The Legacy of a Lifetime

October 20, 2014

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHollywood doesn’t make up plots like this.

They met when she was a senior in college; he was two years younger in his first year at the Coast Guard Academy.  In the six weeks since Pearl Harbor the first-classmen (seniors) had been graduated and sent  off to their duty  assignments, and he and his class had been promoted to third-classmen (sophomores).

They met at a square dance.  She went on a lark — she had never square danced before, and by chance she was paired off with him — he had been a competition dancer in high school.  In her words, “he pulled me around the floor and made me look good.”

At the end of the night, he invited her to go ice skating the next day.  Only thing was … he had forgotten her name, and was too embarrassed to ask.  He thought that  if he saw  the list of girls in her dorm he would be able to pick her out … but this was the early ’40s, and the dragon lady at the door wasn’t about to give him the list.  He had to admit his error; all the girls in the dorm got to giggle at his embarrassment, but she forgave him,, and  the date proved a success.

There was a big formal dance coming up at the Academy, and she held her breath, hoping for an invitation.  It never came.  She didn’t know that he had already invited another girl to the dance; all she knew was that she was waiting for a  phone call that never came.   But at the end of the weekend, he put that other girl on the train to go home, called her at her dorm, and from then on, to quote her, she “never had to worry about any competition.”

That was January in 1942.  They had to wait for his graduation 30 months later to marry. Meanwhile, she refused to marry him  until she had met his family, and she refused to travel with him until she was engaged.  So, with his ring on her finger, they took the train (unchaperoned! horrors!) to Denver in the summer of 1943.  All must have gone well during that meeting, because they were married the day after his graduation in June 1944; two days after D-Day and about three weeks before he shipped out to the Mediterranean.

Thirty years, three children, and 12 duty assignments later, he retired.  His duty assignments had taken them across the country from east to west and back again in six cross-country transfers.  Along the way they gave their children an introduction to some of the most interesting cities in the nation —  San Francisco, Washington DC, Honolulu, New Orleans — as well as most of the iconic national parks and American history-lands.

There had been sickness as well as health — she had two miscarriages and  almost died of hepatitis  when she was still in her 30s.  There were the separations demanded by his sea duty.  But if there were any disagreements or even differences of opinion, they must have been dealt with behind closed doors.  Certainly, there was never any glimpse of anything other than total agreement and devotion to one another.

After retirement they returned to Denver, where they kept house for his aging mother, acquired a dachshund, and he grew a beard.  He took a job as executive director of the boys’ youth group he had grown up in 35 years earlier, and he enjoyed the non-profit involvement so much that he made a second career as a non-profit volunteer.  He went up the ranks to the national board of The Retired Officers Association, and was active in multiple other military, patriotic and genealogical organizations.

Eventually, drawn by proximity to grandchildren and the retired military community that surrounds Washington, they moved to a retirement home in McLean, VA.

This is where they celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary, then their 60th, and then their 65th anniversary. “We need to start celebrating every five years instead of 10,” she explained. In fact, 25 years on, they were proudly the oldest-tenured couple in their retirement community.  They had practically acquired icon status — who wouldn’t know the couple who predated everyone else, who played pool volleyball each week and knew everyone’s name, who attended every social event, whose grandchildren — and later great-grandchild — showed up regularly for Sunday dinner?

Two years ago they walked a 5K for Wounded Warriors.  It probably wasn’t so much a “walk” as an “amble,” but at ages 89 and 91, speed isn’t the point.  Last year his arthritis had degenerated to the point that those kind of activities were no longer possible, and this year saw a series of health setbacks.  Even so, they celebrated their 70th anniversary with a party for 200, and danced at a party a few weeks later.  Nothing as energetic as a square dance, but he had her up and proved that he still knew how to waltz.

But it had to come to an end sometime.  And two weeks prior to his Academy class’ 70th Homecoming, his heart gave out.  He had been planning his class reunion for over a year, but it was not to be.  By the time reunion came he had  transitioned to hospice, and one week later he died.  He was mentally alert and involved in the decision-making to the end, and she was with him at his bedside when he breathed his last.

He died two days before her 94th birthday, leaving her alone for the first time in almost 73 years, counting from that first dance when he taught her the steps and “made [her] look good.”  Together, they shared a lifetime.  Together, they made each other — and themselves — look good.  Together, they raised a family on the virtues of honor and responsibility.  Together, they left a legacy of love.






Crossing the Bar

October 19, 2014

20140607-untitled-077I am so, so sorry to share that Dad died peacefully this morning at Arleigh Burke, the nursing home (part of the Vinson Hall campus) where he has been for the past two weeks since he transitioned out of the hospital.  Mom was with him as he breathed his last.

For the past few weeks, Dad has been weak, and words have been hard to come by.  But he has been very much aware of his situation, and totally involved in the decision-making.

