Papa

Lehman Erick Eichstedt Jr. was born on August 17th, 1932 and died on Memorial Day, May 29th, 2017. He was just shy of 85 years old. I started writing this at his deathbed. I pecked out the words with my left hand as I held his with my right. I wanted to write an obituary that honored him and his life. I tried to write an obituary but it turned into something else. I quickly realized I couldn’t find the words. Nothing I put together would encompass the fullness of this incredible person. I will honor him with my life. Every bitchy comment, every silly face, every time I lead, every time I stand up against injustice, and every time I laugh. It’s him. We have always said that I am a knock off of an original. Saying he’s my best friend, my favorite person, or my soul mate never felt quite right. I recently heard Malala Yousafzai talking about her relationship with her father and everything she said resonated with me. She said,”We are one soul in two bodies.” That is exactly it.

When asked to recount the story of his life, he said, “This will be the most dramatic story ever told. You would run out of pages if I told you everything, so I’ll just stick to the highlights.” This will be a compilation of stories he told me, things he wrote, and my personal experience.

He was the first born and only son of Ruth Schroeder Eichstedt and Lehman Eichstedt Sr. He was the absolute pride and joy of his mother. She made no effort to hide the fact that he was her favorite child. Ruth was very funny, expressive, dramatic, and loving with her Junie. A nickname that followed him throughout his life. Whenever he was being overly dramatic, I would call him Baby Junie in a silly voice and he would laugh and realize he was being overly dramatic in his complaints.

1936. At age four, he left home by himself and walked over a mile to the neighbor’s house to ask for cookies. The neighbor lady gave him cookies and sent him back home on his own. When he finally returned home, his mother was an absolute wreck. She had no idea where he had gone. This story points to so many things about his personality. He loved desserts, had a strong sense of self and never gave up on a goal. When he first told me this story, I was shocked that the neighbor lady sent him back alone. He reminded me of the fact that he grew up in a time with no telephones or cars to return a wandering toddler. The advancements in technology over his lifetime are astounding. The seriousness of a missing child also changed over the course of his lifetime. It would make the news if a four year old went on a solo adventure miles from home only to return covered in cookie crumbs.

Little Baby Junie was adventurous and confident, just like his mother. Ruth was the defining influence in his life. She thought her Papoose was perfect. She had a special kindness and connection to him. She always spoke lovingly to and about him. This laid the foundation of his high level of self esteem. Although she was very sweet with him, she had a side that frightened him. Her dramatic nature lead her to say outrageous things. Often this was funny and really created the dark witty sense of humor our family is known for. On the other hand, she was most likely depressed and just finding anyway to cope. She was a strong willed woman and felt pressure to stifle herself. She would send the kids to school and threaten that they would find her hanging in the silo when they returned home. She regularly threatened to kill herself anytime she was upset. Every day in her diary she wrote,”This is the worst day of my life. I will remember this day as long as I live.” This saying became a regular punchline for us whenever things were shitty. It is so ridiculous and over the top and made us laugh in rough times. It’s not confirmed but my guess the practice of “fake crying” started with Ruth. My dad would fake cry to make himself laugh. It was so realistic and then would turn to hysterical laughter. I knew when he was doing it but people that didn’t know him would be so freaked out and concerned. I worried that he would be “the boy who cried wolf” and no one would help him if he really was upset. That doesn’t stop me from doing it. I do it without even thinking. It’s my natural reaction to tough news.  Ruth’s influence was constant. Her threats of killing herself frightened him as a child, but as an adult it empowered him. No topic was off limits. There is freedom in being willing to talk about the hard stuff. My dad and I also talked openly about killing ourselves and each other. It is morbid but it’s the truth. It was a way to alleviate the pressure of life. Opening a valve and letting the fear out. Using Ruth’s example of talking about it but never doing anything. Whenever things got too bad, we talked about it. It was a way to work through our feelings about life and death. About a month before he died, he told me he had a dream we rented a car and drove to Oregon to kill ourselves. I told him in the condition we were in physically we would never make it to die with dignity in Oregon. We were better off dying the way we lived; without dignity, in Wisconsin. We talked about his dream and we laughed. We took the power away from something scary by talking it through. When I was mad at him, I would sometimes tell him,”I’m visualizing myself strangling you!” Then we would laugh. We talked about everything, all of life’s hard topics. We could break down anything horrible and find something to laugh about. That is a huge gift I got from him and that he got from his mother.

