This past weekend my three siblings, spouses and our gaggle of children all gathered to celebrate my dad’s 83rd birthday at a cabin in Longbeach, Washington. It is no cosmic surprise that we celebrate dad the weekend that we also celebrate the life and works of Martin Luther King, Jr., one of Dad’s favorite human beings. We were given pause from our busy lives to reflect on what matters most - relationships, each other, service, and celebration of life.
Dad was the son of German farmers in Severin, Kansas. Along with his 12 siblings, he learned early on what it meant to be in a community and to serve each other for the greater good. When he was just 19 his father died suddenly, leaving Grandma with many children still at home. Soon after he left his farming roots behind to serve in the US Navy. He sent most of his wages home to help support Grandma, as did some of his older siblings before him. They banded together as a unit and provided what was necessary to sustain life. After four years in the Navy, Dad took an about-face, becoming a Trappist monk at the monestary in Lafayette, Oregon. There he continued to deepen his passion for service, community living, and a life of prayer and contemplation. Later, while serving as a Jesuit volunteer in Nome, Alaska, Dad met another volunteer, Ida Schilter. They quickly understood that they had met their life partner and within the year the two were married. My parents moved to Washington State where they began their life and family together.
Throughout my childhood I remember several life-giving messages from my parents that would help us keep things in perspective. Sayings such as, “We don’t know what it’s like to walk a mile in their shoes.” or “They must have needed it more than we did.” when we would experience a loss because of theft. We were also given tools to gauge and challenge our behavior and treatment of others… questions like, Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind? Beyond these types of verbal guidance, our parents were constant models for us of service. Without saying a word, their hands, feet, hearts and souls were poured into our local and global communities. We joined our parents on several Habitat for Humanity work sites. We celebrated life and relationship with adults with disabilities at the L’Arche Tahoma Hope community where Dad served as a board member. When my grandmother from Kansas passed, my two uncles needed a place to live. Over the years that we lived in community with them, my siblings and I watched and worked with my parents to assist our Uncle Peter, who had a degenerative neurological disease, and Uncle Herb, who was developmentally delayed. Our parents’ selfless actions gave us perspective, appreciation for each other, and the wisdom to understand what our souls truly need – community and kindness.
When Mom was diagnosed with stage 4 Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994, Dad gave us the confidence to boldly move through her diagnoses and eventual death 6 months later. Watching him lovingly care for her and then bury her, with our hearts raw and our throats sore from grieving, was a life-altering experience. Dad was unwavering, which gave us a reed to hold onto in the early years of our grief.
The qualities of hard work, servitude, faith, community, and unconditional love are the gifts our parents handed down to us. They are invaluable tools that have given my siblings and me hope, joy, and peace amidst the inevitable hardships that life brings. As we celebrate Dad’s birthday, I am forever grateful for his example of what matters most in life – to live a life of authenticity and service. My parting message can be best summed up by a quote from Henri Nouwen, a dear family friend. Henri was a priest, author, and theologian who served the L’Arche community in Toronto for years and is one of my dad’s favorites to quote. This message captures the essence of Dad.
“Did I offer peace today? Did I bring a smile to someone’s face? Did I say words of healing? Did I let go of my anger and resentment? Did I forgive? Did I love? These are the real questions. I must trust that the little bit of love that I sow now will bear many fruits, here in this world and in the life to come.”
- Henri Nouwen
Dad – I love you so much I don’t know what to do! (my favorite term of endearment for Dad). You are a true gift to us and all who know you. Happy Birthday!