The Old Scout

Garrison Keillor's weekly newspaper column.

A Farewell to a Gentle Swede

May 11, 2010

Mr. Ray Nilsson died in an upstairs bedroom in my house early Monday morning around 2:35 a.m., which was nothing he or I contemplated back when I married his daughter, but life takes us down some mighty interesting roads. If he'd had his choice, he probably would've died in the woods around his log cabin in northern Wisconsin, axe in hand, splitting wood — a big whump in the chest and the sky spins and you fall off the planet — or in his library, reading American history and listening to Schubert, or maybe in Sweden, walking around and listening to the beautiful language of his mother and Whump get run over by a Volvo.

It was cruel, the last hand that life dealt him, multiple myeloma, months of veering wildly between excruciating pain and drugged stupor, and so it was a blessing when at 2:35, he simply drew a long breath and then not another one. He was 10 days shy of his 88th birthday. His caregiver, a beautiful black man from Tanzania, an African prince named Al, called us and we ran into the bedroom and Ray lay on his side, under a brown blanket, eyes closed. There was loud weeping, distraught phone calls, more weeping, embracing, and my wife put on a CD and the room was filled with a Schubert mass, and around 5:30 the men from the mortuary arrived and took Ray's body away, and at 7:10 I drove my 12-year-old daughter to school.

She liked to go visit her grandpa in the bedroom, though she was leery of the medical paraphernalia, and she was informed of his death, but she loves to get to school early so she can tear around in the gym and shoot baskets with other kids and play tag, and that was more important than death. I believe Ray shared that view. All of the rest of us felt the enormity of death, but the dead man and the little girl shared a disregard for the business of mourning and went off to other things.

He was a gentle Swede, an orderly man, a man of powerful memory who could recall exactly how he had gone about laying the concrete steps at his cabin 30 years before and recall this in such excruciating detail that you wanted to jump out the window. He wrote a wonderful memoir of all the cars he had owned (which, of course, he called his Auto-Biography). He could remember the day when, as an infant, he took his first steps — he really could — and he could remember every moment of that afternoon when a beautiful young woman from Rutherford, N.J., had come knocking at the door of his parents' rooming house in Minneapolis, looking for a room for her brother, and something electric passed between them, which led to a long loving marriage.

He made his living as an elected official, the clerk of district court, and left it with no regret to embark on a long and happy retirement, walking two miles a day, reading history hour after hour, listening to Beethoven and Schubert and Bach, cutting wood, shoveling his driveway, writing the history of his family. I came into his family late and was too busy to get to know him well, but I saw him clearly one fall day at his cabin when my wife begged me to please tell him not to go up on the roof. He was 80 and he had put a ladder up to go sweep leaves out of the gutters and was halfway up it. I didn't know how to tell Ray what not to do, so I simply climbed up on the roof with him and helped clean the gutters, which made me queasy, the sight of the ground far below, the fearful faces of women looking up, and the old man striding along the edge of the precipice, but neither of us broke our necks that day. He was a tall taciturn man who, had you passed him on the street, you wouldn't have noticed, but what an excellent life he lived until the killer came tiptoeing into the room.

I suppose there is no good way to die, but Ray made the best of his. He resisted painkillers to the best of his ability, wanting to keep his mind clear. He expressed satisfaction with his life. He showed his vast love of his four children and his wife. And throughout his misery, he said "Thank you" over and over and over. Those were the last words he said, two days before he expired.

© 2010 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, INC.

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