You Are My Hero
After a brief illness, my late husband’s 92 year-old father, David S. Kluxen Sr., took his last breath this week. The details of his death aren’t important. His long, well-lived life is what counts.
I inhaled deeply as I pulled into the narrow driveway on Hartranft Avenue in Fort Washington after a 90 minute car ride from my home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on the last Friday in June. I had scheduled an afternoon visit in order to see him before I was to leave for a six week vacation at the New Jersey Shore. I was glad that Poppy was at home this time. A few weeks ago, I made a similar trip to see him at an area hospital. This emergency admittance resulted in his unsettling diagnosis. The annoying institutional smells triggered sad memories of my own husband’s 14-day hospital stay over two decades ago. I was relieved not to have to repeat that recent experience. It was still fresh in my mind.
As I got out of my car, I noticed three small American flags. Their slender wooden poles plunged deep in the soil of the narrow flower bed next to the low stoop. Brightly colored flowers bloomed in pots and in the nearby dirt
I stepped up and pulled open the aluminum screen door and let myself in through the unlocked side entrance into the kitchen. My nose detected a hint of morning coffee. I announced my presence with a loud ‘hello’ and continued on into the larger combination dining/room living room space. The close proximity of the familiar oval dining room table interrupted my pace as I continued on to the back of the first floor of their modest Cape Cod house. Flashbacks of wonderful family meals trailed behind me.
A low, unfamiliar hum filled the stagnant, warm air. And then I spotted the hospital bed next to the double window by the front door. A motorized oxygen tank lurked behind it. The clear rubber tubing on the worn carpet was tangled like a nest of snakes and I followed its trail into the den. Poppy was tilted back with his eyes closed in a new recliner. Two thin filaments in his nostrils delivered the necessary supplemental air and a bright, red blanket covered his frail body. The white socks on his feet poked out from beneath and stood guard on the foot rest.
Nanny sat loyally next to her husband of 68 years in a matching reclining chair. She pushed down hard on its arms to steady herself as she stood up to greet me. Her warm embrace melted some of my anxiety. Her deep blue eyes still had that special sparkle that had attracted her husband,four years her senior, to her when she was just 15 years-old. Her oldest son, my husband, had that same sparkle and our son Rick has it too. The clear tone of her voice was lighter than I anticipated as she casually announced, “Well, here we are.”
When I am nervous I chatter and babble. And so I started. “Oh Nanny, did you just get your hair done? It looks nice. Are those new chairs? Where did the couch go? How is Poppy feeling today? Is he eating? Does he sleep a lot?”
I didn’t give her a chance to answer. I just kept firing questions to fill the uncomfortable space.
In a few minutes my father-in-law opened his eyes and smiled at me. I went over to give him a kiss and reached for his hand. The bones of his fingers stuck in my palm like thin, outer branches on a weathered tree. “Hi Poppy,” I said quietly, “How are you today?” I know enough to frame questions in the moment.
“This is no way to live.” He shook his head in resignation and wagged his waxy, white index finger at me with authority.
“I know Poppy”. And then I corrected myself. “No I don’t know Poppy. Perhaps tomorrow will be a better day,” I added sheepishly.
He slipped back into sleep and Nanny and I continued chatting. She told me about Hospice’s home visit and support and how she had all of the medications she needed to keep him comfortable. A purple paper was taped to the dark wood paneling next to her chair with numbers to call and instructions.
I quietly stood up and tilted my head towards the doorway and motioned to her with a single wave in that direction. She followed me into the kitchen. Standing next to the little table set with two floral, cloth placemats, an assortment of plastic pill containers and a salt and pepper shaker set, I grabbed her in a tight bear hug. Her ample upper body smothered my slight frame. I immediately started to cry and she joined me. I told her that we both needed to let the tears out and she said how she had not wanted to cry in front of him. Nanny appreciated the opportunity to let out her pent up sadness. It was a much needed release for both of us.
“What are you gonna do?” she remarked as we wiped off the traces of our liquid love from our cheeks.
Her simple acceptance signaled to me that she was going to be okay.
When we went back to the den, Poppy opened his eyes as if he were simply waking from a short nap. Just then their third son, John, arrived to pick up his cell phone that he left from his usual morning visit.
“John, show Kim my American Legion jacket with all of the medals on it.”
John shifted the portable commode on the newspaper pad which was in front of the door and opened the small closet. He reverently pulled out a dark blue jacket on a hangar. Poppy leaned forward and straightened his back. “See, those are my World War II battle medals and ribbons.”
I held one of the awards in my hand as I admired it.
“That one is for the Battle of the Bulge.”
“Yes Poppy, I know you were there. Remember, I wrote a story about you?”
“What is this one for?” I asked as I reached for the other dangling circle.
“I was at Normandy.”
“You were at D-Day?” I was confused.
“No dear, but I did land on Omaha Beach after that invasion. How do you think I got through France and Belgium and into Germany?” My lack of military history was shameful.
Upon closer examination of his jacket I noticed four miniature metal stars next to the larger awards.
“What are these Poppy?”
“Oh those bronze stars are for service and valor,” he responded modestly.
My father-in-law just started sharing his wartime experiences within the last few years. Up until then, the memories and stories remained locked in his head and a faded picture of a fallen comrade in arms was secretly stashed in his top bureau drawer as his personal reminder of his service and the sacrifice that was made by so many.
“I did not know you were a five –star general Poppy!” I remarked lightly. “You are my hero.”
“No sweetie, I was not a general.” He quickly corrected me.
“You are still my hero”. I leaned over to kiss him again. Little did I know that it was to be my last one.
A hero in so many ways.
David Stewart Kluxen Sr. was a first generation American of Irish descent who quickly answered the call to service of his family’s adopted country. Setting sail from New York Harbor on August 11, 1944 as a young Army enlistee, he courageously left behind the love of his life, a first generation German beauty, with feelings of uncertainty secretly stowed in his heart.
As a shining example of the American Dream, his high school education, determination and hard work led him to a successful business career which provided a good life for his loving wife and family of 4 boys.
David Sr. proudly watched his first son, David S. Kluxen Jr. attend college and go on to law school as a ROTC scholar and later serve as a Lt. Commander in the military as a Navy flyer. He stood as a groomsman at the altar in his matching tan tux with over-sized lapels in a small church in upstate NY as a member of our wedding party. Along with my new mother-in-law, they welcomed me into their clan with overwhelming love and support.
As a grandfather to our children, he stoically sat in the pew behind our broken family listening to the minister eulogize that same son from the altar of the historic Trinity Lutheran Church in Lancaster 22 years ago.
And as a great-grandfather he secretly pulled out large denominations of paper currency and pressed them in the tiny hands of the fourth generation of his family and directed his great grandchildren to the nearby stashes of sweets.
Now father and son are reunited in peace.
You are my hero Poppy.
You always will be.