Remembrance Tribute–Neil J. Braaten

Losing a loved one is never easy. In fact, there is perhaps no other event during our lifetime that elicits such an array of deeply-rooted emotions. We feel loss…we can feel angry…we can feel incredibly sad…we can exist for a short time in a state of disbelief. These are all natural reactions shared at some time by everyone in life. We all eventually lose a loved one.

Yet, there is something very important that can help us to move beyond these raw emotions caused by the death of a loved one. It’s called memories. That’s right…those fond recollections of a person can help us move forward in life even without them.

Here’s the key concept to comprehend. Memories are the gift the departed leave for those of us still living. Did you get that? Let’s read it again and this time let it sink in. <read slowly and think> Memories are the special gift given to each of us by those who have departed our life. To understand this is fundamental and a big element of the healing process.

Today, we gather to celebrate the life of Neil Joseph Braaten. Neil was many things to many different people. Of course, he was the family man to Jamie, Sophia and Evelyn. He was the loving and ever dependable son to Terry and Barb. He was the best possible brother to Krista. The list could go on as to what Neil meant to his family and to his friends.

Indeed, Neil was a multi-faceted person with a wide range of responsibilities and life interests. But today I’m not going to talk about his love for low-riding cars and souped up pickups. I’m not going to dwell on his love of sports or his coaching abilities. Instead, today I’m going to focus on Neil and his love for the out-of-doors lifestyle, for those are the memories of Neil I cherish most deeply.

The respected author Robert Ruark once wrote, “The best thing about hunting is that you don’t have to actually do it to enjoy it. You can go to bed every night thinking about how much fun you had twenty years ago, and it all comes back as clear as moonlight.”

Memories! Memories are what fuels the passions of our life existence. Memories can be those embarrassing moments you wish everyone would forget. Memories can be those special times shared that you wish would never end. Memories are a special gift…don’t forget it.

And so it is with Neil Braaten I wish to share up some memories he had with his uncle. Here is one of my early favorites. Neil was perhaps five or six years old and wanted his uncle to take him fishing. I took him fishing. We went to the dam at King Mill Park in Faribault and proceeded to catch a pail full of bullheads. Neil was so excited. I shared in his excitement…up until the point he asked the dreaded question…”can we take them home and eat them?”

Neil showing off his fish
(Note–not the fish described in the text)

You see…I was hopeful we would catch a slightly higher quality fish…but to a small kid a fish is a fish. His enthusiasm was off the charts. Neil’s plan was to take them home to show Grandma, clean them up and to say he helped feed the family.

Well, eventually it was nap time for young Neil and his uncle took care of the fish while he slept. As I recall the bullheads became fertilizer in Grandma’s garden and the fish we consumed that evening drew a close resemblance to the fish sticks that came out of a box featuring an iconic yellow-clad fisherman.

It was about this same age when Neil talked his uncle into taking him tent camping. It was also about this time in life when I learned to be careful with what you agree to…because kids will hold you to it. I procrastinated and finally succumb to the pressure of young Neil’s persistence. Let’s go camping back in the Braaten woods.

Now, I should have known better how camping in late October has some unique challenges. As we would eventually discover, the moderately temped days turn into darned cold nights in Minnesota. Neil’s uncle came prepared…Neil did not. No sleeping bag…just a coat.

So, the longest night of my life began as I fought off hypothermia only to watch my nephew enjoy the comfort and warmth of MY sleeping bag until daybreak. Sacrifices…that’s what uncles do! I learned this early in my adult life.

As Neil matured from the young kid he once was he developed a passion for hunting that we both eventually shared. Two years ago Neil had one of his most memorable encounters with a deer. During most of that summer we had been watching several nice deer through the aid of our deer cameras. Once the season opened it was “go time” for our hunting crew.

Neil took great care in the location of his deer stand. Following one of the fundamentals of deer hunting theory, you place your hunting stand where the deer travel. Neil found this well-used river crossing that he thought would be his meal ticket. His plans worked out perfectly. On a crisp November morning two years ago Neil found himself face-to-face standing just 15 yards away with a trophy 13-point buck. It was the buck that promised to fulfill his dreams.

The buck Neil encountered
(as described in the text)

But not so fast. As any seasoned deer hunter knows all too well…deer hunting is unpredictable. The best laid plans can somehow go awry. What Neil failed to take into account was how after this deer crossed the Little Cannon River the riverbank brought it uphill facing directly at Neil’s tree stand. What commenced was Neil unable to make a move for fear of spooking the deer in what would have been a very abrupt and chaotic departure.

There they both stood staring at each other. Neil with his potential dream perhaps moments away from turning into reality. The deer inquisitively staring trying to figure out what that big mass was in the tree when it wasn’t there yesterday.

Soon it all ended with the deer bounding off quickly and Neil unable to even raise his gun to his shoulder. It’s experiencing moments like that which make climbing out of a warm bed in the morning to go sit in a cold tree so exciting for a hunter. On that day Neil took memories from the woods that lasted him a lifetime. Later that evening back in hunting camp, Neil vividly described the event and the emotions of the experience. It’s what hunters do.

Each day of our lives we create memories. Memories that occasionally we sometimes cherish ourselves…and at other times memories we indelibly etch into the minds of our family and friends around us. That’s why it’s important to live a life that can be filled with good memories. Those to keep for ourselves…but also those to share with others around us.

To know Neil Braaten was to know a good man. He had a heart of gold and a caring spirit about him that simply knew no bounds. He loved to poke fun at people, but likewise wasn’t above being the source of people’s laughter. His smile was contagious and could light a room. He also had such a calming sense when the time was appropriate. He excelled at being a good father and family man…and took much pride in doing so.

Yes, indeed, everyone who was ever touched by Neil’s life in some manner was richer for having had the experience. I urge you to take a moment and think about those fond memories of Neil. He worked hard to create those memories…he wouldn’t want you to forget them anytime soon.

And remember, memories are a gift that nobody…and I mean nobody…can ever take away from you–not even by the person on a journey without us towards Heaven’s gate.

CLICK HERE for a link to Neil’s obituary

CLICK HERE for a link to the family’s GoFundMe page

CLICK HERE for a link to the recorded funeral service.