Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Legends, work ethics, and candy (my father's eulogy)

On December 5, my father died. It both was and wasn't sudden. His health had been failing for years, but on that day, he and my mother returned home from a doctor's visit, when my Dad simply fell over in the doorway, gone in an instant. Over the past five or so years, my mother, brother and I have been trying to mentally prepare for the inevitable. Of course, no amount of mental preparation can ever truly make you ready for the day when one of the most important people in your life is suddenly no longer there.

Below is the eulogy that I gave at Dad's service. Being my father's son, there's some inappropriate humor in there, but I did leave out one killer joke I wrote involving the History Channel. Maybe I'll tell you someday. I also wanted to post just a few photos, including some that tugged at the strings even before he had passed.

So long, Pop. I love you and I will miss you every single day.

Who’s heard the story of my grandfather’s cousin, Ernie Kopehelle and the German WWI helmet?

One day sometime in the 1940s, Ernie was visiting my grandparents' farm in Conestoga PA when the kids came across an old German WWI helmet in the attic. Ernie began rhapsodizing about the indestructibility of the military headgear. To prove how strong this helmet was, Ernie instructed the kids to grab the ol' Luger and shoot at it. In fact, he was so positive that the bullet would bounce right off the helmet that Ernie put it on his own head and told them to go ahead and shoot.

My Dad and his siblings did not think this was a good idea.

Ernie was resolute. "NO! I am telling you, ze bullet vill bounce right off der helmet und I vill be fine!"

But none of the kids would take the chance, and so finally, Ernie relented and placed the helmet on a fencepost. One of the Heitmuellers (which one has been lost to time) aimed the gun at the empty helmet and pulled the trigger.

And the bullet passed right through one side and out the other.

Much of the tale, I’m sure has become apocryphal as it’s been passed around through the years, and I’m sure that it will continue to evolve, because we’re going to continue to tell it.

My father loved to tell stories, and growing up as one of ten kids of German immigrants, he had a million of ‘em. But that one may have been his favorite. If I heard that story once, I heard it a hundred times. In fact, the last time I saw my Dad, he tried to tell it again, and I had to remind him that I knew that one by heart. Of course, now I wish I could hear it one more time.

For my brother and I, there are a few other things we will always carry from our father.

One is a work ethic that was instilled in us from a young age. A very young age. I think we may have been the only toddlers this side of Amish kids who were given chores to do. You can stand and walk? You can push a lawn mower (Ken used to mow the lawn by holding onto the lower rung of the mower handle, as he was too short to reach the top). I know it’s not the only reason he loved us, but there’s no question that he loved having his own personal indentured labor force (and that included any friends who happened to come over).

But that meant that we learned at a very early age both how to use power tools and that a job wasn’t done unless it was done completely and done right. We would watch him do woodworking and antique reproduction and marvel at the attention to detail, his ability to perfectly match the complicated turn of a lathe, the nuanced patina of the wood, and the flow of its grain. Details mattered.

The other thing was his unwavering support of our interests and aspirations. Ken and I both chose life paths—he in music, myself in art and writing—that drive most parents to send away for business school applications. But our parents—both of them—were never anything but encouraging. Dad’s support of Ken’s dreams went so far as to allow my brother to transform half the basement into a fully functioning recording studio, including a 64 square foot enclosed soundproof control room. For me, Dad’s job at Lancaster Press meant an unending supply of drawing paper, and it was rare that any errand didn’t include stopping at Thrift Drug or Prince Street News for some comic books. And when I (as well as my best friend Nathan) was suspended from High School during my senior year for publishing an underground newspaper, my father didn’t get mad at me, he got mad at the administration that was trying to squelch our creativity and freedom of speech.

For anyone who knew Karl Gustav Heitmueller, there are certain things that will always resonate: The stunning mid-century modern home that he built and lived in for five decades. The really, really cool Volvo P1800. His willingness to help. His stubbornness. Lawn mowers and snow blowers, and enough spare parts to reach to the moon (anyone who’s interested, see us afterwards). Mysterious old gizmos with which he could quiz and dazzle any and all visitors. Cats and World War II, tin toys and antique tools, plants and flowers and Coca Cola.

But perhaps more than anything, he loved sugar. Candy, donuts, ice cream, more candy…. Diabetes wasn’t going to stop him from enjoying a Klondike bar or a slice of pie. On more than one occasion, we caught Dad just having finished a secret forbidden treat. When he would deny having eaten something he wasn’t supposed to, we would point out that he had chocolate all over his lips.

But he didn’t like being told what he could and couldn’t do. He hated being old and infirm. Over the past five years, as his health declined more and more, he bemoaned no longer being able to do the things he loved to do. He still managed to mow the lawn, using a riding mower, a few other chores in the yard, and still made it up to the barn a few days a week. But his declining physical state couldn’t help but darken his outlook on life. He was angry and frustrated, and sometimes couldn’t help himself from taking that frustration out on those closest to him.

But no matter how bad he got, he knew that he wasn’t alone. In addition to his friends and family, most of all, there was his wife of 48 years, our mother, Alice. Taking him to his many weekly doctor appointments, administering his seemingly endless litany of medications, making sure that everyone was aware of what everyone else was doing, she literally kept him alive. It is not hyperbole to state that we had Dad for at least a few extra years thanks to her constant loving care (even the coroner took time to note that despite his many issues, Dad was in remarkably good shape when he died).

And while we mourn his passing, we can all be grateful that he died the way he did: While he still had some semblance of mobility and possession of his mental faculties, quickly, in the home he built over five decades ago, with his beautiful young wife by his side. I think we can all agree that it would’ve been far more painful for him to die a long, protracted death, tethered to machines in a hospital bed. For him and for us.

When my brother and I were kids, we would often hear Dad talk about when he built the house. For many years, we both took this to mean that he didn’t just choose the building plan and oversee the construction, he himself laid every single brick, board and linoleum tile. Okay, maybe his brothers Ernie and Dick helped him a little bit, but for the most part, it was all him. I think we were in our thirties when we were finally informed that this was not, in fact, the case.

But that didn't change the fact that we truly believed—and, truth be told, always will believe—that if he really wanted to, he COULD have built an entire house by himself.

When I think of my father, I won’t think of the frustrated man in pain. I’ll think of the sensitive, creative, talented, supportive, gentle, powerful soul who touched so many lives.

Dad "building the house" in Lancaster, PA, mid-1950s
Wedding day, June 1964
That's me, Christmas, 1964. God, I love this photo.
At my maternal grandparents' house on Ann Street in downtown Lancaster, late '60s.

Ailurophile. This one kills me.

My brother Ken took this at the Statue of Liberty in the late '90s.

Dad peddling his refurbed lawn mowers at the barn, 1990s.
His health wasn't good, but he asked Mom to dance at our cousin Gretchen's wedding in 2009.
He thought this would get him the best seats anywhere.

Christmas last year. He wasn't always this happy towards the end, but I will choose to remember him like this.