My dear friend, Dennis Nipp, finally succumbed to the cancer that had followed him for the last 2 1/2 years on May 22, 2008. I was absolutely heartbroken and will miss him terribly. This post is going to be my attempt to come to terms with him – his life, what he meant to me and my family, and what he leaves behind.
I met Dennis and his dear wife Diana in the late fall of 1979. I had just started dating my future-ex-husband Ron, and Dennis and Diana were friends of his from their church in Houston. In fact, when I was first introduced to Dennis, I was informed that he had lived with Ron’s family for awhile – Ron’s mom, Marguerite, said it was several months, but in reality it was only 2 or 3 weeks. According to her, her house had “never been cleaner” than when Dennis lived with them, because he was so good at cleaning and organizing things. That was always a joke between us – any time they would visit our house (once we moved to Dallas), we always said our house was never cleaner than when Dennis was there.
Dennis sang the Lord’s Prayer song at my wedding. I have to confess that I didn’t really know him very well, and had never heard him sing alone. He was part of the church’s acapella singing group, and some of them were not all that great! So I was worried when Ron asked Dennis to sing, but I shouldn’t have been. He had a gorgeous voice – full and rich and very well controlled, and he was also very musical and expressive. His solo was a lot better than the soloist I had picked, who was a voice-major friend of mine from UNT. Over the years, we had a lot of fun sitting around the piano and singing hymns in 4-part harmony – Diana has a really pretty voice, too, and we always really enjoyed those impromptu sing-alongs. In fact, we once sang as a quartet at my current church when Dennis and Diana visited us in Garland.
When I first knew Dennis, he was a performer for Western Onion Singing Telegrams. His full-time job was to go around to hospitals, homes, bachelor parties, offices, and other places and sing crazy songs wearing even crazier costumes. I have a great photo of him wearing his big yellow chicken costume (by the way, he was over 6 feet tall – about 6’3″ or 6’4″ I think). He could talk to anyone anywhere, and make them laugh and feel good. He had the most gregarious personality I think I ever met – he just loved people and loved to make them laugh. But unlike some folks who try to tell jokes or act funny, Dennis was just naturally witty and saw the humor in everything. His humor was just a natural part of who he was, and being with him was always a blast. When he decided to become a funeral director, I thought that was the craziest thing I’d ever heard of! A singing telegram person working in a funeral home?? But it turned out to be a wonderful decision. Dennis’ natural humor and interest in people put grieving relatives at ease, and he was able to relate to them with sensitivity, honesty, and compassion. His work was a real ministry, and I’m sure he helped countless “loved ones” through extremely difficult decisions with grace and care.
Early in my marriage, when we still lived in Houston, we would go out on double dates with Dennis and Diana, or just hang around at our house or theirs. We discovered right away that Diana and my husband Ron had similarities, and Dennis and I had things in common, too. For example, Diana and Ron didn’t really like roller coasters, so when we went to Six Flags it was Dennis and me in the roller coaster while our spouses watched. Diana was a nurse and had to work a lot of evenings and weekends, and Ron was working in retail, so there were several instances where Dennis and I hung out together or went places because our spouses were busy at work. This was a completely platonic friendship, but it was very special to me. Dennis was very giving as a friend – a good and sensitive listener who often had wise advice to share.
Dennis’ and Diana’s families all lived in Arkansas, and it was too far from Houston for them to go home at Thanksgiving time. Since they lived just around the corner from Ron’s parents, they became part of our “family” at Thanksgiving. Dennis would bring his Dr. Pepper baked beans, and Diana would bring her delicious sweet potato casserole, and we would all enjoy a day of friendship and laughter made infinitely more fun because they were there. Their son Nathan played with my kids in the “toy closet” and the grown-ups would play cards or dominoes or board games in the lazy afternoon following our huge Thanksgiving dinner. I learned however, not to ever play Monopoly with Dennis Nipp! He was cut-throat! I have to admit that having Dennis and Diana on hand really helped me – they acted as a buffer between me and my in-laws, and Diana was especially good at helping me understand Ron’s sometimes-weird family. I vented my frustrations to her more times than either of us could count. My children and I were always making trips down to Houston to see the family, but the highlight of those trips, for me and the kids, was getting to hang out with the Nipps. Ron’s birthday is on July 3, so we were usually down in Houston for the 4th of July holiday, and again, the Nipps were always a part of our festivities. It became a joky tradition that Diana and I would try to concoct some sort of holiday-themed dessert. Some of these turned out better than others, but they were always fun, even if they didn’t always taste so great. We would then leave the “old folks” at home, and go out with Dennis and Diana to see fireworks. The problem with that is that Houston is so hot, and the mosquitos are so horrible! One year Dennis allowed us to watch the fireworks in Pasadena from inside the funeral home. It was cool and bug-free, and we had a perfect view! (I hope I don’t get him in trouble for this!)
