Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Last Day of the the Last Year of Leif's Life

I didn't post anything yesterday. I couldn't decide how to handle it. I was in the middle of a series of winter snow pictures, but it was a sad day yesterday and I didn't feel like just posting more of them. I also wasn't ready to write about feelings, partly because I didn't know what I really wanted to say, partly because I hesitate to talk about grief again after three weeks, and partly because Peter W. thinks I'm fragile and can't handle it, though I think what I feel is normal and I'm doing well, at least as well as can be expected.

We had just dropped off our Peter Anthony's family at the airport and were alone again for the first time since December 21st. It was so good to have them here. Being busy with a full house and three grandchildren kept us so occupied there was no time to be feel sadness for long. I had some teary times, but I managed to keep them to myself. The kids were wonderful, and they made Christmas a happy time, certainly far, far happier than it would have been if it were just us here remembering the many Christmases when our family was complete.

But once they left, and the house was quiet, just the two of us, the pent up emotions that I had kept at bay came back and I felt very sad that Leif had not been with us, and would not be with us for the holidays ever again, sad that he won't be here to ring in the New Year, sad that there will be no new years for him.

I miss him so! Everywhere I look are reminders of him, things that were his, things he helped us with, things he gave us, photos. I look at them and know there were happy times in his life, at least when he was younger. Where did it all go so wrong? I'm glad I had him 33 years. It was not enough.

Tonight I will go to a New Years Eve party. I will dance, and I will celebrate. I will have a good time, but underneath it, I will be sad and fighting tears. Life will be like that for a long, long time.

Now I close the year of 2008, the saddest year of my life, the last year Leif was alive, and I will try to welcome in the New Year, the first one since 1975 in which Leif will not live, and try to find my way.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Leif, Peter W, Peter A. in the snow in Sachsen bei Ansbach, Germany - January 1979 - Age 4

We lived in the village of Sachsen bei Ansbach in Germany for two years. Our house was on a big hill which wasn't yet built full of homes, and there was a long, fairly steep slope that was great for sledding and learning to ski. In January 1979, Peter W. started teaching Leif how to ski there.

At the far side of that hill was a woods, which yielded wild blueberries, raspberries and blackberries in the summer, but was lovely for walks in the snow. Leif thought snow must taste good, it looked so pretty.

He enjoyed being out in it in those days, before the asthma that developed while he was in the army made it hard for him to breathe.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Leif & Peter Anthony in the snow - March 1978, Sheffau, Austria - Age 3

While we were stationed in Germany the second time, from the summer of 1977 to the summer of 1980, we took ski vacations every winter, and one of our favorite places to go was Scheffau, a village in the Austrian Tyrol. We stayed at a Pension am Wilden Kaiser, a lovely place with great food. Leif was too young to ski, so he and I went for walks in the lovely, snowy woods, and sometimes it was the three of us, Leif, Peter A. and me. In the spring, it's often a wonderful time to ski, warm enough to ski without a jacket, even, with the sun reflecting blazingly off the snow. Leif loved tramping around in the snow with us. Snow is magic to children, and as long as they are dressed warm enough, it's great fun.

This photo was taken in March 1978 when Leif was just three years old.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Leif in the Snow - January 1976 - Manhattan, Kansas

This time of year it's cold in most of the places that Leif lived, beginning with Manhattan, Kansas. When he was a child, cold didn't seem to bother him at all. This photo of Peter A. and Leif on a chill, snowy day in January 1976 when Leif was just celebrating his first birthday, he was a bit bewildered, though. It was taken in front of our old stone house, on a dreary day when Leif was in his stroller. He was wearing a blue crocheted cap that I made. Peter A. had lost his two front teeth and was the poster boy for, "All I want for Christmas is my two front teeth."

Leif's 33rd and last Christmas 2007 - Sun City Center, Florida - Almost 33 years old

Christmas 2007 was the smallest family Christmas we've ever had, just Peter W., Leif and me. My mother was in the Washington DC area staying with our nephew, Rick, and his family, and visiting the family in the area; my sister Lannay and her family. Peter A. and his family didn't arrive here until after Christmas.

Leif had wanted a particular computer game for his new iMac, and I'd gotten it for him, but unfortunately, he never got it to run, so it was only a source of frustration to him. He was subdued at Christmas and it was practically impossible to get him to smile. I knew he'd been unhappy, but he did have some joy and interest in the Mass Effect game on his xBox 360.

Although we had our traditional foods and enjoyed our dinner together, the real fun came when Leif's brother and nephew and nieces got here a few days later. Then he enjoyed joking around with Aly and playing chess with Madeleine.

I'm glad we didn't know it was his last Christmas with us. I wouldn't have been able to bear it.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Leif's 31st Christmas 2005 - Sun City Center, Florida - Almost 31 years old

After Leif's love affair in 2003 and early 2004, when he was so happy, ended, he was miserable in Manhattan and desperate to leave and get out of there. Not only was there little job opportunity for a real career, there were limited opportunities to meet unattached women near his age, and he hated the winters. We were already planning to move to Florida within a few years, and had begun taking him with us on trips to select a location, but we decided to move sooner when we found a place and house we liked, and thought it would help him to get out of Kansas and start a new life.

We moved him to Florida in March 2005, to live with his dad until I could move there permanently once I'd finished my work contract, sold our houses, and moved my mother there, too. He initially seemed to delight in his new surroundings, bought himself a new super fast Suzuki motorcycle, and got a job at Amscot. Things did not work out well for him, though, and by fall he was working at Alltel, which was better for him because he had worked for Western Wireless in Kansas, and Alltel bought them. It gave him some longevity with the company then.

And working for a cell phone company, he thought his grandmother needed a cell phone. He got her the first nice one she had. (I had gotten her a prepaid one in Kansas earlier.) She was flabbergasted. In the photo of the two of them he is showing her how it works.

