Whenever my father needed to motivate himself while working on the farm he would say, “Come on, man, rock ‘n roll.” All day he passed between feeding something, milking something, or doing some sort of fieldwork, and if you were around and listened, you would eventually hear Rick Dennis tell himself to rock ‘n roll.
In November of 2021, my father passed away at the age of 60.
My father was often the subject of this column. Whether it was the time he rode my sister’s pink bicycle off the end of the porch and crashed, drove around a Chevy with no breaks until that crashed too, almost burned down the farm while trying to boil sap, or the day he regretted shooting my mother with a paintball—he was generous in allowing me to share his life.
At the funeral, I told the story about the yellow model airplane that we watched disappear the first time we flew it, because it was a story that he often told too.
Sometimes I said to him that he was the every-farmer because in trying to write about agriculture here and in other publications I had to write about him. Although I said it jokingly, his story followed the same path of many American farmers from his generation.
He had grown up on a farm and had his own herd of Holsteins while he was a senior in high school. He made money when dairy farming was good, eventually doubling the herd when our family switched from tiestalls to the milking parlor. He missed the tiestall barn and type of farming that came with it, but he pressed on until he found that he could no longer expand to keep up. In 2014 he sold the dairy cows.
Like many farmers of his time, he had to suddenly reinvent himself, despite already being 53. He learned to drive school bus and kept some beef on the side.
At the time I thought I was examining his life closely for material, but now I know I was figuring out how to live my own. He was the example the rest of our family followed. When faced with difficult circumstances he believed in resilience and optimism, and had plenty of opportunities to demonstrate both during difficult situations.
In 2008 he was crushed under the arms of a skidsteer, breaking his back and tearing apart his abdomen. Three surgeons refused to operate because they believed there was no chance that he could live, and the one who did attempt it told my mother that it was one in a million that my father would ever walk again. However, my father decided to live, and my father decided to walk. Then he went back farming.
My father lived with physical pain the rest of his life. He had a metal rod in his back and a wire mess to keep his organs in place. He was always sore and often limped, but recognizing the addictive nature of painkillers before it received attention in the opioid crisis, only took aspirin.
Still, he carried on working as he always had, and despite the pain, was the same sharp-witted man of humor that he had always been. He never stopped being the life of the party or quick with a joke. He was a man of incredible toughness, and we know that not because he could still live through everything that he experienced, but because he could still laugh.
In preparing for the eulogy, I found myself once again writing about my father. This time it was different, however. There was more to do than tell a funny anecdote or explain something about farming. When I was young I had this naïve notion that a funeral was a perfect and grand summation of a life, like a firework show that you were stockpiling for since birth.
However, now I know that it’s not like that. Those who loved someone who is gone are in too much pain to get the words right. I did the best I could, but it was never going to do him justice.
In the end, there is nothing original about grief, nor is there anyone who escapes it. Still, being universal doesn’t make it any easier to deal with. Though I’ve never admitted it out loud, I find myself looking at people who were older and in worse health than my father, and for a second I resent them for outliving him.
The first few weeks I would catch myself thinking that I was going to see my father in a room or watch a football game with him later, for the briefest moment forgetting that he was gone.
When my father got hurt a lot of people came to the farm to help him out. It was no surprise that some at the funeral had to stand along the walls or in the aisle, because the church was too full. He was a person others were drawn to, and he left a large legacy behind him.
He taught me how to be strong and kind at the same time. Now he’s teaching me about loss. No one in that church wanted to go out into a world that didn’t have Rick Dennis in it, but now that we have to, we’ll pick ourselves up and tell ourselves to rock ‘n roll.