As you read this today, I will be getting ready to go to my dad’s funeral.
I’ll be honest with you, it’s going to be one of the hardest days of my life. I’ve written a fair amount about my dad in various newsletters, and many of you know that he had Alzheimer’s. It’s been a long and painful road, but my family has seen him through to the end, and this last week—while terribly hard—had a peace about it too. He passed away on Saturday at the age of 82.
In some ways, I’ve been reflecting my whole life about the lessons I was learning from my dad. I’m going to do my best to condense a few of them for you now, into the most light-hearted post I can muster. Because while there have been buckets of tears flowing, there have also been a lot of laughs in the past week (at one point, I’m sure the hospice nurse thought she walked into the wrong room).
A little background first (because context always matters). My dad lost his own dad when he was only 11, against the backdrop of World War II. He had to grow up fast, and was an emotionally reserved, salt-of-the-earth guy. He and my mom married in 1958, and had seven kids (I’m the youngest). He was a great dad. Like a great dad. The older I got, the more fortunate I realized I was to have him as a dad. And really, I think the testament to that is that my siblings and I deeply like each other as people. We can pretty much have a great time wherever we are, as long as we are together.
And now, the Bert Ketteler lessons for life:
1. Get along with people until you absolutely can’t (and even then, fake it).
In the 70s and early 80s, we had some awful next-door neighbors. My dad wasn’t a confrontational person; he believed in getting along with people as best you could—that went for bosses, relatives, and terrible neighbors. “You just have to get along with people,” he would always say. And he did seem to have the ability to just wait out toxic people, and not let them get to him. But he also knew when to say when. At one point, the crazy neighbor father (who we now realize was probably suffering from addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder) pulled a gun on my older brothers (who were probably being jerks, but still). My dad confronted the situation, said his peace, set some new boundaries—and then went back to just trying to get along. Over and over, he showed us that balance of not getting trampled on, but also just being Zen about the jerks and difficult people in the world.
2. You might need to kick your daughters out of the car in Texarkana.
My dad did NOT like giggling. But with four daughters and a wife who loved to laugh, frustration was inevitable. On a trip to Texas to visit relatives, he nearly threw us all out on the second day. As I recall, we had made up a song about bridges and were singing (I was only about seven, so I’m sure I was adorable). “I will put you out, right here, right now!” he yelled. Here’s the thing: you don’t have to love everything about the people you love. You can be human, and sometimes ridiculous. Good relationships can withstand all kinds of crankiness and unreasonableness. He had to put up with us; we had to put up with him. This is one that’s more important the older I get.
3. It’s okay to stop to go to the bathroom.
If my dad hadn’t stopped into a bar to hit the men’s room on the way home from some other bar one random night in December of 1956, I wouldn’t be here. Because he wouldn’t have met my mom. That chance meeting 57 years ago only happened because he wasn’t in a hurry. Now, the funny thing is that there were plenty of times when my dad was in a rush (he hated to be late for things). But his general demeanor about life was always: hey, what’s the rush? When you’re running around and filling your head with all of the things you should and shouldn’t do, it’s pretty hard to spot opportunity. So for goodness sake, if you have to stop to go to the bathroom or say hi to someone or notice something cool, just freaking stop. You never know where it might lead you.
4. Stay busy with stuff that inspires you.
My dad was all about the thrill of the project. He always had a project. I’m not saying that like a “project”—as in ideas that never came to fruition. I mean the man actually built 20 zillion things. He’d work on something until it was finished, piece by piece—sometimes insanely painstaking work that required tiny tools. He built model ships from scratch, made furniture, made stained glass windows and lamps, and tinkered around the house fixing everything (my personal favorite was when he soldered a new handle onto the flour sifter). He just wasn’t bored. Ever. He had a routine of when he worked on stuff. And after he was finished, he’d have a beer. He enjoyed thinking about what he was going to make, gathering the supplies for making it, actually making it, and then reflecting on what he had made and sharing it, probably while drinking a beer. I know this because I am exactly the same way (except I hate beer).
5. You are capable of way more than you think.
This final one is really more something I learned about myself in this last week. When we walked into the nursing home last week and got the news that he was near the end, my mom and brothers and sisters and I braced ourselves. And honestly, seeing him lying there—looking worse than I’d ever seen him look in my whole life—scared the shit out of me at first. It was my big fear realized, right there in front me: seeing someone I loved dying. I was going to have to watch this process. I was going to cry uncontrollably. It was all going to happen. And once I just said, “okay,” something shifted. I was just present to it, instead of being afraid of it. But I never, ever could have seen myself in that situation. I never could have imagined the moments my mom and siblings and I would have around his bed—because we’re really not those people. We’re not the exuberant, emotional, sentimental types. But none of us knew what we were capable of, until he brought that out in us. Our hospice team kept telling us that this process was his gift to us, and now I know that they were right. Because now I’m wondering about all of the other things I never thought I was capable of. Like delivering his eulogy. And in a few hours, I’m about to find out that I am, in fact, capable of that, too.
Thanks everyone for being on this journey with me and listening as I spun story after story about my dad. And people new to the list—this is not a regular kind of post! I’ll be back in a few weeks with lots more thoughts about marketing and storytelling. But I need a break for a bit. Because nothing I write here will be right for a while. My voice needs a rest.