Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Our beloved Opa

Dedicated to William F. Brace (August 26, 1926 - May 2, 2012)
We lost our beloved Opa very unexpectedly this past week, Nat’s wonderful 85 year old father who was truly our hero, our stabilizing force, our role model. This guy lived every day to the fullest and had some amazing human qualities that I admire greatly. He and his wife Oma were supposed to be visiting us here in Granada last week, but very intuitively, they cancelled their trip at the last minute as he was having some trouble with dizziness and balance that was unexplained. And as our neighborhood in the Albayzin is very hilly and full of cobblestone streets, walking is difficult, so of course we supported this decision although we were very disappointed. We hoped they could reschedule for June.
When we first told Opa we were moving to Spain for a year, his first response was “How can I help?” and “When can I visit?” This was classic Opa. No matter what you wanted to do, however crazy, he was your number one supporter and fan. When his kids were just out of college, he bought each of them one of the first Macintosh computers in hopes that they could use this fancy new tool to learn new skills. Nat took off in journalism, Colin in translation and Sarah in biology. When Nat took a year off to be a ski bum in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, Opa applauded it. When Nat’s sister Sarah moved across the country to attend graduate school in Seattle (from Boston), Opa drove across the country with her. When Nat’s brother Colin decided he wanted to travel around South America for much of his 40th year, Opa was his number one supporter.
When Nat’s sister Sarah heard that Opa had cancelled his upcoming visit, she realized something was amiss and decided to fly back for a visit (she lives in Seattle, they in Concord, MA). The day she arrived (a week ago Wednesday and the day that would have been his 3rd day here in Spain), Opa ended up in the ER complaining of chest pain.
Opa is on the left
Opa skiing at Big White, B.C. with
his 4 grandchildren
Now I should note that although Opa was 85, he had the body of a 60 year old. He spent much of his life taking good care of his physical self by running marathons (over 20), ultramarathons (50 milers), climbing mountains, skiing, hiking, bicycling, rowing crew and whatever else he could think of to be outside and keep himself in shape. He was never happier than when he was outside in nature and enjoyed introducing the great outdoors to others and inspired many to follow his lead. I know that he coached many young people while at MIT as they trained for their first marathon. He took his Concord running buddies hiking through the Grand Canyon, one of his favorite places in the world. When his body slowed down and he had knee replacement surgery in his 70’s, he kept fit by hiking and bicycling. When balance issues made bicycling difficult, he kept on walking. He had just been skiing this past winter with his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren at Crystal Mountain near Seattle. The guy was unstoppable. He had never been in the hospital a day in his life.
But last Wednesday Opa ended up at Mass General in Boston, epicenter of great healthcare and the best possible place for him in his current condition. They transferred him there after discovering he had a few clogged arteries, and scheduled him for routine bypass surgery the following Wednesday, after the blood thinners they gave him wore off. We were all shocked to hear this news and although we knew he would be fine, Nat jumped on a plane to get there in time for the surgery and to help his sister and mother out when moving him home for his recovery.
Professor at MIT: Boston, MA
Opa spent his professional career as a Geo-physics Professor at MIT and helped bring his children up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. After earning tenure and being lauded for pioneering new models describing how rocks behave under the intense pressure of earthquakes and other tectonic activity, he was promoted to Head of the Earth and Planetary Sciences Department. Although a prestigious title, I don’t think he ever really enjoyed the role, preferring lab and field work to politics and management. Nonetheless during his eight years as head, he lead the department though a difficult merger with another department and was lauded for his consensus-building, hands-on and engaged management style. 
Nat arrived in Boston on Monday afternoon and went straight to the hospital. As usual, his dad was in great spirits, felt wonderful, was enjoying his stay in the hospital flirting with the young nurses, appreciating the food (!), and generally making the best of his circumstances, whatever they be. Nat got to spend Tuesday chatting with him about Spain, past hikes and trips with him and make plans for visiting us in Hood River later this year. The kids and I were able to Skype with him in the hospital 3 or 4 times during his stay there and we all told him we loved him on Tuesday, pre-surgery.
Four poster bed in Seattle
After retiring from MIT in his mid-60’s, Opa turned to furniture making and put together an amazing shop off their house in Concord, MA. He took beautiful pieces of wood and turned them into the most beautiful pieces of artwork one can imagine. His work is truly gallery worthy and Oma hosted a lovely showing of his furniture several years ago at a shop in Concord where many of his pieces were displayed. Although he sold a few odd pieces here or there, he built furniture because he enjoyed it and to give to the people he loved. For our wedding 15 years ago, he sent us out 2 beautiful end chairs made out of gorgeous, red cherry wood, the seats covered in dark green fabric with a leaf pattern. And every year since we have received some new delight in the mail, including a large dining room table which comfortably seats 12, a china hutch custom designed to match our window pattern, a hat stand, a dresser and a grand King-sized 4 poster bed that arrived shortly after the birth of our second child (matching bedside tables arrived the following year). Our home in Seattle (as well as Nat’s brother and sister’s) are filled with his treasures. It’s literally a living museum of Opa’s furniture.
The next day during the 4-6 hour surgery, everything went well. Nat and company heard from the surgeon that the procedure was over, they had fixed 3 arteries, and that they could see Opa in about an hour. This was about 10:30pm our time here in Spain so we went to bed feeling like things went well and we could get an update on things in the morning. Another interesting note: Opa had planned to bring the boys over t-shirts with (American) football logos on them. Since they cancelled their trip, he had Oma ship them instead and I picked the package up from the post office on Monday. The one for Clark showed the New England Patriots vs. the New York Giants in Superbowl XLV. The one for Colin, although adult-sized, was of his favorite player #87 “Gronk” for Rob Gronkowski. They both had their t-shirts on when they went to bed and both ended up in my bed that night on either side of me.
At about 2:30 in the morning I woke up to strange music playing upstairs. I went up to investigate and found that Clark’s laptop was playing silly music from a web site. I turned it off but because I was awake I decided to check my email to see if Nat had sent any further updates re: Opa’s condition. I was absolutely shocked and devastated to see one titled “We lost Opa tonight.” Apparently, Opa had gone in to cardiac arrest in the recovery room following surgery and although they whisked him back to the OR for several hours they couldn’t resuscitate him and he never woke up. The doctors were shocked as well as he just didn’t fit the profile for someone that wouldn’t survive this routine surgery.
We can all rest assured that Opa went out on his own terms: at the top of his game mentally (he was an avid reader and always passed book recommendations on to friends and family), extremely fit for his age (he still worked out with a personal trainer several times a week), and looking forward to future projects.
Nat, Colin and Sarah
He left us so many gifts, the most important being his 3 wonderful children, all amazing and perfect in their own way. I admire them all equally and in different ways: Colin (we named our youngest son after him) their handsome, multi-lingual, extremely smart elder son who lives in Amsterdam, Nat, my stable, multi-talented jack-of-all-trades husband who like his father is happy wherever he is, and one of my dearest friends and running buddies Sarah, who values both  science and fitness, just like her dad.
The greatest thing about Opa was how he lived his daily life. He never judged anyone, was always open to new experiences, took the time to slow down and smell the roses (and check out the grasses, trees and plants), didn’t ever worry about what other people thought of him, and always gave of himself to others. What an inspiration. As they say, if you love somebody, set them free. It’s so hard to say goodbye but we learn so much in the process.