What’s up with that smile, girl?
Rafa & Serena
From Witness to Participant
They’re just people too
At 5:18 pm on New Year’s Eve, after a month in ICU and a variety of attempts to save him, my Dad died. One by one, the nurse turned off the collection of machines that had been keeping him alive. The tangled mess of lines and tubes were removed from his nose, mouth, and arms. The persistent chorus of hums, huffs, beeps, and buzzes came to an abrupt end and the room was silent.
None of us were quite sure what to do. We hadn’t really known what to do at any point before then either. Until that moment, the default was to wait. We waited for the next lab result, the next procedure, the next specialist, the next medication, the next day. We begged for answers but were forced to settle for scattered crumbs of hope. Now that he was gone there was nothing else to wait for.
Sitting there looking at his body, an odd question started nipping at me like a determined mosquito in the dark. I couldn’t get my hands on it, and it wasn’t going away.
“Who were you, Dad?”
The very idea of this question scared me. I was afraid that I might not be able to answer it. I felt guilty for asking it in the first place. Why the hell wouldn’t I know who my father was? He was an amazing dad who made every sacrifice for his family and loved me unconditionally.
I was overwhelmed by the reality that all of the information I might need to answer this question already existed. Like the moment an artist leaves us, the catalogue is immediately complete and exponentially more valuable. It felt urgent that I find an answer and the thought of taking it on was overwhelming. How do you piece together a life?
Most of my fear around this question was rooted in the lack of confidence I have in my memory. I suspect that some of the poor choices from my younger years have contributed to a less-than-perfect recall. It felt so important that I access every meaningful memory on the spot and I was scared that they just weren’t where they were supposed to be.
So my focus shifted from remembering to discovering. I needed to learn who Dad was. Just because there wouldn’t be any new information available to understand him didn’t mean I couldn’t collect evidence from other sources. It was time to play detective.
My mom doesn’t know how to use her phone. The memory is so full she has to delete an old picture in order to take a new one. Listen, my brother and I are good sons. We’ve tried.
In this case it proved to be an incredible blessing. The day after Dad passed away I heard his voice from the other room. Mom was playing old voicemails from him. The ability of the human voice to connect us is amazing. I sat down next to Mom and it’s like he’s still here. He’s just checking in. We’ll see him later tonight.
Message after message played. “How many of these are there, Mom?,” I asked. “Oh, I don’t know,” she replied. I relieved her of the mysterious device and checked. There were 1,789. By some combination of technological incompetence and divine intervention her phone had saved every message from the last two and a half years.
In listening to them I discovered one very important thing I never would have known before. He began almost every message with the sweetest, most gentle “Hey, Darlin’” you’ve ever heard.
Regular old personal belongings become artifacts the moment someone dies. As I write this, I am sitting in his chair. I’m wearing his flannel and drinking from his coffee cup. A couple months ago these were just his personal belongings. Now they are evidence of how he lived- the closest thing to him remaining in the physical world.
I rummage through his dresser and examine the contents of his closet. It feels like a weird thing to do, but I can’t imagine not doing it either. I wonder why he kept his socks like that. I marvel at how he managed with so few pairs of shoes. I stare at the tools on his work bench and try to figure out what he was working on last. I don’t want to move anything. I know we’ll have to at some point, but not yet. For now, everything will stay exactly as he left it- frozen in time.
As we prepared for the visitation and service, we sorted through photographs. I became oddly consumed with curating every picture ever taken of him. Seeing a life in snapshots is cathartic. Mom brought in bin after bin containing meticulously sorted and labeled plastic bags. It took us forever, but we didn’t care. Dad’s life was spread out in stacks on the kitchen table. One after another, the memories I feared had been lost forever flooded back. Turns out they were there all along. They just needed a little spark.
Holding a 3 x 5 Polaroid in my hands, I felt his course red mustache on my cheek as we wrestled on the old fuzzy brown carpet in front of the picture window with the tan burlap curtains. I remembered exactly what Dad’s love felt like as a kid. Pictures are time machines.
I don’t know if my experience processing loss is “normal.” There may not be such a thing. There’s certainly not a script on how to grieve, although I have come to the conclusion that I’m not very good at it. Writing seems to help. It forces me to process thoughts and emotions that I would otherwise dismiss as unproductive or annoying. Attempting to make sense of things that never will is still worthwhile.
