I still have several boxes containing the manuscripts my dad wrote. He wrote theological books and poetry, some rambling memoirs as well. I will always keep those weathered pages. He poured himself into those projects and had great hopes of being remembered as an author.
I remember him that way.
Dad was born at his parents’ house out in the country about three miles from where I was raised in rural Henning, Minnesota. If you continue to the south on the gravel road that winds past the patch of woods where his family’s house once stood, you’ll go past picturesque ponds, quiet farmsteads, grazing cattle, and within a few miles you will pass the cemetery where he and mom are now buried.
Dad was one of nine children born to Emil, a mechanic, and Clara, a housewife. Sometime during his earliest years, the family moved into the town of Henning and lived in a small house right next to the railroad tracks. Looking back, it may have been the most undesirable piece of property in town. The train passed so near the house that the pictures on the walls were always crooked from the vibration of the tracks.
I can’t imagine how their whole family fit in that house which was comprised of a small kitchen and a living room with a ladder leading to one bedroom upstairs. I was told the girls would sleep downstairs and the boys would sleep upstairs.
It was no secret in our town of 700 people that the Hetland men were drunks. As a child I would hear stories whispered about how one uncle would repeatedly have to be woken up and guided home after falling asleep on the street by the bar. My grandfather’s life and health was ruined by alcohol and he died by the time my dad was 17. All my dad’s brothers either died from alcoholism or struggled mightily with it all their days. One of dad’s brothers died at age 41 from liver failure the same day I was born.
Dad believed he could do life differently than the rest of the men in his family. It might have been the influence of his pastor who also had grown up in a small town but went on to get a college degree and then the Masters of Divinity needed to be a Lutheran pastor. While the rest of the men in my dad’s life worked hard, blue collar jobs during the day, played music and drank their nights away, Pastor Owen surrounded himself with books and writing. He dressed in a simple, clean suit and spoke in crisp, complete sentences. He had an office, a car, and his hands were always clean. He was a respected man in town.
So dad knew the route he wanted his life to take and he began to believe that even though he came from nearly nothing, he didn’t believe he had to stay in his hometown, take on a job to pay the bills and grow old there. Instead, he decided to go to college. He saved up enough money to hop on the train that went by his house and go down to the University of Minnesota to school. He loved to tell the stories of all the jobs he took on to pay for his schooling. He was immensely proud of his hard work and the fortitude it took to make it through those years and not give up. One of his jobs was working at a warehouse where for just a few cents he could buy the cans of food that had lost their labels. He never knew what was in those cans, just that it would be food. This was the food he lived on during most of his time in school.
After graduating from college, he began seminary to become a Lutheran pastor. The seminary, located in Saint Paul, was all men then and they could smoke in class. Dad and mom met while he was in seminary. They both attended a Bible study at the Lutheran church on the campus of the University of Minnesota. They were introduced by a mutual friend and they were married less than a year later.
My dad’s hard work should have paid off. If everything in life were a matter of hard work, dad should have become a successful pastor and then a bishop. He had strength of character, incredible drive, a forceful nature, and charm.
However, another part of my dad’s story was that he had endured the effects of a head injury since he was 7 years old when a car ran into him on the main street of our little hometown. That head injury caused a seizure disorder and the seizures couldn’t be controlled without an immense amount of medication. The medication dimmed his drive, stamina, and creativity – but without them, he would have seizures.
Dad was a parish pastor for three years before he resigned due to his health. This became the story of our lives. Our dad was born to be a pastor but he could not work as a pastor because of his health. He would become very anxious and nervous in the pulpit because he would be so worried about a seizure coming on. Eventually it was that anxiety and nervousness and the resulting depression that became a much larger problem than the seizures. Finally, he was told by a doctor that he couldn’t continue in his work because of his “nerves.”
This seems to me a diagnosis one wouldn’t hear anymore – there are so many more tools that we have to deal with mental and emotional difficulties in the midst of continuing to work, but as it was, dad felt his only option was to leave ministry.
All he had ever wanted to do was be a pastor. I don’t know what he and mom thought they would do after he left ministry. They moved back to the Twin Cities from South Dakota where he had been serving. Perhaps he started to write then?
Within a few years, my brother was born. They continued to live in the Twin Cities until I was born in 1970. Then, we moved to the small house in the country where I spent the rest of my years growing up.
There are many blank spot in the timeline between when dad left the ministry in the mid-sixties and when I was born. How did they earn any money? What was life like for them as they tried to figure out what their future was going to be like? My parents were already in their late thirties, dad could no longer work, mom had a full-time job raising us and taking care of dad. How did they survive? While these things are unknown to me and there is no one left to ask anymore, I do remember growing up and how the years unfolded with my dad. While his early years, from all the stories I was told, were marked with bravery and possibility, his later years were different, and immensely more difficult.
