The Luckiest Man Alive; The Legend of Don Nelson

100_0975I think if you listened today…really listened…you will notice another voice is missing.  Another of Tom Brokaw’s “Greatest Generation” has been silenced by Father Time (who sadly remains undefeated in such matters.)  The passing of my father-in-law, Don Nelson, on January 12, gives all who knew him the opportunity to pause and reflect, not on simply his life, but on how each of us might measure up.   I don’t mean to suggest that we ought to be comparing our lives to his, because in many ways, he lived an incomparable life.  I mean that when someone dear to us dies, we have a more obvious opportunity to measure where we are with where we intended to be.

I met Don about ten years ago when he had already passed the point of trying to decide where he wanted to go as he spent most of his time thinking about where he’d already been.  As amazed as anyone would be who learns his life story, they would never be more amazed than was Don himself.

Evidence of the quality of his life was all around him.  He had a wife who doted on him and protected him.   He had her pretty well fooled on a smoking habit that he held on to until the very end.  We’ll never really know if Marge was actually fooled into believing that the cigarette he was holding at the casino belonged to some stranger who just handed it to Don as he walked by, but watching the two of them play the “Don is not smoking” game was a joy to watch.   When Marge died just over three years ago, Don was devastated.  But he was also willing to declare victory in the smoking wars and proceeded to fill up the house with so much smoke you could see the haze from the street.  As he sat in his quiet house and grieved like no one I’d ever seen, that previously banished smoke was often his only company.

Don had three daughters who are as different as three daughters can be.  Except when they aren’t.  All three were teachers.  All would do anything for their kids.  And all never stopped trying to relieve their melancholy dad from the pain of his loss.  For over a year, Don had dinner with one of his daughters every single night.  You don’t get love and attention like that from your kids unless you at some point showed them how it’s done.

As I said, Don was already taking stock of his life by the time I met him.  My interest in history and personal narratives was sated on a regular basis by Don’s stories of his life.  His childhood in Cheboygan, his teaching in the one-room school house (Hebron #2), his time at Central Michigan, his military service in BOTH Europe and Asia, his trips around the world, the building of his house on “the property”, and the raising of his kids provided years of treasured anecdotes.  But they all either started or ended (or started AND ended) with “I don’t believe it.”   And Don really didn’t believe it.

He always claimed to be the luckiest man on earth.  Good fortune, he’d say, was always around the next corner.  People found him jobs.  The military picked him for tasks he was sure he was not qualified for.  He ran into friends from Cheboygan in Okinawa and Tokyo during and after the war.  He turned a house on Bay Street into his dream house and forty acres….and never owed a cent on it.   His investments always made money.  But most of all he had the greatest kids ever.   And he never believed any of it.   Don is perhaps the only person I know who never felt he deserved anything or was entitled to any more than he had.

I made the cliché mistake one time of asking him if he had any regrets.  I have always loathed that question because people inevitably answer “No, I wouldn’t change a thing.”  That, of course, is B.S.  Everybody would change something….maybe even a lot of things.  Don started to say the same thing, and then he paused.  “Just one.  We couldn’t save Eric.”

I never got to meet Eric, his son, who died just before I met Lisa.  The mood always got somber as Don recounted the demons that his son faced and the attempts to beat them. Even as he recounted Eric’s exploits on the tennis courts, golf courses, and baseball fields, whatever joy he was getting from those memories always ground to an uncomfortable end.  Each time these conversations ended in a long silence.  And it was the face of profound regret.

About fifteen years ago I got to see my own father die before my eyes.  At that time I was asked by his wife to deliver the eulogy.   It’s a heavy burden to be asked to put a person’s life in perspective.  Standing in front of a crowd of friends and relatives, I believe eulogies are a lot more about the person delivering them than they are about the person who can no longer speak for himself.  The fear is that I wasn’t paying close enough attention to my own father to put his life in perspective.  I remember silently walking along Santa Monica beach for hours with my son, Stephen, as I “composed” what I would say.

I remember asking the crowd “What is the measure of a man?” I wanted to know just how we know someone has lived a good and meaningful life.  I had no answers, so my eulogy that day looked at my father’s life and walked the audience through my tortured analysis.  They had to draw their own conclusions, because even at age 45, I was woefully unprepared to claim I knew anything.   At the end I sat down and played Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” for the audience. The song relates the troubled relationship between a father and son, the expectations each had for each other, and the impossibility of either of them meeting those expectations.   Even now when I hear that song, I know it was written for my dad and me.

It took me fifteen years, and the deaths of my mother, my grandmother, and my mother-in-law to find the person I would be able to deliver a fine eulogy for.  And this time no one asked. There’s no need for tortured analysis.  There’s no need for complicated metaphors and painful soul cleansing.  There’s only Don’s own words about his fabulous life.  “I’m the luckiest man alive and I don’t believe it.”

Rest in peace, my friend.  I will miss learning about a happy life from you.

One Comment on “The Luckiest Man Alive; The Legend of Don Nelson”

  1. K.Coveyou January 15, 2015 at 4:53 am #

    Well done Mark.

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