Chapter One, "Start something new"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, December 19, 1998

By Ken Koons

In March 1997, uncertainty about Dale's health led him to give away his two steers.

Kids planting
Maren Aukerman, pictured with her brother Daniel, described the tree-planting day as having "the excitement of sort of creating something new."

After walks down Stem Road, Dale often stops to inspect the trees.

winrts night
Among the Bible passages that hit home with Dale after his November 1996 cancer diagnosis was a Psalm that included the blessing, "May you see your children's children." "It seems unlikely to find fulfillment with me," he said.

Ruth and Dale Aukerman pause before the midday meal as Dale says a prayer of "thankfulness for the day and for all the friends who have helped" on tree-planting day.

Article, Carroll County Times, December 19, 1998

By Scott Blanchard

Dale Aukerman continued gathering skinny saplings and laying out digging tools as he watched his friends drive up, one after another, the cool morning of March 29, 1997.

They turned off unpaved Stem Road onto the rutted gravel lane that runs alongside the creek, up through what used to be the pasture for the steer.

They drove past the springhouse, past the beehives, toward the two-story log house draped by walnut and locust trees.

They parked, some near the lane, some around back near the Aukermans' garden where black currants, gooseberry and strawberries were beginning to grow. Shanti, the shaggy black retriever whose name means ``peace'' in Hindi, nuzzled the arrivals.

Dale greeted them, smiling, his brown eyes warm underneath his heavy forehead. By about 11 o'clock they were all there: 14 friends who had come to help plant 315 saplings in the pasture and along the lane. They joined Dale's wife Ruth and their children Daniel, Maren and Miriam and Miriam's husband Chuck to make 20 people on the Aukermans' four-acre lot.

They were there to make it a living memorial to a man they loved, who they knew was dying.

Dale Aukerman's journal entry: November 5, 1996, election day. We got an early call from Dr. Caricofe's office that he wanted to see me. I was supposed to come in the next day to have the TB test read. So I pretty much figured out what I would hear before it came - lung cancer. I believe it was just after that call that Ruth said, ``Whatever comes, we will face it together.''

They got to work. Dale and Maren had already used 12-foot long pieces of twine to mark out planting spots. Maren had color-coded the infant trees and they placed each species into a bucket with a different colored flag.

Planters returned every few minutes to the father and daughter for instructions and for trees: red oaks, white oaks, redbuds, crabapples, red maples, tulip poplars, flowering dogwoods, spruces, arrowwoods. Dale, who is 68, had grown up on a farm near Dayton, Ohio, and had farmed pieces of his Stem Road land for 23 years. He showed his friends how to dig holes and kept retrieving trees from the basement.

Dale was just a simple working man, yet he'd always stood apart. Jamie Edgerton, a friend who'd come to help with the planting, remembered the first time he met the Aukermans when they hosted a picnic for church members in the late 1970s. ``

Dale set the tone,'' Edgerton recalled. ``His quiet, fairly introverted but serene and sort of spiritual presence.''

That quiet intensity was stronger on March 29. Some people worked non-stop, but others paused to be with Dale, thinking it would be the last time they'd see him. Four months had passed since Dale discovered he had stage IV lung cancer. Statistics showed patients lived from two to sixth months after being diagnosed.

Days after the diagnosis, Dale's friend Cliff Kindy asked him to write about his journey toward death so others could share whatever wisdom came from it.

Dale's lung tumor had shrunk a bit in the weeks just past, and his friends noted that good piece of news. But he had just had chemotherapy and, although his salt-and-pepper hair survived the treatments, he tired easily.

No one knew how much longer Dale would live.

Nov. 10 [1996]. Sunday. ...When I called Paul Grout, I mentioned that my life does in a number of ways have a certain completeness. He: ``Then start something new.''

A week before the tree planting Dale had given the two steer to a neighbor so Ruth wouldn't have to mind them when he was gone. But the land was alive again by noontime that day before Easter, the way Dale wanted it. The last trees were going in.

Ruth made lunch and everyone was ready to eat outside, near the porch overlooking their handiwork. But the sky turned purple and opened, showering the people and giving the trees their first drink.

The group ate inside as it stormed outside. Dale napped. The sun reappeared and so did the workers, who put protectors on some trees, raked, transplanted flowers from the garden, hauled manure for the raspberries.

The day moved from one of mourning to one of celebration.

One friend, Jim Wallis, said the trees represented a gift to Ruth, and that everyone there ``felt valued by Dale as a friend.'' They celebrated the writer and preacher who had tried to live his life as he believes Jesus Christ lived his: for love, for peace, for God.

Late in the afternoon, Wallis was drawn to Dale. Wallis is the editor of Sojourners, a magazine devoted to Christianity and peace. He and Dale had been thrown in jail twice, including in May 1983 after a protest against nuclear weapons in the Capitol rotunda. In a holding cell, Dale had clasped Wallis' hands, looked into his eyes and said, ``Thank you for what you do.'' But they had never really sat down and talked.

``I just felt like I wanted to do that,'' Wallis said. ``Mostly just to tell him what I think he's meant, not just to people, as important as that is, but I wanted to talk about also what he's meant to the things we both believe in.

``His ideals are intact. He is not subject to the illusions of his demons. He is not staggered by the uneven motions of the world. Dale at some point decided what he would believe in, and decided he would try to live it as faithfully as he could.''

Nov. 17 [1996], Sunday. As I see it, I wasn't doing very well seeking God's kingdom first, putting his work first in my life. I was giving too much priority to what needed doing in the garden or around the place. I wasn't doing very well in my devotional life. I wasn't giving God that much attention. But God has ways of getting our attention.

Together, Dale and Jim Wallis read Psalm 23: ``The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want ....''

Then Dale, who had overseen the rebirth of his pasture, went off alone to plant the last trees: a beech and two junipers behind the house.

``I knew just where I wanted them planted, so I did that planting myself,'' he said.

``That was our day.''

Daniel said it was a day of giving thanks to those who came to plant trees of life and hope.

For Dale, it signalled a change, a new way of life. Maren said she sees the woodlot as a different act of stewardship.

``For a long time, he had steers in the pasture,'' she said. ``[He says], `I'm not really at a stage in my life where I'm going to be caring for steers.' For him, in a way it's like seeing your grandchildren, which he doesn't have any of. Seeing something he is creating or he is doing in worship of God.''

Dale nurtured the trees. More than a year after the planting day, on a walk through the woodlot, he pointed to a tiny red maple with only two small, green leaves. He said it had almost died during that year's drought.

``I kept watering it,'' he said simply.

Ruth says when she and Dale return from walks these days along Stem Road, Dale sometimes stops and just looks at the trees. Perhaps he can see the oaks growing tall, wide and mighty, or the bushy arrowwoods covered with clusters of breathtaking white flowers.

Ruth cannot bear it.

``I don't want to look forward at this point,'' she said. ``If I look forward, it will be overwhelming. I can't really fathom a life without him at this point.''

Ruth could not have fathomed the life she entered when she married Dale Aukerman in July of 1965.

Go forward to Chapter Two, "Walking the right way"

Go to the Living with Dying page