By Jennifer Klitzke
Many of you know me as an avid gaited dressage equestrian and the author of Naturally Gaited, but I am also a daughter of a gentle, kind and generous man with unwavering integrity and a brilliant mind who lost his battle to Alzheimer’s disease on January 25, 2017 at the age of 77. The day my Dad passed away, we had an angel encounter without even knowing it.
As a child, my Dad grew up around work horses, Dolly and Sally. His Grandfather was a blacksmith for the logging mill where horses earned their keep.
Unfortunately the love for horses didn’t gravitate to my Dad, so he didn’t raise me up with them. My Mom and Dad just prayed that I’d outgrow this insanity for horses.
Nope. Horses were in my blood, and it wasn’t until I moved out, acquired my first real job, and saved up my money that I bought my first horse in 1988. She was an off-the-track-thoroughbred named Seasons. I bought her for trail riding, jumping and dressage. Dad kept asking me when I’d be racing at Canterbury. He was sure we’d be a winner.
Dad had great faith in me. His support was always with me whether or not I had a winning [race] horse.
In January 2017 I lost my Dad to a long and grueling battle with Alzheimer’s disease.
Most people knew him as Jerry. I knew him as Dad.
He was a complex character of eclectic interests: an outdoorsman, a country western singer, a rose grower, a videographer, a polka dancer, and an artist.
Dad was a man of few words, a deep thinker, an off-the-chart introvert, and proud to be 100% Finnish.
He was a man of principle; quiet and reserved. Not an easy guy to strike a conversation with, unless you like to do all the talking. He wasn’t much for idle chit-chat at the water cooler. In fact, as Chief Design Engineer for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, he was known for conducting staff meeting right before lunch in a room without chairs!
I knew my Dad as a kind, gentle, genuine, and generous man with unwavering integrity. I knew this, not by what my Dad said, but by how my Dad lived.
My Dad was a wonderful provider for our family, a loyal husband to my Mom for 54 years, and he was a supportive father of two daughters, me and my sister, Julie. I saw his generosity throughout his life of serving others, notably his family, as well as decades of volunteer work with the Minnesota Horticultural Society, City of Cottage Grove, and the Lutheran church.
Whenever I had car trouble, my Dad would drop everything to help me. (My first car was a Ford Pinto, which explains just how often I needed his help!) That was every winter when my car wouldn’t start, every spring when my car got stuck in the mud, and every summer when my car would overheat. Not to forget the times I accidentally locked my keys in my car or got a flat tire. Dad would be there, greeting me with his delightful grin.
As a child my Dad taught me how to ride a bike. He ran alongside me to keep me steady until I found my balance and began pedaling on my own.
Dad taught me how to build the best paper airplanes, and he showed me how to construct and fly a kite.
Dad brought me fishing to places he fished in Northern Minnesota when he was a boy—places where the lunkers live. One summer, Dad took my family to the Boundary Waters where we canoed, portaged, and camped on our very own island.
As a family we always ate dinner together, and on the weekend we’d do things like go bowling, go on picnics, or play catch with the softball. Dad even became our softball coach. One of my favorite memories was when we played the undefeated team. Whenever a fly ball came to right field, our fielder would hide behind her glove. On this particular day, the ball landed right in her glove. My Dad ran into the field and shook her hand!
Over the years, my Dad had volunteered countless hours caring for the roses at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. In 2002, my husband and I were married there. My Dad walked me down the grassy aisle at the rose garden and then he captured the ceremony on video. It was a special day, a special place, and a special memory.
When my husband and I moved to our farmhouse, my Dad gave me several rose plants he had started from seed. These are treasured keepsakes of my Dad every summer when they bloom.
In 2010, Dad came to my college graduation and videoed the ceremony. He was the first in his family to earn a college degree and now both of his daughters had reached this milestone.
During this time Alzheimer’s began to steal my Dad away.
It didn’t seem fair. His parent lived sober-mindedly into their 90s. Dad thought he had longevity on his side. Mind over matter, Dad put up a good fight, but Alzheimer’s continued to erode away.
In 2012, our family took a last minute road trip to New Orleans and celebrate my Mom and Dad’s 50th Anniversary. I continued to take Mom and Dad on short road trips to Galina, IL, Munsinger Gardens, and the Apostle Islands before Alzheimer’s overcame Dad’s life.
The last three years have been agonizing for my family, but Alzheimer’s doesn’t define who my Dad was, and Alzheimer’s doesn’t have a hold on him anymore.
I will always remember my Dad as a kind, gentle, genuine, and generous man with unwavering integrity. I miss you, Dad. I miss you.
The day after my Dad had passed away, my Mom, Sister and I met with the funeral Chaplain. She showed us the funeral program options. Among them was a cardinal. All three of us gravitated to this program because of my Dad’s great love for birds.
“Do you know the significance of the cardinal?” the Chaplain asked.
We shook our heads, no.
She said the cardinal is symbolic of those who have departed and come back to escort a loved one on to eternal life.
We burst into tears because just hours before Dad had passed away, a male and female cardinal had perched in the snowy tree outside of his room. It seemed odd as there were no bird feeders around, yet the pair perched in the tree for 15 minutes—long enough for their presence to be noticed. Dad was close to his parents who had both passed away just a few years before.
My Grandma had faith in Jesus, and I shared my faith in Jesus with Grandpa and Dad for the hope of eternal life.
There was no doubt in my mind that the male and female cardinal were angels God had sent to give us hope that Grandma, Grandpa, and Dad are with Jesus until one day we join them for eternity.
Video: Angels unaware
I love you forever, Dad. I love you forever.