The other photo of the three of us was taken by my mother. Both were on our lanai, and this was our first Christmas in Florida.

Leif was still depressed and lonely, but much more upbeat and optimistic at that time than he had been in Kansas, and hopeful that a career would work out for him. Peter W. appreciated having him living here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Leif's 28th Christmas 2003 - Manhattan, Kansas - Almost 28 years old

When Leif was medically retired from the army in May 2001 and came back to Manhattan, he went back to school at KSU and got his degree. After graduation in May 2003, he went to work at Sykes for a few months, and there, in the fall of 2003, Leif fell in deeply and overwhelmingly in love with a young woman he worked with. She had a toddler daughter, and he took to her as well. I don't think I've ever seen him as happy or exuberant for as long a time as I did when he was with the two of them. He was ecstatic at Christmas 2003, which his girlfriend and her daughter spent with us. I loved seeing him so happy. I wish it could have endured, and I wish I had seen that happiness continue.

But for that time, it was wonderful. I wish I could have seen him that happy every Christmas of his adult life.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Leif's 26th Christmas 2000 - Manhattan, Kansas - Almost 26 years old

What a difference five years makes. In January 1998, Leif had enlisted in the army, as an infantryman, completed his basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia, and been stationed at Ft. Drum, NY. He had trained with UN troops in Uzbekistan and served as a peacemaker in Bosnia. When he came back in the spring of 2000, he found his marriage was in trouble and by August Nikko had left him at Ft. Drum to go back to Kansas.

We flew Leif home to Kansas for Christmas with us and the rest of the family, but you could see that he was not the same exuberant, happy young man he once had been. We were happy to have him there, and I know it was better by far for him than being alone and lonely at Fort Drum, but it must have been difficult to head back there again the in the dead of winter, alone, with his cold weather asthma and the misery his platoon sergeant was giving him. He didn't let on much to us at that time, seemed subdued, but in his code of not showing weakness, he "took it like a man."

At least he could come home for Christmas still in those days, though we nearly lost him to his despondency that winter.

At a concert, the song, "I'll Be Home for Christmas" got to us this month, as we realized that he will never be home for Christmas again.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Leif's 21st Christmas 1995 - Manhattan, Kansas - Almost 21 years old.

The two Christmases that I remember Leif being happiest were when he was in love, 1995 and 2003. Leif fell in love and married young. I've already written about his marriage to Nikko and posted this photo of them on Christmas Eve 1995. They were newlyweds, both just 20 years old, and married only two months when this photo was taken. They were playful, cute, full of energy. We were all at my mother's house on Pottawatomie Street in Manhattan, Kansas, quite a crowd of us; my brother Donovan and his family, my sister Sherie and her family. I think all told there were 16 of us there. If I remember correctly, they were living in a basement apartment in the 800 block of Bluemont Street, just a block from our house. Leif was a student at KSU and working to help support them and Nikko had a job, too. I remember the jobs they had, but I'm not sure what they were doing in December 1995. They were still full of optimism and hope. How I wish all their dreams together had come true.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Leif's 18th Christmas 1992 - Manhattan, Kansas - Almost 18 years old

We only lived in Puerto Rico for two years and then Peter W. retired from the army after 24 years of service. We moved back to Manhattan, Kansas, to the old stone house and Peter elected to use his GI Bill benefits and go to back to school at Kansas State University to get a teaching degree.

We bought the old stone house in September 1973 when we moved back to Kansas from Germany. When Peter W. got orders to the JAG School and we moved again in the summer of 1976, he talked my mother into living there and taking care of the place, and renting out the extra 3 bedrooms to KSU college women. Now we were going to "kick her out." She always knew she would have to move if we came back and wanted to move it, in after living there for 16 years, I know it was a shock.

My brother, Donovan, was a custom home builder at that time, and he built a house for Mom in the "Kundiger Addition" on the south side of town. It was quite a rushed time for all of us, as she was packing to move out, we were trying to move in, and at the same time, doing a lot of painting and remodeling. Leif was a great help with all of it. He was strong and capable, and also had many good ideas. I'll write more about working on the house later.

It would have been better for Leif if he hadn't gone to three high schools. That made it hard to have the friendships and kinds of experiences so many teens take for granted. Unlike his older brother, Leif was reticent, shy, and did not mingle and make friends easily, so leaving his Puerto Rican friends behind and going to a new school wasn't easy for him.

Leif could be talkative, open, full of fun and had a great sense of humor, but he didn't show those characteristics until he knew someone and felt comfortable with them. On top of that, he had his own sense of style, which was also influenced by his two years in Puerto Rico. He didn't fit any of the cliques in Manhattan. He said there were three main ones, the jocks, the skaters and the farm kids. He didn't mention the academic types. Leif wore colorful clothing, let his hair grow very long (which wasn't the style then), and liked to wear a long, brown leather coat and combat boots.

Leif was 17, and although he was born in Kansas and had lived there as a very small child, we had moved away when he was only a year-and-a-half old. He had been back for visits when he was five, ten, and a young teen, so he did know the house, neighborhood and something of the town, but had no friends there. He did have two cousins still living in the area.

He didn't have his driver's license yet. Both my sons surprised me by not even asking to get their driver's licenses until they were 17. I didn't want him just learning to drive from us, partly because I felt someone with a different authority would make more of an impression, and partly because there would be a discount on the auto insurance if he took driver's education.

We found out that Manhattan High School was offering driver's ed in summer school, but it started before we were able to make the move, so we put Leif on a plane and sent him to Kansas to stay with my mother and take the course.

We got back to Manhattan at the end of August 1992 and Leif was already starting his senior year at Manhattan High School. He tried out for a part in the school musical, but didn't get one and was very disappointed. He felt that the parts all went to kids who had been there at the school for their whole high school careers and that even though he was really good, he didn't have a chance. I didn't see the tryouts, but having seen him as Kenicke in "Grease" at Antilles High School, I know how talented he was. After his experience in Puerto Rico, I didn't try to go out for soccer. I wish he had.

