Lessons from my brother

Story & photo by Lori Gottula

On Christmas day just over a month ago, my younger brother, Dave Kimball, walked into my kitchen, set a bag of lemons on the counter, and hugged me from behind. 

“Merry Christmas, Sis,” he said. 

I looked at the bag and said jokingly, “You’re giving me lemons for Christmas?”

“They’re from the tree in our back yard,” he said. Well, that was o.k. then. He had not only picked the lemons, but had hauled them all the way to Falls City from his house in Arizona, the house that he owned with his daughter, and the one to which he and his fiancée intended to retire at the end of 2020. 

“Thanks so much!” I said. I loved fresh lemons. I used them to bake pies, clean my kitchen, and just generally make the house smell like sunshine. I turned around and hugged Dave around the waist. 

“Thank you, bro,” I said. “I appreciate it.”

After that, my family ate dinner, then we laughed and chattered as we opened Christmas gifts. Dave started coughing pretty hard, and his face turned red. He’d gone to the doctor for some respiratory issues a few weeks before, but the cough had lingered. Everyone encouraged him to go back to the doctor the next day. He said he would. 

When he and his fiancé walked out the door that evening, I heard him say to our mother, “Mom, I love ya. Always have, always will.”

Two days later, he was gone.  My little brother, who lived life more passionately than any human being I have ever known, had died in his sleep at age 56. As of this writing, we still have no idea what happened. He’d gone back to the doctor the day after Christmas. The next morning, a friend who lived near his house in Elk Creek, NE, found him, still lying on his couch. 

My family was in shock, but we pulled ourselves together and, on New Year’s Day, celebrated his life. More than 600 of his closest friends showed up.

When I returned home several days after the funeral, I saw the lemons still sitting on the counter. I quickly double-bagged them. Those lemons were the last things in my house that David had touched, and I was determined to keep them as long as I could.  They were still fresh, still useable, and in my eyes, still living. As long as I kept them alive, then in some small way, 

I was keeping Dave alive, too. And I wanted so badly to keep him alive.

Dave lived a life that was truly remarkable.  He was that guy. He not only lit up a room when he walked in, he literally changed the air. He brought in energy and passion. He said hello, shook hands, and wanted to talk to everyone. And I do mean everyone.

Two weeks before Christmas, several members of our family had gone to dinner at a restaurant in Auburn, and before Dave sat down to eat, he had shaken hands with at least one person at every table. My sister had said, “Is he running for president?”

But that’s just who Dave was. He’d been that way since he was a little boy, too. Back then, he had Dennis-the-Menace hair and an ornery grin that said, “I’m gonna get you before you leave here.” But he always got away with everything because he was so darn charismatic. 

In high school, he was a stand-out athlete in every sport, homecoming king, and the apple of the girls’ eyes. But he was more than that. He was that guy who treated everybody like he or she mattered.

One example? A new kid came to town the summer before Dave’s senior year. The young man was just a freshman, and his classmates began to bully him. That fall, at the first football practice, Dave asked the kid to take the locker next to his. When the team rode the bus to away games, Dave asked him to sit with him. No one bullied the kid after that. Dave had quietly made a statement without saying a word. And that’s how he did everything. With confidence and integrity. With concern for others. With a twinkle in his eye that made people want to be like him.

After high school, he attended Peru State College, where he was a leader on the football team. He graduated in 1987 and immediately went to work at NPPD’s Cooper Nuclear Station. He rose through the ranks using his intelligence and people skills, and ultimately became the director of nuclear oversight. He was a “big-whig,” and supervised hundreds of people, but no one would’ve ever known it. Numerous people said he treated every person at Cooper the same. 

He considered them another family.

He was so loved and respected by them and his friends that grown men sobbed at his funeral. Most of his friends told me they didn’t know how they would go on. They felt that way, not because of his tragic death, but because of the way that he had lived. He taught me so much. In life, and in death. And I’d like to share some of those lessons with you.

The first one?  Always, always take the picture.

Now, most of you know that we Gottulas have no problem taking pictures. However, we sometimes get so wrapped up in events that we forget to take something important. That was true on Christmas day. We took a lot of photos that day, but I wanted one of our entire group together.  However, two of our family members had already succumbed to their food comas and were asleep downstairs. 

“Nevermind,” I’d said. “We’ll have plenty of other opportunities for family pictures.”

