Last week, my father-in-law, Dave, passed away.
He valiantly fought third-stage, non-small cell lung cancer for fourteen months, holding his ground through a debilitating regime of radiation and chemotherapy.
Ultimately, damage to his lungs from COPD did him in; snatching him from us with little warning and brutal speed. There was barely time to make the calls.
The whole family flew in from California, Michigan and Florida. They surrounded his bed and held his hands as he crossed over. Although he never fully woke from the heavy sedation, I know he knew they were there, and I know that made him happy. He was all about his wonderful family and each and every one of them is a living testimonial to him: in looks (I have determined there are no adopted Strohmans), personality and character.
I was privileged to know him only a brief time, but it didn’t take me long to realize the person he was.
He was a man of high integrity and great spirit, with a story for every occasion. A man of wit and a jubilant jokester, he delivered a punchline with rapier grace.
A thoughtful and thinking man, he remembered the names of all who touched his life, no matter how briefly.
A decorated Air Force veteran, he traveled the world from Africa to China and beyond, parlaying his military experience into a career building nuclear power plants and submarines. He was so in demand for his skills and expertise that the company he worked for, Bechtel, lured him twice out of his well-earned retirement to construct or refurbish critical plants.
His greatest pride was his family: Linda, his beautiful wife of fifty-seven years; his five children, eleven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren: all to whom he was a living legend, a loving patriarch, the font of most knowledge, and the best friend and dad in the world.
He didn’t give a fig for the socially prescribed rites: the somber funeral; the weepy, graveside service. Instead, he wanted a huge party, with everyone wearing crazy hats from his vast collection of brims, bonnets and chapeaus; telling tall tales and remembering him with joy.
His lifelong motto was adamantly (and famously), “No Whining,” and he was determined to go out the way he lived, with humor and grace.
We decided to honor him with a celebration of life at the family home in Augusta, so everyone could come together to venerate his legacy. In the days leading up, as people poured in from all parts, each contributed in their own way.
The grandchildren, cousins and sons-in-law set up the tent, dragging out chairs and tables, hanging twinkle lights, draping everything with colorful vintage linens and filling the room with all the flowers and plants sent by loved ones. Vicky, Debbie and Cindy, David’s three sisters, cooked and baked for days, making pies, brownies and a massive chili bar with every kind of topping and condiment imaginable.
Aunt Kathi, Cousin Christa and I spent hours going through my mother-in-law Linda’s enormous archive of photographs. We plucked digital memories like a bouquet of blossoms, savoring the brightest and sweetest, printing them for decorations and assembling clips and pictures for my husband, David; who composed a brillant video tribute to his father, full of images, favorite songs and soundbites from years of family movies.
Moment arrived and all gathered, fighting tears and hugging each other close, we revered his memory, acknowledging the enormous Dave-shaped hole in our homes and hearts and lives. With food and drink, laughter and song, jokes and stories, we poured out our love to him and each other.
Linda is a member of the Red Hats, an organization of ladies dedicated to living life to the fullest. In an amazing gesture of love and loyalty, that day at 3 p.m., hundreds of Red Hats from all over the country raised a glass of Vodka and Diet Sprite, Dave’s favorite drink, and released balloons into the heavens.
We, too, set loose balloons and toasted Dave. Each of us bid him adieu in their own fashion: a final salute to husband, dad, father-in-law, uncle, grandfather, neighbor and friend.
As the colorful globes soared into the vast blue sky, I remembered a line from a favorite book, Richard Bach’s Illusions.
“Don’t be dismayed by goodbyes. A farewell is necessary before you can meet again. And meeting again, after moments or lifetimes, is certain for those who are friends.”
It might be goodbye, but that doesn’t mean forever. Farewell and fare well, dear friend, until we meet again. Our love travels with you.