Leif did make some friends at MHS but only one really close friend, Jason Palenske. They remained friends for the rest of Leif's life.

Our first Christmas back in Manhattan we still had the small tree (artificial). You can see that it wasn't any taller than Leif. All our Christmas ornaments, and the tree, fit into one large box. As the years went by from 1992, Leif would tease us about the accumulation of Christmas decor, which mushroomed from one box to six and the tree "grew" much larger. Leif never seemed to care about Christmas decorations. What interested him were the family gatherings, the food, and yes, the presents.

This photo of him on Christmas of his senior year in high school, shows a tall, slender young man who had learned in Puerto Rico to carry himself well. He was becoming the "GQ Pirate," which was his "handle" for a long time.

January 28, 1993 he turned 18 and he got his first job, working for Idelman Telemarketing, and had some significant spending money, which he used to get a cell phone when it wasn't yet common for high school kids to have them, and for music CDs and cool gadgets, and began his "career" of introducing them to us.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Leif's 17th Christmas 1991 - Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico - Almost 17 years old

We lived at Fort Sheridan for four years. In that time, Leif shot up like Jack's beanstalk, becoming six feet tall when he was only thirteen. He was extremely slender. It was a time of his best academic work at Northwood Junior High School and Highland Park High School, his best soccer playing, at HPHS, and his best science achievements. I've already written about some of that, including his science fair projects that took him to the state science fair.

He also had some adjustment problems, developed terrible acne, and got in some fights. Luckily, he got through all of that. It was also where he began developing a much deeper interest in computers and music, including taking electric guitar lessons. The last year in Illinois, he started letting his hair grow long.

The summer of 1990, we moved from Fort Sheridan to Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico, visiting in Charlottesville VA and the DC area on the way, because Peter W. had to take the Staff Judge Advocate Course at the JAG School before becoming the Staff Judge Advocate for the Fort Buchanan command. We also got to visit Disney World on our way south, shipping our car (the trusty Nissan Maxima, which was already seven years old by then) from Port Canaveral, Florida.

Puerto Rican Christmases were another new experience of the holidays. Again, we were in tropical weather and now we not only had the North American snowy carols but local Puerto Rican Christmas carols that were in a Latin beat and accompanied by instruments that were unfamiliar and fascinating as well as other new customs. But we still had Christmas trees and cookies, those German custom that seem to have spread around the world.

Initially, Leif had some disappointments and difficulties in Puerto Rico. He got there just in time to try out for the soccer team, but the coach had the boys running for miles in the extreme heat and humidity (96 degrees, 99 percent humidity), which was oppressive. They weren't allowed to stop to get drinks, and Leif wasn't allowed to work his way up to the long runs. He wasn't used to that climate at all, and he had never run miles like that with his previous teams. (He had gotten an award for his performance on the freshman team at HPHS.) He would come home from practices totally worn out and feeling faint. I was concerned that he would have heat stroke.

Then he injured his ankle when the sole came off his soccer shoe while running, and he couldn't run. The coach was unsympathetic, and Leif ended up quitting. I felt very badly about that, because Leif was an outstanding fullback and could literally boot the ball the full length of the field. He enjoyed soccer and had played since he was only five years old, so to have to quit at the age of 15 was sad and humiliating. He tried to insist it didn't matter, but I know it wasn't true. He went to the games, and you could see he wanted to be on the field.

However, Leif found other ways to use his talents in Puerto Rico, once he got past the "new gringo" initiations. He made good friends at Antilles High School, participated in musicals, took guitar lessons, designed and built his own electric guitar, had parties, became a SCUBA diver, learned to sail, and many other things.

This photo was taken our second, and last, Christmas in Puerto Rico. You can see how tall Leif had become. At 6'1" he towered over his dad. By this time, Leif wasn't interested in surprise gifts for Christmas. He usually had something specific he wanted, and since we tried to get it for him (and if it was expensive, combine it with the money we would spend for his birthday in January), he usually knew ahead of time what his main gift would be. I think this was the Christmas he got his bass guitar. I always tried to get something less expensive so he'd have something to open he didn't already know about.

Peter A. never lived with us in Puerto Rico, since he left home to attend the Air Force Academy in the summer of 1987, but he did get to come to Puerto Rico a couple of times to visit, and Christmas was one of them. It was good to have our family of four together, if only briefly.

Leif's 12th Christmas 1986 - Lawton, Michigan - Almost 12 years old

In the summer of 1986 we moved from Honolulu, Hawaii to Fort Sheridan, Illinois, a small army base on the north side of Chicago sandwiched in between the suburbs of Highland Park, Highwood and Lake Forest. Peter W. was actually assigned as the Staff Judge Advocate for the U.S. Military Entrance Processing Command (MEPCOM) at Great Lakes, a few miles farther north. We could have gotten quarters there, or lived in any of a large number of the northern suburbs, but after a thorough investigation of the schools, it was clear that the best place for our sons to go to school was in Highland Park, and accepting quarters at Fort Sheridan would put them into that school system. For Peter Anthony, it was a critical senior year, but for Leif, we knew it would be at least three years, and it turned out to be four.

Our sons had grown up so far away from my family for most of their lives that they really only knew my mother, who came to visit at least once a year wherever we lived. Moving to the Chicago area brought us closer to them, because my mother and my brother Donovan were a day's drive away in Kansas; my sister Lannay was a day's drive away in Maryland, and my sister Sherie was just a couple of hours drive away in Michigan. We were able to see them a lot more again and Leif took to his cousins very quickly.

1986 was the first Christmas on the US mainland since 1976, ten years! We spent it at my sister Sherie's home in Lawton, Michigan, and my sister Lannay and her family came, too. It was great to have a house full of family to celebrate with, and Peter Anthony and Leif got to know four of their first cousins. In the photo above, left to right are Peter Anthony (18), Derek, Leif (almost 12), Shane, Jacquie and Brenda. It was Peter Anthony's 18th birthday, my Christmas boy born on December 25th.

