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.

Claw Heart Mountain Sold to CamCat Books

I’m happy to announce we’ve sold my horror novel CLAW HEART MOUNTAIN to CamCat Books. This will be my 6th published novel and will be released (in hardcover, I believe) sometime in spring of 2023.

A big thank you to my friend and new literary agent, Dawn Frederick, at Red Sofa Literary, for facilitating the sale.

I’ve never taken getting published for granted, but after a five year gap in placing my work with a publisher, plus the pandemic, this one is a little extra sweet. There was a large swath of 2020 where I doubted, for the first time in my life, the value of writing fiction at all. It turns out even when the world drastically changes, the need for story, and (for me) the need to create a story, endures after all.

Whoop!

Blood Red Sky Now Available on Kindle Vella

I’ve just published my sci-fi YA novel Blood Red Sky on Kindle Vella, which is a new e-publishing format where parts of a story or novel are released incrementally. As I type this, the first half of the novel has already been published and the remainder will be released weekly until Sept. 11 2021. I’ve always loved this book though it never broke through into traditional publishing and I’m excited to see it available in the world. You can read the first three chapters for free before you need to buy Kindle Vella tokens to keep reading.

Sixteen-year-old Hash Owens, a survivor of a brutal childhood attack that left him with a cybernetic arm, finds himself stuck in afternoon detention with eleven other students on the day his planet is suddenly attacked by a malevolent alien race. As their school and city are rapidly destroyed, Hash and the other students in detention must band together in order to survive.

Lost In Translation Essay

Written for the awesome film review podcast Flahertys On Films!

Lost in Translation (2003) came out about a year after I graduated from college. I remember seeing it in the Highland Park movie theater in St. Paul with friends (remember when you used to go to a movie theater with friends?) and just sitting there amazed when it was over, letting what I’d seen wash over me. I was in love. In love with Bill Murray and in love with Scarlett Johansson and in love with the gleaming version of Tokyo I’d just witnessed.

It may or may not surprise those who know me that for all my gruff talk and dark jokes that I’m secretly a romantic. By the time I’d seen Lost in Translation I’d already done a fair amount of traveling to places like China and Russia and the Caribbean and Italy and England. I knew what it was like to be both homesick and lovesick while culturally at sea and here was a movie that presented much of what I’d experienced in a funny, beautifully filmed package. And the soundtrack, Jesus, the soundtrack alone buzzed through me.

Listen to the girl

As she takes on half the world

Moving up and so alive

In her honey dripping beehive

-The Jesus and Mary Chain

And, at the heart of all this beauty, was the burgeoning friendship/courtship of Bob Harris and Charlotte, which somehow managed to feel innocent despite both characters being married, which felt both high stakes and low stakes at the same time, which felt like a friendly cosmic joke played by the universe. A relationship that was as much a conversation about existential loneliness and how to deal with it as it was about anything else. How to keep laughing, even when eventually you have to say goodbye and fly back to America, likely to never see a newfound friend again.

Generally I don’t watch a movie more than once or twice. Lost in Translation (along with Wonder Boys and Office Space) is one of my few great comfort movies. I have watched it many, many times. Sometimes I’ve watched it when I was sad and lonely. Sometimes I’ve watched it when I was fresh to new love. At this point, it’s basically a warm comforting film bath I can slip into when I feel the need. Existential loneliness may never totally go away, but it’s always good to have company when you can’t sleep.

Some Writing Quotes

I’ve been teaching an undergrad class at Hamline University this fall on the craft of fiction. Now that everyone has submitted to the workshop process, which can be a grind and gut-wrenching experience, I’ve emailed them a few writing quotes I like hoping to give them some additional pep. I’ve always liked how a good quote can cut straight through the writing fog.
_____________________________________________________________________________________________
“When your story is ready for rewrite, cut it to the bone. Get rid of every ounce of excess fat. This is going to hurt; revising a story down to the bare essentials is always a little like murdering children, but it must be done.” -Stephen King
“A book is a dream you hold in your hand.” -Neil Gaiman.
 
“A writer should have the precision of a poet and the imagination of a scientist.”  -Vladimir Nabokov
 
“Words are our most inexhaustible source of magic.”  –J. K. Rowling.
 
