"So I think I already know the answer to this, but I want to bring it up."
Uh-oh. "And what might that be?" I replied with a smile.
"I just wanted to ask. Were you planning on going to Dale's memorial today?"
Blink. Dale. Dale?
"Uhhh… memorial? What are you talking about?"
"I saw it posted on Pam's Facebook page," she said. "It's today at 2:30. I know you're busy, but I was wondering if you were thinking of going."
Understanding hit me. I looked at the Facebook post she pointed out. Pam posted on February 17th that her father's memorial was on February 21st at 2:30pm.
"Dale passed away?" Yes, it was a dumb question. But I was dumbstruck.
My relation to Dale Fritz is a bit circuitous. He was married to my step-father's sister. So I guess in a way he was my step-uncle. I only ever saw him and his wife, Ruth, when my parents came to visit. I've never been super close to that side of the family -- I only ever saw Allen, Pam, or Rob (Dale and Ruth's children) when my parents were here, usually during special holidays.
There were several times we got together, but two memories stand out. The first was a Thanksgiving when my parents decided we would spend the holiday in Seattle with the Fritz family. I was in high school at the time, and we drove up from central California and stayed several days, as I recall. I remember the scent of Dale's pipe, the close coziness of the house (I had to frequently duck, as I'd grown into my height by that point), and the smell of the rain around their home that was so cliché with being in Seattle. The interaction I most remember with Dale, that first visit, was a conversation we had about computers. This was back when I was excited to have a 1200 baud modem hooked up to an IBM 8088 with a total storage of 1.44 MEGAbytes between the two 720kb 5 1/4-inch floppy disk drives. (God I feel old). I was in to computers even at that age, and loved trying to connect to BBSes (that's "Bulletin Board Systems" for those of you who didn't live through the pre-Internet era -- essentially the equivalent of today's forums but ones you had to dial-up to, rather than click on a link. Now I feel even OLDER). I was excited to talk to Dale about computers. He was a professor at a university, had a Master's degree in engineering, and was most definitely in to technology.
"Do you play any computer games?" I asked him.
"No, I don't play games. But I love playing on the computer. I input all sorts of equations into it, and have it running and running and running crunching through the numbers."
"…" I didn't know what to say. "Uhhh… What?"
"Oh, yeah," he said, enthusiastically. "It's fascinating! I find these really complex arrays and input the numbers into the computer. Then I let it process away. It's really very neat!"
I knew at that point that this was a man who thought on a whole different level. I always wondered what that really meant -- at the time my impression of "equations" was 2+2=4. But he was so confident in his answer, so enthusiastic, so excited, that I couldn't help but admire him. And later during our visit, I saw him sitting in front of his small monochrome monitor in his office, pipe in his mouth, entering numbers into a command line.
Then there was another Thanksgiving. Lisa and I had just moved to Bellevue when I joined Microsoft. We lived in a small two-bedroom apartment (which by our standards at the time was HUGE), and somehow we made the crazy decision to host a family Thanksgiving that year at our place. My parents flew up from California, and my mom and Lisa diligently worked in the tiny kitchen preparing our traditional Thanksgiving fare -- turkey, sweet-potato casserole, mashed potatoes, and I think we even had that crazy Jello salad with the fruit mysteriously floating in the middle of it.
Dale, Ruth, Pam and her husband John, Allen and his wife Arlene and their daughter Pearl all came over, I think. I might be missing some people -- age will do that to memories. But I remember how amazing it was to have everyone together. Growing up in a relatively small family of my parents and my brother and sister, it was primarily the five of us for most of my adolescence. Having so many people, so much FAMILY, all in one place of such disparate ages was totally unusual. And there was Dale, smiling, smoking his pipe (outside of course), and soaking up the atmosphere, clearly loving every minute of it.
I was totally caught off guard when Lisa asked me about the memorial. I looked at my calendar for the day's activities.
"I have two meetings that are pretty important during that time, and a meeting later in the day I should really be at," I said hesitatingly. "I don't know if I can make it."
Lisa nodded. "Yeah, I'm sorry -- I meant to say something earlier when I saw the post."
"I had no idea. I can't believe he passed away. I feel horrible I didn't know."
I sat there for a moment, sipping my morning coffee and listening to the kids grumble about having to come to the breakfast table. I thought about the meetings, which were important to me. I thought about making sure I was following through on my commitments to business, and the value I'd get from the conversations I'd be having during the time the Fritz family mourned the passing of their father -- meetings with leaders of my organization, and discussions I was really hoping to have sooner rather than later.