Dad asked in his final instructions for a “Celebration of Life” and to be remembered joyfully by his family and friends.  That Celebration will take place in the Vinson Hall chapel (6251 Old Dominion Drive, McLean) this coming Saturday afternoon, October 25, at 2:00 p.m., led by Scott Harrison, the Vinson Hall chaplain.

My mother seems surprised that family might want to travel for the occasion, particularly so soon after the wonderful (and remarkably timely) Peak Brothers Reunion in La Jolla in August.  My brother and I have reminded her that these services are for the living, and that if family wants to come, she shouldn’t fuss.  But you know Mom.  So I won’t recommend either way, but just quote from Dad’s final instructions:  “Sounds like a great party! Wish I could be there.”

My niece Deborah summed it up a few minutes ago on her FB page:  “The world lost one of the most incredible and selfless people today, Captain Paul R. Peak, aka my Grandpa. I’ll always be eternally grateful for all you did for me and our family and will miss those long winded stories you always told. We’ll all love and miss you terribly.”
Dad, always a hobby genealogist, lived to be an ancestor himself.  This photo was taken in June with his great-granddaughter Lily at Mom and Dad’s 70th anniversary party.

Final Days

October 14, 2014

My father has always been a romantic at heart.  As a boy growing up during the Depression, his favorite authors were Rudyard Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson.  Inspired by Richard Halliburton, he and a high school friend dreamed of tramping through Europe.

Of course, as fate would have it, his first trip overseas took him aboard a war ship in the Mediterranean, and to the invasion of southern France.

Dad has also always been remarkably fixated on duty.  Duty to country, duty to family, duty to do what needs  to be done.

My Dad has had two simultaneous love affairs during his 91 years of life: With the Coast Guard, which he joined at age 18 as a plebe at the Coast Guard Academy.  His Academy classmates were more than the guys he went to school with.  After all, this band of brothers together, shared together, and yes, fought together.  He also has been in love all his life with my mother, who he met his first year at the Academy, falling in love at first date.  He served in the Coast Guard three years as a cadet, 30 years as an officer, and has been 40 years a retiree.,  Meanwhile, he and my mother have been married a marvelous 70 years, and it is hard to even think of one without the other.

But soon we must, because Dad’s heart — always over-sized — is failing.  He transitioned to hospice 10 days ago, and is clearly leaving us, just a little bit more every day.

And then, he opens his eyes, pulls himself into focus, smiles that amazing smile of his, and he’s my Dad again.

And even during this difficult time, there’s plenty of good news.  First, for his 91 years of active, meaningful life.  And for the friends and family he has interacted with over the years, and who are now there for him and my Mom.  And for the fact that he has been wholly involved in the decision-making, including the decision to transition to hospice.

I was remarkably blessed when it came to selection of my parents.  Remarkably.  And it’s very hard to say goodbye.


What the Doctor Knows

October 2, 2014

I’ll never complain about computerized medical records again.

I’m just like everyone else:  I dislike it when the doctor peers at the computer screen instead of at me.  I understand that the darned software was designed more to provide data for the insurance company and less for the attending physician.

All that said …

On Tuesday Frank was taking off the cover to the hot tub when he stepped backwards and fell into the below-ground area where the hot tub controls are kept.  Yes, he had left the area open, and yes, it was a stupid thing to do.  But fall he did — and as a result we spent the morning at the ER.  Frank was lucky — first, because he did NOT hit his head, and second, because only one rib was fractured.  That one rib is causing a great deal of pain ((I’ve broken a rib.  I know.))  Plus, there’s a lot of soft tissue damage. He’s not happy about the experience. But here’s the remarkable thing:

The attending ER doc at Miles knew before she spoke to Frank when he had had his last tetanus shot. And his general medical history.  And was even able to compare the cat-scan she ordered with one he had had a decade ago that he and I can’t even remember but which would NOT have been done at Miles.  Thank you, computerized medical records.

Compare that to my father’s situation.  He and Mom live in McLean, VA, in one of the counties with the highest standard of living in the country.  Yet when he got an infection earlier this summer and ended up recuperating in the nursing home for a few weeks, I was astounded to learn that his medical records couldn’t follow him from the hospital … or even across the driveway from the retirement home where they live and which is owned by the same non-profit as the nursing home. ((The staff commutes back and forth, but medical records do not.)) And when I wanted to check to make sure a procedure had been taken by the night nurse, I had to chase the current nurse down the hall because everything was on paper in a single loose-leaf notebook.  The nurse clearly thought I was interfering — and I guess I was. But is it outrageous to want to check the care given to a loved one?

So computerized medical records, come on! I’ll forgive the physician for staring at the screen.  At least s/he’s staring at information about me!




