Tuesday, May 31st, 2011
1963 Chevrolet Corvette
When I was about 10 years old my dad and I began going to the car dealerships to see the newly revealed models each fall.
We also went to the local car shows each year that were held in our local coliseum. We would walk and walk just looking at all of the shiny steel and chrome.
I remember one year sitting in a really sporty pure white Corvette coupe. It must have been 1963 because this lovely specimen of American sports cars had a split rear window.
Inside I saw a red ball that slid sideways to open the door. I thought that was so unique and yet strange and uncomfortable to manage for my little hands.
None the less, cars followed me with my dad all through the years. When I was older, in 1982, my dad asked me to go with him to buy a car. He wanted to trade to a new car and it was so cool that he asked me to go with him to pick it out.
We decided on a Chevrolet Celebrity. This car was somewhat of a new design and name for Chevrolet. It was a mid-sized sedan. As I looked at the options available I picked out a car that was a beautiful mix of two shades of copper. The interior was a new ribbed fabric and darker, almost like a rust color. So, off we went with dad’s new car.
My dad retired when he was just 52 years old. He had some problems with his feet that limited his ability to walk and stand. This was a challenge since he was a letter carrier for the United States Postal Service. He looked forward to retirement because in his mind he could spend more time with his kids and grandkids.
This became difficult because my sisters and I were in the throes of building our own lives and we were all busy with so many things. I remember my sisters telling me that dad would stop by their houses as odd times of the day and how this had become kind of a challenge. They were in the middle of things that had to get done and dad would stop by and want their attention which was awkward for them to manage.
Retirement Didn’t Set Well
A few months into his retirement we could see dad getting depressed and frustrated with his life. We didn’t know what to do other than to suggest that he get involved in volunteering to take up some of his time. He kept trying to build his life around us and got more and more bitter because it wasn’t working to satisfy his many hours of open time.
One day he came to us and said, “Well I did what you wanted me to do.” He found a home for developmentally disabled children that was led by a nun, Sister Evangeline. The kids went swimming several times a week and dad decided to go swim with the kids. In time he found odd jobs that needed to be done at the home and began to spend time there regularly helping in any way he could.
On his birthday that first year Sister Evangeline sent him a plant. He commented sarcastically, “Oh, they just want more work out of me so they sent me this plant.” He was truly not into this volunteer job and seemed to be doing it out of an attitude of spite since he wasn’t with us kids he had picked a second option. This was hard for me to hear but at least he was doing something.
My dad’s church began a helping ministry called “Stephen’s Ministry” which offered training for people to learn how to help people who were going through difficult things in their lives. Dad decided to go through the training. It involved bible study and small group interaction.
I had just become a Christian at this point and was excited that he was in a bible study. So, I bought him a new bible to take for his bible study. I knew he only had a larger “coffee table” sized bible so this surely would come in handy. I had stopped by his house one day and he sat down with me and told me about something he was learning in his training about servanthood. His eyes had been opened to what it meant to listen to others and serve them from his heart.
Dad Began To Change
I began to see a turnaround in his attitude about many things in life. He showed a sign of the resentments leaving that he had been carrying around with him. He began to show true joy in spending time with the kids at the school and a real thankfulness for his connection with Sister Evangeline.
After several years of seeing a great change in my dad I was getting ready to move to California to work with Love In Action. I came home to visit several times.
When I stayed with dad we had several late night conversations. This was very new for us to talk that much and I really enjoyed hearing his heart. One night I asked my dad why he never dated after he and my mom got divorced. It had been over 25 years since they separated.
His response was, “John, I didn’t want to be tempted. I am afraid I might find someone I am attracted to”. My dad whole hearted followed his church’s teaching that unless your marriage was “annulled” by the church then you were not able to remarry. I found something deep in my dad’s heart that amazed me. He was so convicted to submit his life to what he believed in, that he sacrificed his own personal desires for many years.
As I thought about my dad and women, I couldn’t forget all through the years that he had often talked about a lady named “Monica”. He had a green army trunk that had all of his life memorabilia. In it were pictures of many people from his past and he always pointed out the pictures of her. When he was nineteen years old he was engaged to her. He went into the Army Air Corp during World War II. He told us that when he returned home she didn’t want to marry him. I think his heart was crushed and he moved on to never talk with her again.
Teenage Love Rekindled
My dad’s cousin, Merc, maintained a relationship with Monica through the years so he heard a couple of things about Monica but never pursued knowing more because again, he was guarding his heart and I actually think it was too painful to know more.