Christmas in the north, cold and snowy, seemed more like what we were culturally used to as Christmas weather, but it was a shock after three years in warm Hawaii!

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Leif's 9th Christmas 1983 - Honolulu, Hawaii - Almost 9 years old

In the summer of 1983 we moved from Sagamihara, Japan, to Honolulu, Hawaii, were we lived in a townhouse on the outer rim of an extinct volcano at Red Hill, overlooking Pearl Harbor and Pearl City. Leif was in third grade and growing fast. You can see he is maturing a lot from the last photos.

He was always bright, but in Hawaii he was pursuing a lot of ideas, drawing, planning, constructing plastic models, and so on. He still loved his E.T. "dolls" and kept them by him while he worked. He was deeply into his GI Joe phase, as well as his continuing fascination with Star Wars and Star Trek.

Although I no longer know for sure what he got for Christmas in 1983, I can say with some certainty that it must have involved some space and or GI Joe vehicles.

It was in Hawaii that he became so focused on GI Joe that he would save up his pocket money and we would go to Long's Drug Store in Pearl City, which had a huge selection of GI Joe figures, so that he could select one. That was always a traumatic event for him, and I may have written about this before. He usually only had enough money for one, but would want 3-5, and it was just about torture for him to make a decision. As soon as he chose one, he knew he'd have to leave the others behind.

I would point out to him that if he really didn't know which one he wanted most, it really didn't matter which one he picked, he would like it. And he could save up to get another one next time. That didn't help. He would stand there nearly paralyzed with indecision until tears welled up in his eyes. I felt bad for him, coming there to get something he wanted to give him fun and pleasure, and have the choice be so momentously hard.

But at Christmas, he didn't have to worry about choices, at least not at that age. Someone else had to do that, and he could just open his gifts and have fun.

In Hawaii, we were still very far away from the rest of our family. My mother did come to visit once a year, and Peter's mother, Ellen (Oma to the kids), made it once, but those visits were rare.

Christmas in Hawaii was a new experience for us because it was hot weather. It made me realize how all our cultural expectations for Christmas (and thus those of our children) were for it to be cold . . . and wishing for snow. Thus it didn't SEEM like Christmas, despite the Christmas carols playing in the department stores and on the radio. It seemed especially silly to be hearing, "Jingle Bells," for instance, and see fake snow in the windows of Pizza Hut! We talked about how in probably half the world, it wasn't cold at Christmas time, and why weren't there songs that went with warm weather??

We took all that in stride, though, and we had fun together, enjoyed our family traditions as always, and could even look forward to heading for the beach.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Leif's Sixth Christmas 1981 - Sagamihara, Japan - Almost 7 years old

By Christmas 1981 we had been living in Japan for almost a year-and-a-half. We loved it there. The boys were both enthralled with the Japanese toys, particularly the transforming robots that became jet planes, trucks, and all manner of other things. The robots also could shoot a variety of projectiles and pop off their hands, as well as wield all kinds of fancy weapons.

I don't know exactly when the boys got specific ones, like the Big Dai-X boxed robot toy in the picture, or Godo Siguma, or the other ones, some of which I've talked about on the blog before, but Leif might have gotten one like this for Christmas in 1981 or 1982.

We saved all of the boys' Japanese toys, and now our grandson, Marcus, has them. Leif gave his to Marcus, too. I had saved them in case he ever had a child who might enjoy them, as I doubt there will ever be toys like that again. But Leif never had any children, so he gave both his Japanese toys and his large collection of GI Joe paraphernalia to Marcus.

The Tokima Watch robot is another thing he got as a gift while we were in Japan. That he treasured. There is a small robot that detaches from the face of the watch. It's quite ingenious. It had been packed away for a long time and when I went through everything before moving to Florida, I took this photo and sent it to Leif and Peter A. to ask whose it was. Both of them claimed it, but Leif insisted it was, "MINE, all MINE!" He still wanted it and wasn't willing to give it up. I found it in his apartment after he died.

We celebrated Christmas in Japan in much the same way we did everywhere else. We put up our Christmas tree and Nativity Scene, played Christmas carols, exchanged presents, and had our traditional Norwegian Christmas bread (Julekage) and cookies (Berliner Kranse), but it was just the four of us.

In these photos, Leif is actually wearing a jacket that belonged to Peter Anthony, who had worn it just the year before. It was a bit large, but Leif was astonishingly big for his age and wore hand-me-downs from Peter A., who was 6 years older, within a year or two.

I like the cute nose-to-nose photo of Leif and his dad. When I look back on all the years of our children's childhoods, it seems to me that some of the very best years were the three we spent in Japan.

Leif - Christmases 1979 & 1980 - From Germany to Japan - Ages Almost 5 & 6

Sometimes it amazes me that with all the times we have moved, I can still find all these photos . . . and then again, I find these holes where I think photos should be. I found the album for 1979 but there are very few Christmas photos in it, and I wonder where the others went. Surely we would have had more than one photo of Leif during the 1979 Christmas holidays, but there aren't more of the rest of us, either.

In 1979, we were still living in Sachsen bei Ansbach, and it seems he had come to terms a little bit better with Santa. Or maybe it's because he wasn't expected to sit on Santa's lap or give him a hug. This photo was taken at the JAG Office Christmas Party in Ansbach, but this time, someone else in the office was playing Santa. Our boys still didn't have a clue that Santa was played by anyone, much less by their own dad the previous year.

The summer of 1980, we moved from Germany to Japan, stopping in the USA in Kansas for a family reunion with Jerri's family in July 1980, then visiting Peter W.'s mother in California, and even stopping for a vacation in Hawaii on the way. It was a long, half-way-around-the-world journey in stages, quite an adventure for all of us.