Ruth gave him his sense of humor and self confidence. Lehman Sr. gave him an example of how not to be. He was a mean towering presence in the home. He often fought with Ruth and did awful things that put the family in jeopardy. They moved often because of this. My dad resented him and always sided with his mother. They eventually settled on a farm and had lots of animals. My dad loved animals and felt very sensitive to their feelings. One story he told of his father’s cruelty was on the farm. Lehman Sr. made him hold a horse’s head still as he shot the horse between the eyes. This was one of the many traumatic things Lehman Sr. inflicted on the family. Even though his father tried to squash his spirit and harden him, he remained soft and sensitive.

My dad loved school. He was so smart and received high marks. He kept his report cards from the 1940’s in perfect condition to this day.  Unfortunately, he was needed to help on the farm and was only allowed to go to school until the 9th grade. He loved learning and continued seeking all of his life. People always assumed he was college educated. He spoke and wrote in such an elegant way. He sought out knowledge on a variety of different topics that interested him. Even though he accomplished so much being self taught, he always wondered how different life would have been if he would have been able to pursue higher education.

At age 18, he was drafted into the Army. He was very scared and unhappy about leaving home. He was stationed at different places all over the world and was able to see and learn things he never would have been able to without the Army. He worked as a cook and baker. He enjoyed the friendships he made but he didn’t talk much about his life in the Army. I think he ultimately made a choice to focus on the positive things and took pride in feeding the men.

At 24, he joined a Pentecostal church and met his first wife. He loved listening to her sing. 63 days after meeting, they were married. She was 32 to his 24 and he was 6’4 to her 5′ nothing. They had a desire for each other and for learning. They had four daughters in short order, one died as a baby. They were instrumental in forming the Fond du Lac Artists Association, The Fond du Lac Arts Council, The Fond du Lac Writers Association, and NOW the National Organization of Women. They started learning Hebrew and planned to move to Jerusalem. They remodeled their big house on the hill and pursued gardening, religion, music, literature, etc. Ultimately, they divorced and he had limited contact with his children for many years.

He went through a very rough patch after his divorce. He was estranged from almost all of his family and felt very alone. He was extremely poor and slept on a folding outdoor lounge chair. He survived a long time eating only things he found for free and summer sausage sandwiches. It was a very difficult period in his life. 

He ended up having a short lived second marriage to a woman. As he walked up the steps of the church, he told himself to run the other direction. They divorced and he vowed to listen more closely to his intuition.

During this time he bought a trailer home and lived in a community with a wacky cast of characters and misfits. If only reality tv would have been around to film this trailer park! He really started to explore his sexuality and had a man living with him for awhile. There was a lot of jealousy and turmoil in that relationship. At one point, the mattress was dragged out on the front lawn and destroyed by a chainsaw!

Things started to turn around when he took on a leadership role at his job. He worked at Gehl Company in West Bend for 34 years. He spent 11 of those years as President of the Employee Labor Union. He lead a well documented strike that improved the conditions for the entire company.

During his life he had very private, hidden relationships with men. A very sweet gentle man named Bobby, was his friend for ten years. Finally one night my dad worked up the courage to kiss him. It was fireworks. I believe Bobby was the love of my dad’s life. The courage it took to be in love openly during that time in history just escaped these men. Bobby died when I was young and it devastated my dad. He mourned the deep loss of Bobby and the life they could have had.

