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This post is about grief and loss. My sisters and I lost two brothers in 2020. Coupled with COVID and all the other disturbing events this year, their passing have made it a tough year. I am the oldest of five. followed by Virginia, Lyle, Harry, and Syl, and somehow it seems worse that both of my brothers passed before me, since I’m the first born. Of course, losing a spouse or a child hits one harder; still, losing two brothers in a span of seven months, impacted me in unexpected ways. So, I need to write a memorial to my brothers.
Grief and loss
First, my lack of energy and motivation hit me. Second, I’ve had a profound sadness that continues to affect me. While it’s only been a short time since Harry passed on July 29th, being in Colorado with him in his last days makes it more vivid. Lyle’s passing early January likely hadn’t fully hit me yet either. I’m the only remaining brother. Leukemia took Harry and heart disease took Lyle.
While Lyle’s passing may have seemed sudden, we realized that he’d had various heart ailments for twenty-five years. Harry had an annual physical in the spring of 2018 and the doctor discovered a condition that could become leukemia. He received the leukemia diagnosis in October of that year. The doctor performed a stem cell transplant in January of 2019 and he seemed to recover well.
Then, in September, he acquired an illness called Guest Vs. Host Disease (GVHD). His doctor said it didn’t necessarily mean the leukemia was back. But in January 2020, at his annual checkup, it was back. Between then and June, the doctor and his team performed aggressive treatments. In June, he was told there wasn’t anything more they could do. We’ve had a doubling of grief and loss this year. (Here is a link to the area where we grew up. Ottertail County in northwestern Minnesota.)
Memorial to my brothers
My brothers and I grew up as very different people. Lyle looked much more like our dad’s side of the family. His personality was also more like dad’s side. Harry (and both my sisters and I) look like mom’s side. Many said that Harry and I looked alike. However, we still were quite different. While we both liked our “alone time”, Harry was much more comfortable with solitude and enjoyed fishing, hunting, and camping by himself. As a friend of mine said, “he’s the most independent guy I’ve ever met!”.
Memorial to my brothers – Continued
Lyle spent 20+ years in the Air Force. He met, Mary, the love of his life in his later 20s and they spent the next 40+ years nearly inseparably. Their marriage gave them four wonderful (and unique) children. Lyle’s family gave him his greatest pleasure. Especially in later years when they had five grandchildren. While he did possess an off-beat and sarcastic sense of humor, his family and friends knew that he had a great heart. We are all going through grief and loss. Besides the two North Dakota air bases and the base in England, he also spent time in Thailand, California, North Carolina and Korea. He spent another tour in England as well.
Harry moved to Denver Colorado in 1996. (After leaving our home area, he lived in Fargo ND, Sioux Falls SD, Twin Cities MN, Bismarck ND, back to Twin Cities, back to Fargo, back to Twin Cities before Denver.) He loved hunting, fishing, camping and the mountains. He met, Bernice, the love of his life in his 50s. They only had about 10 years together but they were great years. He gained a “step-grandson” who called him “poppa”. He loved the little guy. In the last couple of years, they grew close. And all of his wife’s family as well as my family are suffering grief and loss.
The buildings don’t look anything like they did when we lived there. Only one part of one building remains. My dad developed heart disease to the point where he could no longer work in 1966 and they sold the farm. The heart disease, a fore-warning to all of us. And a disease that would claim his life two years later. He also had polio in 1939 during the great polio epidemic which lasted from 1916 to 1955. He was left with a moderate to severe weakness in one leg. Our mom was the glue that held our family together over the years. She lived until she was nearly 95 years old. She lived to know 10 grandchildren and “a bunch” of great-grandchildren. For the family’s sake as well as my own, I’m writing this memorial to my brothers.
Back to a Memorial to my brothers
Since my brothers were four and six years younger than me, I remember them as “little kids”. The day Harry came home from the hospital as a baby, we had a phone installed in the house for the first time! Funny how we remember events like that. Since I was then six years old, he’s the first baby I remember in the house. (I was only three and a half when Lyle was born.) I was already doing farm work as they grew up. So, didn’t get to play with them very much. Of course, when they reached 6 and 7 years old, they were assigned farm duties as well.
Lyle and Harry were two and a half years apart so they did play together much more. They were close in the early days, and we didn’t have very many close neighbors to play with. We also attended a one room country school back in the day. By the time Lyle started school, we only had about a dozen kids in 6 grades. Harry and I never attended the same school. When he started first grade, I rode the bus to school “in town”. Harry didn’t ride the bus until the year after I graduated. (There was no kindergarten in those days.)