Our place in the country was beautiful and ideal for growing up in many ways. The house was very simple and needed some work, but the location was gorgeous. We were about five miles from town on the top of a hill. There were apple, oak, and poplar trees all around the house and even a small lake of our own hidden in the valley behind our house. My memories from our early years there are happy. We had time together as a family and both mom and dad spent time with us. Even though we were quite poor, had no running water in the house, we did laundry at the laundromat in town, filled water jugs at my grandmother’s house to bring out to our house for drinking water, we were happy and got by.
But as the years went by, both dad’s illness and our lack of money seemed to increase his anger and bitterness. My dad received a small pension check from the church and there was immense anxiety around the arrival of that check. We would have next to nothing in the cupboards and be waiting for that check to arrive so we could go shopping. Fortunately, the grocery store in town did allow a certain amount of credit, but I can’t imagine how stressful it was for my mom to deal with balancing that tiny amount of money we had in addition to the shame of needing credit extended to us. However, she took care of all of us, swallowed her pride and got us signed up for government cheese and rice, food stamps, welfare, and stayed so completely loving and gentle-hearted.
It is not an exaggeration to say she had to deal with everything – because eventually dad dealt with nothing anymore. By the time I started school, all dad did was sleep, watch TV, and occasionally rage. That is it. He hardly ever left the house. There was not a single activity he attended as my brother and I grew up. Nothing. Not a game, a play, a graduation, nothing.
At first my brother and I would ask him to come to our activities, then we would ask mom why he didn’t come, and then we finally just stopped expecting him to ever be there. Mom and my brother and I went out into the world. Dad stayed home. Sometimes mom would encourage us to go upstairs and tell dad all about our activities after we got home, but he never seemed all that interested. It became easier to just walk back and forth past his room and let him be.
It was confusing and sad at the time, but looking back on it, it is heartbreaking. Now that I am a parent myself, I can’t imagine missing so much of my children’s lives as he missed in ours. While he was always physically present in our house, he couldn’t have been farther away from us. So infinitely sad and angry. His room was like a dark hole that I feared getting sucked into. Naturally, then, it came to be that if my brother or I had anything we wanted to talk about, we went to mom. If we needed anything, we went to mom. Sometimes I felt bad about that but we learned long before that most any interaction with dad ended with him yelling at us.
His anger and depression was so heavy, and we all carried it on our backs. He was angry that life hadn’t given him the things he worked so hard for. He was extremely paranoid that people were out to get the small amount we still had. He hated that he had ended up back in the same area where he grew up. He regularly spoke badly about my friends’ parents – putting down their education and work. He made sure we knew he had many degrees and he had done many important things before his health robbed him.
Dad’s rages were like this: early in the day he would be exceptionally quiet and sullen. This was a sign of the volcano about to erupt. Eventually, sooner or later, something would set off the volcano and he would start yelling, raging about this injustice or that slight. It didn’t matter if we were in the room or if any of us appeared to be listening, he yelled and his voice was so loud it was all that any of us could hear in that tiny house. So, if I possibly could, I went outside, and eventually I began to walk as far away from the house as I could. I would walk and see how far away I could get before I didn’t hear that yelling anymore.
I asked my mom why he did it, why he was so angry. Mom looked so weary and she would say, “he is sick.”
He was sick. The rage was something he couldn’t control. He would yell for days and then finally he would fall asleep and sleep for a week. Perhaps that is how we started avoiding him. We didn’t want him to wake up and start yelling again.
Adding fuel to this smoldering depression was dad’s repeated abuse of prescription medication. While he steered clear of alcohol his whole life, he still struggled with addiction just like his brothers and father. Over and over he had to be brought to the hospital for taking too much of his medication.
There was more to him than these tragic stories – but it became hard for me to see it. While he was loving to us when we were small children, as we grew up it increasingly felt like he wished we would just go away. Mom saw the good in him, but in time, I really couldn’t. I would beg her to leave him, painting a picture of how happy and peaceful our days might be if we no longer had his constant anger and sadness clouding our days. I didn’t understand that separating from the person you pledged your vows to is simply impossible for certain people – people like my mom, who valued devotion above most things. So lovingly she took care of him.
I see so much of both of my parents in me – and because of it I wonder if my kids feel like their mom is a version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Oftentimes I am the epitome of my mother: loving, patient and kind. However, I also have a surprising temper and a keen ability to sink into sullen sadness.
I don’t miss my dad. While I miss my mother every moment of every day, the best I can say about dad is that I miss the relationship I wish we could have had. I am certain he was happy to be done with this life, and I am glad he has that now. This is the same emotion I had the moment I heard he died – “He can finally have peace,” I thought. I hope that is true.