This is what it is all about, a life well lived by a man who nurtured his family, worked hard at his job, on his house and yard, and was a good neighbor always.
In his 90th year on Earth and his 60th year in marriage, my father is with us in body and exquisite glimpses of that wry and once-renowned sense of humor. But he continues to retreat from those who love him.
Dementia is a beast, but we are blessed that he still seems to recognize us.
A few years ago after he received his diagnosis that dementia was setting in, he sat in his Spokane living room and tried to make a joke like he always did: “I’m starting to lose my mind,” he said.
“We’ve got you, Dad. Don’t worry,” I said. And we held hands for the first time probably since I was 5.
And we four children of Ralph Knutson, our spouses, the significant other and the grandchildren have done just that — in ways that seemed heartbreakingly intrusive and, even disrespectful, of the highly capable, jack-of-all-trades who raised us. We once-squabbling kids have come together with the only serious disagreements about when to intervene and how much.
I led the charge on outing his deteriorating driving skills to his physician, while others were reticent. The letter from the Department of Motor Vehicles eventually arrived, asking for a retest. Dad voluntarily surrendered his license.
The time came when Dad and Mom needed to move to the Seattle area where we all live. We traveled home for work parties to get the house ready for sale. We dragged him west to visit retirement communities. He was uncharacteristically sullen, arms crossed, trying to hang on to control of his life.
Moving day: He. Was. Ticked. But he couldn’t help himself when a job needed to be done. The master planner and problem solver began directing how the moving van should be loaded. When he would return to indignance, we encouraged him to read the letter we had signed. He would eye us, nod, begrudgingly, and put it back in his pocket.
In their new retirement apartment, Dad settled into a routine of computer solitaire, jigsaw puzzles, van tours of Seattle and meals. But dementia was stalking mom, too, and her broken hip took her away for a month. “Where’s your mother? Where’s your mother? Where’s your mother?” Dad would ask us. Rita, Eric and Kiersten took turns staying overnight. Mistaken for an intruder, Kiersten had to assure our father he was safe.
Rita took over managing their medicines, going over every morning and neatly printing out the day’s schedule to hang on a lanyard Mom wore. Eric and Kiersten would switch off weeks to administer the evening meds. In the most recent wait to move into a higher level of care when mom was in the hospital, Eric and wife Krista opened their home for two weeks, including hired caregivers. Eric takes Dad to his kids’ many games; Kiersten collects Dad and Mom for outings, hosting brunches or chauffeuring rides back to our long-ago Redmond neighborhood.
Ralph was not a mushy dad, the kind that would say he loved you every day. He was the kind who, when you came home for a visit, would change your oil, fill up and vacuum your car. There was also the feigned concern about me joining him at Mass for fear the church would collapse. He would play jokes — like turning on the sprinklers when you were playing croquet.
He always showed up. He made a pilgrimage to Minneapolis with Eric to see the Minnesota Twins and to the 1991 and ’92 Rose Bowl games with Rita to see their beloved Huskies. He sat in the waiting room all night when my reticent-to-be-born son just wouldn’t arrive.
And he never discouraged. He taught my 4-year-old self how to do the Twist to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” — neither of us knew better. He had me thinking I was ready for “American Bandstand.” When I told him I was thinking about studying engineering, the lifelong railroader nodded and said he was sure I could do it, even though there weren’t many women driving trains.
It is a testament to Dad that he also has devoted nieces and nephews who visit, call and write. After his brother died, he walked a niece down the aisle. The Korean War Air Force veteran stood with his great nephew at his Army officer commission, pinning on his bars and giving him his first salute.
Now when I visit, Dad smiles and nods. But the man who never sat down now stretches out on the bed for rests often. The guy who was always game needs structure and routine.
On this Father’s Day, I am so grateful for the man who raised us, supported us unfailingly, teased us mercilessly and, yes, even embarrassed us.
We’ve got you, Dad. Don’t worry.