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Not Just Another New Year's Eve

The year 2009 draws to a close on a totally different note than I had anticipated. I received a call from my sister yesterday morning informing me that our Dad had died suddenly. He was 84 years old and lived in South Dakota, as she does. Apparently he was on his way home from running an errand in the small town where he lives and something unknown happened that caused his Jeep to swerve across the road into the other lane and slide into the ditch. It is bitter cold in South Dakota this week and the ditch was filled with snow. From the tire tracks in the ditch (and the reverse gear of his transmission destroyed) it was apparent that he had tried to free the Jeep with no success. He must have gotten out to check on it or try push it, because two young men who soon passed by found him laying on the ground beside the vehicle. They administered CPR, but he was already gone. The ambulance arrived almost immediately and transported him to the local hospital just a short distance down the street where he was pronounced dead.

Such a sad scenario, and so very much like my Dad. My sister found his cellphone at his apartment. Apparently he forgot to take it along so couldn't call for help, but being fiercely proud and independent, might not have anyway. We'd had several conversations with him in recent months about driving and how it was time to face the difficult decision to surrender his license. He wasn't having any of it and let us know so in no uncertain terms. We worried constantly that he would be involved in an accident and might possibly hurt someone else. It was to the point where we knew we would soon have to intervene. Just the previous weekend he had driven himself and his girlfriend 90 miles down snow packed highways to pay my sister and her family an after-Christmas visit. They asked him not to come due to the weather conditions, but no one suceeds in telling my Dad what to do, and he came anyway. He made it home safely that day by the grace of God. This time it was not to be.

I am very sad, as are my sisters, and the girlfriend who has been his companion since mom died 14 years ago. But we are also thankful that God chose this time and this way to take him home. His health has been declining rapidly in recent months and congestive heart failure was taking a toll on him. He lived with chronic pain in his back and legs, shortness of breath, and diminished ability to walk more than a few yards unsteadily. He was old and tired and so very ready for the end of it.

It could have happened in much worse ways... on the highway last weekend, in Arizona while on the trip they had planned for January, or after lingering in a hospital or nursing home with little dignity or self-determination left. It could have fallen to his girlfriend to be the one to find him gone, and thankfully it didn't. We have much to be grateful for. As it was, he likely suffered only moments if at all as he passed quickly from this life to the spirit world. We all knew the time was coming. We all sensed that our family gathering in San Antonio in October would be the last time my children, husband and I would see him, and that this Christmas would likely be his final one on earth. But when the time comes, you are never ready, never prepared for the emotions of losing a parent, much less your second parent - rendering me and my sisters orphans now.

I didn't sleep well last night. I find it hard to shake the image of my frail yet stubborn German father struggling with his Jeep stuck in the snow. We wonder if a black out caused him to swerve across the road. He's been falling asleep often lately, and his blood sugar could well have been high too. I know he had to leave this world some way, there is no train station to simply catch a ride. He could have been involved in a terrible accident that would haunt us all forever. So this is better, and mercifully quick. No lingering illness, no gut-wrenching goodbyes. But God, the pain inside is terrible.

John is a tremendous comfort and source of strength to me. He has buried his own mother and two wives before me, and knows well the pain and sorrow. Arrangements have been made and we'll be heading home tomorrow, flying thru Denver and on to Fargo and driving the remaining 130 miles to the small town in the northeast corner of South Dakota where I grew up. The funeral will be on Monday morning, followed by lunch at the church and then a 60 mile ride to the cemetary where he'll be buried next to my Mom. I'm praying for good road conditions.

We'll be staying at his apartment with my younger sister and her husband. My older sister and her daughter will also be driving in from Minneapolis. Our relationships with her have been strained in recent years, hopefully we can pull this off without a major conflict such as occurred following my mother's funeral. Temperatures in South Dakota are in single digits this week and next. I haven't experienced weather that cold for a long time now, and I'm not looking forward to it. Icy air and asthma don't mix well. Those heavy winter coats we've had packed away in storage will come in handy, and my beloved sandals will have to remain in Texas this trip. My mother's funeral was also on a cold, snowy day in January many years ago. It feels all too much like deja vu.

I'm not sure if I'll have an opportunity to blog, email, or update Facebook while I'm there, so I'd like to wish everyone who stops by here to visit a truly blessed new year. Dad will be spending New Year's Eve with Mom this year, and thinking of that makes me smile. Me, I'll be spending it quietly packing for the journey that will take me home to South Dakota on New Year's Day and wondering what the new year is going to bring.