Last year reminds us to fight for outdoors this year
The holidays should always serve as a reminder for us to cherish and protect the things we love and need the most, but 2016 was something else altogether.
We spent Christmas in Texas with some of the most basic of outdoor pleasures – mild weather, a little barbecue and porch time with beloved family members – but any joy we experienced was tempered by our second painful loss in a little over a month.
Very early on Christmas Eve, my stepfather, Walt Tindell of Temple, Texas, passed away in a Temple hospital following a lengthy battle with congestive heart failure. His death came after my wife’s father had also left us on the Saturday before Thanksgiving in Costa Rica.
We had arrived in Texas just hours before, driving straight to the hospital where family members had been encouraging him to wait until the northern siblings – myself and my Detroit-area brother, Craig – came to say goodbye.
Walt did just that. We got there a little after 8:30 p.m. His responses had dwindled to only the slightest of movements, but family who had been with him kept telling him we were almost there.
Craig arrived around 10 p.m., and after we’d all gone home sometime before 1 a.m., Walt passed peacefully, holding his youngest daughter’s hand, about two hours later.
It was a powerful reminder of the pull that family and place have on all of us. When we are together in a location where our loved ones are gathered, everything is as it should be.
Texas warmly welcomes you this Christmas
Walt’s passing is only appropriate for ruminations this week in that the outdoors played mostly a practical and relatively indirect role in his interactions with my family. Still, it was a fairly constant one.
He liked to fish and to wander around parks or other outdoor locations, where he’d gather rocks for polishing. He’d visit a national park as a goal, but it was more means than end, an excuse to go see family.
But generally speaking, he wasn’t the most active recreationist – no camping or big hikes. The “great outdoors” was most often a backyard where some gathering would be held and he was often in charge of or assisting with the grilling.
We talked a little about why that was, speculating that maybe he’d gotten his fill of being outside during his time serving in the Vietnam War, which was for him, like so many others of his generation, a bitterly painful experience, including the return home.
Nature was just one of the places where his family got together to laugh and catch up with each other. And the family was, like many others in America, a mixed bag of children, stepchildren, in-laws, step in-laws and former relatives by marriage who later simply became unrelated family, if there is such a thing.
The blood ties were only tenuous at times, but the real bond was love for and acceptance of each other, and we spent a bit of time talking about that this weekend, both indoors and out.
Whether it was at my brother’s rural hideaway in woodsy East Texas or the patio of a Starbucks a few miles up the road from the church where we memorialized Walt Tuesday, we marveled at how we’d all become part of a disparate, but tight crew, even if we had just lost an anchor.
My mom had only married Walt shortly after my senior year in high school, so I never really lived in the same house more than a few weeks. Yet he was a dad and friend to me, more so than my biological father – as he was to all of the six stepchildren, plus his two daughters, and various spouses, as well as all their kids.
It wasn’t until Christmas services at my sister Penny’s church in Waco that I realized our relationship centered almost exclusively around holiday gatherings.
That’s when the hymns, especially “Silent Night,” really hit me, and I realized Christmases with Walt were the ones I remember most clearly.
Part of it was he married my mom during my senior year in high school, so Walt has been there during the later holidays of my life – those between-semester breaks from college; one- or two-day trips over to Killeen, Texas, from my job as business editor in College Station, Texas; those longer hauls down from Kansas and, most recently, Wisconsin, that came at greater intervals.
We opened with a hymn led by a taxidermist named Rob, who was filling in for the normal worship director. The latter was out back of the church fixing the air conditioning.
My glasses were steamed over – no kidding – as Rob said, “We always like to say that we like to welcome you warmly, but this isn’t really what we mean.”
Some minutes later, my glasses cleared a split-second before I felt a wave of cool air wash over the congregation. Merry Christmas from Texas!
New year’s resolution: same as the old one
Later, some of us sat on the wooden deck on my brother Loren’s property outside Centerville, a little less than a mile from where the Trinity River occasionally overflows its banks, talking about family and politics and why we all voted for who we did.
Not too long ago the river crept way up the road and all the way to the porch of the house, covering most of the yard but not quite making it over the last step and the small earthen rise that slopes up to the top of the house’s foundation.
Our family is split among those who acknowledge climate change and its causes and those who don’t, although everyone on the porch at the time was a climate realist. Even some of those realists, however, didn’t let the issue play a major role in their votes, which is understandable on one level and completely confounding on another; I, for one, see it as a fundamental indicator of whether a candidate is rational.
As we sat talking about how strange, but pleasant the humid, 70-degree plus weather was for drinking beer and nostalgically remembering Walt, it occurred to me that a lot more of my life is going to be about navigating the very sharp, acrimonious political divide among our extended and motley American family.
Walt would have loved to be out there on that porch with us – and he was, of course, in spirit, as he always will be. And he would, of course, have helped us navigate our differences so that we could celebrate our life together.
As we enter 2017, my children suddenly without grandfathers, I was prepared to review last year’s outdoor resolutions and talk about my new ones, but that will be for next week.
My overarching resolution will be the same. Life on this beautiful earth – whether our backyards or the nation’s – is here, so I’ll fight to cherish, enjoy and protect it for Walt’s family while I can.