no more father
Wednesday, November 2 2011
Today was my father's 88th birthday and I meant to call him to wish that it be as happy as possible given that he was bedridden and receiving hospice care at home. But before I could do any such thing, the phone rang and Gretchen and I could see that it was from my parents' number. I answered it and was surprised to find my brother Don on the other end. Don never calls me and is barely coherent enough to place a phone call at all. But there he was. After confusing my voice with Gretchen's, he said, "I'm calling to tell you that Dad died. He died. That's what I'm calling to tell you." Whoah, okay. Though expected at some point, it still came as a shock. I asked if there was going to be a funeral and my brother replied something like, "No, there's not going to be a funeral. Mother doesn't believe in spending money on a corpse. They already came and took the corpse away. You know, in Germany back in World War II when an old solider..." I cut him off, as I didn't think this was an appropriate time to receive another lecture about what Hitler thought was best for Germany. "How did he die?" I asked. "Who knows?" replied Don, "it happened at 2:30 in the morning and I think his heart just gave out. All his systems were just in such bad shape." It turned out that my mother (Hoagie) was in the room while my brother was telling me this stuff, but when I wanted to get her on the line, she refused. She was over on the couch talking with Sarah, the woman who lives in the small trailer across the road next door to Creekside. Evidently Hoagie was in such a fragile condition that she felt more comfortable talking to Sarah than to the son who doesn't live under her roof.
The call didn't last long, and when I put down the phone all I could do was announce to Gretchen that I no longer had a father. She'd been listening on the other handset so I didn't need to explain it to her. At first I thought I was taking it all pretty well, but then when I called Josh (the long-time family friend whom Hoagie recently excommunicated) and tried to leave a message on his answering service, all I could do was get to the word "died" (I don't believe in euphemisms) before choking up and finding myself incapable of saying anything else. I had to call back to try again, this time successfully.
Still, despite the gravity of the news, it wasn't five minutes before I was joking about it. Referring to the people who had come to take the body, I said, "I hope they didn't suspect foul play." Then Gretchen and I imagined authorities interrogating my mother about where she was on the night of November 1st.
Gretchen decided not to go in to work today so she could stay with me. We went for a long walk in the woods and didn't really talk much about my father (or, for that matter, my mother's weird behavior). It was good to be out in nature on a brisk but sunny day. Death is part of nature and when nature calls in what we've borrowed, it's nice to be reminded of nature's gentler side. Then again, autumn (no matter how beautiful the leaves) always seems inherently sad to me.
Back at the house, I made myself a French press of coffee and went up to the laboratory to write an obituary for my father to post on the website I've built for him over the past fifteen years. Doing so was a good way to arrive at my own form of closure. I'd write a little bit and the memories would turn sharp and jab me. I'd sob quietly for a bit, take a little break, and continue. I'll just embed that content right here in addition to linking to it.
about Robert F. Mueller
Robert F. Mueller was born on November 2nd, 1923 in Appleton, Wisconsin. His father, John, was a shoemaker, and John's marriage to Robert's mother, Catherine, was his second. Medicine was primitive in those years, so when, during Robert's infancy, their house caught on fire, John died after jumping from a second floor window and shattering a leg. Afterwards, Robert's many older half-siblings went to live with John's family and the then-impoverished Catherine moved in with her brother August on his twenty acre farm in Sherwood, Wisconsin. Robert remembered the Great Depression as a time of bootleg liquor manufacturing, snake oil medicine shows, black market abortionists, hobos, and gypsies, but life in rural Wisconsin wasn't much worse than it had always been.
Drafted into the European theatre during World War II, Robert served mostly in the military police and never rose above the rank of private. In Wisconsin, Robert's first language had been German, which made him valuable as an interpreter (though Nazi troops routinely made fun of his quaint Austrian peasant vocabulary and 18th-century cultural references). He had many stories from this period, including his shock upon first hearing the expression "mother fucker." He was in Germany when the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and he remembered feeling relief that the war was finally over. He'd been dreading the possibility of being reassigned to a ground invasion of the Japanese homeland.
Back in Wisconsin, Robert took advantage of the GI Bill to enroll at the University of Wisconsin at Oshkosh. He'd dropped out of high school in the 9th Grade, but evidently in those days this wasn't a problem. Soon Robert had moved to the main campus in Madison, where he remembers arguing with pro-McCarthy thugs during the height of McCarthyism.
After graduating from Madison, Robert went on to graduate school at the University of Chicago, eventually earning a PhD in Geology. Along the way he studied fossils in the Burgess Shales of British Columbia, oceanography at Scripps Institute in La Jolla, California, and mining petrology in Quebec. In time he became a Junior Professor at the University of Chicago. But, being of a somewhat cantankerous sort, he eventually ran afoul of his superiors. There was a story circulating that had Robert threatening a disliked colleague with a geologic pick (or, in another telling, pissing on him).
Robert's best friend in Chicago was the paleontologist Robert DeMar (1931-2007). The two would spend many evenings drinking at Jimmy's, a bar catering to the university community. One day DeMar mentioned that his sister Betty would be coming up from Arizona for a visit, jokingly adding that he should "fix you up." Robert Mueller and Betty DeMar married in early January of 1964. Within a year they had their first son, Don.
