On Memorial Day weekend a year ago, my nephew, Peter Joseph Hicks, a Navy veteran of the Iraqi war, died after a long battle with cancer. He was 31 years old – born March 11, 1983, died May 23, 2014. I was honored when his father, my brother Bill, asked me to give a talk at the celebration of Pete’s life, in Oak Harbor, Washington, a gathering where Pete was remembered by his family, friends, and Navy comrades. It was one of those sweet-and-sad days, a farewell and a remembrance, a telling of tales, an embracing of who Pete was, and a way to keep his essence alive in those he loved. For those who knew and loved him, and anyone else, here is what I said on that afternoon.
I was talking with my brother Bill, Peter’s dad, on the phone the other day, and Bill said, “I think Peter packed ninety years of life into the thirty-one he had.”
No kidding. I can’t count the number of things Pete’s been and done. Some of you who knew him more closely or in other aspects of his life could surprise me with your stories, and after we’re done here I hope you will.
A few things I remember clearly. Pete liked bows and arrows and other things of velocity and impact. He liked to cook. He was a tinkerer and a builder and a grower. As I discovered in the last couple of years, he was a writer, although I’m not sure he really thought of himself that way: he was just expressing what he believed.
He was a Navy guy, and not just a Navy guy but a Navy guy who went to war and took on one of the most dangerous jobs around, defusing bombs that threatened soldiers and civilians alike. He was a good friend and a good brother. He was fierce and he was gentle, and he loved a good joke, even when it was on himself.
Maybe most important of all, he was a dad and a husband and a devoted family man. His wife, Sasha, and their five kids from the family they blended together – Bell, Abby, Lucas, Caden, and Kali – have lost a part of themselves with his death, and will need time and compassion to grieve and move on. It’s hard. I wish grace and good memories for you. Pete was a determined warrior against this cancer thing, but it was a sneaky devil, and it took a 10-year head start before it let him know there was even a battle going on.
So by Bill’s reckoning of ninety years in thirty-one, if Pete had made it to ninety-three, the way his grandmother Charlotte did before she died last fall, he’d have had two hundred seventy years of life experience under his belt, and any of us who were still around would be absolutely gobsmacked by his accumulated wisdom.
Which I’m sure he would have been more than willing to share.
Pete was a busy guy, for sure. And he must have been wise, because the outpouring of compassion and support from his friends and fellow workers since his death has been remarkable, both for the affection people felt for him and the respect in which they held him. If we live on through the words and thoughts of our survivors, it’s plain to see: Pete was a well-loved, good, and honorable man.
I’ve known him since he was in diapers. I remember him crashing through the woods that surrounded the house his dad built between Alger and the southern tip of Lake Whatcom. Pete liked to do stuff. He just liked life. He was boisterous and busy and almost preternaturally independent, and he could talk a blue streak. I sometimes thought Pete grabbed all the words his brother Aaron didn’t speak, and just shot ’em right back out so they ricocheted around the room. Because, well, it was fun.
As a kid, Pete had spit and vinegar and a wide, impish grin he never lost. He was a character from the day he was born. You never could be quite sure what was going to happen when he was around. One time, my wife Laura reminds me, he came caterwauling into the house, yelling that the kid down the street had bopped him over the head with a shovel. Sure enough, he had a dent in his skull that did eventually go away. The houseful of adults made sure the damage wasn’t too major, got Pete settled down as much as possible, and then agreed a little sheepishly that likely there was more to the story than Pete was letting on.
Pete knew what he wanted to do, and he was determined to do it. His mom, Denise, told me about the time she and Bill planned a two-week vacation and asked her best friend and neighbor, Teresa, to watch the kids while they were gone. “Peter asked about a week before we were to leave if he could stay with his friend William instead,” Denise recalled. “I told him no, the arrangements were made and he needed to be able to look after his dog.”
So that was that. Until the day Peter just didn’t show up at Teresa’s after school. Bill and Denise eventually came home, none the wiser, until, as Denise says, “I was doing a bit of cleaning a few days later and I came across a note written by Peter, giving himself permission to get off the bus at William’s house.”
Teresa, of course, had been frantic and then angry: she’d had no idea where Pete could be. “When Peter and I were reminiscing on one of his chemo days,” Denise added, “he did say he was very sorry and hoped that Teresa would one day be able to forgive him for his impetuosity.”
The William of that little story was William Cory, who a few days ago posted on Peter’s Facebook page a photo of himself and Peter as kids in mountain-man costume, Peter wearing a coonskin cap. “We grew up together as best friends,” William wrote. “Know you’re in a better place. RIP Pete, you will be missed. You had a great heart, strong will, and awesome attitude towards life. See you later.”