The black-and-white photo of Leif and Peter Anthony shows some exuberant children. If I had time, I'd try to go back and figure out what they got for Christmas. These are some of my favorite Christmas photos because of all the hugging, with Leif actually participating. He was such a beautiful five-year-old, soon to be six!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Leif's Fourth Christmas 1978 - Sachsen bei Ansbach, Germany - Age almost 4

During the summer of 1978 we moved from Fuerth, Germany to a village about 45 minutes drive away, Sachsen bei Ansbach. Ansbach was the nearest city. Peter W. found a house that was being completed to rent by a man who lived in the village, named Hans Volland. He went by the nickname Hanni.

This was a great house, with a lot of space and special features, on a hill where an orchard had once been. We had a nice yard, 2 apple and 8 plum trees, and a woods nearby. That's where Leif started going to the German Kindergarten and Peter A. started at the local school.

By the time Christmas came, both boys were completely fluent in German and sounded just like any other kid in the village.

There was a family Christmas party at the JAG Office in Ansbach, where Peter worked. He was asked to play Santa Claus, and he did, giving out gifts to all the kids. We were a little dubious about whether our boys would realize who Santa really was. We needn't have worried. I guess they were still believers and couldn't imagine that it was their dad in that suit.

The photo of Leif on "Santa's" lap is actually him on Peter W.'s lap. Leif wasn't yet quite four years old, so it's less startling that he didn't know it was his father, but Peter A. was 10, and he didn't get it either. We had a hard time keeping a straight face. From Leif's body language, it appears that he still wasn't really comfortable getting close to a guy that looked like Santa Claus!

The two photos of Leif in the sweater were taken in our living room at the house in Sachsen on Christmas Eve, and the one of my three guys was taken on Christmas morning. They are wearing caftans I made for them.

Christmas seemed simpler then and gifts were less expensive, at least the ones we gave. And, I made many of the gifts I gave in those days.

Leif's Third Christmas 1977 - Furth, Germany - Almost 3 years old

After our year in Charlottesville, Virginia, we were stationed in Fuerth, Germany, right next to Nurnberg, and Peter W. was the Officer in Charge of the U.S. Army's Nurnberg Law Center. We lived in an army housing area that no longer exists, in a first floor apartment. The building had three floors and there were six apartments in our stairwell. There was a very large area behind the building, surrounded by other apartment buildings like ours, that was the kids' playground.

Leif's best friend was a girl named Katie who lived in the next building. She had one blind eye because her brother had accidentally shot one of her eyes with a BB from an air gun.

Leif was two-and-a-half the summer we moved to Furth, and we lived there just one year. He attended the Happy Time Montessori Preschool.

That year, one of the organizations offered a service on St. Nikolaus Day, December 6th, where St. Nikolaus would come to one's home and visit the kids. I believe they requested a donation for a service organization. We decided that would be fun for the boys.

The evening of December 6th, the doorbell rang and there was St. Nikolaus, dressed like the German Nikolaus, not like the bearded American Santa, but similar enough that any kid should have known who it was. However, as I said in my earlier post, a lot of young children are scared of Santa, and Leif turned out to be one of them. He took one look at St. Nick and ran screaming to a big upholstered chair in the living room and tried to hide.

St. Nick tried to talk with him but Leif wasn't responding well. We tried talking to Leif and encouraging him to be friendly. Nothing doing. He was crying. Peter A. showing brotherly concern and trying to let Leif see that St. Nick wasn't hurting him any, but that didn't help either.

St. Nick didn't give up. He finally got down on the floor, so he was at Leif's height in the chair, and talked to him. Eventually, he got Leif to turn around and give him a hug. That's what you see in the photo above.

St. Nick was played by an army sergeant, and I no longer remember his name, but I do know that he had kids of his own and he was really good with Leif. Leif never told us why he was so frightened of him.

The other photo is of Leif playing with some of his Christmas toys on Christmas Eve, on the rug in the living room of of quarters there. So many of our Christmases were just the four of us, like this one, but we had a good time and a lot of love.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Leif's Second Christmas 1976 - Charlottesville, Virginia - Nearly 2 Years Old

When Leif was a year-and-a-half old, in the summer of 1976, we moved from Manhattan, Kansas to Charlottesville, Virginia, where we lived in a two-story townhouse on Woodlake Drive. We only lived there for one year before moving to Germany, but it was a very good year for all of us.

That year, we were fortunate to have a lot of family with us for Christmas. Leif was darling, and by that time, talking, and very, very bright. For instance, he had a "shape ball" where he could fit complex shapes into holes of the same shape. It was not only a discrimination task but also one of dexterity, as it wasn't easy to fit the shapes through the holes. He would sit there and say, "This is a hexagon. This is a trapezoid," and so on. He always got them all exactly right. I think there were at least 10, and maybe a total of 12 shapes.

He nearly had me convinced that he knew now to read, because he would carefully turn the pages of Dr. Seuss's long book, The Lorax, and recite every word that went on each page correctly. The only way I figured out that he had memorized the entire book and knew what words were on each page was by writing down words separately from the book to see if he knew them, and he didn't.

That Christmas, the favorite thing Leif got was Fluffy, the soft, stuffed dog in the photo. Fluffy was nearly as big as he was when he first got him, but very light and very cuddly. Leif loved soft cuddly things (especially cats), but Fluffy was his all time favorite stuffed animal. He loved Fluffy for years, played with him, took him everywhere. I've posted a couple of photos before of him posing Fluffy on his tricycle and sled, even with a football helmet on him.

Fluffy was a gift from Lannay, my sister, who lived about a two hour's drive away that year, at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, and came to visit often.

Leif slept with Fluffy for years. I remember when we were moving from Germany to Japan when Leif was five years old, the summer of 1980, and I came through the USA to visit family with the boys ahead of Peter W. We flew from London to Dallas on Braniff, where we had to go through Customs and Immigration before getting on a flight to Kansas City. Like several other airlines that existed at that time, Braniff, too, is no more. Of course, Leif had to have Fluffy with him at all times, including on the plane.