By the way, Harry was born the day after Dwight Eisenhower’s election to his first term. He acquired the nick name “Ike” when he was young. But by the time he was a teenager, he went to being called Harry.
Years on the farm
We grew up on a “subsistence dairy farm”. The farm brought in enough income to feed us and clothe us and other necessities but very few luxuries. But living out there in the country, we really didn’t know any different. The house had a wood-burning furnace so among all the other hard work we had to cut enough wood to keep the house warm all winter. Of course, “us boys” all needed to help with that. We had to milk the cows twice a day, 365 days a year. And, on a holiday or a Sunday, we “only” had to milk the cows twice and feed all the animals.
Dairy farmers chuckle about a 40 hour work week!
From “farm kids” to “town kids”
When Lyle was a junior in high school and Harry was in junior high (1966), the family moved to Detroit Lakes MN (link) as my dad had to go on disability due to his heart disease. (I joined the US Navy at the very end of 1964.) After Lyle graduated 2 years later, he joined the US Air Force. After Harry graduated 2 years after that, he went to a technical school and got into fire control sprinkler design. Our dad passed in September of 1968 while I was still in the Navy and Lyle had just gone into the Air Force. Harry and mom were the only ones at home when he died. Virginia was married already and Syl had stayed over night with a friend. I believe that impacted Harry more than he admitted as he as 15 years old at the time.
Even though Detroit Lakes is not large (today about 9,000 permanent population), it is much different then living on a small farm 9 miles from the nearest town. In addition, Detroit Lakes is a “lake town” as you can see from the link above. During summer weekends, the town doubles or triples in size. Our family’s experiences were much different in Detroit Lakes than life on the farm.
Adult years – Memories and grief and loss
Over the years, our family got together for Christmas celebrations. Early on, it was at mom’s place. After a few years, my house in Fargo became the focal point. In those years, everyone attended. Always a good time. Over the years, we would end up having our Christmas in many different places.
When Harry moved to Colorado, he returned for Christmas in the early years. Then, two years in a row, he hit snowstorms on the way back so said he’d come in a different season. As our kids grew and 3 of us had grandchildren, we had to look for enough space.
When my wife and I moved into our townhouse in the suburban Twin Cities where we still live, we didn’t have enough room. We bought some cheap carpet and temporarily turned our garage into a rec room! Since it’s a “tuck under”, we just needed a couple of space heaters to make it comfortable. We had our celebration at different places after that and even different times. Once was in March! And my unique family celebrates this memorial to my brothers. (We were unique, just like every other family!)
After more years went by, my sisters and sisters-in-laws decided the Christmas celebration should be the weekend after the Super Bowl to get us guys away from watching football for most of it! And as the grandchildren grew, the extended family get together eventually stopped altogether. Especially after mom was gone. More grief and loss for all of us.
Minot and other Air Force places
Lyle and family lived in Minot for four years during his service in the Air Force. (Why not, Minot?) The base is about 40 miles from the Canadian border and about 100 miles to Montana. One of those years, his family hosted Christmas “out there”. In spite of the long drive, we enjoyed our time there. We didn’t often get time with Lyle and his family during his Air Force career. The Air Force even had a visiting families “hotel” on the base. We had rooms for the nominal fee of about $20 a night.
After Minot, the Air Force sent him to England where he and his family lived for four years. I wish I would have taken the opportunity to visit him there. We didn’t see them for the full 4 years. Back in those days, overseas calls were extremely expensive and rarely made. My oldest daughter and my sister Virginia’s oldest daughter saved their money and visited for a month right after they both graduated from high school in 1990. His sons went to a British school for part of the time and the family lived off base by choice. Both boys returned to the states with British accents!
Later, after England, Lyle was stationed at Grand Forks Air Force base and continued to live there when he retired. Our family got together there a few times as well. Interesting sideline, during the Great Flood of 1997, that house in East Grand Forks MN was lost to the surging Red River of the North. Afterward, Lyle and family lived with his in-laws near Dent MN for a few months. And, Lyle had a quintuple bypass in July of that year. Another unfortunate fore-bearer of things to come. Following all of that, they bought a house in Brandon MN where Mary still lives. His two daughters live in Greeley Colorado, one son lives near Mary, and the other lives in Fargo ND.
Harry and his living experiences – Bismarck
Harry lived in Bismarck for a number of years. He liked it there, as he said it was somewhat more scenic than eastern ND, being on the Missouri River. He also said the weather was less humid. And, he worked for the same company, even acting branch manager for a while when the company was recruiting.
