Clayton Stoker: Son, husband, uncle, father, grandpa and great grandpa. What an impact his life made for eighty-nine years. The piece attached was written as a way to describe events at his graveside service for my children. COVID had presented issues in their lives preventing them from attending.
A debt of gratitude is owed to Dad’s caregivers at Research Medical Center. The doctors, nurses, technicians, and support staff who show up every day are the bravest people I know. Through technology, they created the conduit between patient and family. We spoke words of love and comfort on more than one webex session. I know he heard the words.
Living as God Requires
“He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you? But to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.” This Old Testament verse from the prophet Micah crystallizes essential characteristics of a life well-lived. My Dad lived these words. We are humbled and grateful.
Clayton Stoker died due to COVID 19 on November 10, 2020. He was a resident in a long-term care facility. For eight months, infection control guidelines kept the virus from the facility. Slowly, despite continued vigilance, the cases increased. His exposure led him into a brave battle, but he succumbed nine days after diagnosis. Like so many families, we were not allowed to visit the hospital. He died with his nurse and doctor by his bedside. He died without his daughters next to him, holding his hand as he made the transition to heaven. I put pen to paper to describe my thoughts, to record events having a devastating effect on our family.
Two days before Dad’s death, his pastor, Dan Vanderpool, called to inquire how our family was coping. I was eager to voice my frustration with the CDC- mandated care facility quarantine and necessary separation of residents from families. Continued separation during Dad’s hospitalization was indescribably frustrating. End-of-life treatment discussions with doctors were soul-crushing. Dad expressed his wishes years prior. Conveying them to doctors, knowing they impacted his survival, was surreal and painful. His wish to avoid mechanical ventilation guaranteed that he would die if maximum oxygen therapy failed. Dan gently reminded me that things worse than death exist for a man 89-years-old. A man who lived the fullest of lives. A man who was lying in intensive care exhausted, fighting the virus ravaging his body.
Midmorning on November 10, Dr. Rogers notified me and my sister treatment options had been exhausted. Permission was needed to provide “comfort care,” sedation given while oxygen therapy is gradually withdrawn. A “cocktail” of drugs used frequently in hospice care is the protocol doctors follow to allow a peaceful death. We gave our consent. Dr. Rogers said he would call after the “process” was completed. The phone rang at 11:45 am. Comfort care took only a few minutes. My head told me our decision was the correct one, confirmed by the brevity of the process. My heart broke. I thanked Dr. Rogers for his care. He had been professional, yet compassionate, willing to listen and answer questions, and acutely sensitive to the needs of his patient’s daughters.
Dad’s graveside service was on November 27. We saw him lying in state at the funeral home before his transfer to the gravesite. Eight months had passed since I had seen him face to face. I dreaded walking into the viewing. I was angry, seeing him dead in the casket. COVID had stolen so much from us: physical touch, hugs, facial expressions signaling attitudes only understood by family, and his sparkling eyes. His delightful habit of clapping his hands and slightly lowering his head was a signature sign that he was about to express delight in the news that was going to make his day.
Had COVID drastically altered his appearance? He looked thinner, but I was relieved he still looked like Dad. In the suit and tie we provided the funeral home, he looked handsome. The mortician had draped his Masonic apron over his lap. 50- and 65-year Masonic membership pins were attached to each lapel. His hands clasped a cap we wanted him to have. The top of the cap proclaimed, “World’s Greatest Papa.” His well-worn Timex watch was on his wrist. He had not taken it off, and it had not been removed while he was hospitalized. Significant only to those who knew Dad, it symbolized the trustworthy, self-employed carpenter who built everything from decks to houses.
For more than 100 years, Star Valley Cemetery is the peaceful, final resting place of so many families. If a cemetery can be described as beautiful, such is Star Valley. Generations of the Stokers and Terrys are buried there. Carefully manicured plots surrounded by white fencing evokes a multitude of memories. While cows grazed in the adjacent pastures, names on the headstones reminded me of those I loved, the lessons I learned from them. Beyond the southwest corner of the cemetery, a stand of evergreen trees hides my parent’s farm. A mile away, in opposite directions, stand farms belonging to my grandparents and great grandparents.
The weather had cooperated for the day, sunshine, and fifty degrees. I thanked God. I feared rain, snow, or freezing temperatures would hamper the service. As we walked to the gravesite, the pandemic reminders were all too familiar with masks on our faces and social distancing enforced. If emotion threatened to overtake us, a hug was necessary and non-negotiable, social distancing be damned.
My children were dealing with COVID’s effects and could not attend the service, causing COVID’s hold on our lives to press even heavier.