Erik Bergman, a friend from high school, passed this story along.
“He was in a play,” Erik wrote.” I think he was a pharaoh or something. Peter, being pretty pale, decided he should get a fake tan. This showed great commitment to the part. However, I’m not sure he consulted anyone well-versed in artificial tanning. As a result he turned out a little … orange. Peter was a good sport about it, of course, and the show went on. But I don’t think he ever tried artificial tanning again.”
Pete also had a fierce sense of justice. “Peter always took his job as big brother very seriously,” his sister Bekah told me. “He teased and tormented me as any loving older brother should, but he never let anyone else get away with treating me poorly. Case in point; when I was eleven years old, I got injured at school by walking into a swinging baseball bat.” (Things seemed to swing at heads when Pete was around.) “Peter was so enraged at the kid swinging the bat that he threatened to beat him to a pulp. It took me all weekend to convince him that it was more my fault that the other kid’s, so he should just let bygones be bygones. That was Peter, ever my protector.”
On Friday afternoon Bill sent me a long note, and it’s so good I’m going to read the whole thing. Here’s what Bill said:
“Wherever Pete went and whatever his endeavor, he moved at 100 miles an hour. Even before birth he was running (witness Mom’s bruised ribs not healing for a full three months after he was born!) He came out running on his birth day; 30 minutes of labor and he popped right out! Dad was in total shock, and brother Aaron stopped talking for a full three years.
“Always curious, at 2 1/2 years old, when sister Bekah came into the clan, the first words out of Pete’s mouth were, ‘Can I hold him?’
“Shortly after that he hiked through twelve inches of snow to check out the neighbor dogs (to the alarm of a whole posse of neighbors who searched high and low for him).
“At 4 years Pete climbed to the top of a 60-foot cedar tree in the family forest, much to the shock of his mom, who again had a party out looking.
“Pete loved lots of pets during his formative years, including several cats (Flea Market, Bus Stop, among others) a dog named :q: and a pair of alligator lizards he brought home at the end of fourth grade.
“Mostly known as ‘Peaches’ for his usually pleasant demeanor, he did at times revert to his alter ego ‘Impetuous’ when the world moved a little too slow for his liking. (‘Nobody loves me, everybody hates me, I’m gonna go eat worms’ was bantered about occasionally.)
“Pete loved to follow his dad around the garden in the summer, and by the time he was a young teen was growing his own roses from cuttings, making greenhouses for the young plants out of two-liter pop jugs.
“An avid scouter, he was involved in Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts, even worked summers at Black Mountain as counselor for several years. Then, of course, he became an honorary Girl Scout when sister Bekah became a member.
“Early experiences with sports (soccer, baseball) gave way to concert band, marching band and jazz band, playing trumpet, valve trombone, slide trombone, baritone horn and tuba, and later ukelele and piano.
“Not sure how he managed, but he worked a trip to England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales into his twelfth year, with the People to People ambassador program. (They promised to send back a new kid, but I’m pretty sure it was Pete who returned home.)
“High school years also saw Pete in every drama production offered by Burlington High’s drama department; a second-place award at the national air-rifle contest in Denver, Colorado; crafting businesses including a marionette puppet manufacturing company called ‘Boogie Birds International’; ‘Roadkill Kraters’ (a line of clay animal caricatures with Lego tire-tracks running across their bodies); a stint at book-binding; and another crafting business creation he called the ‘XYZ Fly-Tying Company,’ complete with a logo of the midsection of a pair of Levi’s (zipper down, of course) behind a relief of a fish.
“After four years of ROTC training, Pete joined the Navy, graduating boot camp at Great Lakes, training as gunners mate, dive training, explosive ordnance disposal and jump training. Dad recalls a phone conversation where Peter intimated his fear of blowing up a million-dollar government-owned bomb-disarming robot, to which dad responded, ‘Don’t worry about the robots, Pete, you’re worth waaaay more than a million bucks!’
“There is a Grandma Moses quote that perfectly epitomizes Pete: ‘Life is what you make it … always has been … always will be.’ Peter was much loved by many, and will be much missed. … My guess is, right now Peter Joseph Hicks is standing at the Pearly Gates either telling St. Pete how to do his job more efficiently, or offering him a much-needed break in his routine.”
Over the years, I watched Peter, mostly from afar, grow into a man of deep conviction and bravery, with unwavering loyalty to those he loved. And he never lost his antic wild streak.