He loved the fishing on the Missouri River. That was a highlight for him. Interestingly, he liked to bow hunt for deer as well. The river bottom along the Missouri and the area around Lake Sakakawea provided many places to pursue that hobby. Surprisingly, he never did get a deer with a bow but he enjoyed the nature and the solitude it provided. (He also bow hunted in Minnesota during his time in the Twin Cities. He was into the strategies and science of bow hunting. Scouting the area, masking human scent, finding areas in advance, learning deer patterns, etc.)
Harry enjoyed his years in Denver. Although large cities weren’t his favorite, Denver’s proximity to the mountains overrode all else. He grew to love Denver. And, as I mentioned earlier, he met Bernice and acquired another family to be a part of his life.
In Lyle’s middle years, he enjoyed golfing as well. He and I were both into it for a while and started a family golf outing in June of 2002 that lasted for nearly 20 years. For several years, Lyle had a season membership at a small country golf course near his home. He often played two or three times a week with a co-worker during those years. Lyle; Donnie, our brother-in-law; and I used to get together in the fall for a golfing afternoon. Sometimes, we’d bring another family member. Somehow, I could often play to lower scores than Lyle but I could never do it when I played in a group with him!
Labor Day Camping Trip
The entire extended family enjoyed a Labor Day camping weekend in, I think, 1995. Harry had a site to himself. My wife and I were in another campsite. Lyle, his wife and 4 kids were in third site. I don’t remember if they had a very large tent of if the two boys had one for themselves. My daughters (and one grandson) were in the little motels nearby. Both my sisters and my mom also stayed there. And my sisters’ kids as well. So, full family attendance. From Friday night until Monday afternoon. Had a great time.
One of the nights we had a large family dinner. Harry, my wife JeNell, and I did the prep, cooking, and serving. Our mom, then 80 years old, joined in a watermelon seed spitting contest. Harry, Mom and my wife in one of the “matches”! This particular weekend must be part of my memorial to my brothers as it’s a standout memory for many of us.
I remember Lyle’s oldest son “taking charge” of my grandson for much of the time. My grandson was about 3 and Lyle’s oldest was probably 16 or 17 and was always good with small kids. I know my grandson had a good time as well.
Custer State Park camping
Another memory included Harry and I camping at Custer State Park in South Dakota. Really, that’s a GREAT park, nestled in the Black Hills in western South Dakota. We spent our time sightseeing the typical places like Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore. And many other sites not as well known. Of course, also spent our time cooking and “catching up” on everything we had going on. Harry was living in Denver by this time and the Black Hills were about the same distance for both of us. This was great weekend to spend some time together and I’m pleased to include it as part of my memorial to my brothers.
Canoeing with Lyle’s family
Of course, I don’t remember the year but my wife and I did a canoe trip with Lyle’s family. One of my daughters also joined us. At the end of our day canoeing, we camped along the river. We enjoyed the usual camping activities; campfire, food on the grill, s’mores, talked, kids ran around, etc. Lyle’s sons were teens then and shared a canoe. We always knew where they were because we could hear them yelling at each other! Another great memorial to my brothers.
Lyle’s Birthday cards!
One last thought. For a number of years, my sister Syl and I would search for the most sarcastic and off-color birthday cards for Lyle. One of them was about a term often used for people getting old and associated with a certain bodily function! Others had themes that touch on anything off-beat. Lyle used to say “they aren’t funny” but Mary would really laugh and laugh about them!
Memorial to my brothers
As I work through this post, I find many emotions that I did not realize would come up. Loss of my brothers, impact on their families, my own sense of mortality, never being able to talk with them again, their impacts on others, In some ways, not knowing as much about them as I thought I did. I regret not keeping in touch more than I did. Mourning their loss is much more difficult than I thought it would be. Weeks passing by as I seem to find reasons to not address some of the grief and loss. I think writing this memorial to my brothers may be therapeutic but time will tell.
When our mom passed, I had some of this feeling but it didn’t last as long and wasn’t as severe. Losing a parent seems more like the natural order of things in life. The act of writing this has been truly difficult to keep going. It seems like there are so many other things I can say.
Harry’s passing was known to be coming as his doctor told him nearly two months before his passing. The situation allowed me to go to Denver and visit with him three times in June and July of 2020. It did help me deal with the grief and loss.
While Lyle’s passing as sudden, his heart condition explained it. However, I hadn’t talked with him much in the few months before his passing. I’m glad I did talk with him on the phone briefly in December. I wish the conversation would have been longer.
So, this memorial to my brothers comes to an end. However, the memories of them will live on. With me, with their families, and with our extended family and all of the friends they left behind. Grief and loss is, unfortunately, a part of life.
Initially posted: September 29, 2020