“If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth…”
This journey of piecing together who my Dad was has taught me two important things:
It was important for me to ask, and attempt to answer, the question of who my father was. Sifting through the clues he left behind gives me peace that I did my best to understand him. I needed that. I didn’t fully understand him and probably never will. That’s ok. We are complex organisms. Complete understanding of one is probably too much to ask. But I do know a few things for sure:
He had a unique sense of humor that caught people by surprise. He was determined to keep doing what he loved to do in spite of his limitations. He persevered without complaint. He wasn’t afraid to be silly. He had a creative spirit. He loved God. His love for his wife and his children was absolute. He made every sacrifice for us.
After my sister died, Dad wrote something special. He explained exactly how it felt to try to understand something that could not be understood. It’s a painfully honest glimpse into how he thought, how he felt, and who he was. It’s an incredible thing to have. He left some evidence, but I would give anything to have more.
So, I’ve made a decision. When I’m gone, my kids won’t have to look so hard. They won’t have to investigate the way I did for my Dad. For better or worse, they’re going to know exactly who I was.
I have some good news. If you’re reading this, you still have time. You can make it easier for the loved ones you’re going to leave behind to wrap their heads and their hearts around who you were. I would argue it’s your responsibility.
Record & Write: 2 simple ways to leave clues
Recording things used to be a lot more difficult. There was a time when the only way to remember grandpa was to go to the wall of the cave and point to a stick figure throwing a spear into his supper.
With today’s technology we all have a photographer, film crew, and recording studio in our pocket. Use it.
Taking an extra moment to pull out your phone can be inconvenient in the moment. Do it anyway (at the very least, don’t be the one who complains when someone else does). It may seem self-indulgent. You might say; “I don’t need to be putting my life out there on social media for the world to see.” No worries- you don’t have to post any of it for THE world. The purpose is to leave things behind for YOUR world- the handful of loved ones who will remember that this was the 20th Easter without you.
Record (point device, hit red button)
Every phone has an audio recorder. Open yours, hit record, and have a conversation with someone you care about. It doesn’t really matter that much what you talk about- it’s the voice that matters. There’s something magical about hearing someone’s voice- especially after they’re gone.
Every phone can also record video. Seeing a person’s mannerisms connects us to how it felt to be around them. Dad had this odd little jaw stretch he would do when he was really trying focus. We all have quirks that are peculiar and beautiful that make us uniquely us. Capture them.
Write: (get paper, write words)
There was a time when people wrote letters. They crafted them with intention and care. That practice may be dying, but it’s not dead. Write a letter to the people you care about the most. Make it something they’ll treasure. There’s no need to wait until one of you is gone or going.
We didn’t get the opportunity to have those last precious conversations with Dad. We never know when the last one will be. That’s the point: we never know when “Who We Are” will become “Who We Were”. As of today; as of this moment- we still have time, although we have no clue how much. I was chatting with a good friend who was recalling a conversation he had recently where he expressed his appreciation for a loved one. Noticing that they weren’t quite sure how to react, he said; “Don’t worry, I’m not dying.” After he concluded his story, I replied; “Well, you are actually. You’re dying. We all are. Maybe today or maybe 80 years from now; either way it’s definitely happening.”
Some might consider that to be a depressing thought. I believe it’s the opposite. Adopting a “THIS COULD BE IT” mindset changes things. It inspires intentional action. It activates a level of awareness, urgency, and gratitude consistent with the reality that we only get a limited number of spins. Kill your short-sighted excuses for waiting to make the next memory. There’s no such thing as too many.
I’ve always loved exploring. Since my earliest memories, running around in nature without a map has stirred my soul. I spent countless hours in the woods behind our house as a kid. The river bottom was my playground. I built forts out of branches and drew pictures with pencils kept sharp by my trusty pocket knife. I imagined elaborate adventures and daydreamed about the future. Sometimes I would go with friends from the neighborhood, but I usually went alone. It was my domain and I was perfectly happy there all by myself.
A few weeks back while visiting my mom, I decided to go check on my old spot. Some things were exactly as I remembered them. The crooked basswood tree I had to grab in order to make the hop over the narrowest part of the river was right where I left it. But some things were different. A wide swath had been cleared and repurposed. With no big tree line to follow, the hard hook in the river was trickier to find. It was tough to get my bearings. I had to think a little harder, and there were more than a few unnecessary circles. The familiarity was gone.
That got me thinking. Three decades have passed since I first explored those woods. That’s a lot of time. In some ways, I feel exactly the same- just a little bigger and older. In other ways, I don’t know if that kid would even recognize me. I began to wonder how excited he’d be about the adult he became.