In 1982, he met Rose Sitzberger, my mother. He told her if he got her pregnant he would marry her. He did both of those things. I do think he loved her very much but I also think my mom loved him more. I have journal entries of my mom’s where she writes about being concerned that her love will smother him. That he is the best man she’s ever known and she is so lucky he saved her. She was going through an awful divorce when they met. She literally showed up at his trailer, after just meeting him and moved in. He took care of her physically and tried to support her emotionally.  My mom was a naturalist and converted him. They even had a little campground spot at a nudist colony. When she was pregnant with me, they spontaneously jumped on a plane to Vegas and tried to find someone to marry them in the nude. They finally found someone that was ok with a topless wedding but the pants had to stay on! When they came home, they had a huge reception. My mom could throw a fantastic theme party. Everyone wore flannel shirts and blue jeans. They served beer, meat, and beans. My mom made my dad a homemade crown that said,”KING OF FERTILITY” to announce her pregnancy. It sounded like an amazing time. 

When I was six months old, my parents bought a restaurant in Campbellsport and named it Rosalee’s Diner. My dad worked nights in the factory and worked in the diner during the day. He relied on short naps (SNAP is what he called them) to make it through those years. He also was on the Village Board in Campbellsport for 13years, while being President of the union. Most of his work and advocacy overlapped. He made it seem so easy. He was never stressed out or too busy to play with me. He always made time to read to me everyday and let me dress him up in costumes and practice makeup looks.

For Christmas 1988, he brought home the sweetest little puppy for me. She tolerated me dressing her up, putting wigs on her, and carrying her around like my baby. The truth is she was my dad’s baby. He loved Chrissy so much. She had her own chair next to his at the table and she rode in the car everywhere he went. They were inseparable. She lived for 16 years and when she died he was so broken-hearted.

He retired in 1994 and just stopped doing everything. He had been so busy and involved in so many organizations that he just took a complete break from everything. I thought after a year or so he would get involved in something again, but it just didn’t happen. He spent the next years very isolated. My mom was instrumental in isolating him away from everyone. Her big saying was “It’s just the three of us. That’s all we have.” He continued to be a very attentive father, taking me to school, reading with me, hanging out at home.

1999/2000 He was diagnosed with prostate cancer and it threw me in an absolute tailspin. I was so afraid of him dying and never seeing him again. Up until that point in my life I had no relationship with religion. The thought of losing him forever was unbearable to me so I looked into reincarnation and became heavily involved in Buddhism. Thankfully he recovered after treatment. He became more and more involved in Christianity and started to have interest in the Catholic Church.

2001 My mom was working in the town over and my dad would drive her to and from work. He really adjusted his life to meet her needs. After a rough winter on the windy roads from our house to her work, they decided to move. They moved out of our family house and left me alone to finish my senior year of high school.

I was very sick and had major surgery in 2005. My mom was too overwhelmed by it and didn’t help me but my dad was my champion. He fiercely fought the doctors and nurses to ensure I received the best treatment. It has been my honor to repay him with the same. My mom died unexpectedly while I was still recovering from surgery. He had made her something to eat and he went in to wake her, she was cold. A month later I was asleep in that house and almost died. The thing that saved me is knowing it would have ruined my dad to find me like that. So I struggled to get his attention and he got me to the hospital. Talking about the experience after I was stable I told him,”I was afraid if you found me the same way you found mom you would be so upset you’d kill yourself.” He laughed, which was not the reaction I was expecting. He said,”I would have been sad but horrible things happen all the time. You don’t just kill yourself every time things are devastating. You eat some doughnuts and get on with life.”

