Yesterday afternoon, Judith’s sister called.
Their dad, Lester, suffered a heart attack and died, suddenly and unexpectedly, where the family pretty much expected him to die one day: behind the wheel.
One day. Not this day
Lester had been trucking corn through Redwing, Minnesota. The city of his birth.
I have friends who are writers. Damn fine writers. When they write, magic seems to flow from their fingers. I’m not like them. I try and write. Sometimes I do OK. Mostly, I’m wordy and nerdy. Which is a shame, because Judith’s dad deserves far better. I’ll never be able to do him or his memory justice. But you should know how special he was.
Lester Heise was a grand old bear of a guy: part grizzly bear, part teddy bear. He was great. I mean, really, really great. The kind of “great” most people who spend too much of their lives worrying about being “great” will never know. He was a force of nature, and a force of life. A unique individual whom I’ll readily admit I never totally understood, but utterly admired.
Lester was a northern Wisconsin farmer and trucker, and lord knows what he thought when his daughter told him she was going to marry a cartoonist. Actually, five weeks before our wedding, she told him she was going to marry an unemployed cartoonist, as she saw how miserable I was getting at the Wisconsin State Journal, and convinced me to quit.
But my soon-to-be father-in-law never said anything, though good grief he had every right to. He just welcomed me with open arms. Indeed, on Judith and my wedding night, I had a few moments alone with Lester, who I’d only known for a couple of years at that point. I tried to let him know how proud I was to now be a part of his family. It was, frankly, an awkward and uncomfortable conversation for both of us. Again: him, up-north farm stock; Me, wordy and nerdy. Oil, say “hello” to water. Water, say “hiya” to oil.
But I think that on some level, we both kind of “got” each other, because Judith was the common bond between us
Over the years, as I grew to know Lester better, I found him hilarious and, in his own way, brilliant. He knew what he wanted from life, and lived it to its fullest, whether “the fullest,” to him, meant farming, or trucking, or shooting off random fireworks, or doing nothing at the cabin, or becoming the Town Chairman of El Paso township, just slightly to the east of Ellsworth, Wisconsin. All of which he did, and did well.
There really is something to small town life. There’s — again — a greatness about it that folks like me really don’t get, unless they go back year after year for Thanksgiving, when the first snowfalls may just be brushing the landscape. Or Christmas, when the barns stand tall and proud against the cold, grey Wisconsin skyline. Summers are glorious, autumns are spectacular, winters are harsh, the people are tough, and the sense of community is palpable.
Lester (somehow “Mr. Heise” never seemed quite appropriate. I don’t think either of us would have liked it if I’d tried to call him that) could be loud and brusque, but he was never short of hilarious. He’d curse like a sailor when playing cards – not true, actually. He’d easily outdo any seaman worth his salt when it came to creative cuss-words and all-too-colorful commentary should he be dealt, say, an eight-three offsuit.
“That’s called a ‘tell,’” I tried to advise him a couple of Christmases ago, when he decided to try Texas Hold’Em for the first time.
If a person is best known by their friends, then Lester had many, many people who knew him very well indeed. Folks who understood him better than I ever could. Yet to me, the very first time I met him, at Judith’s old apartment, when she and I were just dating, I could see was how much he loved her, and how much she loved him. To him, she was always his little girl, and to her, I could see nothing eyes but adoration of him in her eyes. And deservedly so, as I was to find out over the next fifteen years. He was simply, truly great. He was, in his daughter’s words, “a special person. So special.”
Other good friends, far too many, really, have recently lost people they were close to. It’s been a hell of a couple of weeks. In some ways, it’s been a hell of a year.
There’s no real good way to end this, save to say I’ll miss the hell out of Judith’s dad. I can’t even imagine the pain and loss felt by his family and friends who’ve known him far longer and far deeper than I have.
I’m privileged to have known him at all.