Winters in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are an acquired taste and one I’ve never really warmed up to. I remember snowbanks piled higher than the eaves of the house and making actual tunnels through them big enough to walk through fully upright. The days are short and the nights are long and the wind off of Lake Superior can be brutal, even if you’re as far inland as we were. The snow and the cold only made the work on the farm that much harder, and there was work to be done regardless of how cold it was. If there was snow it just meant that you had to move it before you could actually do the work that needed to be done. All of my brothers and sisters from Mom’s first marriage were long gone with their own families now and that only meant fewer hands and more work for those hands to do.
The winter of 1980 was both bitter cold and snow filled early. By mid December we had already received more than our share of snow for the season with snowbanks piled taller than I was. We heated our house with a big old wood stove in the living room and a smaller one in the kitchen and also with an oil furnace for backup. One of my daily chores was to haul in the wood for the stoves and today the wood bins were already empty from the day’s burning. I had just gotten home from school and because it was so cold we were burning more and needed more wood than usual brought in. As many twelve year olds are prone to do, I was procrastinating and honestly just being lazy. By the time dad got home from work around four in the afternoon, the wood was still not in the house and he was pretty upset about it. After a bit of a talking-to I grudgingly bundled up and followed him out to the woodshed to do my job. He was chopping some kindling and piling wood on the sled for me to haul. I left pulling the fully loaded sled across the yard but he did not follow me back to the house. What none of us knew until much later was that Dad had been feeling ill for several days, but there was work to be done so he just pushed through it. This day he had also been having chest pains but went ahead and finished his mail route anyway, thinking he could rest a bit after work. That bit of rest never came, though since I did not have the wood hauled in by the time he got home and there was a lot to haul in. When I made it to the front door and began to bring the wood in, Mom asked if he were coming back in. I told her he was still in the woodshed so she quickly bundled up and went out to talk to him. When I had finished emptying the first loaded sled I glanced out the window and saw mom put her arm under dad’s and lead him to the truck and help him into the passenger side…dad always drove…I knew something was wrong. The sun was just beginning to set around five in the evening when she came back into the house. She made a couple of phone calls, and said that my brother would be coming over to help milk the cows and that she was bringing dad to the hospital and would be back later. A little over an hour later the phone rang and my brother answered it and after a few ‘oks’ and ‘alrights’ he hung up the phone and came into the living room and said, “Your dad died, Mom will be back later”.
The world came to a complete standstill in that moment. He had a massive coronary and had died in the truck on the way to the hospital. There was nothing they could do.
My brother made a couple of hurried phone calls and went back out to the barn to finish the chores. One of my sisters went up to her room and I don’t remember seeing her again till later the next day. My other two sisters and I began to cry alone in the living room, not knowing what else to do. About a half an hour later people began showing up at the house – first our pastor, then my other older brothers and sisters, all with food in hand – probably their dinners that had been interrupted. It seemed like forever but when mom finally came home the first words I heard through her streaming tears were, “are you kids alright?” We were not…and neither was she…but there was really nothing else to say at that moment. This was the second husband she had lost unexpectedly, and the second set of children she was left with to raise alone. They had been married for 18 years when Dad died and I don’t know if she ever fully recovered from either of her husband’s deaths.
I don’t remember much else from that night. Bits and pieces of conversations here and there about what to do now and the never answered but always asked ‘why?’ I remember crumpled Kleenex in people’s hands and silent stares out cold, black windows and the cross our pastor was wearing as he sat with me on the couch, holding my hand. One thing I do remember clearly is a long cold walk with my oldest sister from my mom’s first marriage. Her dad had died when she was young too so she understood what was going on. She said wanted to get out of the house for a minute or two and asked if I wanted to go with her. Though it was cold and snowy, we walked the entire length of our long driveway arm in arm with tears freezing as they fell. She was talking about a lot of different things, as she often does, and she kept saying over and over again that Jesus loved me and that He would be my father now. I really had no idea what a real father should be like. Maybe my dad was it…and if that was the case, then I didn’t want anything to do with a Father called God. Even though I understood very little of what she was talking about, I will forever be grateful that she planted that seed.