My father’s grandfather lived in the Bronx; he was a master carpenter who spent years helping build the Guggenheim Museum. Pop, as my dad called him, was a quiet man and read the bible frequently, although not a big churchgoer like the rest of the family. My father told me one Sunday he was able to stay home with him. My father was just 3, and when the family returned home they found the two of them in the living room, whittling with huge hunting knives on the floor. The women screamed at him in Swedish and Pop explained it was not a big deal because he put down newspapers to protect the carpeting. Needless to say, Pop was in the doghouse for a bit – but my father said that Pop was just brought up that way and didn’t realize anything was wrong.
“Don’t tell your mother” – my father said that to me a bit growing up. I was very young when he taught me how to shoot a BB gun, when he took my training wheels off my Dukes of Hazzard bike, when he taught me how to drive his Jeep, when he showed me how to handle, use, and sharpen knives, when he would take me out hiking far further than intended. I have fond memories of my father bringing me to Awesome Video, our local video store, on Friday nights and we’d pick out a pile of action movies, mostly rated R – “do not tell your mother.”
I trusted him and always felt safe with him. One time we were stuck in traffic in NYC, I was nine years old, we were coming home from a Yankees game, and two men approached the car and began to accost us, either demanding money or playing with the windshield wipers and antenna. I cannot remember the exact details but my father looked at me and said, “Sit still,” and he reached back and grabbed a small wooden bat and stepped out of the car and very quickly those men were not accosting us anymore.
Growing up, I can see now as a son that I wanted love from my mother – which I got in gobs – and I yearned for approval from my father. My father had dealt with losing friends in Vietnam and also losing both of his parents at a very young age. My mother told me this was a reason he did not show a ton of emotion. In 1999, when I was 21, I was involved in a tragic car accident. I remember not knowing how I could see a tomorrow, how to see another day. I slipped into deep depression and was not talking to anyone much. I would sleep in during the day and stay up very late at night. I was building myself into a hole.
After midnight, I would go downstairs quietly and begin to watch TV. I remember one late night he came downstairs and turned off the TV and looked me square in the eyes and scooped me up into a huge hug. The timing of that was maybe perfect – up to that point, I had only cried real tears one time after a stupid Little League playoff loss when I was like 11 and my father had never approached me like that, and when he put his arms around me, I began to cry so hard that it was cathartic, like pain instantly leaving my chest, and as a young man I began to realize the power my father could wield. He said he was always here to help me, and he said, “You will be okay, son.” And, I believed him. My father never told me something if it was not true.
In 2012, my parents were both diagnosed with lung cancer at the same time, both Stage 4, my mother was in worse shape and began heavy rounds of chemo immediately. My father declined to see any doctors or seek any medical attention because he spent all of his time and focus taking care of her. I would visit the house 2x/week. About midway into my mother’s battle, one night as I left he caught me at the door and said quietly that maybe I should come over more. He said, “You do not want to have any regret.”
He was not criticizing me, his tone was not like that, he was not angry. He was simply looking out for me. He wanted me to understand what was going to happen. At that time, I was busy with life/work/etc and I thought I was seeing her enough, I was okay with this, I felt like I was being a good son. Well, my mom quickly went from being sick to being VERY sick and I realized in a cold rush that seeing her 2 or 3x/week was not enough. One night I went to visit her and she had slipped into a near-comatose state and I wanted to ask her questions about our family, etc, but she was not fully there, and there are no takebacks, no do-overs, the time we had had passed. You do not want to have any regret – if only sons would listen to their fathers.
I told my father after she passed that his actions were heroic – he took care of her straight to the end, seeking zero personal medical attention – he was all about her. I told him that if my grandparents could see what he was doing, they’d be smiling down at him from heaven as he nursed their daughter with the highest level of love and care. He didn’t even look at me or have any emotion in his voice when he said, “Of course, that is what you do,” as if that is the automatic response, you go all-out, that is it. My thoughts of how other people could view my father’s actions never entered his mindframe – he only focused on my mother and how he could help her.
When my mother passed, he was devastated. They were life partners, she was his best friend and I could see very much a part of his soul had permanently departed. When my father became ill, I was deadset on being more involved and seeing him almost every day. My father wore a strong beard for most of his adult life, and when chemo treatments permanently made his beard fall out last year, I began to grow mine out, a form of straight respect to him. He told me that his beard used to come in red when he was younger, too, and he smiled when he told me that.
His hospital visits were becoming more frequent and I made an effort to visit him daily, almost like we were back home in our living room. “I am sure you are bored. Go home. I am fine,” he would say. Around the time he began saying that, his condition worsened, he was bed-ridden more, and I was spending more time at his side. As time wore on, the process became almost military-like – I would visit him and report to him, bringing mail, food, news, I would open his mail and hand it to him, I would bring The Daily News and unfold it for him so he could do the Jumble. I took clear notes on what to bring next, what to ask the doctor, etc, not missing a beat, wanted to be on top of everything. I was using his old, battered Samsonite briefcase from the ‘70s and I felt like his lieutenant in a strange way, I felt honored, traveling around on official business for the commander.
My father was a bad-ass and I could see why he enlisted in the United States Marine Corps – he never took any pain meds, he was never out of it, he never complained, he never cried, he never asked for help. Only two days before he passed did he finally need help getting out of his bed. As you spend more time with someone, you want to keep talking to them more, I thought He is strong and he can rebound, and as you have these sincere urges, that is when he really begins to fade. I tried not to feel any regrets, but you are still filled with deep sadness as you watch him decline. One night, perhaps 10 days before he passed, as I was packing up and leaving his room, he told me, “You make me proud, and your mother would be proud.” I was never expecting him to say that, he had never said those words to me.
My father loved the outdoors, he loved photography. I made these albums because he took nearly every photograph in them. In a time where everyone now has a camera and most are taking selfies or photos of themselves standing in front of stuff, my father was focusing on what was in front of him, never himself. Right now, as I think about his life and especially his photo albums because they are so fresh in my mind, I remember vividly how he loved the sight and sound of snow and I can hear the excitement in his voice – he would talk about it all night the night before, and then early AM while we slept we’d hear the scrape… scrape.. scrape of the shovel outside – that’s my father, outside in red/black flannel jacket, no hat, rawhide gloves, beaming with a smile, in winter wonderland heaven.
I went fishing with him at a severely young age and I can feel how the canoe moved off the lapping water, an amazing feeling when the water is still foreign to you. I can close my eyes and see the 40 birdhouses he made and set around the property, the birds flitting to and fro, an amazing show to watch. I can hear and feel the roar of the Bronx Yankee Stadium crowd, him cheering right next to me. I remember how it felt when he let go of my bike when the training wheels were off and there is that moment of fear, what will happen next? My father always made sure I was okay. When he let go of that bike, I did not fall, I was balancing and moving forward entirely on my own.
I am filled with humility and gratitude to carry my father’s name. A life well-lived. No regrets. Jag älskar dig, pappa. Vila i fred för evigt. I love you, dad. Rest in peace forever.
Mie rakastan sinua.
Kenneth A Lundgren Jr
December 10th, 2016