Chapter Eight, "He died who he was"

Photo Essay, Carroll County Times, September 12, 1999

By Ken Koons

Dale Aukerman was buried September 4 atop a hill at Pipe Creek Cemetery in Union Bridge. From left, Dale's son Daniel, daughter Maren, wife Ruth, daughter Miriam, and son-in-law Chuck Pazdernik mourn his passing.

The summer's drought and heat lessened the chances for a successful fall garden. But on July 29, despite his weakening condition, Dale insisted on planting broccoli, spinach, and lettuce.

On May 6 Dale took a walk through a memorial woodlot he had planted with family and friends. "I didn't think I'd live to see these redbuds bloom," Dale said of the blossoms seen in the foreground. Redbuds normally bloom early in spring, but a week after Dale's death on September 4, this particular one bore several branches of blooms.

writing Something as simple as addressing envelopes became arduous for Dale as his strength waned in late July.

In November 1998, Ruth Aukerman said that when her husband died, he would consider himself a "beggar before God." When Dale grew weaker in mid-July, Ruth said: "We don't deserve anything. Dale doesn't deserve anything. But we just trust and we know that God is going to be there."

Dale Aukerman and his daughter Maren spent the morning of August 10 setting aside stacks of books to give to friends or family when Dale died. The work wore him out.

Maren and Daniel Aukerman sit with the burial box bearing their father Dale in the family home, shortly before his burial at Pipe Creek Cemetery.

Dale Aukerman's daughter Miriam and her husband Chuck Pazdernik, along with the rest of the family, accompany Dale to his gravesite.

Dale Aukerman, in his burial box in the back of a friend's truck, makes his final trip past the memorial forest planted 2 1/2 years ago.

Article, Carroll County Times, September 12, 1999

By Scott Blanchard, Times Staff Writer

So weak from lung cancer that he had to dictate his journal entries to his wife or one of his daughters while lying on a mat, Dale Aukerman still tried to walk almost every day in July and August through the little forest his friends and family had planted 2 years earlier as a living memorial to him.

Dale walked through the woodlot for the last time on August 16, his son Daniel said, feeling mostly a sense of effort and accomplishment. The next week, Daniel said, Dale needed an oxygen tank and managed only to walk to the edge of the wood lot closest to their Stem Road house. About a week after that, he was in a wheelchair as he surveyed the spinach, lettuce and broccoli he'd planted at the end of July in the garden next to the house.

On September 4 Dale made his last trip through the trees, this time in a handmade pinewood burial box. He had died about 4 that morning. At quarter of seven that drizzly evening, his family loaded the box onto the bed of his friend Wilbur Wright's pickup for carriage to Dale's gravesite.

Wright drove slowly around the back of the house toward the lane that led past the beehives, past the springhouse and into what used to be the pasture for cattle when Dale was healthy enough to tend them, where now stood a small forest of oaks, maples, poplars, spruces, redbuds, alders, arrowwoods, dogwoods and crabapples, some of them 15 feet tall.

The day before Easter 1997, a crew of 20 people had just finished patting firm the soil around 315 stick-like trunks when the sky turned purple and heavy rain fell, soaking the roots of the saplings.

The evening of Dale's death, Wright's truck bounced gently down the gravel lane as Dale's wife Ruth, daughters Miriam and Maren and son Daniel, and Miriam's husband Chuck followed behind on foot. Thunder sounded, and suddenly rain poured down, soaking the box, soaking the family, soaking the trees.

On February 5, 1999, more than two years after Dale was given six months to live, a CT scan and X-rays showed the cancer was stable except for new spots on his left lung.

Dale was busy editing his journal entries, which the Brethren Press had agreed to publish the following year. Dale's oncologist, Dr. David Ettinger of Johns Hopkins University, took Dale off the chemotherapy drug navelbine, which Dale had been taking since December. Dale planned to begin taking thalidomide, an experimental cancer treatment that had slowed or stopped tumor growth in some patients.

But on April 20, another CT scan showed his lung tumor was bigger, and so were the lesions in Dale's liver. Two days later, Dale met with Ettinger, who recommended that Dale stay on thalidomide for another two months to see if it could hold off the spread of the disease. But Ruth was fretting about Dale's irregular breathing at night, and Ettinger recommended a magnetic-resonance imaging test of Dale's brain.

On April 25 - ``a day full of blessing,'' Dale called it - he preached at the Elizabethtown Church of the Brethren in Pennsylvania. Since the cancer diagnosis, Dale had written two sermons based on facing the disease: one was a message of healing, love and God's will, and the other about how physical frailty had strengthened his bond with Jesus.