After burning all his bridges with the University of Chicago, Robert Mueller was hired by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to work as a Planetary Geochemist at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Soon after moving to Maryland, Betty and Robert had their second (and last) child, Gus.
After a number of years at NASA, Robert gradually transitioned from using Russian probe data to study chemical equilibria on the Planet Venus to using satellite photographs to study environmental problems on Planet Earth. He started with studying siltation problems caused by suburban sprawl around the District of Columbia, but eventually moved on to studying the risks of a nuclear power plant planned for Douglas Point near Washington, DC. When this paper, the first-ever published by the federal government espousing an anti-nuclear viewpoint, was used by anti-nuke activists nationwide to fight other nuclear plants, Robert soon found himself once more at odds with his superiors. What had been a free and uncritical work environment gradually became claustrophobic.
Meanwhile Robert was finding himself drawn increasingly into environmental battles. He helped to found a local environmental coalition in the early 1970s that successfully fought a planned extension of Interstate 95 inside Washington's Capital Beltway.
Eventually Robert had had enough of his superiors at NASA and in 1976, he and his family moved to a 28 acre farm in the rural Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. From then on he worked as a homesteader, maintaining multiple gardens, goats, chickens, and crop fields. Eschewing unsustainable technology whenever possible, he preferred using primitive human-powered tools such as scythes and cross-cut saws.
When it came to matters of soil quality and climate, Robert and Betty had done their homework, and the farm was soon providing the bulk of life's essentials. They'd been less thorough about researching the sociology of their new-found community, and were alarmed to discover that there were bible lessons being taught at their children's new public school. More immediately problematic, though, were their new neighbors. Initially they'd been bursting with southern hospitality, but over time it became clear that there was going to be trouble. When the new "pig barn" built by the guy across the street turned out to be an auto body repair shop, Robert and Betty reported it to the zoning authorities. But they hadn't counted on the strength and reach of the local good ole' boys network. After several years of lawsuits and a few scary instances of hostile gunfire, the neighborhood quieted down. Nothing was going to drive the Muellers from their farm; indeed, they bought more land and it doubled in size.
By the early 1980s, Robert was working once more as a grassroots environmentalist, this time trying to protect local National Forests from the clear-cut-happy culture of the United States Forest Service. Having given up on the moderate approach of such groups as the Sierra Club, Robert cast his lot with Earth First!, a radical upstart group routinely denounced as "terrorist." Viewing environmental issues from the quantitative thermodynamic standpoint of a geochemist, the many articles Robert wrote for Earth First!'s monthly publication were refreshingly-free of woo-woo mumbo-jumbo.
In the 1990s, Robert gradually transitioned out of activism and began to focus most of his attention on cataloging the plants and animals of the Central Appalachian wilderness. With the assistance of his son Gus, he managed to place most of this material online.
On November 2nd, 2011, his 88th birthday, Robert F. Mueller died at home, in the house where he'd lived so happily since 1976. He is survived by his wife Betty, his two sons, his beloved dog Maple, and a cat named Caliche (the second cat by this name he has had; it's a geochemistry term).
I also posted the news on Facebook, mostly as a way to inform those among my friends who had known my father. The thread immediately turned into a torrent of condolences, which felt more comforting than I would have expected, and people seemed to know enough not to reassure me that my father is (or, perhaps, art) in Heaven. In one way of looking at things, though, my father is in Heaven. He's no longer trapped in a hospital bed forced to shit in a diaper. And the bliss and absence of responsibility characterized by not being alive is really not all that different from the way Heaven is described. Under this concession, though, there can be no Hell. Adolf Hitler and my father are resting in equally-perfect peace. The unfairness of nature continues right to the end.
This evening Gretchen had a great idea: why not go out to a bar and eat some French fries, drink a few, and remember my Dad? Her initial idea was to go to Rolling Rock at the mall, which would have been great if their beer selection was any good. Instead, though, we went to nearby Skytop Steakhouse, which has good fries and a surprisingly well-curated selection of beers. It being a Wednesday night, the place was quiet but not empty, and our bartender had precisely the attitude one wants from a bartender. There wasn't any Ithaca Flower Power IPA on tap, but (if you can believe it) they had three other IPAs going, including Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale. I've had this from the bottle before, and it's good that way. But, Jesus, from the tap it is essentially a perfect beer. It tastes exactly like grapefruit juice, quickly followed by hints of pine needles. It's nice when you're out celebrating the life of your father not to have to compromise on beer. I also tried one of the other IPAs, a so-called "black IPA" named 21st Amendment Back in Black, but it wasn't so great; it was sort of an unholy bastard child of Keegan Ale's Mother's Milk and Hurricane Kitty. We had a good time there at the bar, talking and laughing. Occasionally I'd feel sad and a tear would break free from my eye. When we were done, we ran the dogs around in the parking lot. Gretchen was the least drunk of us, though on the way home I noted that (unlike me), she doesn't slow down when she drives after drinking. "You have to give your reflexes more time to act," I lectured.
I ended up staying up late drinking bourbon and drunkenly replying to condolences emails. [The next day I would have to check my sent folder to remember which of them I'd replied to.]
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