It would be easy to call you a hero. You were, after all, a fireman.
Firemen, man. Hats off! The only people who run straight into the burning heart of the problem. Willingly, all eager shouts and focused strength, while the rest of us run for the hills at heavy-metal speed.
But the dictionary definition of a hero is so pat: A person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities.
Gunnar Kristensen. You were a husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather et al. You were said fireman, bricklayer, and carpenter. You built your house. That’s pretty heroic. I mean, hello, I can barely hang a picture. (Or find a septic tank…) But, this list does not define a hero.
Heroes show up when it is hard. They extend a hand when it is inconvenient. They love the unlovable.
When I was 8, I could barely breathe. In Toronto, a Death-like stench permeated our home. The disease that would come to claim me had claimed your son-in-law. That summer, my brother and I fled the plague of stout brown bottles that threatened for the temperate Danish climate, Cheese and black licorice delights called Brumbasser (bumblebees) and Høns Bryster (hens breasts). Ah, those kooky Danes!
Over four idyllic summers, I taught you a little English, and you taught me all the Danish I know.
[Summer? Sommer. Father? Far. Heaven? Himmel.]
You showed me how to hold a paintbrush, where to trim a rose, and helped me mow your lawn. You caressed the back of a broken-hearted flower girl in a yellow dress who had lost her father seven months earlier.
I followed you puppy-like, all perky ears, and adoring eyes, as we biked the daisy-littered Danish paths, swam in the sea and learned the Art of Multiple Tea Breaks. And for a few blissful weeks, the Death-like stench evaporated, as I breathed in the candy-like sweetness of newly-cut grass.
But the stench returned. And my father did not.
Heroes leave their home to help a broken, reluctantly-formed family of three rebuild through one of the coldest winters Toronto had even known.
For half a year you and Bedstemor lived with us in the early 80’s. Every morning the guttural, throat-scraping sounds of Danish chit-chat rose upstairs to jostle me awake. (Not exactly melodic, Danish is.) Laughter with, and teasing of your daughter, my Mum, and your perennial first date, the love of your life, my Bedstemor.
Plopping down the stairs, I’d bear witness to some new thing you had built…A kitchen table, a coffin for my guinea pig (!) and, oh, a canopy bed! Thin wooden white stalks topped with bubble-gum pink petals. My dream come true.
It must have been hard to leave your home. Your rhythm. Your language. The Cheese! But I was so happy to have you there. Your quiet constant. Shoveling snow. Washing the dishes. Watching me.
Heroes see you. They watch you and hold space for the aching soul they spy.
You flew across The Pond again when I was 33. This time to Vancouver. It must have been harder and harder for you to take flight, now 83. Older bones, stomach pain chronically entrenched, crippling you for longer hours. And yet you showed up. It was inconvenient. But heroes do like that.
On that trip I was a struggling thespian. Convinced I was but one screen test away from happiness. I had my health, a husband and a home, but I was restless, discontent. Yet always Arting—mosaics, writing a (terrible!) screenplay, and even designing oil lamps!
1) Take a glass bottle with great lines. 2) Stuff a bunch of dried rose petals in with a shoelace. 3) Pour in lamp oil. And Voila! One homemade graduation present for my newly-christened MD brother.
You watched me across the room. Followed along as I instructed my brother on how to trim the wick for a gentler flame. And then you spoke. You never spoke English. It was like a source of pride, to never utter the Universal Language. But oh, you understood so much more than you let on…
It floated across the room on our frequency. Cut through the ambient noise of Bedstemor’s musical chatter, the clicking of Mum’s knitting needles, and the rustling of crumpled paper. In your crazy language, in that accent not even Meryl Steep could master in Out of Africa, in your deadpan, self-assured tone you tapped me on my soul, and said,
“Henriette is an artist.”
That sentence was a clicking together of our souls. You saw the heart of me. It was a dumb oil lamp. Unrefined. Amatuerish. (I mean c’mon, you’re burning a shoelace!) But I was trying. You saw me. You revealed to me something I had yet to own about myself.
And it lit me up more brilliantly than all the oil lamps in the world ever could.
When you were 94 and I was 44, we were both very sick. I was struggling to care about getting sober. Pills were still my God. You were about to meet yours. You were dying.
We were both dying.
My cousin had been messaging me from Denmark. You would not be going home from the hospital. I called my mother who couldn’t talk to me. I spoke with my brother who had Skyped with you the day before. Then.
My uncle held his cell phone up to your ear. I pictured you in your hospital bed. You had an oxygen mask on your face. Your twinkling eyes were closed as you listened, as my voice floated across the ocean on our frequency. Cutting through the ambient noise of IVs beeping, tears falling, and a breaking heart.
Then this pill-swiping, unsober woman’s soul clicked with yours. Forehead pressed to the bedroom wall, my brimming heart spilled over and across the transatlantic waves. And I told my hero everything he should know. That you saved me, Bedstefar, over and over and over again. Every time you saw me when I could not see myself.
Five minutes later, my uncle called me back. He told me that after we hung up, you rolled onto your side and said, “I’m going to rest now.” And then you died.
All breath fizzled out of me as my tears rained down. Bedstefar. You waited when it was hard. Hung on when it was inconvenient. And loved this unlovable woman until your very last breath. Your final act of heroism.
Three months later I finally got sober. For good and today.
You would have been 100 yesterday. Full disclosure? I’ve always found these “heaven” birthdays kind of creepy. Because, I mean, I’m sorry, but you only lived to 94. What is it about dates and round numbers that compels us to post on social media, release balloons or buy giant slab cakes slathered in colored icing?
Because I think about you every day.
There is no more running for the hills, or Pills, anymore. Every time I show up when it is hard, extend a hand when it is inconvenient, or love the unlovable, I walk in the fireman footsteps of a true hero.
And I see you every step of the way.