The day my Dad died was the loneliest day of my life.
I farmed with my father, Harold, for most of my adult life. Even when I was off at college in Lincoln, I still returned home during every school holiday and every summer to farm the fields and tend the livestock on our place. I was allowed the opportunity to farm beside my Dad during my formative years, and then for 25 more years after college, as his health declined.
Dad was diagnosed with severe bronchial asthma in 1988, just a couple of years after I returned home from UNL. I recognized that he was having problems with coughing spells, but didn’t understand how serious it was. His doctors told him that if he didn’t get away from the dust of day-to-day farming, from the hog barns and grain dust, he would not make it.
So Dad took a job with Walmart and I jumped headfirst into debt and the full-time responsibilities of farming, long before I was really planning to take over the reins. When Donna and I were married, my parents moved from the farm to a new home in town. Over time, Dad’s health returned and he was able to visit the farm daily, to drive trucks and tractors for me and to do many tasks on the farm that were away from the risk of farm dust.
In the fall of 2009, as I came in from soybean harvest one evening to celebrate a ninth birthday supper with my family for my daughter, Lauren, I got a fateful cell phone call from my mother. Thinking she was calling to say that she and Dad would be out to the farm for birthday cake with Lauren, my heart stopped when I heard my mother’s words on the phone.
“We’ve been in a crash,” Mom said on the phone to me, her voice trembling. “The ambulance is on its way, but I think Dad is gone.”
Are there any other words that a son would dread more? I kissed my wife and children and jumped in the car, racing toward the crash site a few miles away. I prayed along the way, not knowing what I was driving into. I arrived about the same time as the ambulance. I helped my mother out of the car and helped EMTs carry my Dad’s motionless body into the ambulance.
I raced again, this time following the ambulances to the emergency room at the hospital in Yankton, SD. When I walked through the doors of the emergency room, I was met by the chaplain and the doctors. That’s not a good sign.
Dad’s heart had stopped twice. The doctor told me that my mother had abrasions and broken bones, but nothing life-threatening. But he didn’t know if he could stabilize Dad.
The doctors discovered Dad had a broken neck and six broken ribs. His heart had stopped as he and Mom were driving down the road, causing them to run off the road, through a pasture, ramping up over a driveway and landing flat in a neighbor’s horse yard. It was a miracle that they both survived the crash.
Dad did stabilize and was sent that night by ambulance to a heart hospital in Sioux City. Mom remained hospitalized in Yankton. The next few weeks I was trying to harvest soybeans, keep up with my family and the farm and keep up with the medical conditions of my parents in two separate hospitals.
My mother eventually was able to return home and after the installation of a pacemaker and repair of his neck and ribs, along with excruciating physical therapy, Dad also returned home several weeks later.
He began to recover, but around Christmas time, started to fail again. On February 27, 2010, one year ago this week, after a heroic battle to return home again after the accident, my Dad passed away.
As most farming sons who have lost their fathers know, that day when their fathers pass on is not only lonely, but it is also heartbreaking. However, on this first anniversary of Dad’s passing, I have reaffirmed my own personal goals of taking care of my family and the farm the best I can, as Dad would have wished.
If you’d like to view a little video tribute to Harold Arens, my personal hero, check it out HERE.