A Remembrance for My Father, Alan Oppegaard

(Originally delivered at my father’s funeral on 11/7/22 )

Hello everyone. Thank you all for coming today to celebrate the life of my father, Alan Oppegaard. My family is grateful for your presence and support here today. Thank you to everyone who has supported both Al and our family during the difficult journey to the end of my father’s life, including the caring staff at North Memorial Hospital. Also, thank you to Lord of Life Church for hosting this memorial and Pastor Peter for officiating—we truly appreciate it.

Alan Oppegaard was a good man. He cared deeply about other people and expressed his love openly and repeatedly. He had a wry, deadpan sense of humor that reminded me of Bill Murray. Al truly was an open book—if he was unhappy with you, he told you so, the issue was dealt with, and soon enough he was joking around again, ready to move on. When I messaged a friend about my father’s passing, he wrote back, “In the brief few times I met him over the years, Al always seemed like a good and kindly midwestern man and also a proud and caring dad,” which I had to agree with.

Born in Madison, Minnesota, a small town within spitting distance of South Dakota, Alan Oppegaard grew up surrounded by farm fields, open skies, and windblown prairie. Honest and hardworking, Al loved his parents and his older brother, Larry. He liked helping people. He liked playing football in high school. He liked reading thrillers and playing guitar. He liked collecting pocketknives and pens and baseball caps. He liked building things. He liked yard work. He liked going on long walks and saying hello to people. He also loved animals, especially his dog, Pechi, who became his closest friend near the end of his life.

Above all, Al loved his kids, grandkids, and boy, he sure loved his wife, Joyce, whom he was married to for the final thirty years of his life. He not only loved Joyce, he also worked with her for 17 years, selling brick and masonry supplies across the Twin Cities. A formidable sales team, when either Dad or Joyce had trouble closing a deal, they called on each other for help, utilizing their different personalities (Dad was a little lower key, while Joyce was, let’s say, more high energy) to connect with a client. Together, Al and Joyce traveled across the world and visited all 50 states, laughing and having a great time, always happiest in each other’s company, happy to work on their house in Maple Grove, go out to bingo or trivia night with their friends, work on Joyce’s Mother Earth charitable recycling project, or spend time at their lake house on the banks of Lake Minnewaska, where they, of course, made many more friends with locals from Starbuck and Glenwood, MN.

All this happiness, of course, made the painful times in Dad’s life more notable. While teaching English in Thailand in the early 1970s, through the Peace Corps, Dad was summoned home to Minnesota by the all-too-soon passing of his beloved mother, Barbara. Before meeting Joyce, he was also married to and eventually divorced from my mother, Kayc, before losing his father a few years later. Then, approximately nine years ago, at the age of 65, Al began exhibiting symptoms of memory loss,

Approximate is a key word here. If our family has learned anything over the past decade, it’s that a world you want to view as black and white actually contains an endless variety of gray tones, some so subtle you don’t even notice them at first. For example, while Dad seemed to possess many of the indicators of Alzheimer’s Disease, he could never officially be diagnosed because he had a pacemaker implanted in his chest, which made it impossible for him to have an MRI. As Dad’s memory loss worsened, his personality also changed, sometimes by imperceptible degrees, sometimes quite obviously. He became a different person, repeating the same stories over and over, often anxious and restless when not actively doing something, like a tiger caged in his own living room. One minute he could be content and happy-go-lucky, another he could be angry and upset. He became Al and not-Al at the same time, a duality that could often be unsettling, hard to understand, and even harder to accept. You’d often want him to be happy, to remember some great time from the past, or simply recall something you’d said fifteen seconds earlier, but that knowledge was now locked away and inaccessible to him. Sometimes he knew your name, sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes Al knew he was sick, and would earnestly thank you for helping him, but most of the time he thought he was doing just fine, thank you.

And, of course, Joyce, as Al’s wife and primary caretaker, bore the brunt of my father’s condition. Her tireless efforts on my father’s behalf, her endurance and patience with his disease, were beyond heroic. All the doctor appointments, all the pill giving, all the mask reminders, all the repetitive explanations (such as explaining what Covid-19 was, over and over and over), all the restless pacing, all the mood swings and agitations, all the errands and visits she couldn’t make alone, Joyce was up for all of it, like a terminator of love. For a handful of times, I watched my father in Maple Grove while she went on work trips, and each time when Joyce returned, I was beyond exhausted and amazed by her endurance and strength, that this was something she lived with day-to-day. Truly, I cannot say enough about what Joyce has gone through and endured, with boundless love, over the past decade. It is astonishing.

Yet even in Al’s final years there were many moments of joy, perhaps even the greatest singular joy of his life. In January of 2018, Al’s former students invited him and our family to Thailand for a reunion after forty-five years. I’d been hearing about Thailand from Dad for my entire life, but even I had yet to understand what a profound event it had been for him. Al’s return to Thailand was extraordinary, like visiting Thailand with a major celebrity, or a revered war hero. Al’s former students obviously respected him so much, and were so grateful for what he’d taught them so many years earlier, that you could see it beaming from their smiles as they hosted us for event after event, meal after meal, tour after tour. One former student, now an older man himself, hugged my father and wept openly when they were reunited. Inspired by all this love and energy, my father, already in the middle stages of dementia, already prone to wandering off and getting lost, was able to remember many of his students and even converse in Thai. In fact, it seemed like Dad hardly stopped smiling the entire time we were in Thailand, especially when we visited an elephant preserve, spending a peaceful afternoon with these enormous, majestic creatures known for their prodigious memories.

I could go on and on about Alski, but I think I’ll end this remembrance with two memories that involve dogs. Sometime around 1988, my father drove down to Lake Crystal, nearly two hours from the Twin Cities, like he did nearly every weekend for several years after the divorce, to pick up my sister and I for the weekend. As we started the drive back to the Cities, he told us our beloved dog, Prancer, had died suddenly in her sleep. When my sister and I began to weep, he pulled over to the side of Highway 60, parked the car, and wept with us.

My second dog related memory is much happier. During our final father-son weekend, just three weeks ago, we went to Weaver Lake Park to walk Pechi and get some fresh air. It was a beautiful autumn day, crisp without being too cold, and the sky was pure blue. We walked up the park’s hillside and into the woods, where fallen leaves already covered the forest floor. Pechi happily burrowed through the leaves, huffing and snorting, while I took pictures with my phone. When the footing grew more uncertain and the trees grew denser, I asked Dad if he wanted to go back to the car. He said no, let’s keep going.

That was Alan Oppegaard. He’d laugh with you, he’d cry with you, he’d explore the world with you. He was up for all of it. He loved being alive—deeply, truly loved it—and chances are, if you’re here today, he loved you, too.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s