Tuesday, October 14, 2014
The Next Chapter
Today would have been my dads 69th birthday.
I can't even imagine him as a 69 year old man. He will forever be 49 in my mind. It's hard to believe that I am only 7 years away from the age at which we lost him. He seemed very young back then. Now that I am in my 40's, it seems even more tragic. No one should have their life end that soon. No one should miss out on their daughters' weddings, and their grandkids, and retirement, especially after working yourself to the bone your entire life.
No one should lose their dad when he is only 49.
No one should lose a parent until they are OLD, and have lived a long, full life, and are ready to move on to their next chapter. None of us were ready for the next chapter. In fact, we are all still trying to heal and recover from that unexpected chapter...and it has been almost 20 years. Funny how life pulls the rug out from under you sometimes.
Many of you know the story. Many of you grieved with us. Many of you felt that profound loss in your lives as well. My dad touched a lot of lives...more than he ever knew.
I share this story today, not for myself. I share it for him. For if you didn't have the pleasure of knowing Marty Ekern, I would love to pass a little piece of this amazing man on to you. And, if you did know him, maybe this will be a time to relive some memories of the role he played in your life.
Marty as a boy...always with that smile on his face.
It is hard to know what memories to share. There are so many. Whenever I picture my dad, he is either driving the tractor, or coming out of the barn...smiling, waving, and heading toward me for a big hug. To say he was a hard worker would be the understatement of the century. He taught science for several years before taking over the family farm. It was a dairy farm, so he took care of the cattle and land at our place, as well as milked the cows and farmed the land at my grandparent's place. Eventually, we moved to their farm, and he only had to worry about one location. I remember how he and his friends Donny and Russ would help each other out with the field work. The three of them would work on each other's land until it was done, and then move to the next farm. They were quite the team.
Every noon hour would involve a group of guys coming up to the house for lunch....always a big meal of meat and potatoes. Every stereotype you hear about farming is true. Every wonderful last one of them. It was good, wholesome country living.
The thing that always amazed me about my dad is that I never heard him complain. I remember coming home from school to find him at the kitchen table with his hand completely bandaged up. (He was NEVER in the house after school...so I knew something was up.) He had lost his entire ring finger in a farming accident that day....on the same hand that he had already lost the tip of his index finger in another accident. Most men would have been devastated by the disfigurement, the pain, the frustration of trying to adjust to life without your finger. He would just hold that three fingered hand up and joke "I worked FIVE years in that sawmill."
Another time, he was attacked by a bull in the barnyard. The last thing he remembered was the bull charging at him. He came to about an hour later when the barn phone rang. We have no idea what happened to him...but he was very bruised and bloodied. Once again, not one complaint.
Life was always interesting at our house, as there would often be strangers who would stop by, looking for work. My dad never hesitated to take them in, and give them a meal, and a day's work and pay....even if he really couldn't afford it. I remember this one wild bunch who came with their beat up car, and their long hair and beards. It was raining pretty hard when they left that day, but their windshield wipers were broken. So, they tied twine to them, and had a guy hanging out each window, pulling the wipers from side to side. Excellent entertainment for the farmer's kids anyway!
Another time, there was a circus performer from Canada who asked if he could sleep in the barn. Dad got out the huge frying pan (and it was HUGE) to make a big stir fry over the fire pit in the back yard. Before he started cooking, the guy took this heavy, cast iron pan, and was walking around the yard, balancing it on his chin. Like I said, never a dull moment.
Even though he was always working....you never questioned his love for you. He was a quiet, gentle soul, who would give anyone the shirt off his back...and he did. Literally.
The best part about him, though, was his sense of humor. He was laid back, and didn't say much....but when he did, it was usually hilarious. He was super witty and would catch you off guard, because you never saw it coming. He always made us laugh.
Weren't they adorable? I was pretty cute too. ;)
To us girls, our dad was invincible. There was nothing he couldn't do. He could fix anything, build anything, do ANYTHING. When I went off to college, he did the same. He decided it was time to get back into education. He was hired as an assistant principal and athletic director, and was fantastic at it. He would work, take classes at the University, and then do chores at night. (He hired someone for the morning.)
The summer of 1995 was when everything was finally coming together. I had just graduated from college, and was about to start my first teaching job. I was engaged to be married that December. My dad had sold all the livestock, and now only had the field work to do during the summers, so, for the first time in his life...he had freedom.
The week before the new school year was to begin, we decided to have one last hurrah. My sisters, dad, and our boyfriends were going to take the day to go canoeing, while my mom was out shopping. (Dad's 50th birthday was coming up, and she wanted to get a head start.)
A friend of dads had told him about this pretty waterfall about an hour from where we lived. We decided that was to be our destination. I should also mention that we have been canoeing since I was a toddler. Other people take summer vacations...my family went canoeing. We were tied to the farm, so this was our pastime. We were experienced as well. We had canoed the Brule River several times, and were very capable of handling rapids.
In my 23 years, I had never once tipped in a canoe. Within the first 3 minutes of this trip...all three of our canoes tipped.
We were not aware of the fact that the cranberry bogs had been drained into the creek we were canoeing, as well as the fact that the waters were swollen because of the extreme levels of rainfall that summer. The water levels were several feet higher than normal.
We endured several more tips as our attempt to get downstream went on. At one point, I went under and was dragged along the bottom of the creek bed, cutting my arm, and losing my glasses.