The evening we learned that Pete had just died, I went to sleep early, I think drained by the news, even though we’d been told to expect it. My wife stayed up late, looking through photos, and found one of Pete at our wedding. He was five years old, dressed up in a blue-plaid shirt and sporting a hungry smile, standing guard beside the wedding cake, which was thick with frosting. This is what Laura wrote to go with the photo:
“He was superglued to that cake at our wedding in 1988, and I think that’s pretty much how he spent the whole day. Pete died of colon cancer, which went undiagnosed for 10 years. He was a two-time Iraqi War vet, specializing in defusing bombs. It’s not lost on me that his death falls on Memorial Day Weekend, at a time when the Department of Veterans Affairs is rocked by a scandal for inept management and grossly neglecting the medical needs of veterans. In a weird way, the last two Hicks family funerals in the past seven months were blessed chances to see Pete and wish him well, to chat with his sweet wife and see how she was holding up, and to watch in awe at how wild and polite his five kids were in equal measure. Eat as much cake as you want, Pete. Godspeed.”
On May 21, two days before Pete died, my sister, Pete’s aunt Barb, wrote this: “Today’s Seattle Times headline, as my 31-year-old nephew, a two-term Iraqi veteran, lies in a hospital with late stage colorectal cancer, his tumor undiagnosed for ten years: ‘Veterans waited, suffered, died.’ Peter served his country by disarming bombs. He will leave a wife and five children behind. I am outraged and grief-stricken in equal measure.”
From Bekah again, shortly after Pete slipped away: “I’m not sure where to begin… it’s been three days now since my brother, Peter Joseph Hicks, left this world, and all I feel is numb. The whole thing has happened so quickly, it’s hard to believe he’s really gone. Eight months ago we were grilling burgers at our Dad’s house to celebrate my birthday, blissfully unaware that his body was being ravaged by cancer. And now all I can see when I close my eyes is him lying helpless in his hospital bed, fighting off death even as fluid filled his lungs, making it all but impossible to breathe. No one ever told me how agonizing death is to watch. I guess I’ve never known anyone with such a great desire to live as Peter had. When he was first diagnosed, the doctors gave him five years and he said, no, I’ll take twenty, I’m walking all my girls down the aisle at their weddings. Now they’ll have to walk alone. He put up a tremendous fight, but in the end this world couldn’t hold him. His spirit was too vast for his body to contain.”
As so many of you know, EOD stands for Explosives Ordnance Disposal. That, in addition to being a Gunner’s Mate, is what Pete did in the Navy. I knew it was exceptionally dangerous work, but didn’t know all the details. It was foreign territory to me. I looked it up. It can be a frightening job. It means you’re the guy who defuses things meant to explode and kill people. Do something wrong, and it can literally blow you up. The job demands, at least it seems to me from the outside, both a reckless spirit and a supremely cautious precision. Nerves, as they say, of steel.
Looking through Pete’s Facebook page, I’m not surprised to see so many expressions of love and comradeship from his band of military brothers and sisters. Here are just a few of them:
Navy mate Michael Hooper: “Bless your family. Catch you on the flip side.”
Another Navy friend, Robert Sherrill: “My heart sank after I heard he passed. He left this earth way to early. Our prayers go out to his wife and their kids. I am truly sorry for your loss. R.I.P. Pete. You will never be forgotten.”
James Volmer: “RIP, brother. We got the watch.”
“Fair winds and following seas,” a lot of Pete’s friends said.
Dale McCutcheon, an EOD guy from the Army: “Rest easy, brother, you have served your time in Hell. We will meet again.”
Rob Stevens: “Peter Joseph Hicks, I woke up this morning wishing that last night was just a bad dream, but I realized that you’re in a better place and not suffering. You were by far the smartest, hardest working Gunner’s Mate I have ever served with. Your dedication to your family and the Navy are something that I looked up to. I told Sasha Norris yesterday that there is a song that I know you were immediately obsessed with the moment you heard it. Here you go, brother. I love you man!”
The song was “The Last Shanty,” and some of the lyrics go like this:
“Well my father often told me when I was just a lad,
A sailor’s life was very hard,
The food was always bad.
But now I’ve joined the navy
am aboard a Man o’ war,
Now I found a sailor ain’t a sailor anymore.”
Brad Wallen wrote: “Ever wake up with tears falling down your cheek even though you were sleeping sound? RIP Peter Joseph Hicks you will be missed!”
Navy mate Stephanie Anderson: “After I was told of his cancer, he was always so honest about it. Never letting it get to the core of who he was … a great father, a great friend, a great husband, and a cocky-kickass sailor.” And, just in case there was any question about the flip side of cocky-kickass, Stephanie added: “He was a kind, compassionate person who touched so many lives.”
Let’s face it, because Peter did: Colon cancer is a scatological disease. Pete could be profanely funny when he wrote about the cancer’s effects, and I would quote some of his posts about the bodily humiliations he underwent, except that there are children here and I do not wish to be accused of contributing to the delinquency of any minors. If you really want to, you can check ’em out on his Facebook page. The man had a way with words. All sorts of words.
