Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The Gary I Never Knew

My father-in-law Gary passed away on Friday July 9th, 2010. As my husband Todd and I prepared for his memorial service and eulogy, we realized that we didn't have a lot of information about his early childhood; everything we knew about Gary was based on the 37 years of Todd's life. But what about the 30 years before then? Sometimes we would ask Gary what it was like growing up in the 50's and 60's, but he was very reserved with his answers. I assumed his silence meant that he must have been a very shy boy, not too social, and perhaps carrying a troubled past. I didn't want to push for answers, so we let our conversations stay on the present.

Then this weekend, we began to fill in the gaps of Gary's early years. His older sisters Marilyn and Sue told me that they remember dressing Gary up like a girl and making him play Barbies with them. They said he was not a troublemaker and a good boy, even though for the first 5 years of his life, he was in a neighborhood with only girls!

But even more astonishing was that I met someone who described Gary as his soul mate, his best friend, and his idol during the teenage years. Those words in themselves blew me away! Roger Meinershagen is Gary's cousin, and they are only 3 months apart in age. Because Gary's sisters were 8 and 9 years older, Roger and Gary were like brothers growing up. Roger said that they would even try to fool their parents by wearing the same outfit with a mask to cover their faces, and their parents couldn't tell them apart. They had a similar build, same blue eyes and blond hair, and the same spirit.

Gary was so happy when they moved to (Mr.) Roger's neighborhood (I'm sorry, I couldn't help myself!) For 16 years, he and Roger were only a few blocks apart. They attended a small elementary school with two grades and one teacher in each room. When lining up and picking sides for various sports, he said Gary was one of the captain's first picks; everyone wanted Gary on their side.

Roger recalls that Gary was quite popular and very social; he was chosen King of Hearts for Valentine's Day in the 8th grade, and was a natural at ballroom dance lessons given in the school basement. Apparently Gary was never without a dance partner during those Friday night dances!

In high school, Gary and his friends formed a barbershop style quartet called "The Blue Notes." They even had matching baby blue monogrammed sweaters! The Blue Notes performed at school functions and contests throughout the city; Roger admits that he was basically a "groupie" of their quartet during that time. We never heard about The Blue Notes from Gary, but it does explain where Todd got his musical talent. Todd said his dad wanted him to become the next Kenny G or David Sanborn; Gary was always very supportive of his musical pursuits.

During college, Gary convinced Roger and their friend Brian Watson to take a trip to Europe to broaden their education. (That's what they all say, right?) They set sail in June of 1962 and spent 2 1/2 months abroad on only $5 a day. Roger jokes that he has a lot of good stories from that time but I'd have to pay him for the details!

I absolutely loved hearing just this small bit of Gary's life and I look forward to staying in touch with many of the Meinershagens that I met this weekend. I think one of the best ways we can honor Gary's memory is to make new memories with the people who knew and loved him from his past. We hope to make a trip to Colorado, Arizona, and Nebraska in the near future!

I also want to share one more incredible way we can honor Gary's memory. Remember that my daughter Ellie was born on Gary's birthday? Well, he died on another granddaughter's birthday- Abby Meinershagen, Todd's brother Matt's daughter. Gary could have passed the day before, the day after, but no- he died right on her birthday- July 9th. There are 365 days a year- what is the probability that his birth and death would be exactly the same days as two of his granddaughter's birthdays? We recognize that this is not chance or coincidence; it is from the hand of God. The Bible says that all of our days are numbered; how incredible that He chose these 2 specific days to be celebrated in our families forever! Though we grieve the loss of our father-in-law Gary, we are so grateful for this sign of His sovereignty, love, and grace. He has turned our mourning into dancing!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Waiting for the Final Good-bye

Right now, my husband's father is dying. His body is frail; he has liver, kidney, and heart failure, and when he contracted pneumonia this week, it was too much for his system. He is unresponsive, taking short, shallow breaths, and his sons and wife are by his bedside as I write.

It has been a difficult few days. Though my husband is 37, he still needs a dad and so does the rest of the family. This will be the first death that will have a profound impact on us and the kids.

