure.

“Dad,” I squinted through the light. “That’s not Connie,” but she really did have an uncanny resemblance to the director of the children’s choir at church.

“……Well,” he said to me then, “you try waking up thinking you’ve got Connie Hendricks staring in your face….” The aide giggled. “What’s your name again?” he asked her and then thought a moment. “…Dorothy?”

“No, Darlene,” she answered and giggled some more. They’d had this exchange a couple times before.

“Oh, that’s right—Darlene. I’ve been praying for you, Darlene.” Dad said. “You’ve been on my mind.”

It was true. This is the way Dad spent his time laying in a hospital bed—praying for people. I had heard him ask the RN about Darlene earlier in the evening. He asked if she might be able to stop by because he wanted to talk to her. The RN tried to dissuade him and said, “The aides want to leave quickly when their shifts are over.”

“Darlene….?” Dad was preparing to ask her the question that was on his mind. “Do you know Jesus…?”

“What I’ve read about him in the Bible,” She responded as she finished taking his blood pressure. If this had made her uncomfortable, she didn’t show it but I could hear the two aides talking together outside the door.

“What she’s read about Him…….?” He muttered. “Well that’s not good. I have to keep praying for her. So….” He settled back in. “Now where was I? ……We found out about an A-frame cottage on the southern tip of Washington Island. We stayed there and discovered that it had a vacant lot next to it for sale. We thought this would be a perfect place for us to sail the boat to. We could rent a slip in the nearby marina.

I had already completed the coast guard sailor’s course. We thought it would be great to take a cruise up the shore of Lake Michigan, through the ships canal at Sturgeon Bay, over to Green Bay, and up to Washington Island. The boat we bought was originally named C-X-T-C, we changed it to Revelation.

The instrumentation on the boat consisted only of a compass so everything was dead reckoning, working off a chart, estimating wind speed, boat speed, etc. I had a handheld wind speed indicator. I felt comfortable with all this because it was a lot like flying by VFR (visual flight rules).

So we planned our first trip with Revelation.

As we drove to McKinley Marina, I heard the weather forecast on our car radio. It said there was a storm moving across Wisconsin. I figured we could make it as far as Port Washington so we packed up the boat, set off and headed north.

As we were approaching the harbor in Port Washington we were watching for the storm. I remember looking back to this dark cloud which made a wall of rain and storm. I thought we would make the harbor before the storm caught us but we didn’t quite do it. I pulled the sails down and we were motoring towards the harbor. We were close enough to see people standing on the breakwater at the opening to the harbor when the storm hit us.

The wind and storm was so strong that and I had no visibility. The last thing we wanted to do was sail into the breakwater so I sailed out to run with the storm. As I remember, I chose sixty-five degrees for the heading. I told Dolores to take the tiller and be sure to hold sixty-five degrees on the compass (NE) and then I marked the time. It was amazing how easily Dolores took to the tiller. If I gave her a heading, she would hold it based on the compass. I felt comfortable leaving her at the tiller as I went into the cabin to get our storm suits.

Gotta love a good sail

Gotta love a good sail.

The wind was blowing the rain horizontally right through the cabin. I came out with the suits to put on which was kind of silly because we were all wet. We sailed that course until the weather cleared. I had kept track of the number of minutes we were on that heading until the storm passed. Then we reversed course and went back to the harbor. When we motored in and docked, the people said, “Welcome!” They told us they had been so worried about us that they had waited there on the dock when our boat disappeared in the storm to see if we would make it back.

We tied up at the dock and walked up town to get something to eat. Everything was pretty wet that night but the sleeping bag was dry so we slept on the boat.

“Wow, Dad……” I laid there thinking about Mom on that boat. Mother nature is fierce and Lake Michigan is big. Mom had been raised on a farm, far from any large body of water. She never even learned how to swim and Dad had her out on a sailboat in a storm. This was just one of many sailing adventures they shared together.

Todd and I have a Pearson P28-2 sloop rigged sailboat with wheel steering. The last boat we had, had a tiller which required me to move. My idea of sailing is a nice cushion, a good book and a glass of wine. Can someone please tell me what the fascination is with coming about?

“Dad?” I asked as I returned to the reality of the small, stuffy hospital room we were in.

“Yes, Debbie?”

“We don’t have a lot of visibility right now either. Let’s run with the storm……..”

March 12, 2014

You Gotta Have Faith

If I had waited until I had enough money in my life, I would not have gotten very far.  I call it the Red Sea rule. You have to step into the water before the sea will part.

I work at a nonprofit and there is never enough money.  My first year, I taped a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt on an old computer my husband’s office had donated for me to work on: “Do what you can, with what you have, where you are”. My parents had taught me this long before I read the words but it was a good reminder. 

What they taught me was to have faith — the kind of faith that provides courage when you doubt and humility if you start to get too full of yourself.  At church on Sunday, Pastor Matt said faith is believing in and helping others believe in what looks to be impossible.  Mom and Dad started out their marriage with a little second-hand furniture and a truckload of faith. If they had waited until they had enough money, I probably wouldn’t be here. –Debbie


Mom and Dad in 1950 or so

I had been looking for a job in Champagne before we got married but was unable to find one.  I knew I could return to my job with Mr. Haeuser in Milwaukee so after the honeymoon, we ended up spending that first summer with my folks.

After we finished paying for the wedding and everything, Dolores had managed to save $300, which was quite a bit of money. She had a doctor’s appointment and I went along with her. She checked out just fine but the doctor took a look at me and said, “You don’t look very good. How do you feel?”

“Not so good. I have a backache.”

He examined me and would you believe it?  I had appendicitis.  He wanted me in the hospital immediately.  I had insurance in school and insurance from my Dad but lost them both after we got married. There went the $300.

We had enough money saved by the end of that summer to rent a house when we got back to school–well, half a house really.  We had to share the bathroom with the landlady.  So we had the first months’ rent paid and $35 left over.  Dolores’ Mother and Dad came down with groceries. We put them all away and Dad just shook his head and said,  “I don’t know how you’re going to make it. What if you need a dentist? How will you pay for it?”

I said, “I don’t know, Dad.  We just think this is what the Lord wants us to do and we’re trusting Him.”

We really enjoyed our little “house”. The only problem we had was that when you used the bathroom you had to hook the second door so the landlady wouldn’t surprise you. You had to remember to unhook it. If we forgot, she would pound on the door and start yelling “R R R R,” in the middle of the night.  Our rent was $50.  I got $10 off taking care of the stoker. So I wrote the check for $40 each month through the winter. When spring came the landlady said, “Wait a minute, you’re $10 short.”  So I found out that $10 deduction only applied during the cold weather.

I’d always pick Dolores up after work at the Institute of Aviation on my bike and we’d go to the grocery store. She would pick out what we needed to make supper. There was no shopping for the week in those days. We did it one meal at a time.

We joined a fellowship group at the church which met once a week. They were studying the C.S. Lewis book, Mere Christianity. Along the way, we decided to join the choir — we both liked to sing. One choir rehearsal the pianist wasn’t there.  We sang through some hymns then got to the anthem and the choir director asked if anyone could play the piano. Dolores said she could. She went up there and banged that baby out. She was excellent at sight reading. When we finished rehearsal, the choir director said, “Don’t you leave. Don’t you ever leave!”

That’s the way I felt about her too.