Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Life of A Viking American from Cuba

My father's name was Douglas Robert Birk, but he went by Bob or "Bobbie." He never even knew that his first name was Douglas until he was an adult and had to apply for a passport. I, being so concerned with privacy, forgot to mention my dad's name in the earlier posting of this blog. Thanks to my friend, Zoe for pointing it out.

Dad was an American by birth, with Scandinavian parents who owned a ranch in Tanamo, Cuba. My father’s young life was every boy’s dream: sailing, riding horses, being a cowboy, and hunting for treasure. My father loved Cuba and carried his love for it with him throughout his life, but he was also a Viking in his heart, as well as in his DNA. As a Viking, he loved the water and sailed much of his life. 

His early life was spent surrounded by the sea in Tanamo Bay and as a child he fearlessly sailed that huge bay, where sharks were often found and grown men sailed armed with guns in case of a shark attack. I know that he regularly carried a machete as a child, so I wouldn’t doubt that he sailed with firearms as child as well. Life on a Cuban cattle ranch in the teens and twenties was a bit rougher than life today.   

Since he was born in 1918, whenever he traveled to America from Cuba, it was by ship. I vividly remember one story about a trip that he made in 1930 with his very pregnant, 42-year-old mother who was desperate to have her baby in her home state of North Dakota.

This was during the depression and cash was nearly impossible to come by. My grandfather had land and property, but cash was nonexistent. While he tried to get enough cash together to get his wife and impending baby to the states, cash eluded him. As time went on, it became clear that she could not travel alone. My father, their youngest child was the only one in Cuba as his sister was in boarding school in the states. Thus, Dad needed to be included in the trip - and in the cost. Finally in mid-November of 1930, my grandfather had gathered enough cash to book passage to New York for my grandmother and for my father to accompany her. It was a heavy task for a kid just weeks shy of his twelfth birthday, but he put on a tough appearance and boarded the ship.

When he and his mother finally arrived in New York on the 27th of November, 1930, Dad was wearing shorts for nothing else fit this growing boy and New York was bitterly cold. How do I know? As a good genealogist, I noticed that date today when I was going through records. That date shows up again later in my father's life.

Once they arrived in New York, the story wanes. The story does not pick up until they were traveling to North Dakota in late February of 1931.  There, along the way in Oak Park, Illinois, my grandmother felt funny and the little party was forced to stop. Hoping that it was her gallbladder, as no one in the family had managed to keep one for very long, she soon learned that it was not her gallbladder but her baby. Sadly, she resigned herself to the fact that her youngest would not be born in her beloved North Dakota, as her two living children had been, but rather in Oak Park, Illinois. So, she kept her gallbladder a little longer, but gave birth to a healthy boy. Shortly afterward, the little party of three headed for North Dakota.

Eventually her gallbladder misbehaved in typical family fashion, roaring like a Viking hoard. It was quickly dispatched and she lived to be 106 before dying of boredom.

Gallbladders are infamous in my family’s lore. They never go quietly or peacefully, but rather wildly, painfully, and quite dramatically. The worst of them all belonged to my father. 

My father’s gallbladder had always been too much for this world. He had it removed in 1956 after several spectacular, if unattractive, gallbladder attacks. 

Not to be defeated, his liver used the following fifteen years to get even with the surgeon who removed it along with my unfortunately father. By 1971 it had completely regenerated and was very, very angry, displaying its wrath by causing the same uproarious mischief the older sibling had caused in 1956. The doctors were shocked, but within the family we learned that Dad’s gallbladder was not the first thing in the family line that had regenerated or that had been proven to be anatomically weird, such as having spare organs or extra vascular systems.

My father’s Scandinavian ancestry probably contributed to this, as Vikings are noted as being rather hard to kill. Having spare parts and physiological systems would have helped to keep them going, despite whatever damage swords, axes, spears, and longbows inflicted. The Vikings’ initial forays and attacks back my theory up. In their earliest known raids, they made surprise attacks, pillaged and plundered, then swiftly left. Think about it. If they knew that they could regenerate, or that they had spare body parts/systems to begin with, it may have even encouraged them to charge in, take risks,  and leave, safe in the knowledge that, if wounded, they could dash home and heal.

Gallbladders are not very useful but one has no control over what regenerate and what does not. Thus, when that new bad boy announced his arrival, there were many befuddled doctors. In true Viking character, the second gallbladder charged in, wreaking havoc and convincing the medical pros that this was indeed, a gallbladder whose time had come. To be removed, that is and after much consideration and marveling at the weirdness of it all.

Things grew quiet and stayed that way for many years. Then, in the 1990‘s a doctor mentioned to my father that his gallbladder may need to come out. Tests occurred, but as results rolled in, the odds of a third gallbladder waned. Instead, the first two had left a legacy of scarring in and all over my Dad’s liver.

Still, nothing much happened until May of 2013. Somehow, like a factory, his liver began producing gallstones of all sizes - without a gallbladder. Factories, like the companies that own them, really want to see increased production rates. My father’s gallbladder-less liver was an industry leader in gallstone production. Perhaps even #1 in the biz. Doctors and surgeons couldn’t offer an answer and at 94, nobody wanted to begin an expedition into the deep, dark depths of that gallstone machine.

Gallstones were one of the few things that my Viking father couldn’t beat. He chose instead, to head for Asgard, and from there, to gain entrance into Valhalla, the great hall overseen by Odin and to be met by all Vikings who went before him.

The trip took longer than Dad wanted, lasting ten long days and nights. He would wake up along the way, look around and sigh, then ask why he still was here with us. His long journey to Asgard gave him time to say good-bye to his family and was handsome to the end.

On the night of November 25th, my husband, Michael, sat up with my dad, holding his hand to comfort him as the first signs of Asgard appeared on the horizon. 

Dad sailed on, flirting with the damsels as well the matrons, whenever he opened his eyes to check the horizon. Throughout the 26th of November, he looked for signs of Asgard, waving his arms to check the winds and even checking his watch, wondering why his voyage was going so slowly. 

Then, at 3:15 in the morning of the 27th of November, 2013, 83 years to the day that my father's ship arrived in New York, with his very pregnant mother in tow, Dad, as Michael said, "let go" of this world. My father had finally reached the shores of Asgard.

Still, his mortal body remained and needed a proper Viking funeral to be admitted into Valhalla.

Michael, had always jokingly promised his father-in-law a Viking funeral, and as Dad wished to be cremated, the opportunity presented itself. All we needed was a ship for my Dad. Michael, kept his promise by making my dad his ship, hung with five shields on each side, one for each of his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. 

He named the ship “Sky Rocket” after my father’s first pony, a fat little creature who moved in quite the opposite manner from what his name described. All ships, need to list the mooring site, their home port, so Michael included “Tanamo Cuba” on this Viking ship. 

Having fulfilled the criteria for a Viking funeral, we are confident that Dad is settling in among his forebears in Valhalla, telling stories, carousing, and living the afterlife that a Viking longs to live in Valhalla. 

Still, I will miss you, Daddy, truly I will.