I never heard my dad talk about any other women. He married my mom just a few years later and that was it for 16 years until they divorced. My mom as a very complicated woman to be married to and their relationship was very painful for my dad. So, I think he also didn’t want to go through that again. So, my dad was a confirmed single adult. I think this is why he had so much focus on his kids. We were all he had in life to put his time into until God began to work something new into his heart.
Dad called me one day and said he was going to go to International Falls Minnesota. “Really? What are you going there for?” ” I called my cousin to see what had happened to Monica and I found out she is a widow, and that she is there visiting family.” I hadn’t seen dad so strangely excited in my entire life. Dad went on this trip and came home like a teenager in his heart.
He had learned that Monica had also lived in Denver for a season when he lived there. She had married and had several children and then after many years of illness her husband had died just a few years previously. He said they also talked about the last conversation they had had, Monica straightened him out on one thing. She had not said she didn’t want to marry him, she said she “didn’t want to marry him at this time.” She told him she just didn’t feel ready for marriage at that point.
All of a sudden, dad was consumed with trips to Las Vegas, where Monica lived and letter writing back and forth. He had found his childhood love had been stirred again. I knew that he wasn’t compromising his morals in the least bit but it sure was interesting when he said he was going to Las Vegas to stay for a month!
As I reviewed the ten years prior to his reunion with Monica I saw that the affirmation from Sister Evangeline, the unconditional love from the kids there and his Stephen’s ministry and bible study all worked to soften dad’s heart and allow him to once again search for love. His call to his cousin came from this internal desire.
They Get Married
So, after a few months, dad and Monica decided to get married but they had a hurdle. Dad’s marriage to my mom wasn’t annulled by the church. So, they pursued an annulment through his church in Omaha. Through a lot of paper work and interviews with family members who knew my mom and dad when they got married, the annulment was not approved. So, again, my dad wasn’t satisfied with the process and chose to try again through Monica’s church in Las Vegas. More paperwork and interviews occurred and during the process the priest at her church told them to go ahead and get married by the Justice of the Peace. He said they would continue to pursue the annulment and could get their marriage sanctioned by the church in time but for now his advice was to go ahead.
Well, my dad got some approval from someone he trusted and took advantage of the opportunity. Dad and Monica got married in 1989, the year after Vileen and I got married.
Everyone was ecstatic for them. They really loved each other. It was all positive! After a few months had gone by they got the word that dad’s marriage to my mom had been annulled. Now they could get their marriage fully sanctioned by the church and it was all good.
Vileen and I took a trip to Las Vegas to see them. I could hardly believe my eyes! I had never known my dad as a happily married man. They were so devoted to each other, sacrificed for one another, and were very affectionate with each other. I saw them pray together each night on their knees. They held hands every time they could.
My dad was now not only a model of faith for me to see, but he was modeling a godly marriage for everyone to see. They were both so happy. It wasn’t all a fairy tale, however.
They went through many very challenging circumstances together. Monica had cancer and two knee replacements. Her daughter had severe illnesses and passed away. Her son’s life was a challenge for my dad to experience and found he had to lay down some boundaries to keep their home peaceful. But through it all, their love grew and they had a wonderful marriage and life together.
My dad’s health was a challenge as well. He had a lung disease that he had suffered with from being in India during the war. He had a debilitating chronic cough that had caused emphysema and several bouts with pneumonia. Monica was by his side and always seemed to manage his life, her life, and that of her kids with such grace.
Dad Passed Away
In 1997 we got the call that he was once again in the hospital with pneumonia. It was really severe this time. My sisters and I went out to Las Vegas to see him. He was on a respirator which was very troublesome for him. He got so frustrated that he couldn’t talk with us and writing notes was a real challenge due to having to lay on his back.
The doctor came in to give some tests and we asked him if my dad’s lungs would heal. He said that the disease had caused a hardening in his lungs that would never get any better. He told my dad that he would have to live with a respirator.
After the doctor left dad said he would not live this way and that he was going to have the doctors remove the respirator. We all knew that this would cause his death but my dad’s desires came first. Shortly he communicated his desires to the doctors and they did as he wanted. Dad passed away in about 24 hours.
His plans were to donate his body to the University of Nevada for science. So, there would be no traditional funeral. They had planned to have two memorial services to remember his life. One was in Las Vegas for their friends and Monica’s family there. The other would be in Omaha for all of the other family and long time friends.
