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John Sumwalt For Agri-View

It was just two years ago on Easter-Sunday morning that the call came that my brother Alan had died, suddenly, unexpectedly, at the age of 67. The shock of that moment has stayed with me, but what I remember most is the Easter moment that came later.

It was the beginning of COVID time; the threat of the virus delayed plans for a memorial service. We thought it would happen within a few months, in the summer, when surely the pandemic would have run its course. Months turned into years as our family waited for a safe time to gather.

That time came at last on a recent Friday night at Weissgerbers Golden Mast Inn in Okauchee, Wisconsin. It was 6 miles from Alan’s office at the Pathways Wellness Center in Delafield, Wisconsin, and just 10 miles from Alan and Linda’s farm. The neighbors still talk of the chilling sounds of the sirens that woke them early that Easter morning.

At the service a trio played “I’ll Fly Away” as more than 200 guests gathered around tables in a large banquet hall overlooking beautiful Lake Okauchee. Our sister-in-law the Rev. Susan Patterson-Sumwalt led the service with words of scripture and prayer. Andrew Sumwalt read a poem, “The Quiet Power” by Tara Sophia Mohr, and made some touching remarks about his dad. Thomas Nelson, Linda’s brother, sang “Servant Song.” My brother Bob Patterson-Sumwalt and I shared remembrances, along with three of Alan’s good friends – Rich Milne, Jaime Dimas and Erik Swenson.

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I struggled all week with what I would say about Alan, and what I could say without breaking down. Forty years of officiating at funerals was some help, but not much. If you have ever eulogized a family member or a beloved friend you know how heart-wrenching it can be. I followed the advice I have given countless times to others. Practice saying your thoughts aloud, get all your emotions out ahead of time, take a deep breath, and pause and swallow when you feel the tears coming. People understand and will wait for you to collect yourself.

When it was my turn to stand up and talk I still didn’t know if I could make it through it. I looked out at all our family and friends, including Alan’s Ithaca High wrestling teammates, neighbors Randy Moe and Doug Faber, and our cousin Verne Long. With me, my son Orrin, Bob and his sons, Marshall and Parker, and our sister Ruth Sumwalt Smith’s grandson Isaac Petrie, we had almost enough wrestlers in the room to make a squad.

I took the deep breath, swallowed and began.

“I don’t want to be here tonight,” I said. “I want to be back in Alan and Linda’s kitchen in their farmhouse over by Dousman with a wine glass in hand and the family all around, watching Alan putting the finishing touches on one of those fabulous meals he loved to cook.

“I want to go back to that glorious Easter Sunday three years ago. A bunch of us were on the deck after feasting on Alan’s roast lamb. I was sitting with my co-grandpa Patrick Green. Pat was holding our grandson, Liam, who was only a few weeks old. We watched as Alan and Linda led a flock of great-nieces and -nephews on an extravagant Easter Egg Hunt under the oak trees in the backyard. There were bushels of eggs and candy and little toys, and games and prizes. Alan made sure everyone was included.

“And then Linda took everyone out to the barn to see the chickens. Alan showed us the control center for the solar panels on the barn roof. Then we had some of our sister Ruth’s amazing cheesecake, followed by what Linda’s large Nelson family calls the after-dinner “death march” through the pine and walnut forest that she and Alan planted next to the garden. It was a wonderful day. I want to go back.

“I want to sit on the bleachers with Alan and Linda, and watch my nephew Andrew play hockey again.

“And if I could I would go back to the farm near Loyd in Richland County, Wisconsin, where we grew up. I would go swimming again in Willow Creek with Alan and Bob and Ruth and our neighbors Randy and Sandy Moe.

“I would like to watch Alan win the regional wrestling championship again in 1970 in Richland Center. It was one of the best wrestling matches I ever saw. I was so proud of Alan.

“I don’t want to be here tonight. I want to go back.

“Alan and I were just 16 months apart. We shared a room and a bed for more than 15 years. We were always competitive, whether it was Dominoes or Risk or Carom – or throwing rocks at each other. You have heard of the movie, ‘There Will Be Blood?’ There was! And there was more than one trip to the Edwards Clinic in Richland Center.

“I do think I bested Alan in one life skill. I am pretty sure I have more speeding tickets, although it could be close.

“I could never get the last word with Alan, especially after he became a therapist. Whenever we got into one of those knock-down, drag-out, brotherly, uh, discussions, he would go into full therapist mode. ‘Uh-huh. So you feel strongly about that? Say a little more. …’ And then he would listen and listen and listen, as he did so well.

“Alan was a healer. He helped me get through one of the worst times of my life, when I almost died from Lyme disease and mold. I was in great pain. I wanted to give up. I did not know how I could go on. Alan listened. He did that for a lot of us.

“A few days after Alan crossed over my wife, Jo, and I were sitting in our living room when a large red cardinal landed on the table outside the glass patio doors. That was not unusual; we had a bird feeder out there. What was unusual, and what I have never seen any bird do before or since, was that this cardinal danced around. It flitted back and forth as if trying to get our attention. And then he looked in the window and stared at us for the longest time.

“We sat there stunned. It was a visitation.

I will hold onto that Easter moment for the rest of my life, until my own Easter moment comes.

This is an original article written for Agri-View, a Lee Enterprises agricultural publication based in Madison, Wisconsin. Visit AgriView.com for more information.

John Sumwalt is a retired dairy pastor and the son of farmers. He’s the author of “Vision Stories” and “How to Preach the Miracles.” Email johnsumwalt@gmail.com or call 414-339-0676 to reach him.

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