While in the huge Dallas airport, alone with the boys, and struggling with luggage, I was dismayed and frustrated when Leif first took to tossing Fluffy up in the air and letting him land on the floor, as he certainly wasn't going to stay clean that way, and then he took Fluffy in his arms and took off running away from me through the crowd. This wasn't the first or last time Leif took off. He had just done it in Dartmouth, England days before. I had the lousy choice of leaving the luggage behind and asking Peter Anthony (only 11) to stay with it while I literally ran after Leif, or hollering at him and hoping he would stop. I tried both before I managed to get him to stick with me. (And then the airline lost the luggage. We never saw it again after I checked it, and we arrived in Kansas in 115 degree heat with no clothes!)

By the time we got to Japan, Fluffy was already three-and-a-half years old and looking a bit matted down, but still much loved. I don't remember how long Leif had Fluffy, but I'm pretty sure he still had him when we moved to Hawaii in 1983. At some point, Fluffy got wet and dirty. I don't remember how. He didn't dry out well and smelled bad, and Leif finally agreed to give him up.

Of the gifts Leif got for Christmas in his young life, Fluffy was one of the best and most beloved. I'll always remember him hugging and snuggling that dog on Christmas Eve 1976, looking angelic and oh, so happy.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Leif's First Christmas 1975 - Manhattan, Kansas - 11 Months

Leif was a precious 11 month old on his first Christmas. We were living in the old stone house in Manhattan, Kansas and Peter Anthony was just turning seven.

Christmas is magical for kids, but also bewildering. All of a sudden there are so many new things, a Christmas tree all decorated with lovely bright lights and pretty, shiny (often breakable) objects, a Nativity scene, presents wrapped under the tree (no baby knows what they are for), new music, new foods, and Santa.

Lots of children are afraid of Santa (real people dressed as Santa, that is). Adults often don't understand that, but if you consider it from a small child's point of view, they've never seen anything like that before! Some big (huge from their point of view) guy in weird clothing and lots of white hair and a beard (also something many children have never seen). He wants to hold them and says loudly, "Ho, ho, ho." Heaven knows what will happen next.

Peter Anthony had a birthday party in mid-December. His real birthday is December 25th. Peter W. decided to dress up like Santa and make an appearance. I don't remember where he got the costume, probably at Army Community Service at Fort Riley, but it didn't come with any kind of decent beard or hair. Peter tried to make them out of cotton batting and figure out some what to put them on. What a riot! The kids were small enough, and unsophisticated enough, that they didn't really notice that it wasn't remotely like hair and could have easily been pulled off.

So, one of the photos above is of "Santa" holding Leif. In the 1970s, we were still taking a mixture of B&W and color photos. I wish I had a color version of this one now.

Then there is a photo of Leif sitting in his high chair at the dinner table on Christmas Eve, and another one of him sitting on the floor with me, all dressed for bed, when we were opening presents. In our family, the tradition is to open family gifts on Christmas Eve. Santa comes to our house, but he doesn't bring the main gifts. He brings some small "extras."

And best of all, the photo of my three handsome guys looking happy! They are holding the Saint Nikolaus doll that we got in Nurnberg some years before, at the Christkindlmarkt. We still have that doll, but it is getting a bit worse for the wear after so many years.

Leif wasn't talking yet at this point, so we have no way of knowing just what he was thinking. He certainly was wide-eyed and interested.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

The Shadow of Death - Grief Etched Upon the Soul - Eight Months

Today it is eight months since we found Leif's lifeless body. We are no nearer to answers than we were eight months ago. We are less anguished in our grief, but it lies no less near the surface. Every morning when I get up, I face anew the knowledge that Leif is dead, and every night when I go to bed, I know that tomorrow he still will not be there.

Every starlit night I still wish upon a star for him, though he will never come back.

Every day I check my cell phone, though I know there will be no more messages from him.

Some days bring only a tear or two. Some bring torrents. I think that grief is like a flood that builds up behind the dam of our everyday activities and politeness, hidden, until it spills over into a more obvious and debilitating depression or a flood of tears that just leave the reservoir empty until it builds up again.

Yesterday was my day to let the torrent go. Of the two days, the day I know he died (the 9th) and the day we found him (the 10th), each has it's psychological significance. Some months one stabs more than the other. This month, for me, it was yesterday, the 9th. I go over and over in my mind what I know of his last hours, wonder how he came to decide to shoot himself, how and why he did it. The answers never come.

What could we have done to help? Would he have let us? We will never know.

Every day is hard, but holidays are harder. We spend them with family, and our family is now incomplete. There will always be a hole in every celebration, someone missing from every family picture.

Leif was such a presence, such a large man, with a hearty laugh, a good conversationalist, gregarious, that his absence from our family gatherings is terribly obvious.

I was glad to spend Thanksgiving far from here, with a lot of family. I am glad that Peter Anthony and his family will be with us for Christmas. We will need them to bring us out of the shadows, to make us celebrate with them. Grandchildren are wonderful for that. Yet I will be seeing in my mind that Leif is not there playing chess with Madeleine, or being silly with Aly.

Last Christmas, he was still here.

Peter W. has always loved Christmas, always wanted to put up decorations, loved the season, the decor, the lights. He said to me, "For sixty-five years I've always had the Christmas spirit, but now I don't." That, too, is part of the sad fact of grief. It robs you of the things you have always loved because someone you love is gone, and they are infinitely more important.

We will put up the tree late this year, and wait for the grandchildren to help us decorate it. With them, it will be more than just going through the motions. It will be fun, even though the sadness will hide underneath.

Does grief really ebb, or do we just get too tired and worn to express it any more? And when grief ebbs, do we really let go? I still do not want to let go. Ever.