The white hearse approached the gravesite. An Airman from Whiteman Airforce Base stood at attention. She executed a slow and dignified salute to recognize the Airforce Veteran who served during the Korean conflict. Breathtaking simplicity, precision, and reverence embodied the salute. Volunteers transferred his casket to the bier over the freshly dug grave.
A tent stood next to my parents’ gravestone, sheltering Dad’s flag-draped casket. Flower arrangements of red and white roses, wheat stalks, and cattails flanked the casket. Six chairs were positioned in front of the casket, ready to accommodate family members. Challenging business loomed. We needed shelter literally and figuratively to say goodbye to a remarkable man. The sadness was palpable. Those who gathered with us were protected from waves of emotion visible in the faces of eyes welling with tears.
The Grand Chaplain and Grand Master of the Kansas Fraternal Order of Masons performed part one of the service. Dad would have been in disbelief at this honor for his service of 65 years as a Free Mason. Normally a local Mason will perform the Masonic Rite. The Grand Master told us he remembered visiting Dad at the local lodge. He knew him to be a great man and was struck by the long tenure of service.
Pastor Vanderpool began the transition to the second part of the service. He made a special effort to befriend Dad over the years. Dad did not attend his church. It didn’t matter. Dan wanted to be a friend, to provide encouragement and comfort for Mom and Dad in the difficult seasons of their later years. Under the tent in that peaceful section of Star Valley, Dan encouraged us. Dad had done the two things required to enter heaven: he had trusted Jesus as his Lord and Savior, and he traveled the final journey of death, arriving in heaven, guided by the light of Christ.
Dan offered those listening to the commital a chance to share the impact Dad had on their lives. All described Dad as the constant, the one who kept their families together, providing help in tangible ways. Personal visits and support in critical times were a hallmark of his care. He encouraged family get-togethers and knew the importance of gathering to share and reminisce. Dan encouraged us to continue the example Dad had set. Listening to that admonition, we acknowledged we would not lose touch.
Presenting military honors completed the service. Two Airmen folded the American flag draping the casket. The rite was slow, deliberate, and meticulously executed. The atmosphere was so still. Birds were chirping. The sound of hunters’ rifle fire in the distance became a twenty-one-gun salute. The bugler lifted his sparkling silver cornet and played taps. The flag was presented to my sister and me. In clear, deliberate tones, the Airman expressed, “on behalf of the President of the United States and a grateful nation heartfelt thanks” for Dad’s service. Her words were powerful as she looked at us with piercing, soulful eyes. Her words’ gravitas, not diminished by the mask covering her facial features, was received with gratitude.
As the service concluded, attendees filed by our family and paid their respects. Many gathered around the tent, visiting, sharing stories, confirming that Dad was a treasure not to be forgotten. My cousin came to sit next to me. His eyes were sad. He had lost a dear uncle who had filled the gap in his life when his father, Dad’s brother, died. He encouraged me, vowing we would continue meeting after the COVID quarantine was over. We would continue traditions of recounting our loved ones’ stories, creating new traditions and memories that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren would keep alive.
We shared roses from the beautiful arrangements with all the women that remained after the service. We knew the message in this gesture as we had been recipients ourselves—a way to show gratitude to the mourner for attending. A small token to remember Clayton, the man who brought so much joy in his distinctive touch upon our lives.
It was time to leave the sanctuary of Star Valley. With reluctance, we said our goodbyes to return to the business of life. My husband and I drove out the gate and turned towards Mom and Dad’s farmland. Their century-old house and barn were razed years ago. I still visualized them in my mind. I imagined the houses still standing of neighbors who provided me a rich heritage. One belonged to my Great Grandfather, Sam Terry, “Grandpa Sam,” the family patriarch. He was Dad’s maternal grandfather. Dad possessed a significant number of Grandpa Sam’s personality traits: forever pleasant and optimistic, willing to make the best of crushing circumstances, always looking for opportunities to make people smile, never deterred from moving on with a life focus.
As we drove home, the weight of the day’s emotions lessened and transformed into the realization of gratitude for Dad’s life. The heritage he provided for the next generations could not be quantified. I could begin to accept the sadness of his final months in quarantine and the cruelty of the malicious virus that claimed his life. Our time at Star Valley brought to the fore a life well-lived, touching so many hearts. His impact for good in the community was undeniable.
Our preference would have been to keep Dad with us for many more years. I cannot begrudge him what he now knows—eternal rest, heaven’s splendor, and the joy of seeing loved ones who led the journey to his final destination.