My Wonderful Life

The Accidental Angel

posted on 6/19/11 by Guest Blogger: David Hlavac

MyWonderfulLife is honored to share David Hlavac's story as a tribute to his own father this Father's Day. Thank you David, for your continued support of our mission, and we hope this story brings back fond memories of your father for your entire family!

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On a Tuesday night in 2004, I get the call every son dreads. The caller ID reads “Ontario” and my mother’s quavering voice at the other end signals something is terribly wrong. Then, four words ­– “your father died today” – sucker-punch me and I am never again the same person I was before I picked up the phone.

Growing up, I never believed my dad was afraid of death. His calm, matter-of-fact approach to the subject underscored the simplicity of his final wishes – donate his body to science, hold no viewing or funeral, cremate his remains and scatter them in the Kawishiwi River, his favorite Boundary Waters spot.

With my mother in complete shock (not to mention 500 miles away at the remote fly-in fishing lodge where my father succumbed to a heart attack), I know what I must do. I am now my father’s reluctant, accidental angel, and I need to make sure his wishes are granted.

Immediately, I know his body won’t be donated to science. When you die in a fishing boat and your body doesn’t reach the morgue for hours, there’s little chance of preserving vital organs. Sorry, Pa…that was the first wish I just couldn’t fulfill.

Then, I call the funeral director who received my dad’s body from the coroner. The easiest way to proceed would have been to cremate his remains in Canada, then transport them to Minnesota for interment. But because he had died so suddenly, I know my paternal grandmother and other loved ones would lament they hadn’t had a chance to “see” him one last time.

I authorize embalming and pay to transport his casket across the border before scheduling an impromptu, private viewing the following evening. That makes two wishes unfulfilled and I feel terrible, but I’m prepared to make up for these shortcomings.

Since my father was a successful businessman and well known by many in the community, I pitch a feature obituary to the local newspaper. The editors bump a Nobel Laureate to run the half-page obituary, complete with a photo. I feel like I’m starting to atone for the first two missteps.

In lieu of a somber, formal funeral, my brothers and I begin planning Pa’s final send-off – a blowout soiree with fine food from his favorite restaurants, an open bar and a giant guestbook to capture everyone’s cherished memories. We set up the festivities in the top-floor party room at my parents’ high-rise condominium and hire valet parking for the guests. By the end of the evening, hundreds had arrived to pay their respects in style, just the way Pa would have wanted it. 

Later that summer, my brothers and I paddle up the Kawishiwi with Pa’s ashes and make good on a promise we made years before – to bring his body back to nature in his favorite place on Earth. Although his final wishes are now complete, I know I did the best I could as my dad’s reluctant angel. And even today when I retrace our steps down the well-worn portages and across the wild rice marshes of the Boundary Waters, I can almost hear Pa whispering in my ear:

“You did good, boychick.” 

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