And then I thought of Dale -- his soft-spoken presence, his constant good humor, his smile, and his intense focus on what you were saying. How he'd changed after a tragic motorcycle accident damaged his brain, but how he'd kept that quiet peace, and that genuine enthusiasm.
Work is important. But it's pretty clear, when you stop for a moment, what's really meaningful. What matters. It's not the business, the work you do, or the kudos you earn. It's the people who touch you, who you in turn influence, and the relationships that bind people together.
"I'll clear my schedule," I told Lisa. "I should be there. It's family."
The memorial was beautiful. There weren't a lot of people there. But the people who attended clearly loved the man Dale was, as well as the man he became after his accident.
I learned a lot about him through the statements his children made. I learned that not only did he have a passion for mathematics, but put himself through school to get that Master's degree in engineering, he was a nuclear engineer, an avid hiker, and once moved their entire house 3 miles down the road to get it out of the way of I-5, taking it apart brick by brick and then putting it back together.
There was a group of eight people there who were in the Happy Hikers Club. I'd never heard of it, but it wasn't an organization -- it was a group of friends who'd labeled themselves. It was a collection of parents of Boy Scout kids who enjoyed hiking and camping so much with each other that they continued to do it among themselves after their kids were no longer in Boy Scouts. They'd remained friends for the decades that followed.
Dale was a quiet, soft-spoken, intensely kind individual. I heard many times from people who knew him about his smile, and how he always had one ready. And it resonated with me -- I don't remember a single time, even when I saw him shortly after his wife of 59 years passed away, when he didn't have a ready smile, a kind word, and a sparkle in his eye like he was just about to laugh with you.
Toward the end of his life, much was taken from him. The motorcycle accident took key parts of his intellect away. Frankly, I don't know how much he understood about what was going on around him. Two years ago, his wife, Ruth, who he clearly dearly loved, passed away peacefully in their home. He required constant care, and the caregivers who were with him these last couple of years in the adult facility he went to were in attendance today. The tears they shed were a testament to the kind of man Dale was, and the admiration he garnered, even from people who knew him for such a relatively short time.
Through all that, I don't remember a single time when I saw him without a smile.
I couldn't believe I didn't know he'd passed away. I couldn't understand how this was something I'd missed. I will admit that I was peeved that no one told me. I knew I wasn't incredibly close, but still. So after clearing my calendar and sending apologies to people I'd rescheduled with, I opened up my computer, and did a search on my inbox for the word "Dale". The mail from my mom popped up. She'd sent an Email to me this past Saturday.
She'd told me that Dale had passed away and forwarded a note from Allen requesting any comments about Dale from people who couldn't make it to the memorial service, which was that coming Thursday. I'd missed it. The mail was lost in one of the more than two thousand Email messages in my inbox that have gone unread simply because there are only 24 hours in the day, and a need to sleep, eat, and have a family life. Among all the spammy newsletters, status updates, conversations among distribution lists, and commentary about work details, I'd missed the mail that communicated a death in the family.
I'm saddened that I only learned more about Dale, and had more insight into how we was a father, a husband, and a friend, during a service honoring his memory than I'd ever learned while he was alive. I'm saddened that life can be so hectic, so jam-packed with everyday details, that some of the most important little things can be missed in a sea of chaos. I'm troubled by the fact that it's so easy to miss moments when we should look around and appreciate the connections we have to the people that shape our view of our world.
I'm grateful that I work with amazing people who easily adjust to last-minute changes. I'm grateful that I have memories of Dale and his wife Ruth that I can cherish in my own way. And I'm grateful to the family that has always been so welcoming to myself, my mother, and my brother and sister when we joined their family.
Allen, before I left the memorial, told me that he was going to reach out to me directly. But he didn't know what to say, or whether he should, for the simple reason that while I was part of the family, being the step-son of his uncle, we weren't close. I think he assumed I'd be busy, that I'd have other obligations, and that given my fleeting connection to his father, I wouldn't attend a service at 2:30pm on a weekday. He was genuinely surprised to see me when I'd arrived. There was a part of me that was saddened at how surprised he was, but only because it's so easy to make an assumption that a busy life would preclude taking time to honor an individual. At that very moment, I was grateful for the decision I made that morning. Being there mattered -- to me, and to the children who'd lost their father. I'm grateful to have been part of the sharing of memories, so that I can carry them now too and continue to honor Dale.
Thanks for reading this. If you've gotten this far, it's likely that you have some connection to me, and my life. However remote, however tenuous, it matters. You matter to me, my family, and our lives. And we are grateful for you.
Rest peacefully, Dale. Your life was a non-stop adventure, and you had a profound impact on the people around you. Be proud. You will be fondly remembered.