That Sunday, the Elizabethtown congregation heard a new sermon, ``Why I Believe.'' Dale preached that it's possible that the Christian faith is an illusion, but said he has no doubt it's true.

``Around us are all sorts of religions and views of life,'' Dale said. ``We can struggle with the question: What makes sense? What holds together? In relation to the human condition, what rings true? As I look and listen to Jesus, I am convinced that he spoke truth as no one else ever has.''

The resurrection of Jesus, Dale said, is central to why he believes.

``I have not seen the risen Jesus with my eyes or touched him with my hands as the disciples did,'' Dale said. ``But throughout my life he has met me, directed me, rebuked me, inspired me. He has shaped my life to an extent that I don't think could have come, were he not really alive and active in our midst.''

It was Dale's last time preaching. Three days later, results of Dale's brain scan showed his cancer had followed its traditional course: lung to liver to brain. On May 3 he began brain radiation treatments to attack the lesions there.

``Since soon after the diagnosis I've had the plea that I would not need to deal with metastases in the brain,'' Dale wrote in his journal on April 28. ``In this I was really expressing the hope that I wouldn't come to a time when my mind is wiped out and my body is still to some extent functioning. Maybe I will still be spared that. May it be so.'' On

May 15, two weeks before the brain radiation treatments ended, Dale walked through the woodlot with his daughter Miriam. They paused to look at a tiny red maple tree that Dale had helped keep alive through the 1997 drought by continuously watering it. Something had chewed off the trunk at ground level.

``The apparent death of the tree may prefigure what is close ahead for me, but that need not be the case. God's grace overarches and embraces whatever negative reports or intimations may come,'' Dale wrote in his journal that day. ``A few feet away another little tree seemed to be dead, but then I discovered one small green shoot coming out near the base. Now I am identifying with that tree.''

On June 14, Dale, Ruth, Maren and Daniel celebrated Dale's 69th birthday two days early. Among the gifts was a grayish-blue skullcap Ruth's mother had knitted and sent from Germany. The silver hair that used to flop over Dale's broad forehead had fallen out because of the brain radiation.

The cancer remained active. An early July CT scan report showed a new growth in Dale's right lung, and a tumor in Dale's liver had more than doubled in size.

Dale felt pressed, with too many things to do in what suddenly seemed too little time. He still had to plan his funeral and memorial services, still had to finish a thick set of instructions on how to take care of his and Ruth's home, still had to sort out his thousands of books and decide who among his family and friends would receive which ones after he died.

``I don't think I had felt this sort of pressure before,'' he wrote in his journal July 7. ``After a couple of hours it passed. I don't at all want to be driven like that. I have been given a marvelous amount of time, and time enough will be given.'' On

July 14, a neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins told Dale the brain lesions were smaller, but Dale could barely appreciate the news. He was fading. ``When people visit or call, I don't have the resilience for sharing the faith,'' he wrote in his journal that day. ~``I don't see much fulfillment of the promise, `Power is made perfect in weakness.' ''

Within days, Dale couldn't eat, and reading Scripture was a ``major labor,'' Ruth said. What used to be a half-hour's work on his journals now took two or three hours. She told him: ``You'll decide that you have had enough, that it's time to go home to your heavenly Father, and you'll go to sleep and not wake up.''

On July 20, his skin was so pale it appeared to have been dusted with white powder. As he talked, his jaw barely moved, as though the effort would have been too much. Dale couldn't always come up with the words he wanted to say; Ruth often finished his sentences.

``His outer nature is wasting away, but the inner nature is being renewed day by day,'' she said.

Dale responded softly: ``I wish I felt that more than I do.''

After the diagnosis, he had tried to figure out what God wanted of him. That July day, he groped for an answer.

``I have been given a lot of time for praying, talking about things spiritually,'' he said. ``I wouldn't say that in the last two or three weeks that I've come to a deeper place spiritually. That may come later on, or it may not. But it's more like ... I haven't felt I'm struggling with fear or with uncertainty or anxiety.''

Within several days, his mind cleared though he remained physically weak. He finished plans for his memorial service. Ruth and Maren began typing his journal entries for him. He turned down an offer from The Christian Century magazine to write an article about his view of the end of the world at the end of the millennium.

But he found a teacher at the Bethany Seminary in Indiana, which trains Brethren ministers , who agreed to write the article by adapting parts of Dale's book ``Reckoning with Apocalypse.''

By August 11 he had completed a 20-page, single-spaced list of instructions for the Aukermans' homestead.