Yes, that’s true. We will. But Dave won’t be in them. 

Always, always take the picture.

Secondly, Dave taught me to let things—and people—go. He was better at this than anyone I know. If some guy at a bar faced off against Dave, Dave would buy him a drink and be his buddy by the end of the night. On the rare occasion that Dave upset someone, he would try to fix the situation, but if he couldn’t, he let the issue and the person go. I never once saw him chase after anyone. 

Conversely, when one of his friends or co-workers was presented with a great opportunity, he encouraged him or her to pursue it vigorously. He knew that progress sometimes meant letting the person go to move on another part of the country, to different friends, to other co-workers. He was willing to let go so that his friend could soar.

“People come in and out of our lives,” he once said. “The ones who want to stay in our lives will, no matter where they are.”

Enough said.

The third lesson he taught me was to prioritize hobbies and playtime. Dave worked his fingers to the bone at Cooper, and at the tavern that he co-owned in Elk Creek. But he played just as hard as he worked. He loved to ride his Harley, travel, go boating, hang out at the casino, and sit around a fire pit. When most people his age were going to bed, he was heading out with friends. He made people a top priority, and he spread the love around. He didn’t just have two close friends, he had 100. 

“I was his best friend,” one of his buddies said at his memorial service. 

“No, I was his best friend,” another said, jokingly. And on and on down the line. Dave was everybody’s best friend, and everybody wanted to be his. Make time for playtime and make people a priority.

The fourth lesson that he taught me was that coincidences are often more than happenstance. “God Winks,” he called them. One of his favorite books was titled When God Winks by Squire Rushnell, and he often gave it to friends who were grieving. The book is about those coincidences that are so numerous and obvious that they have to be messages from loved ones or God. Ever since Dave’s passing, I have received or seen an overwhelming number of butterflies. They’re everywhere. In a plant that I received. On stamps that a friend sent. On a picture in the doctor’s office. The butterflies have been far too numerous and obvious to merely be coincidence. 

I believe they’re Dave’s way of telling me that he is free, and it’s o.k. to let him go. Letting go doesn’t mean that we forget the loved ones we’ve lost. It means that we hold tight to their memories, while moving forward. Otherwise, we get stuck in the past, and in a constant state of mourning. None of our loved ones, including Dave, would want that. It’s too soon yet for me, but eventually, I’ll listen to those God Winks, and let my brother go.

Another lesson that Dave taught me was to be genuine, and it is perhaps the greatest lesson that he modeled on a daily basis. Where most of us wear masks when we leave our homes, Dave was genuinely Dave in every situation. He didn’t put on a church face, a work face, or a party face. He was himself everywhere he went, with everyone.

He loved to tease people, and that was his way of showing affection. He ribbed the pastor, his boss, his secretary, and the random guy at a rest stop. Dave would also often break into song. It didn’t matter where he was or who was around, he would just suddenly belt out any song that was going through his head. Bon Jovi, Journey, Carrie Underwood, or a Broadway show tune. It didn’t matter. I suspect that he even did it at out-of-state nuclear conventions. It was just who he was. He loved to travel, and he made friends wherever his feet touched ground. At his service, people joked that Dave would climb on an elevator, and make plans with the other riders by the time the elevator reached his floor. That pretty much sums him up.

Lastly, Dave touched people. Touch is a basic human need. We all need it, and Dave knew that. He wrapped his arm around co-workers, hugged his family when he arrived and left, caressed the love of his life, and patted people on the back when they performed above and beyond the call. But physical touch wasn’t the only way that he touched people. He left his fingerprints on everything and everyone with whom he came into contact. He touched their hearts, their minds, their souls. And when I realized that, then I knew I no longer had to protect the lemons that he had touched on Christmas day. Instead, I’m going to use them.  I’m going to take out a big ole’ punch bowl, squeeze in the lemon juice, sprinkle in the lessons that Dave taught me, and add the integrity, character, kindness, and compassion with which we were both raised.  I’ll stir the ingredients all together and make the biggest lemonade life that I can make. I’ll drink the lemonade by the cupful, and finish this life with an empty bowl because Dave didn’t get to.  But I’ll also do it for me, and for my family and friends.  After all, that’s what he would have wanted. He would have wanted us all to live our lives as abundantly as he lived his.

And to learn from the legacy that he left behind.

Thanks for the lessons, bro. And the lemons. And the butterflies. Be free now, and fly.