My father-in-law was born in Denmark, died in the U.S., and never let much grass grow under his feet between those two events. He was an incurable and restless dreamer, and always convinced that something better than what he had at the time was out there somewhere — his for the taking — if he could but find it. He joined the Danish underground in WWII, and got a medal out of the experience. For years afterwards, he traveled to Denmark to march with his old comrades until their ranks dissolved with the passing years. He sailed the seas in the Danish merchant marine, and later worked in the American Embassy in Copenhagen. Well traveled, and with an ear for language, he could communicate with almost anyone of any culture. After his second wife died, he used to wow widows and others in his cohort with his tales of underground exploits. We in the family had heard them all, of course, but fresh ears were too much for him to resist.
Like many father-in-laws, he was convinced that his future son-in-law was not worthy of his daughter — an only child — and our relationship was often prickly over the years. He was a committed “fixer,” and would not be in the house for two minutes before he was looking for something to work on. Miraculously, he often had his own toolbox in his car when he arrived. Since he had a job as an apartment superintendent in one of his earlier occupations, his knowledge of wiring and plumbing outdid my own. I suppose I should have been grateful, but I often seethed as he repaired something that I had not gotten around to — or was perplexed about.
He and my mother-in-law divorced some years later. He eventually remarried and moved out west. “California Dreamin’” probably applied. We lost track of him for many years and did not reconnect until his second wife was dying of cancer and they returned east. When she died, my wife and our family were nearly all he had left. The years had taken their toll on him. He had experienced heart attacks, aneurisms, lousy circulation and a life-long love of unfiltered Luckies. Still, though, he was a font of repair advice and tall tales. He and I became closer, and I got the chore of driving him to and from his many doctor’s appointments. He had only to climb three steps to the parking lot from his ground floor condo. I would sit in my car and watch him struggle — pausing after each step for breath – and clutching the handrail to pull himself up. I knew better than to offer help to this proud old Dane.
I was with him the day he got the news that one of his legs would have to go. When we left the doctor’s office, he asked me to go to a small local cafe. He needed a drink, and I couldn’t quarrel with that. I felt I had to break the ice somehow, as we sat, each pondering this awful news. I don’t know what possessed me, but I said, “I suppose you will be wanting to get an eye patch now.”
He gave me a strange look. “What for?” he asked.
“Well, it seems like the thing to have, what with a peg leg and all…”
He looked at me as if I had gone nuts, and perhaps I had, momentarily. He remained silent for a bit; finally took another sip of his drink and said: “Perhaps two…one with rhinestones — for formal wear.”
He did not last long after the leg came off. He knew that his weakened system would not permit much more than life in a wheelchair. Not for him. He had one good day when he laughed and contemplated the future with his newly found family, but his mind was made up. That very night he slipped into a final coma. My wife and I quickly summoned a favorite niece from Denmark – one of his few living relatives. We made the painful decision to disconnect life support and held his hands as the Old Dane departed on his final journey.
At a memorial service, a grandson said farewell for us with Stevenson’s Requiem:
Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you ‘grave for me:
“Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.”
But we knew that the Old Dane would not be content to lie still very long under any starry sky. His ashes were divided. Half now repose in a country churchyard near Denmark’s blustery Baltic coast. The rest were given to the sea off a North Carolina beach – on the evening of a lunar eclipse – a touch he would have appreciated, I have no doubt. We stood in the ocean’s surf as his mortal remains were scattered — to go where the currents will take them.
“Requiem” by Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894); from Modern British Poetry, 1920; Louis Untermeyer, ed.
The Old Dane appears in Chuck Thurston’s Senior Scribbles Unearthed, available from Second Wind Publishing or Amazon.