The next day, he and Maren and Daniel finished sorting out his books. That task included setting aside 700 pounds of books Dale wanted sent to the Protestant Theological Faculty of Charles University in Prague, Czechoslovakia. In the 1960s, Dale taught at peace conferences in Prague, and he wanted the books made available to theological students.

Dale had begun sleeping in a room on the first floor of the house on August 9. A few days later the family moved a second bed into the addition so Ruth could sleep in the same room as Dale.

On August 17, Dale began using oxygen because he had trouble breathing. He couldn't sleep without it and began using it full time. Although he could walk anywhere in the house with the oxygen tank, he said, ``I do not have much energy for walking around.''

In late August, Daniel discovered some index cards with typed and handwritten Bible verses and other quotations on them. Dale, when he was younger, had used them as a way to memorize the passages. Daniel used them to read the verses to his father, who could no longer muster the concentration to read his Bible. Scott Duffey, pastor of the Westminster Church of the Brethren, said Dale used the scriptures for strength as he died.

``It was clear that he needed something beyond himself,'' Duffey said.

By August 28, Dale had trouble sitting up because doing so made it too hard to breathe. Janet Heltzel, a family friend, remembers the family singing with Dale as he lay in bed that night. The songs included ``Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.''

Heltzel said Dale turned to Ruth and said: ``You can sing that again for me pretty soon.''

The family had one more thing to get done for Dale. They had gotten word that his 1993 book ``Reckoning with Apocalypse'' was to be taken out of print. Dale was despondent, and asked the family to write the publisher. Maren, Miriam and some of their friends did so, asking that it remain in print. On September 1, Maren, who had returned to Oakland where she is attending graduate school, got an e-mail from the publisher saying the book would remain in print.

Maren told her father on the phone the next day. ``Marvelous,'' he said. He was so happy, Ruth said, that he didn't sleep the entire day - a blessed day, he called it.

Pain set in Thursday night, and Dale needed morphine. He slept most of the day Friday. That evening Dale began hyperventilating, and he needed morphine to settle his breathing. He told the family he could not wait another week for Maren's scheduled visit. Ruth and Miriam sang hymns to him.

Family friend Heiner Westphal said Ruth asked Dale, `` `Do you have angst?' Which in this case means fear,'' Westphal said. ``And he shook his head.''

At around 12:30 a.m. Maren called to say her plane reservation had been bungled. Dale was concerned, but Maren told him she had straightened things out and would be there later Saturday morning. Miriam's husband Chuck was due in Saturday. Daniel arrived from Lancaster, Pa. around 3 a.m. because, he said, his mother told him she needed him there.

``They laid down,'' Duffey said, ``and [ Dale] slept away.''

To the end, Ruth said, ``He was very much himself. He died who he was.''

Amid the rain, thunder and lightning the evening of September 4, the family walked to the end of the lane behind Wright's truck, which carried Dale in his wooden box. They were mostly quiet, Duffey said, but not dark with sadness.

``In a lot of ways, it was a joyful moment,'' he said. ``They knew they were fulfilling Dad's wishes and paying honor to him.''

When Wright's Nissan pickup reached the end of the lane, Ruth climbed in. Daniel, Maren, Miriam and Chuck climbed onto the bed of the truck, surrounding Dale's box, for the half-mile drive to the cemetery.

Twenty people, invited by Dale and Ruth, assembled at the gravesite atop a hill at Pipe Creek Cemetery. Duffey encouraged Dale's family and friends to feel each raindrop as a blessing of God. He prayed for the family, the friends, that Dale's death might bind them closer together, and prayed for people facing death everywhere, especially those without faith.

Kim McDowell, pastor of the University Park, Md., Church of the Brethren, said Dale was ``being committed to the one who he has been committed to,'' Daniel remembers.

Duffey read the two scriptures Dale had selected. Psalm 23:4: Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me. Then 1 Thessalonians 4:13-14: But we would not have you ignorant, brethren, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep.

The rain poured. The family lowered Dale's box into the ground.

Then his family and friends threw wildflowers and cornstalks on top of the box, and people took turns dropping shovelfuls of dirt into Dale's grave.

The rain let up.

Then Ruth's voice, alone, singing:
Swing low
Sweet chariot
Coming for to carry me home ...

Others joined in, but one stood out.

``The only strong singer,'' Heltzel said, ``was Ruth.''

The next day, between rain showers, the family stepped outside to take a walk down the lane, through the trees.

``We looked across the field and over toward the cemetery,'' Maren said. ``And there was a rainbow stretching from our neighbor's farm over the top of the cemetery, where he was buried the day before.''

Go forward to the Obituary, "A long journey ending in rest"

Go back to Chapter Seven, "Grace of God or the grace of life"

Go to the Living with Dying page