My Grandfather, Erwin Mickelberg

I’m not quite sure how to write about the passing of my grandfather from this life to whatever it is that awaits us after the death of or bodies. My instinct is to pontificate on the circumstances and the meaning, the cause, the moments near the end and all sorts of other things. That’s just the way my brain works. Find something to take away, find a lesson, search for a meaning. That meaning, that lesson probably really has already come.

My Grandfather, Erwin Mickelberg, by all accounts lived a pretty good life for 87 years. In the end he was not himself. His last few years have been a constant battle with the worsening symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. What can I try to teach anyone about that? It’s a horrible disease and an end unfitting to any human. There is no lesson to be learned at the end of this process. Something comes to end us all in or time, this was his. I can’t pretend I understand, I can’t pretend I see any light or positive in the circumstances around Alzheimer’s disease, yet, the end was unavoidable in one way or another.

What I can do? And where should my thoughts should dwell at the sad end of a wonderful story? After some consideration, my second instinct is to consider the things he has left behind.

Erwin Mickelberg, who my siblings and I call Pakki, leaves behind a loving, devoted wife of 65 years, my Grandmother Carolyn Mickelberg. Together they had 2 daughters, one of which is my mother and they must have done something right in raising her because I think she is a pretty great lady. He leaves behind me, and six other grandchildren, we all carry a little part of him physically, and a variety of memories which I’ll get into later. The chain goes on, what he gave to his daughters, what they gave to their children, we continued on. Pakki will leave behind 6 great grandchildren with 2 more on the way. A lot things had to happen to make all of these people part of his and my life, but we all have to give him part of that thanks.

I only know a fraction of what my mother and her sister know. Of even the grandchildren, I know less than some but, what I do know is enough to at least get a good picture of the life he lived.

Erwin was born and raised near enough to Lacrosse, Wisconsin it doesn’t matter. As a boy he was too clever by half and didn’t have to work real hard at school so he made a bit of trouble. I can imagine it wasn’t too much but, he did have a good sense of humor and made plenty of jokes. He was, as far as I ever heard an all around fun, relaxed guy. He enjoyed duck hunting with his dad and uncle’s and caught the eye of my grandmother at a young age. Who was more enthralled with the other? I couldn’t tell you.

Then the war came. My grandpa enlisted in the navy at 17, which required parental permission. World War Two claimed a lot of lives and I’m sure my grandpa used a bit of his wit to stay off the front lines. He first used his voice to become a singer in the navy choir. To this day I’ll never forget his impossibly melodious rendition of happy birthday and the constant, pitch perfect whistling, a habit I certainly picked up from him (the whisteling anyhow, not sure on the pitch perfect stuff). Later when the war was coming to a close, Erwin was in the South Pacific doing what he would do for a career later on life; he was teaching. He taught soon-to-be vets about their post war benefits. He loved to teach, next to his family I am not sure he loved many other things more than he loved teaching.

The war ended. Erwin came home and married my grandmother, Carolyn Ryan. I’m not sure what transpired other than he wanted to go to school and some of the military benefits helped to finance college education. So the two of them moved to Minneapolis. From there my mother was born and my Grandfather finished school and began teaching biology at the college where he earned his degree. I heard stories of how poor they were at the time, how they lived at least one summer mostly in tents so my Grandfather could do field research. I’ve heard how their family and neighbors banded together to get dinner on the table. I know somewhere in there my Aunt was born and Paki began a 39 year career as an Augsburg College Biology Professor. I am sure there are stories that are escaping me now, but, we’re working 100% on stories I have heard about the old days at this point and second hand knowledge can only do so much.

Eventually Grandchildren started to come along. My older brother Jeff (who is 12 years older than me), the first grandchild had the honor of creating names for my Grandparents. Pakki was his early attempts at asking for his Grandpa to Rock him. Bagga, my grandmother was just grandma I believe. Pakki and Bagga became an iconic set of names that is total nonsense to anyone who isn’t in my direct family, but, sort of nice that those names hung around.

We lived just a couple of blocks down from my grandparents from the time I was 3 to the time I was maybe 10. I believe Pakki was still working at the time, either that or he was working with the church. He had worked with the church most of his life, serving as president of the congregation for some amount of time. I remember hearing about a time their church burned down and how he not only took a leadership role in rebuilding the church, but also ran into the burning building to save the member logs and other important documents.