Does the day come with things we should really enjoy will be truly enjoyable? I hope so.

But Christmas is coming, and we had 32 of them with Leif in our lives, and all but one of them, he was with us, that year he was in Bosnia, when he apparently took no photos of the celebrations the troops had. At least I haven't found any.

So, beginning tomorrow, I will post some of the photos of him at those Christmases. Of course we weren't taking photos with anything like this in mind. They often aren't the shots I wish I had, and I won't post a photo of him at Christmas for every year of his life, but many, because I need to remember that he had happy times, that his life was not all bleak, that Christmas was magical for him as a child, that we enjoyed being together and celebrating when he was a teen and an adult, that he loved our traditional Norwegian cookies, and delighted in snitching the raw cookie dough. When I make them this year, I need to take a photo and post that, too.

We will light candles for him this Christmas, and hope that if his spirit is here, he will know he is a part of us and of our celebration, whether we can see him or not.

The photo of Leif was taken in Japan in April 1982. He was seven years old. Leif was often pensive and thoughtful. In later years, he said that ever since he was a small child, he had been an observer of life and worked to understand things and figure them out. I am trying to understand and figure things out, too.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Leif - Nurnberg, Germany - October 1979 - Age: Almost 5

I love this photo of Leif. He looks so precious, and sweet, with a little, soft smile. In photos like this, you can see the vulnerability come through. I don't think he ever lost that. He just learned to cover it up and look macho.

He always loved posing in or by trees. I think this one was taken at the Nurnberg Zoo. We had a great afternoon there with our friends the Summerlins. Leif loved playing with Erin. The two of them always got along, unlike he and some of his male friends, with whom he sometimes got into spats.

There is a wonderful innocence about Leif's photos under the age of about 14. At some point, be began to have less trust in the world and eventually became cynical. I wish life had not done that to him, that he had been able to stay this open, this hopeful, this accepting of life.

I'll never see that look on his face again, though I did see expressions of delight and happiness, particularly when he was with his nieces and nephew, children with whom he could horse around and have fun without having his guard up.

All our children grow up, and we only have our photos and memories of those earlier days, but ours are all the more precious because we will never see Leif again.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Garretson Family - November 1978 - Germany

I need to find more of the Christmas photos from those three years in Germany when Leif was so young. It's amazing that as many photos as our family takes, I wish there were more, that we had taken more of certain things that we didn't think of at the time.

This photo was taken the first fall that we lived in the village of Sachsen bei Ansbach. I think there was some kind of deal with a photographer taking family portraits in Katterbach, in the American housing area, and we went and had this one taken. Leif has that same, innocent, bewildered look that he had in the photo of him and Peter Anthony as an accolyte, but that wasn't typical of him. He was a cute little rascal, full of animation, silliness, and smiles, as well as a temper and some pouting.

It's hard to believe we were ever all that young. In this photo, Peter Anthony was almost 10 and Leif was a couple months shy of his 4th birthday.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Peter Anthony & Leif - Christmas 1979 - Katterbach, Germany - Ages 11 & 5

The thoughts of those long-ago Christmases in Germany when my boys were so young reminded me of this photo of the two of them at the chapel at the Katterbach army housing area in Germany. Peter Anthony had become an accolyte and was serving that month. Leif was all dressed up for church, and after the service I took this photo. Peter A. is looking angelic and protective, and Leif looks so innocent and kind of bewildered. Peter A. was turning 11 on Christmas Day, and Leif would be 5 in another month.

Katterbach was a German village just a couple of kilometers from the village where we lived, Sachsen bei Ansbach, and the U.S. army housing area was just across the fields from us. If Peter Anthony had been attending the American school on base, he would have gone to school there, but he was going to the German school in Sachsen, and Leif was attending the German Kindergarten there. Therefore, our boys, who spoke fluent German within about four months after we moved to Sachsen in the summer of 1978, knew few of the American kids.

Peter A. was in an American Scout troop that met over at Katterbach, and there were two other American families that lived in Sachsen. One had a girl Peter A's age, but they seldom got together. The other had a girl Leif's age and he and Erin were good friends. Other than that, all their friends were the German children they knew at their schools and in our neighborhood.

So many of our American Christmas customs and music come from Germany that most of the celebrations seem familiar, except for the language. However, I don't think we ever experienced any family Christmases as magical and "Christmasy" as those we spent in Germany. Partly this is because so many years we were far from my family in the USA and didn't have a larger family to celebrate with, but in Germany, we did, often spending time with Peter W's relatives.

And Christmas also is never as magical as when you have small children who are still enthralled by the wonder of it all, caught up in the joy over pretty decorations, music, Santa and presents.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Leif & His Dad - December 1976 - 23 Months Old

I was looking for some photos taken at this time of the year (saving the Christmas ones for a few days) and found this sweet one of Leif kissing his daddy. I've written before that Leif wasn't a particularly affectionate child, so moments like these were doubly precious. I caught a couple of them between Peter W. and Leif, but I don't think there are any of him kissing me, partly a matter of it happening fewer times, but even more a matter of who happened to have a camera ready.

When this was taken, we were living in Charlottesville, Virginia, where Peter W. was attending the Judge Advocate General's School to get graduate degree in military law. It was a good year and we enjoyed Charlottesville, though that was the year that Leif started banging his head out of frustration when he was bored. I think I've written about that in a previous post.

Since Leif was always so big for his age, and was over six feet tall since he was in seventh grade, it's almost a shock, and very endearing, to see him so small next to his dad.