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” -Anton Chekhov
 
“You don’t start out writing good stuff. You start out writing crap and thinking it’s good stuff, and then gradually you get better at it. That’s why I say one of the most valuable traits is persistence.” –Octavia E. Butler
“Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way.” -Ray Bradbury
 
“The writer is by nature a dreamer— a conscious dreamer.”  –Carson McCullers
“Writing is an exploration. You start from nothing and learn as you go.” -E. L. Doctorow
“Write hard and clear about what hurts.” -Ernest Hemingway

“I can shake off everything as I write; my sorrows disappear, my courage is reborn.”
-Anne Frank

Getting Married at (Almost) 40

Tomorrow I’m getting married one month shy of my 40th birthday. Getting married is an event I never really thought would occur in my life, nor actively sought. I don’t think you need to get married to somebody to be partners for life and I’ll never be one of those people who pesters their single friends to settle down. I think everyone should live the life that makes them happiest, period. Some people do best as lone wolves, crossing the prairie on their own, hunting when it suits them, enjoying their time and space as their own.

That said, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how calm and happy the engagement process has been for Jen and I. Lots and lots of planning when it comes to the wedding, but that I expected. People have asked me if I’m nervous. I’m not, really, just a calm buzz in the back of my mind, along with some sorrow when I think about my mother and other loved ones who are no longer alive.

A lot of this happy calmness has to do with Jen, who is great, but I also credit the mellowing and experience of age. Almost forty is a fun time to get married, I think, because you have this entire of life of people to include now, this history of ups and downs. Also, I’ve already slain my greatest dragon, getting a novel published, five times over. I’m not a rich, best selling author, but that’s never really what I really wanted (would be a nice perk though). I just wanted a decent number of people to read my work, for the dreams in my head to be put down on paper. And I have accomplished that, and will hopefully do so some more before I die.

I just feel lucky, overall. Lucky to have found Jen, lucky to still be writing novels, lucky to be alive.

photo-como_streetcar

 

 

Researching My New Novel

On Sunday I drove up to the Sax-Zim Bog (about 45 min northwest of Duluth) to research the setting for my current novel. It was rainy and beautiful and reminded me a little of Ireland. I basically tromped around and did my best to soak up the general bog atmosphere. You never know what detail might pay off when you’re writing later on, including general conversations you might have with locals, etc.

Film Rights Renewed for TOWN

Happy to announce the film rights have been renewed for my novel The Town Built on Sorrow for another 12 months. Last I heard, it’s being pitched as a TV series-I put together a 5 season outline for the show and everything. But the wheels of TV are well known for turning slowly. But hope springs infernal!

town-built-on-sorrow-david-oppegaard

On the Passing of My Grandmother

My maternal grandmother Betty (Kline) Davis passed away yesterday afternoon at the age of 94, on about the most perfect summer day in Minnesota you could imagine.
 
What can you possibly say to sum up this force of nature in my life? When my grandpa died when I was 12, she chose me to accompany her on a Caribbean cruise and we got along like gangbusters, partying with other cruise friends, eating too much lobster, and ballroom dancing. She loved to laugh and I teased her with a teenager’s gleeful joy. She couldn’t cook to save her life and we hid her baked gifts in the freezer until we chucked them out. She thought that a little Debbie Nutty Bar with slices of Kraft American cheese wrapped around them was a pretty good lunch. She loved Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune and crossword puzzles. We played about 5,000 hands of UNO and 10,000 hands of Skip Bo when I visited her at the lake. She water skied into her 70s, giving up only when her hands lost their strength to hold on.
 
She once called me at the St. Olaf computing center desk, first thinking it was Target, and it was my buddy and co-worker Mike Mensink who answered the call, much to his amusement. She helped put me through grad school at Hamline-without her I probably would never have gotten my MFA in Writing. She gave me The New Yorker every Christmas for twenty years straight (1998-2018). Just recently this spring a scam artist told her I was in jail in an obscure foreign country and she sent $1,000 to bail me out, no questions asked. Obviously she was mentally fuzzy on that one, but how many people would bail you out like that? Right away? When I called her to let her know I was safe and sound, she sounded upset about being scammed. I laughed softly and told her I love you, Grandma, and that was the last time we spoke.

Death Dreams (A New Short Story)

Death Dreams

By David Oppegaard

          You are riding on a train. You’re alone and the seat across from you is empty. An old man in a dark business suit is sitting across the aisle from you, reading a newspaper while the window behind him is a blur of sky and scenery you can’t quite make out. You can tell it’s a beautiful day, though. You can tell there’s never been quite such a beautiful day in all of human memory. A day made for picnics, bare feet, and lovers. For lying on a soft blanket and peering upward into the firmament, for observing how patches of sky placidly drift around like floes of ice on the ocean.

