Sunday, November 30, 2014

Remembering Gene

The reason my posting has been so sporadic over the last few months (and non-existent in the last few weeks) is that my family has been dealing with an eminent loss. Kelley's step-father Gene Saunders has been fighting kidney cancer for a few years, and about 5 weeks ago the doctors at Duke had to tell him that the medication wasn't working to shrink the tumors anymore and they would have to stop treatments. Last Thursday 11/20 he had a heart attack and went into the hospital, and Friday 11/21 he passed away. Gene was married to Kelley's mom for 30 years. Since he was getting treatments at Duke, they came up to our house at least once a month for a few nights and we all enjoyed getting to spend that much time with them. Gene leaves behind one daughter Aimee from his first marriage with two adult grandchildren, and Kelley and her sister are stepdaughters with our three grandchildren. He will be greatly missed by all.

The funeral was on Sunday 11/23 in Newberry SC. Christopher, Aimee's oldest kid, spoke very eloquently about his grandfather. Also Preacher Campbell delivered a grand southern eulogy and sang a couple of old hymns. On Monday 11/24 Gene was buried at the family plot in Troy, NC near his parents and a couple of his brothers. I got to speak and sing there, and Kelley gave one of the most passionate and genuine speeches I've ever heard. She is terrified of public speaking, so that made it even more amazing.  The best way I can think of to mark Gene's passing here is to retell what I can remember of my speech at his gravesite with some pictures of him.

Eating s'mores with a young Evil Genius

Stories about Gene:

I first met Gene when I was still 20 years old, and I'm only a few months away from hitting 40 now. He guided me from being a dumb college kid into a man, then into a parent, always with helpful advice and a steady hand. We treated each other over the years as both a parent/child and as friends, and our time together is something that I will always cherish.

In 1998 I had just graduated college, and Kelley and I were moving from Boone down the mountain to Greensboro. My dad came up to Greensboro to help us unload the uhaul and I told him: "ok, you're going to meet Gene for the first time. This guy has already had 3 heart attacks and it's kind of a hot day today, so I don't think he's going to work us too hard. If we just do what he says we should get out of it without too much damage." Then, everybody met, and we unloaded and unpacked. By the end of the day, Dad and I were both drenched with sweat, our knuckles were dragging the ground, and we were ready to pass out. Finally, Gene said "ok, I guess we can stop now", so Dad said to me "I thought you said he wasn't going to work us too hard because he's already had 3 heart attacks?" and I told him that what we got *actually was* Gene going easy on us.

Most of us will never know what a hard days work looked like to Gene, and that's a blessing. He had an ability to work hard, and lead by example in a way that meant you were going to learn what he was doing while he was doing it, kind of a leadership/teaching hybrid. Pretty amazing skill.

Gene was raised on a cattle farm in Troy NC and then went to NC State. He played football in high school, and was pretty good at it, but most people knew that. However, most people didn't know that he walked onto the NC State football team! Then he walked back off after only two practices because "them boys was huge and I didn't want any part of it" as he told me once. Gene never did back down from a challenge, but he knew when it was in his best interest to back down.

Immediately after graduation, Gene went to work for NC State in the weed control department. His degree was related to farming, and work was all in pesticides and herbicides. We almost didn't get to have Round-Up sold in NC because Gene's group couldn't pass the testing for it. Finally someone did find the product and they were able to pass it on to the Extension Service for testing.

Making pottery with EG
Gene told me one time that the fastest he ever had to fire anyone on the job was only 20 minutes in. Can you imagine? Showing up bright and early for a first day at your new job at 7 am, and then by 7:20 you're already headed back to the unemployment line. Gene just said that he couldn't get any work out of the guy and had no time to waste on it. Crazy!

Gene's comfort zone was always working with his hands. Anything from gardening to making stained glass  or pottery, to playing guitar he could do anything with his hands. Sewing, crochet, woodworking, electrical, plumbing, you name it he could do it. Gene retired when he was only 50, he took off every October for the last 4 years that he worked and went down to Prosperity SC to work on building his house. Once the house was finished, he still had 2 years of vacation time saved up so he cashed in and moved down there. The house he built is an incredible log cabin right on Lake Murray.

I love spending time in other people's comfort zones. Gene and I worked on projects together all the time. Just a few months ago he was in Raleigh for a cancer treatment, and then we were laying hardwood flooring (remember what I said about a hard days work? he never slowed down) that afternoon. Eventually after doing so many projects together you just know what the other person is expecting. We had to step outside to cut the floorboards on his saw, and when we had glued down enough to block access to the door that got interesting. I just spread the next part of the glue, then darted around the house, out the back door, and around to where the saw was. By the time I got there, a board was sitting in an open window waiting for me to cut it. No instruction needed, I made the cuts and handed him the boards he needed back through the window. When I saw he needed more glue down, I came back around the back door and got back on the glue. I doubt that I'll ever have that kind of unspoken communication with anyone else. We just knew the patterns and what the other person needed.

When you got into Gene's comfort zone you learned the simplest way to solve any problem. You learned that any problem can be solved by breaking it down into small, simple solutions.

Gene carving a turkey for Thanksgiving
Words cannot express how much I'm going to miss him or how much I loved him. Gene and I were as close as any other father/son pair out there. I'm grateful for the time we got to spend together and the lessons I learned from him.

When peace like a river attendeth my way
When sorrows like sea billows roll
Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

And Lord, haste the day when my faith shall be sight
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll
The trumpet shall sound, and the Lord shall descend
Even so, it is well with my soul

It is well
With my soul
It is well, it is well with my soul

Gene was a big fan of traditional country and bluegrass music, so this hymn was an appropriate choice. After Kelley talked we all sang a few choruses of "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" to close the ceremony.  After the ceremony we all went back to the old farmhouse where Gene was raised. His brother's son lives there now with his wife. In true southern style, there was a ton of food there including a chicken (and a veggie) pot pie where moonshine was the secret ingredient.  It was amazing.

Kelley, Aimee, Meri, and Neena on the farm

Thank you for all of your kind words and prayers as our family goes through such a difficult time. We all stayed with Neena at the lake house for the rest of the week. Thursday was Thanksgiving at the home of one of Neena's sisters, then Saturday was Neena's birthday. Those have to be a separate post. Now that we're all back in Raleigh and I've been able to collect my thoughts I can realize how much of an impact he had on our lives


Lisa from Lisa's Yarns said...

I'm so sorry for your loss. How heart breaking. I can't imagine losing a parent... it makes me sick to even though about it. Yet - several of my friends have lost a parent in the last year so I know that we are at that age when things like this can happen. :( Sending hugs and prayers your way...

Sarah said...

I'm so sorry John, so sorry that you had to say goodbye way too soon. I loved reading these memories though, I know you'll have those to remember him by. He sounds like such a good man. Love to you guys.

Tea said...

With those memories, he will always be with you. This post was a beautiful tribute to a wonderful man.

Amber said...

So sorry to you and Kelley for your loss. Gene sounds like an amazing man. What a wonderful tribute you wrote for him. Thinking of you guys.

Abby said...

I am so sorry for your family's loss. Thinking of you all.

Al's CL Reviews said...

A touching tribute. My condolences to your family.