Dennis loved to tease people, and if you ever did anything silly or foolish, he would never let you forget about it! One time, he and Diana and I went to lunch in Kemah. I picked up the ketchup and started to shake it, but the lid wasn’t fastened securely and it flew through the air and hit Diana on the head. Not only that, but ketchup flew out and hit her in the face and got into her eye. You can imagine how much that burned. After that, Dennis used to hide ketchup bottles from me, or act terrified whenever I picked one up. On another occasion, when their son Nathan was just a baby in a carrier, the carrier was resting on a chair next to me in a Mexican restaurant. I was talking and gesturing with my hands when the waiter came up behind me to replenish the chips. I knocked my hand into the basket and chips went flying through the air and raining down on poor Nathan, who began to cry. Dennis accused me (jokingly, of course) of trying to attack his family with food. These both seem like dumb little accidents, but when Dennis would re-tell them to other people, they became absolutely hilarious. I wish you could have heard him talk about my mother and waxed paper – it’s too long to tell here, but he made a comedy classic out of it. He was also great at plotting pranks, and one of the most fun times I had with him involved setting up an elaborate scheme for obstructing the get-away after my sister-in-law’s wedding. The key to the honeymoon car was hidden inside one of about six jars of gooey stuff – Vaseline, hair gel, face cream, etc. – and the bride had to dig through them until she found it! I know we had more fun setting it all up than anyone else.
After my divorce, I saw less of the Nipps because I went to Houston less frequently. They came through Dallas a few times, and I continued to visit them occasionally. Dennis and Diana both helped me get through the early days of my divorce, and they allowed me to rant and rave without judgement or prescription – in other words, they just listened sympathetically. A few years ago I attended a conference in Galveston, and I called to see if they wanted to meet me for dinner before I returned home. They remembered that it was near my birthday, so instead of going out to eat, they invited me to their house for supper. Dennis made an elaborate steak dinner (he was a fabulous cook) with sauted mushrooms and gourmet vegetables and a delicious dessert. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me – all that time and preparation, and he treated me like a queen while I was there. It was one of the nicest birthdays I ever had.
On September 21, 2005, Hurricane Rita was heading for the Houston area. The country was still reeling over the devastation that occured in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and weather forecasters were predicting that Rita could be even worse. Houston residents were evacuating. I called Diana to invite her and Dennis to come stay with us in Dallas until the storms blew over. When she answered the phone and heard my voice, she started crying. I assumed she was just fearful of the hurricane and the potential damage, but then she told me that Dennis had been diagnosed with brain tumors that very morning and needed an operation immediately. The hospital administrators had told them to pack a suitcase and plan to stay in the hospital until the storm danger had passed. Basically, the doctors, nurses, and patients were preparing to camp out in the hospital until it was over. She was frantically packing and trying to get their affairs in order, not knowing if they would even have a house to come home to when the surgery was completed. The Lord was good to them, however, and the storm hit a little further to the north and east. Their house was safe, but Dennis wasn’t. He had several surgeries and endless chemo and radiation treatments over the next couple of years. At times, it seemed that he would make it through. But the tumors kept coming back, and finally they began to metastasize and the cancer invaded other parts of his body. Dennis knew he wasn’t going to get well, but his faith was strong. He wanted to be home with his family as much as possible, and to maybe have some fun while he still could. I know he suffered a lot, and so did Diana as she cared for him and watched him get weaker and sicker with every day. But through it all, he kept his jovial spirits, kept his strong faith, and continued to think of others until the very end.
In my life I’ve had a lot of wonderful friends. But I count myself extremely fortunate to have had the privilege of knowing and loving Dennis Nipp. He was a blessing to everyone who knew him, and I’m so grateful that God gave me the great gift of his friendship – a gift I will always treasure and never forget.