Nostalgia had called me back to the woods as an adult before, but it had been a while. I made my way on the route I remembered to my favorite place- my secret spot. I crossed the frozen river once, and then again. No problem. The ice supported me without complaint. My path took me across the river again, but this time was different. I heard the unmistakable high-pitched squeak- that space-man radar gun- echoing first in the distance, then closer. I was about to get wet. After the initial cold shock passed I got a grip on the ice behind me and managed a quick and clumsy exit. I couldn’t help but laugh. This had happened before.
It was like any other day of adventuring. I think I was about 8 or 9 years old. “I’m going out back!” I called upstairs, then running out the back door, down the hill, through our yard, past the pond, and into the woods- always welcoming me back. It was a cold January day- low teens, maybe single digits. I came to the river and tested the ice. It failed. I was not prepared to feel that cold and I was not ready to be in a survival situation. I was in up to my arm pits and getting out was difficult. I finally managed to lunge far enough to get a hold of the root of a nearby tree and hoist one water-logged leg out of the water. I ran back towards home, water slushing out of my moon boots. A layer of ice coated my snow pants solid with the exception of hinges that formed around the knees. I ran like the tin man in desperate need of oil. I ultimately made it home just fine, but I was scared out of my mind.
I busted in the back door and screamed for help. My dad came down the stairs and saw me standing there- stiff and blue. He dropped to his knees and started to chip the ice off my zippers. “What happened?” he asked. Shivering uncontrollably, I stuttered out; “I th…th…thought th… th…the ice was s…s…s…safe, d…d…d…dad. L…l…l…like the p…p…p…ponds.”
“Rivers flow, and flowing water doesn’t freeze, son,” he said.
It’s hard to guess what 8-year-old me would think of 38-year-old me. I hope I haven’t let him down. A lot has changed in the time that’s passed between frozen hustles home. Testing the ice of life has produced plenty of both pain and opportunity (those two seem to hang out a lot). Apparently, I am still too fascinated by what’s on the other side of that river to be bothered by thin ice. I’m not quite sure what to make of that.
Flowing water doesn’t freeze. Adult me hustled back to the house with a frozen lower half, a big dumb smile, and a valuable reminder. Some things are rigid. Other things are fluid. Many things are somewhere in between. Deciphering which is which is far from a perfect science, but the consideration itself is worth the effort. What would your kid-self think of your now-self? You had big dreams back then. You explored with abandon. Where are you flowing and where are you frozen? Do you accept what you’ve become?
We owe it to the big-dreaming, ever-exploring kid in all of us to keep at it. Of course, the dreaming and the exploring will be different. That’s not important. What matters is that we’re still dreaming something, that we’re still exploring somewhere. Flowing, not frozen.
Super Bowl week is here. Hurray. After everything that’s happened, it’s quite the year to be hosting. My office is on the south side of Killebrew Drive in Bloomington- right across the street from the Mall of America. While turning into our building’s entrance yesterday morning, I noticed something unusual. Two fully armored Humvees were parked on the corners of the hotel property that connects to the mall. Apparently, the Eagles are staying there. Awesome. Every time I look out the window of my office the rest of the week I’ll get another reminder of my first (and God-willing only) trip to Philadelphia.
The last thing we did was one thing that went well- a visit to Independence Hall. It affected me a lot more than I anticipated. I walked out of there with a complete sense of awe at what our founding fathers were able to craft from scratch- the foundation of a democracy where every citizen has the freedom to pursue their personal definition of success and happiness without persecution. However, a couple of nights before going to see the most significant historical site in Philadelphia, I visited Lincoln Financial Field. What I experienced there on Sunday night could not have been more different. In the birthplace of freedom, we weren’t even free to wear purple to a football game.
I’m a fan. I’m a fan of sports. I’m a fan of unique experiences. I’m also a fan of understanding why I and other people do what we do. I flew to Philadelphia expecting to spend a day in a new city I’d never visited, to watch my favorite team play in a big game. Thanks to the blizzard back home, I finally got back to Minneapolis a day and a half later than expected. And after an experience unlike anything I could have imagined, I’ve done some reflecting on what it means to be a fan.
It all started with 3rd and 10 from our own 39-yard line. The Minneapolis Miracle. The energy in that building was unbelievable. If you’ve seen any of the fan reaction videos people took in their
living rooms, it was like that times 66,000. It was unexpected. It was
magical. It was miraculous. It was a great moment to be a fan. Everyone was filled with euphoria. We did that weird hug-and-jump thing people do when they can’t think of any other way to express their excitement. We high-fived countless strangers. We screamed; “We’re going to Philly!” and booked our flights before we left the stadium. (Unless my wife is reading this, in which case I totally talked to her first).
