It’s been a week since my dad’s funeral. No, it hasn’t really sunk in yet that he’s gone. How could it? Duane was always larger than life, one of those people you just can’t talk or think about without smiling–maybe because you’re remembering one of the racy jokes he used to tell.

It’s hard to write about Duane…there’s just too much to say. Every thought of him leads to a story that leads to another memory that leads to another person that leads to another story. It makes it hard to figure out where to start (and it feels impossible to share it all). And Duane was a guy who loved a good story.

Duane knew everyone and everyone’s stories. He collected them, catalogued them, filed them away. He knew everyone and their stories because he cared. He knew people’s stories because people mattered to him. And the funny thing about Duane is that it didn’t make a difference whether he knew you for 30 seconds or 30 years, no matter how/when/why you found your way into his orbit, the result was always the same–he would CARE about you. You’d start out sharing a drink or an elevator ride and then the next thing you know you’re borrowing his truck to move into your apartment or watching him adjust your son’s training wheels because he noticed they were a little wobbly when he rode by on the sidewalk.

Duane was a person who left everything better than he found it. Every house or apartment we ever lived in was cleaner when we left than when we moved in. Every person Duane met or talked to always walked away in a better mood, with a better outlook, or with a funny (and slightly inappropriate) story to share. This world is a better place because Duane was in it, and that was made clear in his final days, as I watched friends and family and near-strangers flock to his side to say goodbye.

It makes you think a lot about life, to see your father there bravely facing the end of it–watching the aides and nurses and therapists and doctors staying late and coming in on their days off, telling him that they loved him, squeezing his hands, kissing him on the forehead.

It makes you think about what is most important in this life as you sit with someone you love through their last days. And while I’ve often said that the thing I value most in this life is connection (and that I truly believe the one purpose we all share here as humans is to find ways to connect with each other), I think the power of human connection has never been so clear and powerful for me than what I’ve witnessed in these last days, weeks, months since Duane went to the hospital for the last time.

Duane loved life. He LOVED life. No matter how beautiful or brutal or complicated or challenging, Duane was down for the ride. And even after the cancer diagnoses and the difficult surgeries, he didn’t really slow down much at all. He was determined to squeeze every last drop out of this life and move onto the next on his own terms–and I’ll be damned if that’s not exactly what he did. I always knew my dad was strong–working as hard as he always did, raising Lindy and I, dealing with his own obstacles and life lessons and losses, graduating to grandparenthood, navigating all the health challenges, etc.–but somehow everything he endured before now seems so small compared to the things he faced these last few months.

For almost three months, we watched Duane get sick, recover, relapse, keep fighting, go on hospice, go off hospice, go on a ventilator, go to rehab, refuse to give up, and then finally surrender. He tried everything, exhausted every opportunity, never gave up, right up to the moment when he told us it was time to go. And I think, out of everything, I am most thankful for that extra time, because it gave us a chance to make his last day his best day, so we could come together and let him go.

We prayed and took communion. He shared a cold 6-pack of Busch Light and Dot’s honey mustard pretzels with Harry and Stevie and Thorin. He dictated all his wishes for a simple graveside service and luncheon to Mom, with a handful of other instructions for after he was gone. Lindy and Richard and Odin and Henry came after school. Cadence said her goodbye to Papa the day before. Jim and Cindy arrived, and Jim mixed Duane his first Windsor & 7 in months. Then the four friends settled in to watch the Husker women’s volleyball team take down Indiana. We all laughed a bit and cried some too. One by one, we all said our goodbyes.

One of the things I find most remarkable about my dad is that for all the genuine care and love he put out into this world, he never really said it: “I love you.” If I’m being totally honest here, I don’t know if I never heard my dad say those words. I would joke with him about it sometimes, trying to illicit some reaction or make some sense out of why those words always seemed elusive.

Duane never said “I love you” but he showed it in a million ways, and anyone who ever knew him can probably tell a story about how my dad showed up, helped out, or just listened or gave advice when they needed it most. He always wanted everyone to leave a little better than they came in. He made sure everyone was taken care of, no matter what. He never said, “I love you.” It was always a finger wave and a “Yep, I’ll see ya.” But somehow, even if he never came right out and said it, he always had a way of making everybody feel like they were the most important people in the world. And we saw so much of that love come back to him as so many gathered last week to pay their respects and welcome him home. (Smartest decision Mom and I made was to upgrade to the big room at the Bertrand Community Building…I just had a feeling there might be a few people who needed to tell my dad goodbye).

That last night, I needed him to know that I loved him. I needed him to know that I knew he loved me too. So I waited until we had a quiet moment in the room together before I left. I knelt down beside the bed and touched his arm.

“I love you, Dad” I said. “We all love you. You know that right?”

He nodded and reached for his electro-larnyx. Then he said, “I wasn’t ever much good at saying it.”

I nodded.

“Maybe you never said it, but you showed it in a million ways. Remember when I would drive home from college? I’d always wake up the next morning and my car would be in the shop for an oil change and a tune-up, and the tank was always miraculously full of gas.” He smirked and nodded. I went on. “And remember the chairs you bought me after I had Cadence and Henry? You were worried about me being able to get up off the couch after my surgeries, you insisted I have the right chairs to recuperate.”

We were both crying then, and it was time to go. I told him I loved him and I kissed him on the forehead. He waved a finger at me and smiled.

“Yep, I’ll see ya.”

I’m not a religious person. It’s not for lack of trying. I just can’t seem to find one that holds sacred everything I do…no exceptions or exclusions. So, I always settle for just saying I’m spiritual and that I believe in something so much bigger than me and all of us that includes and embraces and IS all of us (and then at that point even I start getting kinda dizzy, so I just leave it at that and move on). But ask me right now, this moment, how I KNOW that there is something so much bigger than this and that death is not something to fear because it’s not really an “end.” Ask me how I know death is just a temporary interruption, a small glitch, a thin veiled passage between this place to something else. I know this, because when I said goodbye to Duane that night (and we both knew it was the last time we were saying goodbye in this place), when I told him I loved him and said good night, he smiled and waved a finger and said with absolute certainty, “Yep, I’ll see ya.”

Yep, I’ll see ya, Duane. And until it’s my time to join that epic party I have no doubts you’re now busy orchestrating in the place we all graduate to after this, all I hope is that I can spend my precious time here making this life and this world better than I found it and taking good care of the people around me…just like you showed me how to do.

CLICK HERE to watch Duane’s graveside service. And if you have a memory you’d like to share, feel free to leave it in the comments or email it to lori.romano07@gmail.com.

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