Saturday, November 30, 2013

On The Passing of My Father...

My father Eric Verheiden passed away on November 14 after a long struggle with prostate cancer.  He had recently turned 87 years old.  He is survived by his four sons and six Grandchildren, and he's resting alongside his wife Caroline, who passed away in 2008. 

Dad was born on Oct. 24, 1926, son to Amy and father Eric Senior.  My dad's dad was a logger in Oregon's timber industry and an accomplished amateur painter.  There were two sons, Eric and younger brother Hans, and the family was living in a small home in Portland Oregon when the depression hit.  A hard life became even harder when Eric Sr. was killed in a logging accident in 1933.

But the family persevered.  Classified 4F because of a heart murmur, my father worked in Portland's shipyards during the war.  His mother Amy worked in a cannery while attending to Hans, who had contracted polio and spent many months in the hospital.  They did not have an easy life by any means, but I honestly can't remember my father ever complaining about those days.  If anything, he would remember life in the 30's with fondness.  Buying used Doc Savage pulps for a nickle each from a nearby bookstore.  Working in a hardware store for 10 cents an hour and learning all about tools.  Fixing up on old car and rolling around the neighborhood.  

(Actually, I do remember one complaint: he washed dishes to pay for his tuition through college, and he hated souffle days because those pans were almost impossible to clean.)     

Dad graduated from Oregon State University -- he was an electrical engineer by trade and worked his entire career for Portland General Electric, the utility company that (still) delivers electricity to a big chunk of Oregon.  Early in his career, my dad designed the physical power poles that carried lines into various rural areas.  He was especially proud of one of his more elaborate constructions and took my then pregnant mother on a bumpy ride to check out his handiwork.  Not long after, yours truly was born prematurely...

For a long time Dad was the guy who would put together the crews on snowy/icy/stormy days to repair downed power lines.  Later he rose in the ranks of management and was involved in figuring out budgets and the "business of business" that kept the lights on.

My dad was proud of his work, but I think he was most proud of the freelance articles he wrote and sold to various utility/power company journals back in the day.  Most of these sales happened when I was still just a tyke and something about his delight and pride over those articles clearly registered in my four year old lizard brain.  So go ahead, blame my dad for my so-called writing career.  Trust me, he won't mind.

My father met my mother at the Oaks Park skating rink (it's still there, in "The Oaks" amusement park in Portland), where they shared an affinity for roller-skating and dancing.  He was 19 and she was 16, sparks flew, and they were married three years later.

Next thing you know, kids! They had a couple of "parenting" policies that seemed natural at the time but which I now, looking back, think were actually quite progressive.

1): If the kids needed anything "educational" (books, magazines, tuition), they would do whatever they could to provide it.  They subscribed to both local papers and dozens of different magazines, everything from the news weeklies to Road and Track and National Geographic.  I grew up in a house where reading and learning were as natural and routine as our morning bowl of Cheerios.

2): As long as his kids got good grades, there were never any "bed times" or "be home by 11" edicts.  We all kept crazy hours, but two of my brothers graduated with PhDs (Math and Physics), a third retired early from Microsoft, and then there's me, the Hollywood bum.   So I guess the system worked okay for us.

I have endless fond memories of growing up in (then) rural-ish Oregon.  We had a small house on one and a half acres of land, plenty of room for four boys and nearby friends to build forts, tree-houses, dig "holes to China" and other non-internet related activities.  When we were still kids, my parents invested in a small power boat and we spent many Summer weekends on the Willamette and Columbia rivers, water skiing and crashing through the wakes of passing big ships.  We rented trailers, dragged them behind our old station wagon and drove to the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, and many other vacation destinations.

Frankly, we made "Leave It To Beaver" look like an episode of "Sons Of Anarchy."  My parents didn't drink or smoke and I can count on one hand the number of times they had an argument.  No "horrors of childhood" stories here -- if any of us screwed up later in life, it was our own damn fault!

My Dad was an Eisenhower Republican, which led to the occasional (ahem) argument, but after the prosperous Clinton years and the not so prosperous Bush-2 years, he switched to Democrat and never looked back.  My father and mother were not particularly religious, and my father especially loathed the so-called Moral Majority and "social conservatives."  One strong memory, from when I was six or seven years old: my father had invested in the "Time-Life Series on Religion", a six volume set.  He didn't feel it was right to let his lack of religious interest influence us, so he decided he would read us a chapter a night from the books so we could make up our own minds.  That lasted two nights.     

Dad probably would have kept working for PGE until 65, but when early retirement deals were offered to older employees in a round of cost-cutting, my Mom encouraged him to take the deal and he retired at 59.  He later said it was the best decision he ever made (well, second to marrying my Mom).  Unlike some fellows who miss the hurly-burly of work, Dad was liberated and did much traveling/bike-riding/backyard sitting with my mother, until she was afflicted with both Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases.  It was an especially brutal combination, and despite having resources to do otherwise, my father insisted on caring for her by himself through her entire illness, a 24/7 job.  He was devastated when she died and she was never far from his thoughts in the years after.  They had been married for 59 years.  Then Dad's younger brother Hans died on Oct. 17, 2011, after struggling with the after-effects of polio all his life. 

My father was diagnosed with prostate cancer early on and struggled with the disease for nearly 17 years.  Actually, I'm not sure "struggle" is the right word.  He had a radiation treatment at the beginning, then started a regimen of medications, but only really started to manifest symptoms this year.  His doctors were perplexed (in a good way!) by his condition... there were times when Dad's PSA (prostate specific antigen) score soared into the 100's, this when a 10 is considered cause for alarm, but his doctors noted that they could only treat symptoms, not a number, so as long as he was feeling okay...

That finally ended this Summer, and when Dad's oncologist recommended hospice care in late August he took it with his usual calm demeanor.  My father wanted to stay in his house until the end, and with the help of some amazing caregivers and the hospice workers, he got his wish.  To a person, the caregivers were astonished by my dad's good cheer and graciousness.  He was always worried about the burden he was putting on them.  Our family was with Dad as much as possible, but his caregivers Steve, Gary, Norma, and Nikki (who was there with me and my younger brother when my father died) were amazing.

I could go on, and may in future installments, but that's what comes to mind a week and a half after his funeral... 



Anonymous Don Murphy said...

Beautiful tribute, well written and emotional. Amen

10:08 AM  
Anonymous Dan Roach said...

I'm sorry for your loss Mark...and it is clearly a big one. Thanks for sharing. Your family is truly unique and your dad was certainly a special kind of man. Dan

10:19 AM  
Blogger Dana BB said...

Thank you for sharing Mark. As we get older and move into being 'next' generation, it's so important to write down as much as we can about our parents and their history. Time moves all too quickly. Dana

6:39 PM  
Blogger Kevin Morrill said...

Wonderful, well written tribute to your Father, Mark. I remember him well, especially when I'd come over to visit you from 1st grade into Jr. High, I usually would leave your home to go to dinner before he got home from work, but he'd smile and ask me how I was doing when he saw me. I also remember how he enjoyed keeping great books around the house for you and your brothers to read, but you and I would more often read the Mad magazines and comic books than the more intellectual stuff.
Kevin Morrill Aloha High School Class of '74

6:12 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Enjoyed this very much. Thank you, Mark.

3:52 PM  

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