We were going to Philly.
I’ve never been very good at listening to warnings. I generally assume they’re either meant for someone else or completely blown out of proportion. But I also do my homework. After reading about other opposing fans’ experiences in Philadelphia, I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. I was expecting to hear every word in the book delivered in every way possible. But as far as the more extreme examples were concerned, I wrote them off as exaggerated and over sensationalized. Sure, one guy punched a horse last week after the Atlanta game, but that horse may very well have had it coming. (Seriously- what kind of person punches a HORSE?) I assumed it was a few drunk idiots. I figured that surely there couldn’t be an entire population of sane citizens who engage in or accept that type of behavior. I concluded that the warnings posted online were written by people who were just too sensitive to handle a little good-natured ribbing from some extremely passionate fans. I assumed that as long as we kept our heads down and didn’t engage with any of the taunting we’d be fine.
I was wrong. Like, extremely wrong. In fact, my benefit-of-the-doubt assumptions about Eagles fans may quite possibly be the most wrong I have ever been (and I’m wrong a lot).
The things that Vikings fans were subjected to has already been well-documented. For my part, I’ll sum it up by sharing the following exchange I had with my wife the next day.
“You’ll never believe what I read about last night. One Vikings fan said that—“
“Honey- I’m just going to stop you right there,” I said, “There is literally nothing you could complete that sentence with that I wouldn’t believe.”
Yes, the things that have been reported actually happened. They’re not being exaggerated. They’re not being blown out of proportion. Honestly, if I hadn’t had all the extra time in the airport to hear these stories firsthand from the people who experienced them, I probably would have dismissed them the same way I dismissed the things I read before coming. What happened is still hard to believe, and I experienced it firsthand.
Some context; I am 6’5″, 225 pounds. I have no real fighting skills to speak of, but I’m not a small person and I’m typically not the first one to get picked on. That certainly didn’t stop them. At least a half dozen guys put their hands on me. A few of my favorites included having the hat smacked off my head, being continuously slapped in the face with a towel, getting shoved into a bathroom wall, having various items thrown at me, and being screamed at nose to nose like we were facing off at a title bout weigh-in. I am comfortable enough in my own skin at this point in my life to drop the tough guy act and admit that there were a few times when I honestly didn’t feel safe. Police and security staff’s stance on intervening seemed to fall somewhere between disinterested observance and casual amusement. After talking to dozens of other Vikings fans during the next couple days, I realized that my experience was relatively mild by comparison.
One guy said that he had a lit cigarette put out on his Vikings jersey while walking to the stadium. Others had beer poured onto their heads. One woman was fortunate enough to discover it wasn’t beer, but urine. Most of us had bottles and cans of beer thrown at us, some from the upper level above (one lucky fan left with a souvenir amounting to 18 stitches on his head). Hats were pulled off and urinated on. Beer bottles were used as clubs to whack people in the back every time the Eagles made a good play (that’s a lot of whacks). I talked to a dad whose 17-year-old son was dry-humped from behind while he was attempting to use the urinal. Another gentleman in his early 60’s had an Eagles fan jump on his back and attempt to ride him like a bull. Oh yeah, and let’s not forget… another guy punched a police horse for the second straight week (I’m not sure why, but the horse punching almost bothers me more than anything).
These were not isolated incidents. They happened to fans walking to and from the game. They happened in the lower level and in the nose bleeds. They happened to fans covered head to toe in purple and gold and fans who dressed neutral attempting to go unnoticed. One version or another happened to nearly everyone I talked to.
Was it the majority of Eagles fans? Definitely not. I met a number of incredibly nice people who went out of their way to be kind and hospitable. Most of the fans were cheering on their beloved green while they made my beloved purple look like they forgot which game was being played that day.
But, was it a more than I expected? Absolutely. Maybe I was being naive, but I was expecting it to be an extreme minority. It was much more than that. “Come on!”, the defenders have said, “There are fans everywhere who cross the line. It’s not just in Philadelphia. I was once at a game in _____ and I saw a guy_____….” Stop it. Of course there are some in every city. It’s not just Philadelphia. But there’s a massive difference between 1 out of 100 and 1 in 10. To be fair, that’s probably on the low side. The number of fans who thought that some version of completely unacceptable behavior was totally acceptable was astounding.
