In loving memory: Reflecting on loss

Nancy Rolfsrud, who practiced in a private psychiatric clinic for years and is a licensed therapist at Minnesota State University, Mankato, gave her first workshop at the CSU on Monday about grief and loss. She emphasized that just because people who show no signs death has affected them, it does not mean they are not sad.

With that, nobody knows the internal or optional mean in how someone is suffering. For instance, she provided one example of a farmer who lost his son, and while the others in the family talked about it and cried together, he spent time in the fields. But that doesn’t mean he was ignoring the tragedy in what happened to that particularly family member.

Coincidentally, on the date of the workshop, it was 53 years since my grandpa on my dad’s side was buried. His name was Eldren Albert Jaeger, but other farmers at the time in the same area called him Al. He lived just up the road in Mapleton and had grown corn and raised livestock, especially dairy cows. He also served in World War II as a medical technician.

In his last two years on Earth, he experienced guilt over nearly losing my dad in a combine accident.

Just because I never met him doesn’t mean it didn’t affect me. When I was ten years old, sixteen years ago now, when we held a funeral for the person I believed was my grandpa. Since I was so young, I don’t remember who exactly told me, only that I heard whispers from relatives around about another grandpa I had somewhere.

When you’re that young, you don’t think to ask. I enjoyed cuddling my kittens, riding my bike, and had started to seriously write. So I wanted to know: where? Where is my grandpa? I was told he had died years ago. Okay, well…what happened? Why did he drink too much? There had to be a reason when he had seven children at home.

I had wondered about the scars on my dad’s back but he never explained them, but I don’t remember asking either. Eventually, the more time I spent researching and asking questions, especially in the last two years, a connection formed between the two accidents. Guilt had so plagued my grandpa the last two years of his life that he spent more time at the bar after his work.

Because my dad had barely survived after falling into the combine.

The Faribault County Register published an article about the accident five days later on Oct. 12, 1961: “Joel, with his sister Lana, was riding in the cab of the combine. When his father stopped to make some adjustment in the machinery, the boy climbed out of the cab into the grain hopper. Not realizing that the boy was out of the cab, Mr. Jaeger started the machine and only that Joel grabbed a bar of the combine, was kept from being pulled into it. He suffered deep cuts on his back and shoulders and severe burns from the belt. He was rushed to Amboy where the physician was out of town, then to the Winnebago hospital and still later to the Mankato hospital where his wounds were dressed.”

My dad spent months in the hospital, likely adding to Al’s trauma and his stress about how he would pay the bills, possibly the reason why he stayed out.

Last year, a second cousin informed me of the trips she and her family would take to the farm because he would call. “It destroyed Al,” she had emailed. “He could hear Joey screaming every time he got on that combine after that or in the field, for that matter.” After her dad finished work, the family loaded into the car and drove almost two hours just so my grandpa could talk to someone.

Grandpa Al also would bring up his pain to his hired hand, Donnie. “It should have never happened, it should have never happened,” Al kept saying. “I should kick myself in the ass.” Donnie would tell him, “Al, we could kick ourselves in the ass many times, but it probably would never do any good.” But the condolences never reached Al’s heart since the guilt ran too deep.

On Sept. 22 of 1963, he had breathed his last at 2 a.m. Several days later, in the Faribault County Register, it told of the fatality. Tommy Lusk, a trucker driver from Atlanta, had seen Grandpa Al’s pickup parked on the side Highway 169 about three miles north of Winnebago with the lights turned off. As Lusk got closer, the pickup’s lights came on, and as the semi rounded the curve, the pickup turned in front, and Lusk hit the pickup head-on.

It was only a year following his death when my grandma remarried a man she knew from back in high school who had lost his wife. The children were never allowed to talk about it. The pain for a few of them felt so overwhelming that they moved along after they made their physical move to Iowa to start their life.

Grandpa Al died so young, 42 years old. Many times, I wish he would have lived so I could have known him even a little. Better yet, sometimes I wish I could travel back in time to let him know that accidents happen and to listen to Donnie, that dad was going to be all right and to stop blaming himself.

Like Robin Williams told Will in “Good Will Hunting,” I wish I could tell him, “It’s not your fault.”

Every year when it’s the anniversary of his death, I’ve tried to make it down to visit him and tell him just that – “It wasn’t your fault, Al.” I don’t know if he can hear me but I hope he can, and that wherever he is, he’s happy.

I feel he needs a voice so I have strived to give him one since I was a little girl. I have a brief biography that entails a few facts about what little I do know, an uncompleted supernatural young adult, and still yet a personal narrative about my own journey in exploring a dead relative I never knew. I’m also shooting a brief screenplay on him hopefully in the next month or so. If anyone is interested in helping on the set in any way, please let me know by emailing rachael.jaeger@mnsu.edu.

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