Dearly Departed

Death is the finality of existence and is void of life. It is, for most western cultures, “The End”, and sooner or later, a metaphorical last journey we all must take.

Robert “Bob” Schnell
World Champion Auctioneer
circa 1968

In April of this year, my father-in-law (Robert – Eric’s father) passed away from complications of Dementia and other health related ailments. His death was expected and at the age of 90, he lived a full and somewhat complicated life. His passing prompted me to think about my life and the contributions I’ve made to it and reflect on the time I have left with the hubster, my mother and sisters, friends, and even my father. 

My mother would frequently tell my sisters and I when we all reached our 30s, 40s, and now 50s, that none of us are spring chickens anymore. This is true, but none of us kids look our age. I personally credit being a “mantique” to good genes, daily exfoliation, and use of moisturizer to keep my skin as Heidi N. Closet would say, “soft and supple” (#itdontcrack)! Seriously though, as I have matured (this is much nicer than saying aged), the more I realize that there are now more years behind me (statistically speaking), than in front of me. I also think about that for many of us who are gay and have reached a certain age (maturity), how lucky we are to still be here. During my brief existence on this floating celestial orb we call home and as a part of the global ant colony, I have been fortunate to have had a supportive single-parent family, amazingly unbelievable travel adventures, awesome friends, and look forward to continuing growing more of these experiences as we re-navigate the terrain of a post-pandemic world. 

When Robert died, it meant his physical suffering would finally be over. Strokes compromised his mobility and speech. Dementia slowly eroded his mind, making this once world champion auctioneer and cattle rancher from Lemmon, South Dakota, a weakened shell of what and who he used to be. It also meant for anyone connected to him, their suffering would be eased too. Not in terms of any personal harm, but in terms of freedom from the psychological burden of the loss. In particular for the children and spouse (now former). Karen, the eldest, remembered happier days of ranch life. Eric no longer needed to concern himself with Robert falling again, or for Leigh Anne having to make another quick trip to Rapid City, South Dakota because the doctors thought he had only days to live rather than months. For Carter, the youngest, there would be no more conversations of weed management; something Robert was obsessed with. Lastly, there’s Joan (aka Lady Joan of Lemmon) mother of the above mentioned kids and ex-wife, no more surprise and unannounced visits to her home on the ranch. 

Don’t get me wrong, when a friend or loved one can no longer remember who you are, it’s sad. It’s hard not to focus on the loss of that bond that forged the relationship in the first place. You end up having to settle with being the familiar stranger in the room and accept your new role as caretaker of that family member or friend. It’s a huge responsibility. Leigh Anne was the family member who took the reins (intentional pun, Robert used to ride horses) and organized all the details and arrangements from cremation to the celebration of life services in Dickinson, North Dakota last month. I was lassoed into helping with the slide presentation, photo collage, for the memorial. I will say the best way to learn about your spouse’s family is to study someone’s life through photos, some dated back to the early 30s. I gained so much insight into Eric’s father’s life and the history of this family that homesteaded in the Dakotas back in 1903. The experience even inspired me to write a poem in honor of Robert’s final journey [link to Lemmon].

Death is mysterious and there is so much speculation about what happens to us when we are pronounced as deceased depending on your spirituality (or lack thereof) and metaphysical mindset. There were two times in my life when I felt like I was going to die and all I could do was focus on trying to breathe. The first time was as a young boy and was given a piece of fish to eat. I didn’t realize there was a bone in the meaty nugget and chomped away. As I swallowed, the bone became lodged in my throat. I couldn’t scream and collapsed outside our home. I remember someone telling me that my face turned pale from the lack of air in my lungs. Luckily, there were plenty of adults around to give aid and after a series of blows between my little shoulders, the fish was expelled from my body. My mother stood over me shaking her head in disbelief and shock. Another time I was a young pre-teen and we were living in Hawaii. I was bobbing up and down in the surf and didn’t see a hole in the ocean floor and down I went. Not being a strong swimmer at the time, I thrashed about hoping someone would see me in the crowded water. If it wasn’t for the quick thinking of my older sister Sonya, chances are you wouldn’t be reading this post now. I will forever be grateful to my big sistah looking out for me. To this date, I am still very cautious of eating fish that contains bones and going into deep water!

It’s the unknown that makes me feel a little uneasy more than anything else. However, as part of the living minority, when I do become part of the underground majority (if I choose a burial over cremation), it won’t really matter, at least to me. Will it be the forever times of darkness and silence? Will my soul be damned to the eternal flames of Hell? That’s what certain close-minded folks believe. I definitely won’t be alone if that’s the case and most of my friends are heading there too. Or maybe I (we) will get reincarnated into another being? If so, I’m really hoping to come back as a golden eagle. This beautiful and majestic bird with its razor sharp talons and beak, has no natural predator other than man. I love the idea of soaring high in the sky and having the ability to dive at speeds of more than 100 miles per hour. Even though we don’t generally know or have control (suicide doesn’t count) of our permanent exit plan, I don’t want to die in pain or suffer from a debilitating infliction that would leave me in a vegetative state. I want to die in my sleep and in the arms of my hubster. When the morning comes and I’m found unresponsive, you’ll see a smile on my face from having lived a full and rewarding life.

This is a swan song scenario that provides me calm. So rather than viewing rare quietus with fear, maybe we should see it as the earned rest for those of us fortunate to have lived a long and robust life just like Eric’s father did. Besides, as long as we have memories of the dearly departed, they will never be forgotten.

One week following Eric’s father’s Celebration of Life in North Dakota, Robert’s brother, Wayne, died from his battles from Alzheimer’s and Dementia.

4 thoughts on “Dearly Departed

  1. This is lovely and well written. No one knows what lies ahead, even from day to day, much less from one existential plane to the next. I hope I have done more good than bad, spread more cheer than fear, and leave those behind with a sense of wonder and love. That’s all we can ask for.

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  2. Oh Judge, your writing is masterful! I did not know of Bob’s passing until I went home this summer. And what he & the family went thru, so horrible. He is in a much better place now. I’m like you, I just want to go in my sleep. Thank you Judge.

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  3. One of the most beautiful narratives of loss I’ve ever had the privilege to read. My deepest condolences to you and Eric.

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