I remember my dad asking me "should we turn around?" If only I could go back in time.
All I could think was "How? How would we carry three canoes all the way back to where we put in? We would be walking through dense woods, and it would be a nightmare."
I had no idea the nightmare hadn't even begun.
This is Polly Falls on a normal year. Water levels were about 3-4 times higher than this in '95.
The next 30 minutes or so is jumbled confusion in my mind. I remember being pulled by the current into this "pool" after our final tip. I believe one or both of my sisters was in the water too at that point. I remember my dad grabbing my arm and pulling me out of the water and helping me back into my canoe. The next thing I remember was Mark slamming us into a tree on the side of the creek. I was mad at him for doing that...having no idea why he though that was a good idea. Because I no longer had my glasses...I couldn't see that we were only feet away from the falls, and he was steering us to safety.
I remember being back in the water again. I'm not sure if I fell in, or was just trying to get to land. My sister Kris and her (now husband) Dan had attempted to pull in behind us, but the canoe tipped again. She was being pulled downstream by the current. I reached out to grab her, but she was too far away. Again, at this point, I had no idea the falls were just ahead.
From behind her, the canoe she had been in hit me, and then proceeded downstream before I could stop it. All I could imagine was that it was going to hit her.
Suddenly I heard screaming. I remember scrambling to shore and scaling up the side of this hill, trying to get to where I could see what was happening. I remember hearing "Kris is drowning!"
She had a lifejacket on...but it was no match for this waterfall. The water was so high, and so forceful, that it pulled her right under. I remember her saying afterward that it would have been so easy to "just let go." She said the only thing that kept her fighting was the fact that she really wanted to have kids someday.
I soon realized that my dad and Emily were already on the shore beside the waterfall before any of this began to take place...and the second Kris was pulled into the falls, my dad dove in after her.
The canoe that had been pulled downstream was now churning in the falls....I was certain it was going to hit one or both of them and kill them.
The rocks on the falls are a straight drop off. There is no ledge on which to step. Somehow, my dad was able to lift my sister up in this 8 feet of raging water and push her to safety.
Fortunately, there was a family staying at a cabin on the other side of the falls, and a man had rushed downstream and across the creek when he heard the screaming. He made his way over in time to pull Kris out when dad lifted her up.
My dad must have used every ounce of strength he had in him.
The man had a canoe paddle that he held out for dad to grab onto....but he said dad came up one last time, but his eyes just rolled back, and he disappeared.
The last thing I saw, and it will haunt me for the rest of my life, is my dad's legs shooting up above the water, and then sinking down, and he was gone.
That was the last time I ever saw my father.
I wish I could say that was the end of this story. But it wasn't.
Divers searched for his body over the next few days. During this time, two of the divers were pulled into the falls. One made it out...the other wasn't so lucky. He was a 40 year old husband and father of two. His wife was the trauma nurse on call when he was rushed to the hospital.
We went to his funeral that week. My dad still hadn't been found.
It had almost been a week, when we got word he had been located. His body had been washed two miles downstream. He had landed upright against a fallen tree, and sand had washed up on him, and had almost completely buried him. The only part of his body that wasn't buried was the one thing we knew we would have to use to identify him at this point, since he had been in the water so long. His three fingered hand. He was buried up to his wrist. Leave it to dad....always making sure things are taken care of.
I should mention that he made sure his car keys found their way to us from inside his pocket the night of the accident. He had to have been behind that....how else could we have ever found them?
Below the falls....beautiful. This was completely flooded the summer of 1995.
I wish everyday that we had chosen a different path that day. I always wonder how life would be different if this horrible day would have never happened. It has changed each one of us profoundly. To see your parent die right in front of your eyes, and not be able to do a damn thing about it is horrific. Having to break the news to my mother was....I can't even come up with a word to describe that.
I am just so thankful that there was a family there who took us in, and cared for us, even though we were complete strangers.
I am thankful for the outpouring of love and support in the days and weeks that followed.
I am thankful that I had 23 wonderful years with my dad. Being the oldest, I was the luckiest, because I got the most time. My little sister was only 16 when this happened.
What I struggle with is all that my mom has endured since that day.
How do you go from being married your entire adult life, to suddenly being completely alone?
And then she got cancer.
And now she has Alzheimer's.
Where is the justness in that?
The only peace I get from all of this is that maybe now, with her memory clouded and fading, perhaps it will take the pain of her loss away.
One of last photos I have of the two of them. Back when life was still the way it should be.
Happy birthday in heaven dad. Thank you for always being my biggest fan, for always encouraging me to chase my dreams, and for always making me feel like I was special. Thank you for showing us how to treat everyone like a friend, how to offer a hand to anyone in need, how to keep a smile on our face when we are feeling down. Thank you for showing us what it means to put others before ourselves, the pride that comes from hard work, and importance of family.
No one will ever compare to you, dad. In your short time on this earth, you touched more people by the example you set than you could ever imagine.
Your love and dedication to your family was obvious every day of your life, and profound through your death. When you said "I would do anything for my girls," you meant it. You are so many amazing things....but with your very last breath on this earth, you showed the world what you have always been to your daughters....our hero.
Until I see you again....I will keep looking for your birds and butterflies.
I miss you and love you with every ounce of my being.
If you still have your dad....go give him a big hug, and then one extra one for me.
Love to you, this Tuesday.