*while he’s still alive
Olavs Eriks Lejnieks was born on May 12, 1935, 81 years ago today, in Bauska, Latvia. On March 7, 1960, his first son was born. That’s me. Rachelle and I sent him one of those funny, email-able birthday cards last night. You get the card in your inbox, you click play and, in this case a cartoon depiction of God tells you that you are his special human and go ahead and eat all the starch and sugar you want on your birthday because, after all, you’ve already made it in his eyes and there is nothing more you need to do in order to prove that you are deserving of his love.
Along with the card, I think that writing my dad’s eulogy and sharing it with him before it is read while he is in a state where he can’t hear it would be a great birthday gift. This may occur as morbid but I think that we all might be curious what people might say about us at our funeral although it’s one of those things most of us will never hear. Unless you believe that we somehow float around in church, above our casket, listening to all the fuss about our lifeless body and the life it used to contain.
Eulogy for Olav Eriks Lejnieks
It is important to know that my dad did not believe in an afterlife. Despite his father being a Seventh-Day Adventist preacher and he himself studying theology at Pacific Union College in Angwin, California (or maybe because of it!), he was certain that his body contained all the life he would ever have. In response to one of my emails to him, where I shared my difficulty in conceiving of eternity, he responded:
“In my finite thinking I have a hard time to believe other than He, She, It is a collection of finite wisdom of centuries. Eternity: when we crump, we crump. THAT’s IT! End of story on this earth.”
I questioned whether he really believed that. After all, his personal history suggested that there might be something more powerful going on. Olav’s mother died in childbirth, having birthed twins, my father and his sister. At the burial of his mom, as his father was lowering the casket into the earth at the graveyard in Riga, news came that the sister, Alma Laina had also died. My grandfather stopped the proceedings, got into his truck to drive back to Bauska and retrieve the body of his baby daughter. An accomplished carpenter who had built his own house, he quickly constructed a small casket for her and brought her back to Riga that same day. No one had left the burial site and one can only imagine the grief of the hundreds of family and friends there, who all loved my father’s mother, Alma Lejnieks and saw her husband not only bury his young, beautiful wife but now also place the small coffin next to hers.
When I was growing up, my father would often sing, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child”. I think we all have issues having to do with our birth. Separation, being expelled from that beautiful womb, being slapped on the butt, emerging from the warm love of mother into the cold and bright world. But my father came into a world where mothers not only are separated from us. They are dead.
I can only imagine what psychic pain this must have caused. His dad the minister required belief in God, hard work and strict rules; there was no therapy or nurturing. Olav could only imagine the love of his mother as he grew up under his authoritarian father. He did, however, have his grandmother, “Babushka” who looked after the surviving brothers, Olav and his elder Arnolds. My dad told me she was a saint and once pulled him out of the Daugava River where he had slipped into the current and begun to drown.
These narrow escapes with death were an intrinsic part of his childhood, made more horrific by the rise of Hitler in the 30’s and 40’s and Nazi Germany’s expansion towards the Soviet Union. Latvia became a pawn in the struggle between global super powers. Dad told stories of bullets whizzing past his head, goosestepping armies marching through town “liberating” the “Lettlanders”. Once, when the Red Army returned to town after pushing back the Germans in the seemingly-never-ending chess match using millions of lives as pieces, little Olav became stuck in a mud hole and could not escape as an advancing column walked towards him.
His father had told him that as evil as the Nazis were, the Russians were much worse. The Nazis, at least, had a code of ethics about conquered lands, unlike the Reds who were simple barbarians, spawned from Satan himself, said his father.
As my dad stared in paralyzed fear at the Russian soldier walling towards him he was sure his short life was over. All of 8 years and this was it. The soldier flicked away the butt of his still-lit cigarette and it landed close enough to Olav that he could hear it hiss in the pool of water surrounding his trap. He imagined it was the sound of hell opening up and that the soldier was about to take his brown boot and smash him into the eternal fires.
But the solder reached out his now-empty hand, grabbed my dad by his jacket, yanked him out of the hole with a slurp and swung him over to dryer land. Laughing hard at what must have looked like the funniest sight the warrior had seen in a long time, he swatted my father on the butt and said, in Russian, “Get the hell out of here, this is no place for a little boy!”
My dad scampered home and never said a word to his father about it but told me many years later and thought it might have been when he first learned that people are basically goodhearted and the uniform you wear, or flag you wave, doesn’t determine your character.
Despite the evil he saw all around him, he acted from that belief the rest of his life.
My dad crusaded for Civil Rights in the 60’s. He became a teacher’s union representative, went door-to-door campaigning for Eugene McCarthy and other progressives and always made a point of reaching out to the downtrodden and those whose voice was often squelched by the powerful.
He taught secondary education for over 45 years. He loved blowing his students’ minds. He didn’t care that they often went home to tell their parents, “Guess what Mr. Lejnieks said in class today!” (Introducing himself in his German 1 class, he said, “I don’t care if you swear, but you must swear in German.”) Some parents took him to task on his radical approach, which I boil down to treating kids like adults.
“How could you tell my son that the reason he can’t learn is because he is a lazy S.O.B.?!” asked one outraged mom. Because it’s true!” my dad would answer. By the time the parent left, they were convinced that Mr. Lejnieks was the best thing that ever happened to their kid.
Because they got that he cared.
My dad was frustrated because parents often did not participate in their children’s education. The attitude showed up in his classroom with roomful after roomful of teenager, sitting like they were bored to death, doing their best Marcel Marceau interpretation of, “Teach me!” Once, he just sat at his desk in front of the class with his arms folded, staring like they stared at him.
At the end of the period, after 40 minutes of this standoff, he said, “That’s how every class will be until you all come ready to contribute to your own education.”
I love my dad. He had balls and he liked sticking it to the man.
At times, I look in the mirror and hear him talking as if it is my own mind. I am so much of him. The hard-work ethic, the struggle to do the right thing, the compassion for the weak among us, the fight against unjust power, wielded irresponsibly. The hate for war. The love for women. The quest for becoming better. All these are qualities either inherited from or taught by my father.
On his 81st birthday, Rachelle and I called him. My heart was warmed just to hear him answer the phone. He sounded good…clear and mind fully intact. He doesn’t always sound that way. Sometimes, when he’s tired or maybe on a bad day, he doesn’t sound so present. But on his 81st birthday, he sounded great! It seemed like he might be around forever again. Just like I thought he would when I was a little boy. But with the passing of my mom so recently, I reset my expectations and hoped he might be around for another 20 years or so. If he stayed away from the gluten, the sneaking of bear claws and occasional overdoing it of Cabernet.
Or, he might go that very day. Or, it might be me. Who knows, for sure?
But one thing I knew. I wanted him to read this before I had to read it over his grave. I wanted him to know how much I love him because I love him with all my heart.
What I wish for my father on his birthday? I wish many more years on this planet. I wish health and happiness. I wish he knows what a great life he has had and what an impact he has made. I wish he knows that the world is better because he was here.
And when that time does come for him to go, regardless of his personal beliefs, I wish him one more thing when he dies:
I wish that he could meet his mother.
With all my love,