As I reflect on the past year since my father, Robert Ptacek, passed away suddenly of a presumed heart attack at the age of 66, I feel compelled to honor his memory in some way.
I have noticed recently that although the piercing pain of loss has somewhat dulled, and the waves of grief now come with less frequency, my memories of him also seem to have faded or blurred in some way. The picture of him in my minds eye begins to lose focus; the sound of his voice seems more distant.
A friend who also lost her father prematurely warned me of this, and told me to write everything down - going as far as giving me a journal to do just that. Sadly, I have found myself too preoccupied to write; the pages sit empty at my bedside. Perhaps I am just avoiding the sadness I know it would invoke.
I’m not sure if or when I ever will pick up that pen, so it is with that in mind that I would like to share this, the eulogy I wrote for his celebration of life held last May, in the hopes that it will help me, his friends, and family remember him today and in the future.
A Eulogy for My Father
When I think of my dad, one of the first things I think about is the kerosene lamp on our sailboat, Europa. I can vividly recall the pungent scent of the kerosene, the feeling of warmth and safety below deck, the boat rocking gently, the sound of waves lapping on the fiberglass hull. The lamp had a gimbal mount, so no matter how far the boat leaned to one side, it would always stay upright. I used to sit and watch it sway back and forth while my dad was at the helm, above deck. On overnight sailing trips up to Door County, it was a light shining in the darkness, anchoring our little boat in a universe of endless stars in the sky above, and their mirror reflection in the lake below.
My father was born just days after the winter solstice, when the dark, winter world begins to get lighter every day. I find this to be a fitting analogy for his warm, generous spirit. He truly believed in the greater good, and he lived it every day, selflessly caring for the people all around him, no matter the need, and no matter who they were.
This was evident when he trained and hired Hmong refugees to be press operators at Insty Prints. They were some of his finest employees. He provided just a few jobs, but more importantly, he provided the skills and confidence to survive and settle in what was certainly a frightening new home, and supported an entire community in the process. It was his way of saying, “welcome - you belong here”.
Another moment I distinctly recall happened during a business trip to Minneapolis for a printing convention. As was often the case, he brought the whole family. After dinner at a fancy restaurant downtown, he asked for a box for our leftovers and walked the alleys around our hotel until he found someone who was hungry. It was acts such as these - big and small - that defined my father’s relationship with the world around him. He always had time for everyone, and he always wanted to help.
Food was his love language. He loved hosting friends new and old for dinner or small gatherings, and went out of his way to make sure everyone felt included in the conversation. He made the most amazing meals from scratch, often from random ingredients in the pantry, a practice I still follow to this day. He taught me that good cooking comes down to a few complimentary flavors and good sense of timing, and that food tasted best when shared with other people.
His love of travel and culture was unparalleled - whether exploring new places here in the United States, or halfway around the world. He also seemed to find a truly authentic experience, like the time he spent the Y2K New Year on a vodka-soaked, three-day boar hunt deep in the winter forest in Russia, unsure if there would even be a modern world to return to when he got home.
Some of my earliest memories are from our month in Spain visiting Aunt Sandy, Uncle Jose, and our cousins Sarah and Andrea. We explored castles and caves and spent halcyon, sun kissed days on an island in the Mediterranean. Later on, in high school, he brought Nick and I to Europe to become more acquainted with our German and Czech ancestry. We took the train from Amsterdam to Berlin and finally to Prague, where we ate and drank our way through that ancient fairytale city of towering castles and cathedrals under the cold, steel-gray skies of November, forging a deeper bond than ever before among the three of us.
But my favorite memories are from our annual canoe trips down the Wisconsin River every Memorial Day Weekend with our dear family friends, Jeff, Jerry, and Gavin Ladewig, and usually a few other well-selected friends to round out the crew. Without fail, it always rained. But it didn’t matter - that was half the fun of living outside for a few days.
When the sun did shine, I remember my father in his straw hat, wearing aviator sunglasses and chomping on a cigar as we floated down the lazy river. My dad and Jeff drank beer, my brother, Gavin, and I drank Capri Sun. Each night we’d camp on sandbars and cook dinner on a Coleman two-burner stove. Mac and cheese was my favorite. Sometimes we’d find old beer cans on the river’s edge, or newer cans scattered around our camp in the morning, and my dad and Jeff had us convinced that it was the work of the Beer Drinking Ghost.
Looking back, these short trips were pretty tame, but they instilled in me a deep love for canoeing, and more importantly, for the environment around us - leading me to pursue a career in film and photography for the environmentally-progressive outdoor clothing company Patagonia, and to return to the water each year for annual canoe trip, from the wilds of the Boundary Waters and northwest Ontario to month-long expeditions in the far north of Arctic Alaska.