These words, which he wrote not too long ago, struck me deeply:
“The bonds forged in war are lasting. You never forget the friends you’ve lost, or even just lost contact with, and when you finally find them again it brings back a flood of emotions that you cannot prepare for. We may not be casualties of war, but we have felt the costs. We have lost marriages, friends, loved ones, limbs, and our health, and have come out changed. The people I have met and worked with in the military are some of the finest people I have ever met. They have taught me, counseled me, and molded me into the man I have become. I was not an easy man to work with, nor was I an easy boss to work for, but I have learned from each experience. I am honored to have worked with each of you.”
Pete’s aunt Laurel, who has a way with words herself, collected her thoughts in verse. Here’s what she wrote:
The riddle that was Peter —
loving and active father.
You braved your affliction
with courage and humor,
and now you’re bringing mirth to Heaven.
I love you and miss you,
Man, did Peter love his family. And with Sasha and their five kids – Sasha’s three, Pete’s two with Sara Rose, remade into one big family – he seemed to have found the center, the core, the meaning to his life. As the cancer was eating away at him, he took the time to talk about the little, daily, important things, and he did it, almost always, with that wry, self-deprecating, tall-tale sense of humor.
Like this, about the mixed but genuine joys of being a dad:
“They may be professionals at giving me a hard time, but I have come to realize how incredibly blessed I truly am to have the kids that I do. They may not always get along, and half the time they may seem to hate each other, but it’s difficult to expect siblings, especially a combined family, to work together all the time. When a problem comes along, we are usually able to fix it pretty quickly. Like recently when we noticed an attitude coming from them, homeschooling is the option we chose to correct it. Not being around the kids that show the attitude should make that evil perish soon. We have already noticed a drastic improvement in one of the munchkins, and the other two seem to be coming around. The good news for them is they will be spending more time with me, just in case God has different plans than I do. Only time will tell if this is truly a good thing, but we can hope, right? At a minimum, they should be able to supply a fair amount of laughter and aggravation to write about and help keep these posts light.”
That was on February 4. Later that same day, he had second thoughts:
“So, after bragging about my kids today, they decided to leave my dog outside and she got stolen. If any of you in and around Oak Harbor can keep your eyes out for a 35 pound Blue Nosed Pit bull, it would be much appreciated. She loves to lick and jump up on anyone, and answers to ‘Dixie.’ Thank you.”
On Friday afternoon, Sasha sent me this short, sweet love story.
“The first day we met, we were at City Beach Park,” she wrote. “We both had our kids there. We were talking and I held Kali when she fell. Our older girls were playing well. After a couple of hours of talking and playing with the kids, they started getting hungry. Peter really hadn’t let on that he liked me, though it was clear he was looking for a mom for his two girls. Then, he said, ‘How about Applebee’s? The kids are getting hungry and I could get a bite, too.’
“Bell, in a very excited and incredulous voice, asked, ‘All of us?’
“Peter responded, ‘Well, yeah, why not?’ Other than, ‘I love you’s, that would be his most common and well-said phrase until his last few days. ‘Why not?’
“He touched everyone’s life, and loved everyone so much. I feel blessed that he wanted me as his wife and loved me as he did. Most people don’t know that I was broken before I met Peter. I had no sense of humor, was uptight and could not laugh. My heart had been so damaged that I never even considered that it could be healed. Although Peter is gone, what he did for me will never be lost. He was the best man I have ever met and he gave me laughter, one of life’s most precious gifts. Smiling and laughter come naturally to me now, my heart is light and I can love myself, all because of him. Thank you, Peter, for your jokes, your cheesy smiles, and most importantly your love.
“Peter always said he had to beat this cancer. He had at least 50 years left. He has to at least walk all his girls down the aisle, and Kali still has another 30 years if he has anything to say about it. Bell made him a card in the hospital that read: ‘I love you with all my heart and I want you to know that you will walk me down the aisle, even if no one can see, you will. I love to call you MY Daddy.’ I am sure this will be true for all three girls … and the boys, too.”
On the day after Pete died, Sasha wrote this on Facebook: “Thank you to everyone for all your love and support. The best man I have ever met left at 9:30 last night. Peter has touched so many lives and loved everyone so much. If you ever had a åchance to meet him you would know that he would want us all to remember him by having a laugh. He made mine and everyone else’s lives so much brighter with laughter and love. So, as he says, Why Not?”
All right, then. Let’s all go ahead and try to laugh as we ride through this dizzy game of life, gaining friends and lovers and family here, losing them there, waiting breathlessly to see what happens next. Just remember, Peter’s waiting. He finished ahead of us. And he gets the last laugh.