After he retired, an occasion for which there was a party (which I remember vaguely), he began working with the elderly members of the church. Never ceasing his relentless desire to stay busy he visited elderly members of the congregation and talked to them, read with them and generally helped them get their church in when they could not make it on Sundays. Somewhere in there he dealt with a multi-vessel bypass surgery and prostate cancer. None of that seemed to slow his work with the church much. Around that time my mother brought me and my younger brother to visit somewhat frequently in our teenage years. We would just visit them at their appartment, talk, laugh and tell them about the mundane details of our lives that grandparents love to hear about. That was before his later years when Alzheimers began to set in.

I’ve mentioned Alzheimer’s being a terrible, terrible thing. It is. But there is some good to find in any situation. I was in college when the disease began rearing its ugly head. I spent some time searching myself as any college student is like to do and I think there was a lot of me to discover from looking back and my family history. I made films all through college and began digging into the rich history with the college to which I had recently transferred. Augsburg college holds a lot of family history, staff remembered both my older brother’s career as a student and ┬ámy grandfather’s career as a teacher. One of those teachers was Dale Pederson, a former student of my Grandfather, and current chair of the biology department. I spent some time digging into the history of my grandparents and part of that research brought me collaborate with Dale to set up a meeting of old students and colleagues. At that point Pakki had been losing some short term memory but still remembered the old days and the meeting with everyone still sticks out as one of the better things I have done in my life. I filmed it all and made a couple of projects on that and other material. Either way, the old friends were happy to see each other. Pakki was back in his element and I had a chance to see a little bit of what that was like.

It all slips away. Eventually you forget everything with that disease. The confusion heightens, the fear and stress heightens. Through it all he would always rise to visitors, he faked knowing what was happening really well. Even when he was totally lost he was all smiles and jokes. My eldest daughter Hannah had a chance to see him, to sit on his lap, to share her special little-girlness with him. I’ll never forget how excited he was for me and my growing family. He had nothing but compliments for my wife Lauren. He frequently joked about how he had no idea how I had ever got her to marry me. He knew, to the last couple of weeks when we saw him awake and alert for the last time, that my little family was going to be a great and wonderful thing, and I know he was thinking of how special it was when he had his kids and grandchildren. He loved family through it all. Even when he could hardly put together a sentence, he told me how special it will be to see my kids grow up. When we left I asked my shy little Hannah to give him a hug before we went, she cuddled right up on his chest and hugged in. I wont forget that image for all my life.

I am sad to see him go, but, until the last few years it seems like you could hardly ask for a better life. I do wish my kids could have known him better, Hannah would have loved him. He would have loved to hold Madeline who will be born this summer but, Great Grandparents don’t often hang around real long and he has been one for 13 or more years already (my oldest nephew got to know him pretty well). I can’t do any more than thank God for such good grandparents. He and my Grandma have done nothing but show me love and support and praise all the things I have done. I believe with what I know about him I will continue to do him proud. After-all I am following in his footsteps a little more with 2 girls of my own here. I will miss him. I will think of him at every happy birthday, every visit with my grandma, every Christmas, Thanksgiving, or whenever one of his Norwegian phrases or little jokes slip past my lips. That’s good stuff maynard.

So, rest easy, be with God, be in peace, share that smile and laughter and witty charm with your parents, with whomever, however, or whatever it is that comes after life. I believe we will stay connected because I will always have a bit of you as part of me in my blood, in my thoughts, in my heart. I think we will stay connected, but, my goodness will I hope to feel your life and light again when I get to the end of my journey. I wont hurry though, you have written a good story — a great one even and I have work to do there before I can hang up my hat and see you again.

I love you, I will miss you, I will remember you,


P.S. I wrote most of this sitting at his bedside over the last week. I won’t lie, I shed some tears listening to the declining breathing while I worked through those last couple of paragraphs. It is now after 10am on Saturday, May 3rd, 2014. He has gone on as of a few minutes ago. My younger brother called me from his room. I had been editing this document as he passed. As he breathed his last, his wife, my two brothers, father, mother and sister were there beside him. I am happy for that and that he no longer has to suffer his final hours. Rest in Peace.

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