Whether it was on those canoe trips as a kid, simple walks in the forest around my grandparent’s house, or sailing on Lake Michigan, my father taught me many lessons about the need to respect and protect our natural world. It was where he found peace, and even spirituality. I distinctly remember a walk in the woods where he explained to Nick and I that even though he didn’t go to church with us on Sundays, he still went, but just in a different way - the forest was his church.
While struggling to find words for today, I read through some old letters and emails between my dad and my grandmother, and found this passage from an email on December 26, 2005. They had been discussing a poem she was working on, and my father was attempting to explain the moments in which he finds peace:
“When sailing through a thunderstorm at night with lightning flashing everywhere to the horizon, strangely, I find a sort of peace. High stimulation somehow focuses me, and the cacophony of my scattered random thoughts go away. It is then that I let go, and focus solely on the immediacy of the situation, and knowing that I can only do so much about it, I am infused with a clarity of thought. I become physically calm, and my mind opens to the enormity of the universe, and I seem to then be able to make contact with the cosmos. Awed and respectful, I then take my place in that vast realm of peaceful spirituality, and for only a while, I escape my tortured mind, and I realize that I am made of the cosmos. I possess it and it possesses me. Maybe in a moment like this, mankind came up with the concept of god, as a primitive and incomplete explanation of an experience like this.”
This passage resonated deeply for me, for it so eloquently articulates my very own views on spirituality and man’s relationship with the cosmos. I too have had those moments of clarity in the chaos, of connection to something greater amidst the raging storm, and I only find them when I am deep in the natural world. I take these sojourns into the wilderness with great reverence and respect. They are the most important thing I do each year.
Living out in California the past eight years, I don’t get back home very often, especially for quality time with my family, so when my dad asked me to take him on a canoe trip to the Boundary Waters last year, I knew I needed to make it happen. I had already dedicated my time off to a larger expedition on the Brightsand and Kopka Rivers in Ontario, and pressing needs at work made it difficult to take any more, but I was able to pull some strings and get a few days in September, just before the weather turns and the cold winds of autumn that mark the end of travel by canoe for the season.
It was unseasonably warm as we embarked on our trip, and we followed one of my favorite routes from my time as an outfitter along the Minnesota-Canadian border: Lake Saganaga to Esther and Hanson, down to the South Arm of Knife Lake, then back home via Ogishkemuncie, Alpine, and Seagull Lakes.
I hadn’t been in a canoe with my dad since high school, and it felt strange to realize how I was now leading the way on our trip - explaining the nuances of how to travel by canoe, and serving as guide, navigator, sherpa, and camp chef. When I found that he could not lift our heavy packs, I sent him ahead at each portage with a light daypack and a paddle, while I triple portaged the packs and canoe, usually before he got to the other side.
The trip was short but sweet, and very eventful, including a close encounter with a hungry bear who tried to steal our food pack on a portage, and riding out torrential downpours each night in our cramped and wet tent. On our last night in the wilderness, we camped at my favorite site on Seagull Lake and shared chili, rum-lemonade, and laughs in the warm glow of a lantern under a tarp. In the morning, we climbed to the top of the Palisades, a cliff-top lookout with expansive views of the the wilderness, and took in one of my favorite views on the planet.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that trip would be my last moments with him. I don’t think I’d have it any other way.
So here I am. Here we are. Suddenly and without warning, he’s gone.
These last few months have been the hardest of my life. I’ve struggled amidst the chaos of it all. I’ve broken down and cried more than a few times. I’ve felt lost, alone, and afraid. I’ve needed guidance. I’ve wanted to call my dad and ask what I should do. After all, what is the role of a father, but to guide us through life? I think that is the hardest part about all of this - the thought that my father is no longer there to guide me, and I’m on my own.
Except I’m not on my own.
Something happened the other morning that helped give me a new perspective. As I made my way to LAX in the early morning fog of Los Angeles, my Lyft driver was listening to an interview with the Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. He spoke of advocating for peace and non-violence, mindfulness, and deep listening in our communications with others. As we approached the terminal, the interview was also drawing to a close, and the last thing he spoke of was death and dying.
He likened someone no longer being with us to a cloud in the sky. When a cloud is no longer in the sky, it doesn’t mean that the cloud is gone. It simply takes on different forms - rain, snow, hail, and eventually lakes, rivers, and oceans. It is impossible for the cloud to pass into non-being - it is always here, just in a different form. So we shouldn’t be sad when the cloud is no longer there - we should just try to recognize that it is continued in many new forms - in us, and around us.
He is not gone after all. He lives on in you, in me, in the memories we share, in the way we interact with each other every day. He is still here to guide us - we just need to know where to look.