Heaven is a much funnier place today.
My grandpa, Edwin Haack, age 93, passed away this morning surrounded by his loving family; one that knows how to love because he showed them how to do it well.
I’m using this space to share three things today: A little bit about who my grandpa was, a couple of my favorite memories and the experience of having him pass through hospice. It might be a little raw, so thank you for your understanding.
Grandpa was born in November of 1919, one five children; three boys and two girls. He grew-up in the Madison area and even attended Madison East High School. On New Year’s Day in 1942 he married my grandma, June, and they’d go on to have ten children. TEN. My daughter Anna’s middle name is June, after my grandmother, actually. Shortly after they were married, grandpa was drafted by the United States Army and ended-up serving nearly for four years with extensive time spent in New Guinea and the Philippines during WWII. He was promoted to Staff Sargent status within the 32nd Infantry Division, 127th Regiment. The 32nd Infantry Division, the Red Arrow Division, was credited with many “firsts” and logged a total of 654 days of combat during World War II, more than any other United States Army division. While in Leyte (Philippines), grandpa suffered a serious wound to his right leg and was awarded the Purple Heart (more on this later). When he got back home, he finally met his first child, Bonnie. She was nearly three when he met her for the first time.
Grandpa and grandma had been married for 49 years when she passed away back in 1991. Then, in 1994, at age 75, he remarried. He married a long-time family friend, Mary, and they’ve been together ever since. I still remember their wedding, the two of them sitting up in front of the church, nervous as could be. It was adorable. The two of them loved going to the casino and even took two trips to Hawaii together! I tell my wife, Julie, “See, don’t worry, we’ve got plenty of time. Grandpa and Mary went when they were almost 80!” Mary was absolutely, mind-bogglingly amazing through all of this. She has been through so much in her life…what an incredible woman.
Grandpa was strong. The 32nd was known for their toughness, their resolve. Their insignia, the Red Arrow through the line, signified its tenacity in piercing the enemy line. I’m sure he has countless stories, but as he always said, “fighting is fighting.” It wasn’t glamorous. His job was to go ahead of his unit during battle and phone back to them to tell them what weight mortar to fire, so they’d get the enemy and not their own men. While in battle in Leyte, he went ahead and was shot in the lower leg, blowing a fist-sized hole out the back of it. He laid by a log, wrapped it as best he could, then continued to call back as “pieces of bark were flying this way and that” as the sniper kept shooting at him. Eventually, and miraculously, two soldiers appeared out of nowhere, made a makeshift gurney and took him to safety. They took him to a church being used as a hospital and took care of him and while there, he saw an angel. “I know it sounds goofy,” he said, “but that’s what happened. They say we all have guardian angels and I got to see mine.” He spent eleven months in the hospital when he got back to the states, enduring painful healing measures. They actually drilled a hole through the cast and they’d soak a rag and pull it through the hole in his leg, back and forth, to clean it. Unbelievable. He was lucky to keep his leg, in fact. When I saw him a week and a half ago he mentioned that when we talked about my arm for a bit.
My brother interviewed grandpa in 2004 about his experiences in the war and we watched the video of it one night at hospice. One thing that struck me as he spoke was his humility. He was a war hero in every sense of the word and yet, he didn’t brag or boast. He didn’t like war. He said he hopes none of his grandsons ever have to go. He displayed the depth of his understanding of humanity, too, as he spoke about the enemy. He said something to the effect of, “Nah, I don’t really hold a grudge. They didn’t want to fight as much as we didn’t want to, I’m sure, but everybody understood what needed to be done.” These were the people who were trying to kill him and succeeded with many of his friends. Again, just amazing.
Grandpa was funny. No, hilarious. He was always joking and making everyone smile. So, now you know where I get it from. In fact, a few years ago I performed my cousin Heidi’s wedding and at the ripe ol’ age of 90, he was still cracking wise. After the ceremony my wife asked, “Didn’t Ryan do a great job, grandpa?” to which he replied, “Yeah, he did good. Not as good as I coulda did, but he did good.” Then he smiled that sly smile like he always did. If there’s one thing I appreciate most that I inherited from grandpa, it’s that Haack sense of humor. Maybe that’s weird, but the value of humor is vastly underrated, in my opinion. Thanks, grandpa.
Grandpa showed us how to love well. He helped to raise ten children and set a solid foundation for them. This week has shown that more clearly than any I can remember. And there were the birthday cards. My son Sam said the other day, “I’m going to miss the birthday cards from grandpa the most.” Every year, without fail, we’d all get a card signed by grandpa with a little money in it on our birthday. It’s a little thing, but to me it was symbolic. It was symbolic of his reliability. The reliability of his love for his family. And he was always so proud of us. He’d make it to as many birthday parties and graduations as he could. I’ll always appreciate that about him.
A little over a week ago grandpa went into hospice. He had stopped dialysis a couple weeks prior and the goal was to get him comfortable as he transitioned. I believe that mission was accomplished. Last Wednesday I left work early to go see him and as “luck” would have it, he was alert and lively…and funny. He was joking around with everybody and smiling and laughing. At one point it looked like he had dropped something so I asked if he needed anything. He looks at me and says, “A thousand dollar bill. When do I get that?” and then he smiled. Classic. That night he started seeing/calling out to his wife June, his brother Arnold and others who have already passed. We were pretty sure he’d go that night.
But, no. He hung on. For a long time.
In fact, the nurses said that these old WWII guys typically do stick it out longer than others. They just have this otherworldly resolve and determination. On Thursday morning they had a nice ceremony saying their goodbyes and he had been resting peacefully since then.
I will remember the last week for the rest of my life. It meant the world to me to be with family and to hear everyone sharing stories, some of which had never been shared before. Part of me thinks grandpa held on to foster that conversation. Seeing all my aunts and uncles taking care of each other and laughing as they reminisced about their crazy upbringing was inspiring. We kind of took over that area of the hospice center and several of the nurses became attached to grandpa and to us and said our family made a big impact on them. That said, the staff at Agrace was unbelievable. They made an impact on us, too.
As difficult as this week was (how much longer can he go on??), it was also a blessing. A blessing to be with him; to kiss and hug him and tell him how thankful for him we are. A blessing to be with family. A blessing to sing How Great Thou Art as we walked him from his room at hospice. A blessing to sense the love of God in this time of sadness and mourning and to experience the hope of knowing he will live for eternity with his Heavenly Father and those who have gone before him.
One day we’ll see him again. Until that time, we have our memories and we have each other. And I know we’re all going to do our best to honor him with how we live our lives.
And I’ll keep trying to make people laugh. I think grandpa would like that.
Love you, grandpa