Honor and Commitment

September 17, 2014

My Dad was  president of his Coast Guard Academy class, and partly as a result, has been planning class reunions ever since. (Don’t term limits kick in at some point?) Right now he is in the throes of organizing his 70th (!) reunion, which will take place during Homecoming next month in New London, CT.  One of the more sacred traditions at the Coast Guard Academy calls for each reunion class to march onto the football field, while the announcer reads a few words about the class.  Here is the script that Dad and I wrote last night to describe the Coast Guard Academy class of 1945.  I think it says all that needs to be said about honor and commitment:

146 of us were sworn in on July 16, 1941. We were the largest and last peacetime class to enter the Academy, and only two of us held draft cards. Six months later, after Pearl Harbor, the First-Classmen graduated, leaves were canceled, and we were informed that we would be required to do four years’ worth of academics in a total of three. We rose to the challenge; 95 of us graduated and received our commissions in June 1944, one day after D-day in Normandy.

After antisubmarine and antiaircraft refresher training, and after 18 weddings, we all dispersed to our first assignments, comprising a wide variety of Coast Guard cutters and U.S. Navy vessels. Once we were in the War it was soon over, and all of us who graduated returned safely home, although two classmates who left prior to graduation paid the ultimate price. Our class indeed proved “always ready”; members of the Class of 1945 served in-country in Korea and later in Vietnam.

After the War, the Coast Guard assumed new duties. An emphasis on weather patrol, aids to navigation, air-sea rescue, ice patrol, lighthouse service and merchant-marine safety obviously interested us, because of the 51 of us who elected to stay past our required tour in 1948, all but three were still on active duty and eligible for 20-year retirement. Eighteen of us remained on active duty 30 years after graduation, and two of our class served at flag rank. Today, we look back with pride to a lifetime of service: Three years as a cadet, a career on active duty, followed by 40 years of retirement.

The class of 1945 is still 24 members strong. 17 of us are represented here today, including non-graduates and widows, and together, we comprise the largest 70th reunion class in the Academy’s history. We are united in pride of our service, honor in having served our country on air, land and sea, and to have done so in peacetime and through every war and conflict.


Have You Thanked Your TSA Agent Today?

September 11, 2014

It helped that my home airport is in Portland, Maine; not exactly a major hub.  And it helped that I arrived for my morning flight at oh-dark-hundred, before the rush.  And that I was in the “precheck” lane, which means I don’t have to take off my shoes or haul out my computer.

No line, no strip search, and here’s the marvelous thing:  No yelling.  The TSA agent looked directly at me and politely asked if I had a cell phone in my pocket (I did); he didn’t yell or intone indirectly with general directives to take all phones out of all pockets.

As a result, my trip through Security was a rarity: fast, hassle-free; in fact: civilized.  And as I gathered up my belongings, I turned to the two agents and said so:  “You guys are remarkably civilized.”  One smiled, the other gave a Mainer response:  “Come back in half an hour when the crowd is here and you won’t say that.”  Then I noticed that the first one was spreading the word to the other agents that a traveler had paid TSA a compliment, and as I walked away from Security, more than one agent called out to me, or waved, or wished me a good trip and safe journey.

Today is September 11.  May we all have safe journeys, and may we always work in tandem with TSA to ensure that Security is as hassle-free — and  rigorous — as possible.



Pilgrim’s Prayer

August 30, 2014

BoxFiles_14050814192902It’s worth repeating — Following is a Pilgrims Prayer that Frank and I encountered on the Camino de Santiago earlier this year.  Frank and I shared it at the Congregational Church last Sunday, and believe me, it’s just as meaningful for Pilgrims who are searching from home as well as those on The Way.

Although I may have traveled all the roads,
crossed mountains and valleys from East to West,
if I have not discovered the freedom to be myself,
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have shared all of my possessions
with people of other languages and cultures;
made friends with pilgrims of a thousand paths,
or shared lodgings with saints and princes,
if I am not capable of forgiving my neighbor tomorrow,
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have carried my pack from beginning to end
and waited for every pilgrim in need of encouragement,
or given my bed to one who arrived later than I,
given my bottle of water in exchange for nothing;
if upon returning to my home and work,
I am not able to create compassion
or to make happiness, peace and unity,
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have had food and water each day,
and enjoyed a roof and shower every night;
or may have had my injuries well attended,
if I have not discovered in all that the love of God,
I have arrived nowhere.

Although I may have seen all the monuments
and contemplated the best sunsets;
although I may have learned a greeting in every language
or tasted the clean water from every fountain;
if I have not discovered the blessing
of so much free beauty and so much peace,
I have arrived nowhere.

If from today I do not continue walking on the path,
searching and living according to what I have learned;
if from today I do not see in every person, friend or foe,
a fellow pilgrim on the Camino;
if from today I cannot recognize the divine
in every one and every thing,
I have arrived nowhere. Amen.


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