Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where have I been all these weeks, since my first blog post?

Immersed in life and death, loss and memory…

. . . at my brother Dave’s house, in Minneapolis, sleeping in his guest room, listening, on a baby monitor, to the sound of Dave, breathing. His breath comes short and shallow, so quiet, at times, I have to steal into his room to mark the rise and fall of his chest. His eyes are closed. He lies alone on a narrow hospital bed, waging a war with cancer he has vowed to fight to the end.

Barb, his wife of 47 years, sleeps on a camp cot in the living room, the other monitor by her head. She refused to sleep in the guest room bed. Seventy-one years-old and she prefers that cot for now. It reminds her of her of all those years of camping with my brother. Camping in the woods of Northern Minnesota, in the mountains of the pacific northwest, even, one time, in a front yard at a family reunion.

“I’m camping, Dave,” she tells him, now. “Remember?”

And he smiles with one side of his mouth, very gently, his eyes still closed, so small and frail he looks like our mother, now. He has Mother’s finely chiseled bones, that smooth fine skin that never aged. Even his hands have become like our Mother’s artist hands.

When the rain comes at night, showering down on the roof with a sudden outpour and a flash of lightening, I think of Barb on her camp cot, and I remember the tents of our childhood, glowing in the dark of a summer’s night, the swish of water against rock outside and hiss the Coleman lantern within.

Oh how he loved the woods, this brother of mine. He even took his bride duck hunting on their month-long honeymoon back in the days when brides-to-be received frilly negligees at elaborate bridal showers. Mother and I always laughed at the image of Barb, cleaning ducks in her negligee.

There is nothing more they can do for him—he is leaving us, our Davy. The hospice workers come almost daily, like angels—so good, so very good. The one who gives him baths looks at this photo of him. It’s a favorite of mine, one I brought with me from Alaska. Dave is kneeling, in the autumn woods of Minnesota with a brace of grouse in one hand and his hunting dog, Katie, by his side. And you can see, in the way he and Katie look at one another, that he is a true hunter, a man who understands animals.

“Master and student,” the hospice worker says.

Yes, I think. Exactly right.

Fall was Dave’s favorite season. Mine, too. We loved watching the old year pass with a burst of vivid color, the smell of wood smoke and dying leaves pungent and invigorating. And we loved waiting in anticipation for the new year to came, swaddled in white.

He left us on September 28, with the maple trees aflame and the birch trees waving yellow leaves, six days short of his birthday.

This, then, is the parting image that comes to me, on the day of his funeral: Dave, skiing.

I am standing at the bottom of the steepest ski slope, dressed in unfashionable layers of winter clothes, watching my brother ski. His legs are together as one, fluid as a fish tail, his body moving gracefully in and out of gravity as if he were born to fly, as though he must, at any moment, lift off the slope and become airborne.

Everyone is standing at the bottom of the slope, watching as they always did, their voices hushed in awe. I don’t think Dave ever knew or cared about his audience, then or now, but it always made his little sister burst with pride, waiting for him at the bottom. No one ever skied like Dave. This is how I remember it.

He was always a private man, my brother with a sense of spirituality that was tied to the land in a way few people ever experience. When we return to our family cabin on an island in the boundary waters of Northern Minnesota, my surviving brother and I, I stand on the shore of the larger island and look across the water to the smaller one, Dave’s island with its log cabin lit by the sun of an autumn day. I am watching, as if for some understanding I might find, some affirmation.  I feel it for just a moment: a sudden  shock of Presence. Dave is a part of this place. He always will be.


By Elinor Wylie

I shall lie hidden in a hut
   In the middle of an alder wood,
With the back door blind and bolted shut,
   And the front door locked for good.
I shall lie folded like a saint.
   Lapped in a scented linen sheet,
On a bedstead striped with bright-blue paint,
   Narrow and cold and neat.
The midnight will be glassy black
   Behind the panes, with wind about
To set his mouth against a crack
   And blow the candle out.

Rest in peace, my brother, Dave Dahl Jr. May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you. May the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.


  1. Oh, dear. Death sucks.

    And blogging regularly isn't really that important, is it?

    Take care.

  2. Beautiful post in honor of your brother and entire family. The way through personal loss is unpredictable, but writing and sharing does help, I think--helps the ones most immediately grieving and enriches and prepares those of us not at this moment in the grasp of grief. Thanks for posting. Good to have you back home in Barrow. Thinking of you tenderly. Jay