[Editor's note: The staff of Parade is sad to announce that Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber died Thursday, June 13, at his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. For more about his incredible life story, see his obituary in the Minneapolis StarTribune. We express our deepest condolences to the Weber family.]
After a routine physical revealed that Lt. Col. Mark M. Weber had stage IV cancer, the 41-year-old dad began writing a letter to his boys, Matthew, Noah, and Joshua. That letter became a book called Tell My Sons, filled with the advice he wouldn’t be able to share in person. In this excerpt, Weber recounts what he learned from his own dad.
How my brothers and I didn’t end up murdered by our father is beyond me. All indications are that we deserved it. I once heard him yell that we owed him at least $15,000 for all the doors, vehicle interiors, furnishings, and tools we had destroyed. When I was 8 or 9, something snapped in him that showed us he was done with words. He cut off a piece of one of our hockey sticks and carved it into the instrument we knew forever after as “the Stick.” I can’t recall how many times we actually “got the Stick,” but just the idea of it was breathtaking.
“I love you” was not something my dad said, nor something I would have believed if he had. He spent most of his time working on his race car, fishing or hunting, or playing softball. He wasn’t an absent father; he was just always busy. We were welcome to tag along if we wanted, but there were no fond entreaties from him. And if we went along, we’d better bring lunch and a roll of toilet paper, because it was going to be a marathon. When I think about my own mixed emotions and imperfect memories of my dad, I do wonder what you all will remember about me. This is a timeless consideration that is best illustrated by a quote attributed to Mark Twain: “When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years.”
I won’t be here when you turn 21. That’s the age when I was only starting to grasp the virtue in my dad’s words and actions.
As an adult, I watched him build his own home after he retired from construction. Despite a body worn hard by dozens of Minnesota winters, he went right back to working 10-hour days, for himself. Helping him with that house provided a hundred clues about a simple wisdom I was blind to in my youth.
He heats his home with wood, and cuts and splits every piece of oak that goes into that furnace. When the fishing is good in late winter, he uses a ladder to cross open water to reach the receding ice. He’s a perfectionist, and his sense of pride is often too much for his ego to handle, but when he takes on a task, you can bet it will be done exceptionally well.
When I hear people call him crazy for ignoring a warning about what can’t or shouldn’t be done, I can only nod and smile, because I’ve heard those same words as a soldier, a husband and father, and a cancer patient.
Our man-to-man experiences helped me temper my immature memories of him. His “madness” was actually about taking calculated risks, often choosing a path of difficulty and challenge over comfort, being literally and figuratively willing to walk on thin ice and relying on actions over words to get things done.
I know your memories of me may be dominated by visions of the same hard hand my dad held over me, and naturally I want you to see virtue in my madness. I can only hope my stories about his actions will help you see the wisdom (and feel the love) in mine.
See Lt. Col. Weber explain the letters he wrote for his sons: