Saying Goodbye

Several years ago my grandma asked me to write her obituary.

Well, sort of. She actually mentioned this request to my mom, who was her primary caregiver. It wasn’t something I wanted to think about, but of course the answer was yes. I’d write it someday waaaaaaay in the future when the time came.

In preparation, the three of us sat around the kitchen table at my parents’ house so Grandma could share the dates and details she wanted me to include. It was an uncomfortable conversation for me, but a happy stroll down memory lane for her. 

I took careful notes, and by the end of the evening a skeleton of Grandma’s life emerged in black ink upon my blank page.  I folded that paper so tiny and so small, dreading the day my heart would see it again. Then I stuffed it in the depths of my suitcase and flew back to Alaska.

Living so far from family makes for joyous reunions and awful farewells.  Saying goodbye to my grandma was an extra shade of awful the past few years, because she always hinted that it could be the last goodbye. She was at peace with it, but I most certainly was not.

“Grandma, stop! I’ll be back next summer!” I’d exclaim, and then squirm away. Why was it so hard to translate the feelings seeping from my heart into actual words?

To be fair, the words didn’t come easily for her either.

I’d gently wrap her in a hug and whisper, “Love you, Grandma.”

“Okay then, bye-bye now,” she’d reply as she patted my back and sent me off with a prayer.

My last conversation with my grandma took place via Facetime after she entered hospice care. I wish I could have been there in person, but it still brought me comfort and closure.  I hope she felt the same.

“Now I don’t want any tears, only smiles,” she declared from her bed.  Her hand reached up to the screen and touched my cheek.  I touched my finger to hers and tried, unsuccessfully, to honor that request.

Our conversation is a blur.  I rambled and didn’t eloquently say all the things in my heart, but I will never regret trying.  My grandma died knowing one of my earliest memories took place in her lap, curled and cradled as she comforted me through a painful earache. She died knowing her home was a refuge for an awkward little girl who wore a back brace. She died knowing how much I loved her homemade gravy and drying dishes by her side. She died knowing how honored I felt when she spoke at my wedding, and how beautiful it was to hear her sing lullabies to my children.

It’s not enough. It’s not even half of the half of it. Even so, I hope she died knowing how much she meant to me, and how the unconditional love I received from her and my grandfather imprinted upon my life.

She talked to me about church, God, family, and faith.  She shared how happy she was that her small apartment was filled with family and visitors, although she was a bit self conscious that everyone was seeing her in such a vulnerable state.

“God told me not to worry, He says I’m fine just as I am,” she said.

I agreed.

“Grandma, I think you look beautiful,” I gushed. 

“Oh you’re a liar!” she responded, but I could tell she appreciated the compliment.

The thing is, I meant it.  It was true.

The other thing is, denial has to stop when hospice begins.  

It was time to start work on the obituary.  I fished out that crinkled piece of paper from all those years ago. I unfolded the page, smoothed the creases, and stared at the skeleton of my grandma’s life. 

It wasn’t enough. It needed a heart.  

So I reached out for stories, for adjectives, for words from those who knew and loved her most. And they poured in. I received texts and emails and phone calls from her children, grandchildren, niece, and church community. Her obituary is filled with more of their words than my own.

Each of their stories was like a square on one of Grandma’s beautiful quilts, and she had already given me the backing all those years ago at the kitchen table.

I merely stitched it all together.

DeLores Kathleen Wolter Daehnke
May 23, 1931 – December 8, 2022

DeDe Wolter Daehnke passed away peacefully on December 8, 2022. She was surrounded by family and friends during the last week of her earthly life, sharing stories that filled the room with more laughter than tears. No words were left unspoken, and she died in the same manner in which she lived: with dignity and grace.

DeDe was born May 23, 1931 in Spencer, Nebraska to Rev. August and Ruth (Juergensen) Wolter. DeDe was baptized and confirmed in the Lutheran church, and spent a joyous childhood playing with her siblings in the pastures of Venus, Nebraska. After graduating from Cedar Bluffs High School at the age of 16, she enrolled in summer courses at Midland College in Fremont. She was only 17 when she started her first job as a K-8 teacher in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Nebraska.

DeDe first met Harold Daehnke through family, but they didn’t begin dating until two years later during a church function. She was only 19 when they married, but their common values of faith, family, and service made them a perfect match. Harold and DeDe cherished one another for all 52 years of their marriage, and beyond. Their home was a happy one, filled with six beautiful children, nieces, nephews, and eventually grandchildren as well.

Harold and DeDe were charter members of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, a second home in their hearts. DeDe spent Sundays in the pews of her church, belting out hymns loudly and proudly. Her faith was unwavering, unconditional, and inspirational. She was a member of the altar guild and choir; she taught Sunday School and Vacation Bible School; and she served at the church’s district level in several offices.

DeDe’s favorite job was as a stay-at-home mom to her six children, but over the years she worked in many other capacities as well. She was a teacher, switchboard operator, lunch lady, teen mentor, hospital volunteer, and served on the local election board. She was also involved in her children’s activities, such as 4H and baseball. Later in life she spent ten years as a loving, patient caretaker for Harold after he suffered a stroke.

DeDe was the matriarch of a large family. She had an extraordinary memory for dates and details, and kept family stories alive for future generations. DeDe never knew a stranger, and she was always eager to chat in grocery store aisles, at the mailbox, or after church services. While she loved to talk, she was an equally good listener who was accepting of all. She never left the house without her coordinated jewelry or large purse, which miraculously contained contents to mend or soothe any problems those around her encountered.

DeDe’s hands were never idle. When they weren’t clasped in prayer, they were likely writing birthday cards or creating handmade heirlooms. She quilted, cross-stitched, and crocheted hundreds of graduation, wedding, and baby gifts over the years. She was also a golfer, card shark, and avid birdwatcher.  Feisty and fun, DeDe was always up for an adventure. She had a sharp mind and quick wit, and never lost her sense of humor.

DeDe was 17 when she taught her first lesson in a one-room schoolhouse, and 91 when she taught her last in a one-room apartment. It was there that she reunited her family and showed them the glorious freedom that comes with faith, before fearlessly crossing to her next adventure.

DeDe was preceded in death by her parents; husband Harold; sister Muriel Wolter; sister Betty Gay and brother-in-law Jess Gay; brother Kenny Wolter and sister-in-law Sherry Wolter; nephew Ray Gay; and niece Joyce Copley, who lived with Harold and DeDe for several years.

DeDe is survived by her six children, 11 grandchildren, nine great-grandchildren, and two great-great grandchildren in addition to many extended family members and lifelong friends. Her children are Mic (Deb) Daehnke of Wayne, NE and their children Hailey and Casey; Becky (John) Quigley of Nickerson, NE and their children Staci, Tyson, and Elle; Jeff Daehnke of Cave Creek, AZ and his children Kalei, Lealanei, and Annaka; Gwen Daehnke of Cave Creek, AZ; Joel Daehnke of Greeley, CO (Carla Daehnke of Mead, CO) and their children Sarah, Laura, and Mollie; and Jon (Amy Lonetree) Daehnke of Santa Cruz, CA. Her surviving nephew is Ron Gay of Casper, WY and surviving niece is Rhonda Gay of Raleigh, NC.

A celebration of DeDe’s life will be held at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church at 11:00 on Tuesday, December 13, 2022.  

Visitation will be held prior to the service from 10:00 AM – 11:00 AM on December 13th.  A luncheon will follow the service.

In honor of DeDe, please say a prayer for a loved one and share a story that makes you smile.  In lieu of flowers or plants, donations can be given in DeDe’s name to support Good Shepherd’s Live Stream subscription service, which was a lifeline for DeDe in her final years. Other charities that were dear to her heart were the Lutheran Women’s Missionary League and Orphan Grain Train.

In the days preceding the funeral we gathered around my parents’ kitchen table once again, this time sorting through photographs to create a slideshow about Grandma’s life that would be played during the visitation. There were boxes filled with classic black and white snapshots, but we had plenty of current images saved to our cell phone camera rolls as well. Pictures also came to us from afar via texts and emails. One of my aunts was delayed en route to the funeral, and spent her layover on the floor in the Denver airport digitizing vintage photos with her iPhone. It was a true team project.

My grandma and I used to go for bike rides when I was a young girl, and I vividly remember one ride to the cemetery. We propped our bikes next to a tree and she walked me around tombstones of my ancestors, sharing stories and memories. At one point she bounced on the empty plots that were already reserved for her and my grandfather, and I didn’t like that one bit. She told me then, as she showed me now, that death wasn’t something to fear. Her faith was unwavering throughout her entire life.

This summer our family will gather at that same cemetery. We will pay our respects to the ancestors who are buried there, and then my grandma’s ashes will be interred with my grandfather. We will say our final goodbye.

The day will be filled with many happy hellos as well. Rain or shine, we will be together at the cemetery. It will be a reunion of parents, children, siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, cousins, and beloved friends. There will even be a new family member in attendance, one who isn’t even born yet.

Maybe this time I will do a better job of honoring Grandma’s request: “Now I don’t want any tears, only smiles.”

Love you, Grandma D, and hoping you can still read this from heaven. ❤️

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