My dad's obituary and the difference between big newspapers and small

My dad passed away Sunday evening. I got the call from my sister Debbie 20 seconds before the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Denver Broncos in Sunday's overtime game. I missed the field goal that put the win in the Chiefs' column.


daughter and dying father
My last photo with Dad, October 27, 2016

My dad was unexpectedly diagnosed with a relatively obscure cancer — myelodysplastic syndrome — the very same week last January that my dog Lyla was diagnosed with her brain tumor. Lyla passed a month later. It took my dad 10 months longer.

Witnessing Dad's steady decline from a hearty, humor-loving 76-year-old to a shrinking (yet still humor-loving) 77-year-old sucked for family. Even more sucky for him, as he was fully cognizant, fully aware of his wasting away, especially as the wasting accelerated to runaway train speed near the end.

I'm filled with sorrow at Dad's death. But that's unexpectedly balanced by my joy he's out of pain and distress. I have no doubt he's in heaven. I'm especially thankful he had no doubt that's where he'd end up, once again loving on his beloved Westies that passed — two of his three — earlier this year. (Perhaps they left in advance to warm up a cushy cloud for the three to sleep on together just as they did each night on their earthly bed.)

My stepmom asked me to help her write the obituary. I said yes, of course. Trying to condense one's life into a few thin inches of newspaper column is far from my favorite thing to do, but as the writer in the family, it made sense for me to compose the piece.

Not only am I a writer, I had experience with the difficult chore — difficult on the heart as well as the noggin' in search of the right words... and word count. I wrote my stepdad's obituary when he passed away in 1995. I pitched in on writing obituaries for soldiers who never returned from Iraq when Operation Iraqi Freedom began and The Gazette, where I was editor of the Special Sections department, committed to honoring every single military man or woman lost in the cause. Until the cause became too costly, that is, the casualties too numerous for the newspaper staff to keep up.

And I recently helped (minimally, to be honest) with my dear mother-in-law's obituary when she died in September.

So my stepmom and I sat down on Monday to condense my dad into far too few characters the best we could.

My dad and Ann (my stepmom) live in a tiny town called Westcliffe, where there's a strong dependence on the all-important community newspaper. It's a small newspaper, well-read by the local folks. And they don't charge for obituaries. As Ann said, there's not a lot of news in Westcliffe so obituaries help fill out the paper, can be considered news. So obits are free.

Which meant we didn't have a tight word count to crunch my dad into.

After about an hour closed up together in a bedroom as my siblings and Jim sat at the dining room table discussing Dad and more, Ann and I came up with the following, the obituary she placed in the Wet Mountain Valley Tribune, the Westcliffe newspaper that charges nothing to notify the neighbors a community member has passed:

March 23, 1939 – November 27, 2016

Dad and Westie dogRoger D. Aukema, 77, went to his permanent home with the Lord November 27, 2016 at his Silver Cliff home after a lengthy illness. He was born March 23, 1939 in Spooner, WI, to Sidney and Floy Aukema.
Roger served in the United States Army 82nd Airborne Division from 1956 to 1959.
He was licensed as a master plumber and enjoyed his career in management positions for plumbing, heating, and air-conditioning companies from Minnesota and Wisconsin, to Texas and Colorado.
Roger had a lifelong love of music and relished his time in recent years singing and playing guitar with the many musicians in Westcliffe, CO. He was most passionate about singing hymns and songs of praise to the Lord.
He loved traveling the United States in his motor home with his wife and fur kids at his side. One of his favorite items checked off his bucket list was a summer 2015 solo trek to the top of Hermit Peak – one of Colorado's fourteeners – in his Jeep Wrangler. He spent the afternoon at the summit feeding marmots, appreciating the view of God's valley below, and phoning his family to share the joyous moment.
Roger was a true family man and cherished his relationships. He is survived by his beloved wife of 21 years, Ann E. Aukema; brothers Richard (Murt) Aukema, Ron (Ruby) Aukema, and Stan (Terri) Aukema; sisters Lois (JR) Wheeler, and Terry Baker; children Jeff (Suzanne) Aukema, Rebecca (Rick) Youngs, Lisa (Jim) Carpenter, Jennifer (Gene) Reno, David Aukema, Debbie (Sherrie) Aukema, and Susan McGrane; stepsons Chester Schoen, Dan (Nicole) Schoen, and Andy (Miriam) Schoen; 25 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren, and numerous nieces and nephews.
Roger looked forward to being welcomed into heaven by his parents as well as his adored furkids, Pansy and Angel.
Services will be held at 11 a.m. December 9, 2016, at First Baptist Church of Westcliffe, 410 S. 6th St., Westcliffe, CO 81252. A luncheon follows the service at the adjacent fellowship hall.
In lieu of flowers, gifts in Roger's memory can be made to Custer County Senior Center, P.O. Box 695, Westcliffe, CO 81252.

Ann was grateful for my help, she said, and happy with the 358-word piece.

I, on the other hand, wasn't happy at all when I set out to submit that same piece to The Gazette — the paper published in Colorado Springs where my dad lived for many years, the same publication I worked for eight years ago — and learned they charged ONE DOLLAR PER WORD for obituaries over 300 words. Plus ten more dollars to include a photo.

Meaning Dad's obituary, the exact one that was free to publish in the small newspaper, would cost three-hundred-and-fifty-eight dollars! Plus ten for the photo! To run in the big newspaper.

Unbeliveable. Unthinkable. Unfair and unkind and so very much focused on bottom lines instead of considering broken hearts of people who lost loved ones. I get the fact bigger newspapers must charge a fee for the space. But gee-freakin'-whiz! That much?

I considered not submitting it. Told my sisters — who previously offered to help cover the cost — that The Gazette doesn't deserve our money, that we should just place the 358-word obit (and photo!) on Facebook, set the post to "Public," and hope a fair number of friends and family would see it, know Dad is gone.

The kibosh was put on my passive-agressive plan when my brother-in-law stepped up to cover the majority of the fee... with a few alterations to minimize the bill a bit.

In the end, this is what the obit in the big newspaper turned out to be — at 295 words, thus under the $1/word for 300 and more threshold (but still outrageously expensive, if you ask me) — scheduled for publication this Sunday:

dad obituary 

My dad wasn't a good dad when my siblings and I were growing up. Not even all that good and kind and attentive and present during our early adult years, either. Yet several years before the cancer set in, my dad began changing, morphing into a man who was good and kind and attentive and present as much as possible. I wanted to pay tribute to that man, the man Dad had become. The obit was my way to do that, albeit in a very small way.

Ultimately the word count and cost shouldn't matter because regardless of size or fee, there aren't enough words to properly portray my dad in print.

But I continue the quest to do that. This time in pixel. It costs me nothing to honor my dad here on Grandma's Briefs, so, yeah, I did it twice — sharing both the 358-word version and the 295 one above. For free.

Rest in peace, Dad. Give Angel and Pansy a hug for me. Please give a big one to Jim's mom, too.