The train is moving fast. You can feel the hum of the rails rising up through your seat, the friction of energy transferred. It’s a purposeful feeling. Driven. You are on your way to somewhere and you will be there soon.

The old man looks up from his paper to look out his window. The train begins to lift, liberated from its track.

#

          Everything is dark and hot inside your hood. Your hands are bound and your back is pressed against something flat and immoveable, either a brick wall or a mountain. You can hear your own ragged breathing. Your heart beating in your chest. Someone shouts something in a language you can’t understand, though you can sense the anger in their voice. The stern reproach.

A flood of light and fresh air. You gasp, grateful for the reprieve. Your hood has been removed.

Four soldiers dressed in army green stand in a line twenty feet away, rifles raised and pointed at you. The soldiers are young. Practically teenagers. There’s no mercy in their eyes. No light. You open your mouth, trying to speak, but you can’t think of anything to say. A man you cannot see barks an order and the young soldiers fire in unison, filling the world with noise, and what feels like a giant’s punch hits you in the chest.

#

          You are standing on the roof of a tall building, which is consumed by fire. In fact, the heat from the building’s fire is so great your clothes are already smoldering and you can feel your shoes melting into your feet. You inch up to the edge of the roof and cautiously peer over. You know you have to jump, though it so far down. The people on the street look small, like pepper sprinkled on a sheet of paper.

Something in the building explodes behind you. You step off the roof without additional thought. You can hear the flapping of your untucked shirt as you plummet through the sky, that very specific rippling of windblown fabric as your soft belly is exposed.

#

          You’re sinking through dark water. Something big and hungry has wrapped itself around your foot, pulling you down. You can tell it doesn’t care how much you plead with it, or how violently you thrash.

Actually, it likes it when you thrash.

#

          You’re very old. You’re lying in bed, in your own bedroom in your own house. You are about as comfortable as possible beneath a pile of beautiful, heavy quilts, your back gently propped up by a small mountain of feather down pillows. Everything is a little fuzzy because of the pain meds you’re taking, but not too fuzzy. You can still see your loved ones, gathered around your bedside, their faces filled with love and kindness, their eyes soft with tears. They all look so beautiful, like candles burning on a dark night. Your faithful lover, your lifelong companion, is holding your hand and wiping your brow with a cool washcloth. Your children and grandchildren are smiling, trying to be brave because they are brave, because they are everything you could have hoped for and more.

You tell everyone you love them and close your eyes, ready to go. Someone coughs. Someone else sniffles. You hear someone at the edge of the room mutter “fucking asshole” as you exhale one last time, your soul already rising from your body.

#

          You’re sitting at a sidewalk café in Paris. It’s the middle of the afternoon in August and the city is half-asleep. Beautiful men and women saunter past your table, holding hands and smiling, their shared joy so obvious they feel no need to speak. You’re nursing a glass of red wine and nibbling at a plate of bread, cheese, and prosciutto. You’re alone at your table, but you’re content with your aloneness. You have a notebook and a pen and you’re writing down thoughts as they occur to you. Future plans. Little poems. Random observances of the city. The sun comes out from behind the clouds and you sit back, basking in its warmth like a cat.

Your café table has a view of Notre-Dame, set grandly on an island in the middle of the Seine River. You’ve already visited the cathedral earlier that day and marveled at its beauty, inhaled the centuries of burnt incense. You’re not religious, but visiting Notre-Dame made you feel religious for a few hours, as if you’d unexpectedly brushed up against a truth greater than anything you could put into words, anything you might convey in a journal entry.

You drink the last of your good French wine and look around, hoping to catch your waiter’s eye. There’s a flash of bright light in the far distance, like lightning but not, and a wall of fire rises up beyond Notre-Dame, surging across the city and toward your table. Your heart flutters in your chest as the heat consumes you, consumes everything around you. It’s like being devoured by beauty.

#

          You sit by her bed while she dies, and when she’s gone you are the last living person on the face of the Earth. You wander the fallow croplands and the swampy jungle cities and listen to the wolves howling and the birds trilling. The wind sometimes sounds like it’s forming words, even full sentences, but you know it’s only the wind and your lonely madness speaking.

One day, during your endless wandering, you find an old train sitting abandoned on a track overgrown with weeds. You board the train without a ticket and choose a seat. The seat across from you is empty. Your entire compartment is empty.

You look out your window at the verdant landscape beyond. You mutter a small prayer, feeling unreasonably hopeful, and wait for the track to start humming.