In hopes of reconnecting with his other children, he moved into a assisted living facility near them. I often wish I would have moved him to Madison at this point. I was very young, traveling, and working three jobs.  It just made the most sense for him to be by his older children who we thought would be more available. He was hopeful this would help them reconnect. Unfortunately, it was not a good situation. It was clear that they felt like punishing him for not being there for them as kids. They stole from him, barely visited, and trashed his brand new van. I was angry with them but I tried to understand where they were coming from. We tried reconnecting many times over the years but it never felt genuine on either side. After many conversations about the estrangement in our family, I still don’t have a clear cut answer as to what originally happened. He just really didn’t seem to care that much and wasn’t bothered by not talking to them. I think we expect there to be some big reason but it’s often a bunch of things compounded over time. He had an incredible sense of intuition and he knew his sisters and children would never accept him. He knew before they revealed themselves to be homophobic bigots. He honestly didn’t care at all that they didn’t approve of him. When I told him how they reacted to us coming out he shrugged and said,”Let ’em. What do I care what they think. They don’t know shit from Shinola. We know who we are and that’s all that matters. We don’t need ’em. Never have. Never will.”

The one positive that came from living in that facility, is he met a very nice handsome man. They had a friendship and sexual relationship. He was not out to me at this point so I didn’t know it was going on. Looking back it was so obvious. I mean, in hindsight, it was obvious my whole life. I’m happy that into his eighties he was enjoying and exploring his sexuality. I am sorry he had to leave that man but it was important to get him away from the toxic situation with his other children.

I moved him immediately after realizing they were stealing from him. He came to Madison and lived in a swanky apartment for the first six months. He really started to open up here. I saw him everyday and we had a lot of laughs. During that time I asked him if he was gay. That question lead to an amazing bond and closeness. He shared things with me he thought he would never be able to tell anyone. It was wonderful to know he trusted me with his deepest secrets. Emotionally he was lighter and more carefree. Physically he was declining. He had a horrible doctor in Kenosha. As soon as he got to Madison, I got him set up with VA doctors. It took a long time and a lot of appointments to get him to a stable condition. I was his primary caregiver and the stress and anxiety were negatively affecting our relationship. He became my patient and stopped being my dad. Following a very nasty hospital stay, he came to a nursing home for rehab.

The nursing home was supposed to be temporary but it became clear that he needed more care than I could provide. He stayed at the nursing home for four and a half years, until his last breath. He moved into the nursing home not knowing anyone, but he took over in short order. He blossomed in a way that was so beautiful and necessary. He had been isolated for so many years. His true nature was to be involved and in charge. He was the cool kid. Everyone loved him. He became the President of the Residents. He took his meetings very seriously. He followed Robert’s Rules of Order. The time spent away from the union and village board didn’t matter, he picked right up where he left off. It made me so proud to sit in on his meetings. I remembered going to his meetings as a little girl and being in awe of how people looked at him and how much everyone respected him.

The last five years of his life, he was unapologetically himself. I am so lucky I got to see him almost everyday and talk to him on the phone several times a day. We left nothing unsaid and made the most of our time together. It’s still not enough. I wish there was more. Some days he was a real jerk and we would fight. He would apologize by saying,”I’m sorry you think I’m being an asshole.”

I tried to do everything I could to help him embrace his queerness. We went to gay clubs and gay events. At 80+ he was seeing same sex couples being affectionate in public for the first time. He literally couldn’t believe it. I set up a dating profile for him, hoping he would have another great love, this time in the open. Unfortunately, nothing came of it.

He was diagnosed with cancer in the fall of last year. His doctor said all of these horrible things were going to happen to him and that he only had a couple months to live. He was devastated. I was recovering and on a lot of morphine at the time. We were rushed into signing up for hospice. It was too much all at once and we were scared. I had to keep reminding him and myself that every body is different. What happened to other people with this diagnosis wasn’t guaranteed to happen to him. He was feeling great and none of the terrible things they said would happen, ever happened.