So, what is the definition of acceptable fan behavior? I have to believe that we can all agree that every fan has the right to attend a game without being afraid for their physical safety. Again, I was fully expecting to hear all kinds of garbage screamed at us. But I figured that as long as we ignored it, that’s where it would end. I don’t feel like it’s any fan’s duty to physically engage with opposing fans to defend the honor of a football team. And no one should have to defend themselves just to go watch theirs play.
Beyond the game day experience itself, I’ve been even more fascinated by the Eagles fans’ responses to what happened. I was curious- what did they think of their fellow fan’s behavior? So, I asked around. I polled employees and fellow patrons at the airport, hotel, and restaurants. Presumably sober and removed from the excitement of the game, what did they think of what happened? Some appeared to be lifelong fans and others probably dusted off their Eagles gear when the playoffs started. But they all had an opinion, and some of the answers I heard continue to fascinate the hell out of me. While a couple were apologetic, the majority accepted it, and many were even… proud.
“You knew what you were getting yourself into by coming here.”
“That’s just the way Eagles fans are.”
“You had it coming after doing your little chant on the steps of the Art Museum and putting your colors on the Rocky statue.”
“You’re just not passionate fans like we are.”
Hmmmmm. Let’s unpack that last one. Really? That’s what passion looks like? I’m passionate. I wake my kids up in the morning with the SKOL chant. I bought a pair of purple and gold throwback Air Jordans online to wear to the Super… (most depressing eBay delivery ever). I flew here to watch my team. But if Sunday’s fan behavior falls under your definition of passion, we are working from very different dictionaries. I believe that you can love something without hating the opposite. I believe you can show support for what you love without being violent towards those who support something else. Again, this was a football game. I didn’t break into your home and assault your family. I paid for a seat in a public stadium to root for my team.
I’ve seen a number of Philly defenders online claim that the Vikings fan’s experience is being exaggerated because our team got completely embarrassed. This is ludicrous. To suggest that the reaction to what took place is nothing more than sour grapes could not be more absurd. Philadelphia won because they were the superior team in every possible way. Period. A hug and a high five from every Eagles fan in that building wouldn’t have changed what happened on the field. This is purely about what is reasonable treatment of other human beings who dared to think they could come to your stadium and watch a game with you.
And now you’re coming to our city for the Super Bowl.
The Patriots used to be the last team I would ever hope to win yet another championship. But after seeing how Philadelphia fans carry themselves? I’ll be rooting my heart out for The Evil Empire. The
Emperor and Darth Freaking Vader have somehow become the good guys. Ready the Storm Troopers, Bill. Carve ‘em up, Tom. Call me petty, but the idea of that fan base suffering the disappointment of a loss in the big game makes me feel better. Listen, I’m sure there are plenty of redeeming qualities about the city and its people. I mean, it’s now clear to me why Philly is known to be objectively inferior to all other major east coast cities. But still, if you can’t get to one of them, then Philadelphia is really nice too. If you’re ever offered an all-expenses paid trip to visit there and you want to field test that new set of body armor your doomsday-prepper cousin gave you for Christmas, you should totally go check it out. Ok. That felt good. I’m done now. And in my opinion, hoping the Eagles lose the Super Bowl is where it should end.
I’ve heard rumblings of Vikings fans seeking retaliation this week by finding various ways to give them a taste of their own medicine. I really hope that doesn’t happen. That’s just not who we are. We are Minnesota Nice. Ok…maybe more like Minnesota Passive Aggressive (but no one’s going back to Philly complaining about what a stranger muttered under their breath well out of ear shot). Seriously, let’s not try and show them how it feels to be mistreated. Trust me, nothing we could do would surprise them. If anything, they’d feel like they were back home. We can’t win at that game, and it’s a game no one should be playing in the first place. Instead, let’s show them what it feels like to be well-treated as a fan of a team in another fan’s city.
Being a fan has an amazing way of bringing people together. It can bring out our best and create some awesome moments. Being a fan also has an uncanny way of dividing people. It can reveal some ugliness. We’ve seen extremes of both back to back. It might be a little awkward during the first Vikings game back at US Bank Stadium next fall. We’ll see the people we did the weird hugging-and-jumping thing with, and we’ll smile. That moment was special. When your team does something great there’s no better time to be a fan. And when things don’t go your team’s way, being a fan can hurt. But disappointment and heartache are where the pain should end. A fan should be free to go watch a game wherever it’s being played without fearing for their safety. A fan should be able to love something without hating the opposite. A fan should be able to show support for what they love without being violent towards those who support something else. It’s amazing that this needs to be said, but clearly it does.