I met Gary 15 years ago when I was still dating Todd, and he was gentle and sweet. Yes, his sons have stories of his temper and more "lively" times growing up, but I have only seen the calm side of him. I remember our first dinner out when I visited TX to meet the parents. I think we went to Ruth Chris steakhouse and I was so nervous about whether or not his parents would like me. They made me feel so welcome, and I sat next to Gary at dinner. I asked him a little about what life was like for him during college, and he laughed and said that he had a lot of regrets. He smiled warmly when I spoke about what I was studying and I felt very comfortable. He asked me about my family, and I slowly realized that I didn't have anything to fear. They had accepted me, and I was grateful.

Todd and I got married in August 1997. We had a friend make a video of our parents sharing thoughts on each of us for the wedding, and Gary said, "We are so thankful that Tammy came into the family. She's helped change Todd." I was very touched by that. I knew that the relationship between them was strained, and having me come into the family was a way for them to ease back into a relationship again.

In 2000, when I was 9 months pregnant with Ellie, Gary suddenly went into a coma. He had been battling his demons of alcohol, and it caused a condition where blood vessels burst in his esophagus and blood rushed into his stomach. The liver couldn't process that much protein, so his body broke down. His head filled with ammonia which caused him to be unresponsive, and Todd flew down to TX even though I was due with Ellie any day. But there was no choice; we thought it was the end.

I remember Todd calling me and crying, saying that he couldn't believe his dad looked so thin and frail. He wished he had more time with him, a better relationship with him. His brothers felt the same way. We had our church praying for him, for a miracle, and it came. A few days later, Gary woke from his coma. The most amazing thing is that Ellie did hold off on coming until Todd returned home, and she was born on Gary's birthday- November 6th. When we called to let them know, we heard laughter in the background as Gary said, "So am I supposed to die now?" But I knew he felt it was special to have his first grandchild born on his birthday, especially after everything that had happened. It was meant to be.

We came to visit Todd's parents and his brothers regularly, and our family grew in size. Matt and Karen were married, and then more grandkids came along. Holidays, especially Christmas, are a huge ordeal for the Meinershagens. They spare no expense and love to lavish gifts on the grandchildren and us. It is a whirlwind of flying wrapping paper, lots of squealing and giggles, and great food and wine. We are always amazed at their generosity, and I can tell it gives them great joy to give gifts.

When Todd and I were getting ready to move to TX from IL in 2004, Gary did all the leg work for us. He scoped out the suburbs and chose Frisco, and he also chose a builder based on our likes and dislikes. Every few days we would get an update from him on the progress of our home, and he was extremely meticulous. Like father, like son! He looked at every little detail and would put blue tape on any flaw to make sure it was fixed. Oh, that blue tape. I'll never forget how much of it was on the floor of their own house when they were having trouble with their flooring. It was almost humorous how much he cared about getting things done exactly right.

In the last 10 years there have been many milestones in our lives, and Gary has celebrated many with his grandkids Ellie, Chloe, Sophie, and Taylor, Abby, and Parker. The last time I saw Gary functioning somewhat normally was after my recital at the end of May this year. My mom had come into town, and Todd and I had an overnight in Dallas. On our way back home, we decided to visit Gary because we felt it might be one of the last times we would get to spend alone time with him. He was down to 109 pounds and very weak. His belly was still filling up with fluid and needing to be drained every week, and the skin on his arms was bruised and scabbed. We sat and talked with him a little bit; I said I thought he looked better, and he said, "I'm just skin and bones now. All my muscle is gone." I let Todd and Gary talk a bit on their own, and for some reason, I started taking pictures of their house; I had a feeling that things weren't going to be the same the next time I came over. I wanted to remember it the way it was. It has been a place of wonderful family memories and fun for the kids, and I wanted to be able to see it and visit it anytime.

I was right- it was the last time I spoke with Gary. When I came to see him at the hospital a few days ago in the ICU, he was already very incoherent. I asked for 5 minutes on my own with him, and I held his hand and cried. I cried about the fact that he would be gone soon, and I cried because I wanted to see him again on the other side. I told him I loved him and that no matter what had happened between him and Todd, I knew that he had done the best he could and that he had raised a wonderful family. I thanked him for loving me and accepting me, and that I was grateful to be a Meinershagen. I prayed that somewhere, in the deep recesses of his heart and mind, he heard me and that he let his heart go to the One who has known him and loved him his whole life.

So for now, we still sit and wait. Death is not beautiful. It is difficult and it is humbling. We will all die eventually, but what is beautiful is the love that is almost tangible in the family. No matter how much has happened amongst them, you cannot deny that they love each other, and they love Gary. That much is true, and love will be what remains in the end. I love you Gary, and will miss you.