“Oh, all the money in my life I did spend
Be it mine right or wrongfully
I let it slip gladly through the hands of my friends
To tie up the time most forcefully
But the bottles are done
And we’ve killed every one
And the table’s full and overflowed
And the corner sign
Says it’s closing time
So I’ll bid farewell and be down the road.”
I had missed the visitation, so I arrived early the following morning and found him laid out as straight as I’d seen him in some time. The pain had vanished from his hip. His legs were no longer too weak. His shoulders square, and a remnant of the smile he so often wore was across his lips. He looked at peace.
The attendants for the funeral home were there, dressed in dark suits. Beyond them were only his son, Randy, and his daughter-in-law, Beth. They were looking through a trove of photographs on display, and Randy was referencing conversations they had with the long line of friends the night before. Meanwhile, at the casket, I was certain I had Dean Molln to myself one last time.
I thought of the quarter pop he bought us from the Coke machine when I was just a kid in the office of BB&P Feed and Grain. I thought of his belly laugh, reclined in the corner in an old swivel office chair, about to drop his Democratic wisdom on some poor unsuspecting Republican. Often he began with, “You know one time…” and from there it was on. A story about overhauling a semi behind a Missouri scalehouse with only a sheet of plywood to break the winter wind, or a story about a trip to East St. Louis, or what a wild town Creston once was, or how wild his sons once were, or a bet he won, or a bet he lost and gladly paid.
He was like a second grandfather to any kid who came through the doors, and I’m sure his family bore the expense of that. He was a friend to us all as we grew up. I thought of all our conversations as I went off to college, or came home to farm, or worked for my then inlaws, or went through a divorce, or leaving the elevator and working for myself. And I thought of how foolish I’d been not to visit him more in the end.
Always chasing it, you know? Trying to make a dollar or a difference, juxtaposed by the guy silently making noise.
The last time I paid him a visit, he was in a nursing home. I had a beard, and I was worried he wouldn’t recognize me, and I’d have to explain to him who I was. I was even more worried that he’d be unhappy there, removed from the grain elevator, the tasks, and the people he’d built his life around.
“Dan,” he greeted me. “Come on in. Make yourself a drink.” It was 11:30 am…on a Wednesday. He had a dorm fridge stocked with 7Up and Seagram’s. “I just saw Richard a couple of days ago. Looks like he’s doing good.”
“How are you doing Dean?”
“You know, I’m not going to lie. I didn’t want to come here. In fact I threw a damn fit, but hell, Dan, this is where I need to be. These nurses take good care of me. Shit I can’t even get my pants on by myself,” he laughed. “Old age must be catching up to me.”
“It chased you until you were in your nineties, Dean.” Even in his nineties, there was the same old Dean. Indomitable. We told old stories. We talked about new things. We shared a drink, just as he’d done with so many others.
The last time I saw him was a couple months later. The county fair was going on. His other daughter in law, Shelly, arranged for a scooter so he could ride it around the fair. In the parking lot of the nursing home, they were both to be instructed on its use. Shelly was listening, but Dean was busy figuring it out himself, which is how he discovered the two speed. Into the high side it went, and out went Dean onto the city street.
Shelly was calling after him on a dead run, which Dean acknowledged by raising his hand above his head and waving her goodbye. A second later, her toe caught the lip of asphalt at the end of the driveway, and the asphalt then caught the skin of her palms and knees. Several blocks down, Dean rolled into the fairgrounds with the scooter still on the high side and a smile plastered across his face. Several minutes later, Shelly also came in on the high side, on foot with a decided limp, wearing dried blood and a look of exasperation.
Sharing a drink, telling old stories, talking about pretty girls, it’s all a silly way to tell someone you love them. But beside him, at his casket, like so many of my kind before, I finally got it right.
I knew Dean before I knew farming, or most of my friends, or even myself. He offered what he offered so many kids that came through the door. Support.
I wouldn’t know the number of kids Dean bought a 4-H animal off of at the county fair, representing the elevator. A fair number of those kids wouldn’t even have known who Dean was. He’d just see they had three chickens, or a hog, didn’t know anyone else in town, and he’d bid. It’s the kind of work that builds a community.
Having the place to myself, I cried, said a prayer, and started to take my leave. As I did so, I noticed his hands crossed at his belt, and jutting up from them between his thumb and index finger was his driver’s license.
I found a seat towards the back, and I was sitting there when his granddaughter arrived. I tried to tell her what her grandfather meant to me, and I couldn’t do it without emotion.
She told me how he had an appointment to renew his expired driver’s license that day, and he was hell-bent on doing it. Shelly was going to take him in so he could hear the news they all knew was coming directly from the folks in charge. Dean would have fought it. The fact that he had done so successfully about a year ago would have given him confidence. Confidence worked with Dean as gas does with fire.
“Have you seen Mom and Dad yet?”
“No,” I said.
“They’re in the kitchen. A friend made Dean an urn out of the old barn boards from the family farm, thinking he wanted to be cremeated. He didn’t, but we thought we’d all pick out some of our favorite photos, put them in there, and bury it with the casket. Come on back, you should see it.”
Larry, his son, had a sportcoat hanging loose on his shoulders, and there in his large, worn hands was a picture of his Dad, just past being a boy, with a rifle and two buddies at an army camp below the hills of Korea.
I mentioned the photograph, and his finger fell on the one in the middle, more muscular and taller than the friends on either side. I watched as it made its way to the box of weathered barn boards. From one side of the world to the other.
Given Dean’s build, they assigned him a .50 caliber machine gun in training, and he was supposed to carry it over the hills in the photograph behind him. On the ship from the states, however, their radio man was having second thoughts. Word had got out that the radio made you a target, and the acid from the batteries strapped to your back compounded the misery. The radio had been given to the smallest guy in the unit, and with great urgency he was trying to trade anyone he possibly could.
Finally, Dean asked him, “Do you think you can carry this .50 cal?”
“You bet I can,” he replied.
“All right then, I’ll trade you.”
“Ain’t you scared?”
“I ain’t scared.”
When Dean decided on something he was doing to do it. I assume he was always that way. So I think about him in those hills, and how many times someone must have sighted in that big, broad-shouldered American, carrying a radio, like a bull in a goddamn china shop.
To his daughter, Joyce, and his great-grandson, Cole, I said the same thing. “It probably won’t make sense,” I told him, “but I’ve come to believe most of life is just learning about being resilient. Dean was the most resilient guy I ever met, and the best part is that I think you can see that in his family.”
Maybe Cole didn’t know that of himself yet, but I did.
The reading at his funeral was about Lazarus of Bethany:
So Jesus, again being deeply moved within, came to the tomb. Now it was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, “Remove the stone.” Martha, the sister of the deceased, said to Him, “Lord, by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days.” Jesus said to her, “Did I not say to you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?” So they removed the stone. Then Jesus raised His eyes, and said, “Father, I thank You that You have heard Me. I knew that You always hear Me; but because of the people standing around I said it, so that they may believe that You sent Me.” When He had said these things, He cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come forth.” The man who had died came forth, bound hand and foot with wrappings, and his face was wrapped around with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”
In the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church, Lazarus becomes the first Bishop of Kition, living another 30 years before dying and being buried a final time. Tradition states he never smiled in all that time, save once.
Who could imagine Dean Molln never smiling? So I unbound him, and I let him go.