He was totally his normal self for months and months, then he got pneumonia. Because of his hospice status no one was interested in helping him. I fought for his life while I was barely surviving mine. I screamed and swore and did exactly what he had done for me all those years before. They were denying him simple care; antibiotics and nebulizer treatments. He fought like hell and wanted to live. Through all of the unnecessary adversity he pushed back and survived. He was weak and angry. He was pissed that death was close. Another trait I get from him, that I didn’t realize until the last two months of his life, when we’re really really mad we go silent. We work it out on our own. He didn’t talk to me very much for the last two months. He was so angry that he was dying. After weeks of me feeding him with tears streaming down my face and him scowling at me in silence, he finally came to terms with it. He hated being on a fluid restriction and he wanted to drink regular liquids. I explained that if he went off of it, he would die faster. He was miserable and everyone around him was miserable. He decided to go off of his restrictions. Within the first day, he drank more than a day’s allowance before noon. If given the chance he would have emptied a swimming pool. Everyday it became harder and harder for him to breathe. He went hog wild for a week and then for the last week of his life he didn’t eat or drink anything. He was hallucinating and yelling out. At different points he thought I was my mom, that was really hard. Most of the time he knew who I was and he would look at me and say, “I love you, baby.”

At one point he yelled out,”Take me now!” His breathing slowed and then stopped, I thought this was it. In the seconds it took him to breathe again, I was holding my breath so scared. At the same time I thought a dramatic death would be fitting for such a drama queen!

I sat by his bedside from 5:30/6am until 10pm. I would go home to try and sleep for a few hours and come back the next day. The last few days his breathing was labored and sounded like a coffee machine. In a weird way I got used to the sound. The night before he died, I was holding his hand and typing this, when the noise stopped. I took a second to prepare myself before I looked at him. When I looked he was breathing normally, peacefully. Not at all what I expected to see. He continued like that for the rest of the night.

The nursing home had new owners and my dad was excited to see the remodeling that they were doing. Each hall was evacuated and remodeled. His hallway just happened to be the last one to be done. They moved his roommate out and everyone else from his hall in his final days. In a way it was symbolic. Things were changing, spring cleaning. A lot of the friends we made had died, the building was changing, and he was the last one on an original hall. It felt eerie and appropriate at the same time. We were left alone with no one on the hall. Every four hours his nurse would come by and squirt medicine in his mouth with a syringe. Otherwise it was just the two of us, in silence. As much as I wanted him to stay with me, he wasn’t really there anymore. I wanted to be there when he died. I didn’t want him to be alone. The hospice nurse told me she thought he had three or four more days given his condition. So I decided to go home for a few hours. After months of having trouble sleeping, I fell into the deepest sleep. I didn’t wake up until the phone rang at 8:30am. It was his nurse saying he was peaceful and took his last breath a few mins before. She was in the room with him and that was it. He was gone.

I didn’t see my mom when she died. I wasn’t sure if I should see my dad or not. I had hoped to be there so I wouldn’t have to make that decision. I ended up just going right into his room as soon as I got there. I rushed to him and touched his sweet face.  I kissed his cheek and held his hand and cried so hard. I had feared this moment my whole life and now it was here.

My dad was 52 when I was born, he was 20 years older than my mom. His death was always a conversation. People warned my mother,”He is going to die on you. Why did you marry someone so old?” No one thought she would die first. It was never even a consideration. As long as I can remember there’s been an aching in my chest. A feeling of dread and fear that swells and overtakes me. I was always afraid he would die. I thought I’d find him dead on the floor, it would happen out of nowhere and destroy me. I never imagined it would creep up slowly, giving me two and a half months to prepare myself. I didn’t know it would feel this strange. I didn’t know for the first week I would silently have to remind myself every 15 minutes “He’s dead. He died.” I didn’t know I would have to keep picturing his purple ear and cold skin to convince myself it happened. I didn’t know it would take me three weeks to be able to tell people that he was gone.

I’m so lucky he was my dad. I know I hit the jackpot. I’m so lucky I got to know him and witness his life. I am so thankful that I am so much like him. My skin feels like his skin and I have his eyes. The things I say are things he said and the faces I make are his. He is always with me because I am that carbon copy, that knock off version. I know he was proud of me because he told me constantly. I’m glad I have all the photos and videos, voicemails and letters. He started writing to me before I was born and only stopped when he could no longer write. He told me he loved me until he could no longer speak. I wish everyone could know love like that.

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