As I thought about my dad, I wanted the privilege to eulogize his life. So, when my wife and I arrived we went with Monica to talk to the priest about what I wanted to do. I was honest with him about what I wanted to say. I wanted to reveal my dad’s character through the way he handled life challenges. I said I wanted to talk about how he handled my homosexuality with such grace.
The priest sat there with a pondering look on his face and finally said that he would give his blessing to my plans. Then I took it a little further and also asked if I could take communion at the memorial service. I had not been a practicing Catholic for many years which could make this a challenge. But, once again, the Priest said he would definitely allow me to do that. It seemed that God was in the plan and Monica thought it was all a very good idea. So, I drafted an outline of what I wanted to say.
While my sisters and I were in Las Vegas following the memorial service Monica asked us if we wanted to go through dad’s things to sort out what we wanted. As we searched through his papers and personal things we discovered more of his character. We looked through his cancelled checks and saw our names written on many of them. We discovered that he had helped us out when we needed it. We learned that we had no jealousy or comparisons that caused any problems. We even joked about how we were each his favorite child. We found that dad had the gift of loving each of us as though we were his only child.
We Saw His Character Through His History
When we sorted through things that were his we were able to completely defer to each other and compromise for one another. If I wanted something specific, my sisters would agree to me having it and the same was done for each of us. We were amazed at how much we were able to do this without any difficulty and attributed this to what we had gained from being children of our father. He had raised us to know this kind of integrity because that is the way he lived.
The second memorial service took place in Omaha and I asked for the same permission and the local priest gave his approval. So I was allowed to share my heart once more before my own family and long time friends. As people entered the church I wanted to greet them personally. When my female cousins came in one by one some would stop by me and show me a special “angel” pin they wearing and said, “Your dad gave me this pin.” It became kind of funny because three cousins did this in a whisper almost to hide that they felt as though he had only given them a pin like that. Again, I saw the say my dad could unconditionally love people a though they were the only one he loved like that.
As I spoke for this second time, I knew that my dad was in his eternal place with God giving whole hearted approval for what I was sharing. This gave me the courage to speak. I just knew it was ok with him because he was in a place where he would know the whole truth of his life, and mine.
It was amazing that God had opened up such a door to talk about His grace through my own dad finding it for himself. After I returned I wrote my notes into a Tribute to my Dad which has been publicized in many periodicals and remains on my own website today.
Through the following years I often grieved but also recognized Monica’s loss. She had a very tumultuous marriage with her first husband much like my dad had. He struggled with many things as well as severe health issues and she had come to find such joy with my dad. They only had seven years together and it would have been so wonderful if they had more time to enjoy their love for each other.
Since my dad’s passing, Monica lost another daughter to cancer and her son died far too young. Her sister in law from her only brother passed from a severe disease as well. She has one daughter left that fortunately lives near her.
It has been humbling to know her. She has faithfully acknowledged all of the special holidays each year for all three of us kids as well as many of our children. No matter what was going on, we knew we would receive a card every year for birthdays, Christmas and often our anniversaries. Monica was just like my dad. They were both cut out of the same cloth. Her faith in God has never wavered and her love for people has revealed that all through the years I have known her.
She is now living in an assisted living community home because she has struggled with TIA’s, or mini strokes. She still is able to talk and remember but physically she isn’t able to live alone any longer. Her fortitude remains strong!
It seems that serving others and learning how to sacrifice was the turning point in my dad’s life. Giving to the developmentally disabled kids even when he did it out of spite began to change his life, it seemed to do something in his heart. Sister Evangeline’s gifts to my dad, even when he received them with a blocked heart, changed his life.
Every time my sisters and I get together or talk, my dad comes into our conversation. We remember how challenged his life was and how he ended it with such grace and joy.
One of my cherished possessions happens to be a rib that was removed from my dad’s chest during a lung surgery when my dad was in the Army. It was kept in the green trunk with all of his other life memorabilia. When I was a boy I used to ask him to see his “rib” and we would open the trunk and go through all the stuff there. When he passed I asked my sisters if I could have the rib and they let me have it.
Although it may seem strange to some of you, I have continued the practice of showing the rib to my grandson, Devin. He has now begun to ask to see the rib from Grandpa Norm. Oh, I have other things like a pocket watch that was my grandpa’s that my dad had restored to give to me. I also have his army jacket and the American flag from his funeral. And his green army trunk sits in our guest room.