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Opinion >  Column

Front Porch: Broken hearts that Papa can’t fix

Everything about my father-in-law Aage (Au-gee) Hval was larger than life. His hands. His broad back. His warm smile. His generous heart. And Thursday afternoon, without warning, that big heart stopped beating.

He’d spoken with my husband, Derek, several times that morning. My sister-in-law, who lives on the adjoining property, saw him walk from his office into the house around 12:30. A few hours later her 13-year-old son ran over to talk to Papa Aage and found him on the bedroom floor.

He was lying at the foot of his bed, legs crossed at the ankles, one hand behind his head. It looked like he just decided to take a quick nap.

My nephew called 911, but Papa was already gone. Now, we are left with the ache of his absence.

At 19, Aage came to the United States from Norway to spend time with his uncle. But soon a different uncle called his name. It was 1960, and when he applied for a green card, he was promptly drafted by the United States Army.

He spoke very little English, and as a result he enlisted, which meant he had to serve three years instead of two. Who knows? If he’d spoken better English, he might never have met my mother-in-law or gone on to father my husband Derek and his three siblings, Darrol, Camille and Celena. Because in 1962, while stationed at Fort Lewis, he met a gorgeous green-eyed blonde named Juanita, and within months they married.

After spending several years in California, the family settled in Chattaroy. The area in the shadow of Mount Spokane, framed by woodland and farmland, reminded Aage of his beloved Norway.

He eventually launched his own independent manufacturer’s representative business. With a formidable work ethic and reputation for integrity he quickly became a well-respected figure in the industrial equipment industry.

While he loved his work, his greatest pride and joy was his family. He eagerly embraced his children’s spouses. In fact, the first time I met Aage, he hugged me so hard I thought my ribs cracked. Derek said it was because he hadn’t brought home many girlfriends. “I think Dad was just relieved!”

He delighted in the birth of each grandchild – 14 in all. In spite of his busy travel schedule, Papa became a regular fixture at soccer games, football games and wrestling meets. He preferred to stand on the sidelines instead of sitting. That way he could be the first to hug the sweaty athlete, and with each embrace came the words, “Good job!”

But where he truly excelled was fixing things – all kinds of things. Thankfully, Derek got his father’s fix-it gene and in 25 years of marriage, we’ve never called a plumber, electrician or a carpenter. The minute something broke Derek would say, “Let me call Dad,” and together they would figure out the problem.

And cars? There simply wasn’t anything with an engine that Papa couldn’t fix. With all of his children and grandchildren nearby, many of his “days off” were spent keeping the family’s vehicles running, or helping with home improvement projects.

As wonderful as he was, he wasn’t perfect. In fact, his unshakable optimism could be downright frustrating – especially when it came to his grandchildren. When Papa’s adult children would fret and worry about their teenagers, he resolutely refused to believe anything negative. “They are good kids,” he’d insist. “They just need time to grow up.”

And if he did get concerned, he knew just what to do. “I’ll take him to lunch,” he’d say. Over lunch, he’d never lecture or nag. That wasn’t Papa’s way. He’d simply listen and then offer feedback or possible solutions to whatever the angst of the moment might be.

After all, Papa could fix anything, and there are worse flaws than believing in the goodness of those you love.

He was a true patriarch – an anchor, a solid rock. Seeing his empty chair at the head of his table hurts. As we waited for the funeral home to remove his body, Derek went out to Papa’s office. I found him sitting in his dad’s chair. Papa’s reading glasses were folded atop his yellow legal pad filled with his morning call notes. His coffee had grown cold in his cup. It didn’t seem possible that he would not be coming back.

Juanita is devastated. Aage was the center of her soul, and for 48 years her life has revolved around him. Yet she is surrounded by her children and grandchildren and will not grieve alone.

My 13-year-old nephew wrote on his Facebook wall, “Grandpa you were there when someone needed help, and that was every day, but now you can rest in peace.”

His presence in our lives was so great that his absence shouts through our days.

Our hearts are broken.

We’ve finally discovered something that Papa cannot fix.

Aage Hval, Oct. 4, 1940-July 21, 2011.

Contact Cindy Hval at Her previous columns are available online at columnists.

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