As we get ready for Christmas this year, I know it's going to be hard to be without him. Today we went to the tree lighting ceremony for our community association, put on by the German-American Club (we are members). They sing carols in German and English, and then serve Christmas cookies and Stollen (German Christmas bread). This was Peter W's fourth year to go and my third, and I didn't expect to find it difficult, but I got choked up and teary-eyed and couldn't sing several of the songs. I just kept remembering my dear, sweet little boy at our Christmases in Germany in 1977, 1978 and 1979.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Leif at Work a Year Ago - Age 32

Last December 20, 2007, Leif took this photo of himself at work. I found it on his computer after his death, yet another photo he had not shared with us. He rarely emailed photos to us. He was a telephone customer service agent for Medicare Part D and spent his workdays logged in on a computer and phone system accepting calls. Leif was good at his job and prided himself on his ability to explain things to people thoroughly and compassionately, but he came to abhor the US health care system because of its unfairness, with some people unable to get care without insurance and enormous amounts of money. Leif had health insurance because he was a military retiree and had VA benefits as well as health insurance from his job, and he was adamant about the need for universal health insurance. He felt terrible about having to explain to those who did have health insurance why something that was critical to their care wasn't covered.

I remember when Leif first came home from the army and wasn't yet permanently medically retired so the possibility of him losing his military benefits and health insurance was real. Even though he had asthma, he had the youthful expectation of good health and couldn't see why he should be concerned about finding a job with health insurance and benefits. Later, as his health deteriorated, his medications grew more expensive, and when he had to have the collarbone operation in July 2007, it became very important that he had health insurance. The bills for his operation alone totalled over $50,000, though they were greatly reduced by the limits the insurance had negotiated. Even so, he had out of pocket expenses that ruined his budget.

It's hard to believe Leif took this photo just under a year ago, and now he's gone. We never saw his workplace. After he died, we picked up the few belongings he had there in a box brought to our car by his team leader. There weren't many, but the box was heavy, mostly with the big jug of pennies that he had used to build the copper penny space ship in his cubicle. I posted a photo of that before. There was also the headset he's using in this photo, certificates of training, a one-year service award and commendation certificates, pens, pencils, and that's about all. You can see one of the commendation award certificates in the photo.

It would have been healthier for Leif to be in a job where he interacted directly with people. He was too isolated, both at work and at home. It might not have made a difference, but I think he would have been happier if he had had a job dealing with people and ideas and more activities with friends outside of work.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Leif in Thailand - December 1981 - Almost 7 years old

In December 1981, our family made a trip to Thailand. We were living in Japan, and this was a dream-come-true trip for me to see my Thai "sister," Lek, our family friend Ben, and their country. Leif was 6, nearly 7 years old, and Peter Anthony was just shy of his 13th birthday.

We stayed with Lek and her family in Bangkok, and went to see many wonderful sights. Ben took us to see one of the dams he built on the Mekong River system, the real Bridge on the River Kwai, and to Chiang Mai. We saw temples, countryside, people, flowers, waterfalls, elephants, interesting food, and culture.

Perhaps to our sons, who were growing up traveling all over the world (Leif had already lived in two states and two foreign countries by the time he was six years old, and had traveled in many more), a trip to Thailand did not seem so incredible, but for me, having grown up on the plains of Kansas and never having been to another country, other than just over the border into Canada, until I was 22 years old, it was magical.

Although we took many photos in Thailand, most are not of Leif, though I do have others, for instance one of him petting a kitten at a Buddhist monastery. These two will represent that long-ago trip.

The first photo is of Peter Anthony and Leif at the place we went to see the elephants working near Chiang Mai. This was fascinating, not only to see how the elephants could handle giant teak logs, but how they bathed in the river, and would come up and beg for and eat bananas out of our hands. There was a baby elephant that did this. It was a little shorter than Peter Anthony's height, and we were surprised to see that it had long hairs on its skin, not covered with "fur," but with scraggly long hairs.

The second photo is somewhere on the trip to the western part of Thailand where we saw poinsettias growing wild; huge, tall bushes of them. This was so different than the dense, small, potted plants we were used to seeing at Christmas time in the USA.

Leif enjoyed the trip. He was a good traveler, easygoing, uncomplaining, and finding things to interest him just about anywhere. He also had a good time playing with Lek's children.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

A Bittersweet Homecoming - Leif When He Lived Here

I couldn't face Thanksgiving here, with just me, Peter W., and my mother, without Leif, so I talked Peter W. into a trip to the DC area to visit our nephew, Rick, and his family, my sister Lannay and her family, and Peter A., Darlene and Marcus. It was a good trip, and I really enjoyed seeing everyone. The kids (Rick and Mac's daughters Kimmy and Christina, and our grandson Marcus) were great to be with, along with all the adults, and we had a wonderful Thanksgiving feast prepared by Doug at Lannay and Doug's house.

Even with all the happy times, I still had some tears and missed Leif, but it was easier there to be distracted from that because I wasn't used to expecting to see him there.

Coming home today was harder. As we traveled south on I-75 past Tampa, when we passed the exit we would have taken to go to see Leif, I choked up, realizing I'd never do that again. It got worse when we got home, and I saw his mountain bike hanging up in the garage, his motorcycle helmet on the dining room table, his uniform in my closet, and all the other reminders, his portrait on my desk. I remembered how he lived here, in this house, slept in what's now our guest room, had his computer and stereo in what is now my office, for a year. How the guest bathroom was his, how he used to park his car and cycle in the garage, and then how, when he moved out, I could look forward to him driving up to visit, seeing him at my kitchen or dining room table, sitting in the living room.

I will never see him in those places again, and it hurts. It makes me deeply sad and brings tears to my eyes. I see photos of his life cycling through my iGoogle slide show and I hope, oh, how I hope, that in the last days of his life he was able to remember that once he had good times with us, with his friends, that he was loved.

This photo was taken March 13, 2005, right after we moved Leif and Peter W. to Florida. He set up his computer desk in the room he used for a year and spent so much time in playing online computer games, searching for companionship on eHarmony and, and looking for jobs. Leif was a true technophile and loved computers. The one you can see on the right side of the desk is the one he built himself.

He was only here with his dad for 11 months, but I will always see him in this room of our house in my mind.

I'm home, Leif, but you are not, and my heart is heavy.