Sunday, September 20 was the 19th anniversary of my father’s death. He was killed when he was only 60 years old, in a car accident in Russia. In retrospect, almost 20 years later, the situation seems ridiculous. Russia was still the communist Soviet Union, and the people there were going hungry from the inefficient and, frankly, stupid methods being used to grow food. So my father decided to start a Russian version of Organic Gardening magazine to help people relearn how to grow their own food. Back then, you couldn’t just start a business over there; you had to get tons of permits, bribe officials, and find communist partners, and raise the money from within the country. I don’t remember the details, except for some reason it required him to build a sausage factory!
Anyway, he was on his way to the airport to come home, and a bus veered into oncoming traffic and hit his van head-on. He was thrown 65 feet from the van and landed in a grassy meadow filled with white birch trees. All the passengers of the van were killed instantly. He was sent home in a wooden coffin with pale blue fabric and lace covering the top. The undertaker said his broken body was still covered in shards of glass.
It is a moment I relived in my head, over and over again, for years.
A lot of people loved and respected my father, and even romanticized his reign as leader of Rodale Press and chief spokesman for the organic movement around the world. But I knew him first and foremost as a father, and an eccentric one at that. He would often go out for a Sunday bike ride and come home with ANOTHER vintage Volkswagen beetle…and not because he didn’t feel like riding home. He was always running off on some adventure, leaving without saying goodbye and not sure when he would come back (and yet on EVERY family vacation, he insisted on coming home early). Sometimes, when I get lost in reading something, and my kids are running around trying to get my attention and I’m so deep in thought I can’t pull myself out for them, I realize that I have taken on some of the traits I sure didn’t like in my father when I was a kid. But he always had a drawer filled with crisp white typewriter paper for drawing and writing stories, and unlike my mother, he enjoyed watching goofy shows on TV, like Laugh-In and The Carol Burnett Show.
The other day my daughters and I were searching for funny videos on Youtube, and just out of curiosity I searched his name and found some old oral history videos of him, recorded by the USDA. It was the first time my two youngest children had ever seen or heard him speak. I get a little angry at him when I think about what we have all missed out on because of his crazy mission-driven adventures. He never got to walk me down the aisle, or hold my two youngest babies, or eat my delicious food, now that I’ve finally learned to cook.
But I also know that each life has its own arc, and he was on a journey of his own that we couldn’t join him on. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason, even if it’s sometimes hard to swallow.
Along with the coffin, they sent home his suitcase. It contained three Russian fur hats for me and my sisters, and a reporter’s notebook filled with his notes from the trip. The night before he died, he was clearly getting drunker and drunker as they were doing shots of Jack Daniels and vodka—his handwriting is a testament to his inebriation. But it’s the last page of his journal that brings me to my knees every time I think about it… All it says is this:
“May this not be the last toast of our lives.”
And…so it was.