My Dad passed away last week.
It was a bittersweet event – he had suffered deteriorating health for several years and was ready to be at peace.
And we were fortunate to have our immediate family present to offer support to my Mom.
Yet losing a close loved one is never easy.
Over the past few days, I’ve had time to reflect on my Dad’s (crazy, crazy) life. As is often the case, we can learn a lot more in hindsight than we ever realize while events are happening right before our eyes.
My father led quite an unusual life, and if I shared a fraction of my upbringing with you, I bet you’d have a hard time figuring out how/why I became a marriage advocate, let alone a stable husband and father.
But I think that’s partly what makes his legacy so beautiful to me. He didn’t follow the straight and narrow path, yet he blazed a trail for me that I’m sure he never recognized.
I’d like to share a few of the unusual lessons my Dad taught me during our 33 years together, culminating at his bedside during his final weeks.
1. Love Isn’t Always Enough, but It Can Conquer Many Evils (When You Let It)
I won’t sugar coat it – there were many years of my Dad’s life when he would not have been considered a good man.
He suffered deeply from alcoholism that would completely corrupt his personality and actions. Abuse and abandonment were common when he was on a bender.
It was truly a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde type of scenario that our family lived with through most of my childhood. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I hated him at times.
In a moment of remarkable courage, my Mom told him she was divorcing him when I was 12 years old.
They had been married for 14 long years after a 10-day courtship when my Mom was 22 (he was 40 at the time they met).
After some initial push back, my Dad eventually realized that she was serious. It took this time of disaster for him to realize just how much he loved her and how he’d taken for granted all that she meant to him.
I remember him telling me during a visit to the hotel room where he was living that he still loved her and he was going to change to show her.
Shortly thereafter, my Dad quit drinking cold turkey after 40 years of intense alcohol abuse. He was truly a changed man fueled by love.
Bethany and I stood as witnesses when my Mom and Dad remarried during my college years. In total, they were married 30 years with a 6-year break that he never liked to remember.
A few years later, as the abuse he inflicted on his body started to take hold, my Dad was told that he had to quit smoking if he wanted to be around for my Mom and his eventual grandchildren. Once again, he quit smoking cold turkey – breaking a 2-pack a day habit he started at 12 years old.
My three kids are very happy he made that choice through love since they probably wouldn’t have met him otherwise.
There’s no doubt that evil is a real and destructive force in our world. However, when you focus on Love, I truly believe you can overcome…my Dad showed me this in stark contrast.
2. Live a Life that’s Worthy of Story Telling
I had the opportunity to speak with the hospice chaplain a few days before my Dad passed away, and he remarked about two things – my Dad’s mischievous grin and his incredible stories.
Keep in mind that this pastor only knew my Dad during his final two weeks or so, and he couldn’t actually speak much at all at that point. Yet, his stories persisted and even through a lot of struggle, those stories brought out that “shit-eating grin” so many people will remember him for. They lit up his eyes.
My Dad led a very hard life. He was born to the children of German immigrants and farmed throughout his childhood. His Dad committed suicide.
He joined the Army but didn’t complete his full enlistment. He spent his career as a union laborer working outside doing all sorts of generally crappy jobs. He drank away many days and nights, and punished his body for decades.
To say that his life was unglamorous would be a major understatement.
Yet, he had so many endearing stories that left an impression on everyone who heard them. Amazingly, I actually think they were all true.
There was one particular set of tales that made me feel quite lucky to exist in this world. There were just so many opportunities for God to stop short of getting around to creating me.
Aside from some gruesome childhood accidents like burning his leg up after pouring kerosene in a burning barrel that then exploded, there were several direct attacks on his ability to procreate.
His testicles were largely torn from his body in an adolescent farming accident (sorry for the cringe, guys).
Sometime later, he was working on another farm and got trapped in a hog house and attacked by a boar. His play-by-play version of that ordeal was legendary.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
My Dad was declared clinically dead on three different occasions, all before he even met my Mom.
In one case, he was buried in a sewer trench collapse for over 40 minutes and was essentially left for dead while rescue efforts dragged on for a very long time. He doesn’t remember much of the event, but the newspaper clippings highlighting the incredible story of “Slim Riechmann” were amazing. It turns out the 6’5″ 230-pound man I knew weighed about 140 pounds in his twenties.
Two other “I was dead” stories involved horrific car accidents. One story was accompanied by an odd scar on his forehead – it turns out that was where the gear shifter of his car was implanted through his skull.
In a twist of irony, it was a “rare night” where he was driving sober. He was hit head-on by a drunk driver and pronounced dead on the scene with severe head and chest trauma.
Family members have threatened to write a book of his many stories, although many of the witnesses have since passed on.
I imagine his incredible tales will instead be carried on verbally…with the same heavy doses of “do as I say, not as I did” admonishments that I received.
By the way, I’ve never set foot in a hog house or ridden on the back of a combine…and I’ve cautiously crossed paths with many vehicles on late nights with thoughts of my Dad’s scar story front and center in my mind.
My Dad lived life his way. It wasn’t always pretty, and it was often painful, but he created a legacy of stories that will outlive me.
3. Actions Rule, but Words Do Matter
Like I mentioned before, my Dad’s actions during my childhood gave me good reason to hate him.
Aside from the abuse of others I witnessed, he’d also lose his temper with me on occasion. The violence was always followed by words of remorse and apology.
While his painful actions ruled my perceptions, I never doubted his love because he took the time to share it in words.
My Dad didn’t have a robust vocabulary, but he meant what he said.
When he told me that being an engineer would be a “good puss job,” it was a sign of pride. As a construction worker, he had to be out in the heat building things, while the engineers would stop by in their pleated khaki pants to check up on the project.
They were pussies, but he was happy to know that I had the smarts and education to be one of them and not another grunt worker.
My Dad proved that wisdom doesn’t have to be poetic to get the message across.
For example, he had several great tongue-in-cheek life lessons that I’ll never forget. And he shared them in a way that only he could:
- Never get a tattoo – it will make it too easy to identify you if you kill someone.
- Drink your beer before you get on the highway – full cans bouncing around inside your car hurt like hell when you have a wreck.
- (Told to me and my teenage girlfriend Bethany on the way out the door for a date) If anything happens, name it after me – Norbert is a saint’s name, you know.
Obviously, these were goofy ideas to give your son. But my Dad was a goofy guy who loved me enough to share them.
While it’s best to live by example, you can still leave your mark through the expression of your own brand of wisdom. The words you share with others – through stories, life lessons and expressions of love – do matter.
In a few days, we’ll celebrate Norbert Riechmann’s life in a small graveside service.
My Mom will be sad to say a final goodbye to her first (and second) husband. Loved ones will share their kind memories, while putting to rest some not-so-kind words they’ve held onto for years.
And my Dad will finally be at rest after 75 years spent living life his way.
I hope I get to meet him in heaven some day. I’m sure he’ll have some awesome stories to tell.