Nine years ago, I met some of my family at the airport and took to the skies to get to Madison, Wisconsin. The occasion was my aunt Alice’s wedding to Dave Siewert. The wedding was outdoors in the summer. Despite it being one of the hottest days of the year, it was a breezy and pleasant afternoon and everyone had a great time.
Because they lived far away, we didn’t get to see Alice and Dave very often, so whenever they were in town it was a special event. When they were visiting for the holidays, a group of us met in midtown Manhattan the day after Christmas so Alice could take Dave to a Broadway show. Normally I avoid the heavily tourist parts of midtown like the plague, and even more so around the holidays, but my Aunt Alice is no ordinary visitor, and this is where she wanted to take Dave.
A few years ago Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and not given more than a few months to live. It was a raw deal by any measure. He and Alice had already had their share of medical woes together including heart disease and a previous bout with cancer.
He lived years longer than his doctors expected, and he didn’t waste a minute of time. Dave refused to let his diagnosis define his life other than to spur him on to live more of it. He and Alice headed west and went on some epic road adventures.
Family and friends followed Alice and Dave’s adventures through social media. They posted their amazing photos of the places they visited and Alice wrote wonderful accounts of their time together. The last time I saw him, which was, sadly, at a family funeral, he appeared in good spirits. He had grown his hair out long. Doctors had told him his hair would fall out from the chemotherapy but it hadn’t yet.
The medical news didn’t get better. There were multiple setbacks with treatments that didn’t work or that had to be stopped. But Alice and Dave continued to travel and enjoy the beauty of the American West. They would take a weeklong trip and then be back for treatment before hitting the road again.
This past weekend, family scrambled to get flights to Madison, Wisconsin for Dave’s memorial service. The family tracked his health through Alice and when it looked like things were nearing an end, some of my aunts caught the first flights they could to be there.
While he had been in deteriorating health, Dave never stopped living. He was getting out and about and riding his bike whenever he could. He faced death with a grace, dignity and determination that serves as a great example to the rest of us.
It is easy to talk about death and the brave ways you want to face it. We often think of it in terms of facing a violent threat or hurtling headlong to a dramatic end. It’s impossible to know how we’re going to really face death, because it usually confronts us in a quiet doctor’s office or in front of people who know us and all our faults and frailties.
Dave showed us that even though we can’t control when and how we will die, our end can be one of our own making if we have the courage to do so.
I count among my many good fortunes having a strong family that is fast to mobilize for one another in times of need. Dave has kept us to a very high standard and demonstrated how to live life with unlimited strength. With his love of life and ability to face death with unimaginable courage, Dave Siewert made my family better, and we owe him a debt of gratitude.
The roads and parks this spring and summer are filled with tourists and our highways are busy with people driving through our great land. Among them are my aunt Alice and her husband Dave Siewert.
Dave and Alice are going on a giant road trip and are seeing some of the great beauty of the Western United States. There are no people more worthy of experiencing all of the natural beauty of America than Alice and Dave. And this road trip is special for them because it will be their last together.
Bad news came fast for them at the end of last year. Dave was diagnosed with esophageal cancer and has not been given long to live. Alice is a cancer survivor and Dave had heart surgery years ago. They have more than paid their dues to the trials of medicine; they have endured enough health hardships to last two lifetimes already. This just isn’t fair.
If you look up the definition of “balls of steel” in a proper dictionary, the entry will have Dave’s picture next to it. Dave is facing certain death and has doubled down on embracing life.
No one would blame Dave if he holed himself up in a dark room and gorged on cheese curds like some kind of Midwestern Howard Hughes. Not a soul would find fault with him if he numbed himself from the specter of his own approaching death.
But that’s not how he does things.
Alice and Dave acquired a camper and set their sights westward, making the journey from their home in Wisconsin to Yellowstone National Park. Early on they had an accident due to a blown tire that delayed their journey. But what is a little traffic accident when you’re spitting in death’s face every day?
Dave has to return to Wisconsin every six weeks so his esophagus can be dilated to prolong his life. Yet he’s out there, rolling down America’s highways with no regrets and no apologies. He is boldness personified and the baddest badass cruising America right now because I guarantee you the toughest trucker or biker on the road today is not staring death in the face like Dave is.
At a time when it would be easy to voice bitterness or rage at life’s unfairness, they have remained a moving example of grace and love. The way they insist on living life to the fullest and refusing to be beaten down is itself like a great work of art. Like all great artists, they make it look easy.
But no one who knows them is surprised. Alice and Dave were married outside on what turned out to be one of the hottest days of the year. It somehow didn’t feel that way though. The breeze was just right and no one seemed to notice the temperature. Alice’s vows included a promise to support the Green Bay Packers. After the ceremony, Alice and Dave enjoyed their first dance together as a married couple. Before their song was over, Alice beckoned everyone to join them on the dance floor. She would tolerate no slackers. Even those guests who normally do not like to dance at weddings happily obliged.
Alice created a Facebook page to document her and Dave’s travels. She is a gifted writer and has posted comments and photos. “We can feel the petty retreating by the hour,” Alice wrote in a post. “This has not so far been a year too full of laughs. Yet we have been laughing and crying and learning things about ourselves and each other that the world of cubicles and chemo bays muffles somehow.”
“We are witnessing natural things that were previously beyond my imagination,” Alice wrote me in an email. “Talking stops and all one does is stare dumbly at a magnificence that renders your life, worries, ego all meaningless. It is fun to be on the road. But some day we come home for good. And that is a principle to wrestle with the starry night through.”