Vitauts: Journey’s End

Vitauts: Journey’s End

Vitauts: Journey’s End

When we decided to bring Vitauts to Latvia, we had no idea how long he would be staying here, but we knew it was his final destination. But knowing that doesn’t make the end much easier.

According to him, my dad almost died several times in his youth. He had a fever and some tooth infection that almost killed him when he was a boy. In the POW camp, he had some illness that almost killed him. I guess he once injured his hand so bad that it got infected and he almost died. Vitauts was a survivor.

But on March 29, 2020, life finally caught up with him. He died peacefully in his sleep after a long battle with dementia and heart failure. Everyone at the Rauna retirement home was a bit surprised because he had been so active that weekend. Signe, his personal attendant, told us how he had gone for a walk on Friday and had a lot of energy. I guess you just never know.

My wife, Rita, got the phone call from the home, and she informed me of the news. I was also a bit shocked, then saddened. After a while, reality set in, and I knew we would have to find a way to get Vitauts home, to Lincoln, so he could be laid to rest next to Liesma according to his last wishes. However, with Covid-19 and all the travel restrictions, I had no idea how this was going to work.

Thank God for Kristina at the U.S. Embassy here in Riga and for Rita who found an incredibly flexible funeral home in Valmeira. I informed the Embassy about my dad’s passing, and they were very sympathetic and caring. They started to put his trip in motion by checking on transportation. Within 24 hours, I had a rough schedule of a flight leaving from Vilnius, Lithuania via Turkish Airlines that would land in Chicago. I was able to share this information with Edmunds at the funeral home who quickly secured permission from the LIthuanian government to bring Vitauts across the border to the airport in Vilnius. Now he just needed Latvia to allow for the border crossing.

Meanwhile, the home in Rauna took care of the death certificate, the Embassy issued a U.S. translation of it, and I contacted the funeral home in Lincoln who said they could arrange travel from Chicago. Technology, humanity, and the spirit of cooperation in times of need are truly inspiring!

The hardest part for me was contacting the rest of my family. There is an 8 hour time difference between Riga and my siblings in the States. I found out about dad at 8 a.m. which meant it was about midnight in Omaha. I waited several hours before calling my sister, but there was no answer. I tried again a few hours later. Finally, on the third call, I was able to reach her at about 7 a.m. her time.

Even though he was 92, and we all have to face mortality at some point, I guess we were hoping that there would be more time. One more visit to hear him say, “Oh really?” when I would explain that I had come from Latvia. And his disbelief, “Latvia?!” as he would screw his face up and wave his hand. One more time to share a secret beer with him in his coffee mug as he ate potato chips or cookies on his bed, sharing with his roommate Janis. After a long winter, I was hoping that he would get one more beautiful summer in Latvia, to walk outside and feel the sun. But that wasn’t a part of the plan. I am glad that we did get to visit and open the Christmas presents that his sons and daughters sent from the USA. He had such an honest joy for simple treasures.

Vitauts at the Pulpit

I did get to see him one last time before he left Latvia. Ingus, a mortician and driver was in Riga preparing him for his long journey back to the USA here, and he allowed us to go to the mortuary to see Vitauts off. We left him with pussy willows because it is the Easter holiday, and these are very much a part of the tradition here. I also gave him a pack of old Bicycle card that he had been playing with at the home. We did a toast with a shot of liquor and said goodbye. It was a strange and wonderful send-off.

Dad was many things to many people, and I am not sure any of us, save maybe Liesma, really knew or understood him. He could be stubborn and angry, but also caring and generous. He never knew what to buy for us kids at the store when he had to shop instead of mom, but he always tried. Maybe he would get a Baby Ruth instead of a Snickers. And maybe he wasn’t a very good loser at times, but his genuine joy for life and unwavering sense of humor would always get him through.

Vitauts leaves behind a legacy of congregants who knew him as a pastor. I see him as this towering father figure in his black suit, walking quickly to some important ceremony, always arriving ten minutes early, but still carefully checking his watch.

 

More Information

My family will be having a private visitation and graveside burial later this month (April 2020), but because of the current health crisis, we will no be able to have a proper memorial service, and I am not traveling home. Hopefully, we will have a fitting tribute to Vitauts in the summer. Thank you for your thoughts, prayers and kind words!

I made a video for his 90th birthday two years ago that really captures his life in images if you are interested just click the link!

 

Some Photos

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