Dust to Dust, Stardust

While I have compiled and recorded two music albums, I have yet to put together or publish a poetry chapbook. Since it's only been a year and a half since my father died, it's not surprising that I've been starting to gather my poems on the theme of facing his dementia and death. It's probably been a year since I revisited the eulogy I wrote the small, family funeral we had for him. It makes me smile to think of his life in the bigger picture. I hope it might make you smile too thinking of someone you have loved and lost. The blog title is the epitaph on his military gravesite. 


It’s hard to believe that it was just a few weeks ago when Marcia and I came to Fresno to help transition Papa into memory care. I brought my guitar to entertain him, and when I took it out, his eyes lit up and he reached out for it. His left hand effortlessly formed a C chord, and he carefully plucked each string with his right. The sound produced a delightful boyish grin. It reminded me of when he would bring out his guitar when Marcia, Kim, and I were little and one of the songs he would sing, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone”. I looked it up to remind myself of the lyrics- Young men, they’re all in uniform, Soldiers, they’re all in graveyards, every one. And here we are.  

Joseph Irwin Ketner was a man of opposites. An east coast, Pennsylvania-Dutch farm boy from the tiny town of Stouchsburg, one of four brothers, cleaning out pig pens, sneaking off to swimming holes, and shooting squirrels with BB guns. Later, a west coast, California quality assurance manager in Silicon Valley, proud father of three girls, and three granddaughters. 

Once, he was a scared, little boy with polio in a lonely hospital room in an iron lung, waiting to see his mother visit through a small glass window in the door. That same boy grew into a strong, adventurous young man who enlisted in the Navy and sailed around the world to Italy, Spain, through the Suez Canal and more.He flew helicopters, landed planes on aircraft carriers, and cruised Oakdale, California neighborhoods on a moped named Heidi.  

That same world-traveling soldier courted his cousin’s college roommate and married into a small, reserved, Philadelphia German-heritage family. Some thirty years later, fell madly in love with a feisty, beautiful woman and married into a big, boisterous, Filipino family who could tease him right back with equal intensity and enjoyment. This family gave him the best second half of life that he could have ever dreamed of with more than two decades of happy married life with his true love, delightful stepsons and step daughter he loved as his own, and adorable, affectionate grandchildren nearby to brighten his days. 

He was a self-proclaimed average student in his younger years, who evolved into an avid reader of history, science, math, who turned his military training into a career as an engineer, taking night classes while working full time to get his management certificate. Someone who prided himself on his intellectual capacity. 

He was not religious or devout, but nevertheless sang in church choirs and was awed by the wonders of God's creation in nature, astronomy, and the joy of little children.  

At times, moody, angry, introverted, stubborn, yet thoroughly charming, charismatic. Full of contagious, mischievous humor, even up to his last weeks, drawing shoppers in the Dollar Store into playful conversations with his dementia-limited  vocabulary .  

Always a Marine, he was a man acquainted with duty, fulfilling his obligations with honor regardless of personal feeling. Yet later in life experienced duty softened by love, duty transformed into the joyful simplicity of naturally caring for those he loved. 

Papa Joe most likely didn't let us know how important we were to him with big speeches or long conversations. But we can see it in the way he was driven to record connections and the moments we shared. From the fuzzy Super Eight movies he filmed of his little girls on the playground swinging and sliding to the binders he filled chronicling his family of origin, his work years, and all the cards and letters from his children and grandchildren he held dear.  

While on a run a couple of weeks ago through a redwood lined graveyard near where I live, I was overcome with waves of sadness like all of us have been in the midst of daily activities. Without thinking, I reached out to the trunk of one of the huge trees and touched its bark for some kind of comfort. Instantly, I was filled with redwood understanding; that while it seems like such a tree lives forever, it doesn't. Death is part of the natural order of things. Scattered at my feet were pinecones that held the seeds containing the essence of that tree that will live on. Like those pinecones, each of us has the essence of who Joseph Irwin Ketner was inside of us, whether his DNA, or his perspectives. The time we spent together shaped who we are, and we carry him with us as part of the natural order of life. When I pick up my guitar and strum a chord, it is his smile that lights up my face. 

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