Epilogue tells the story of the decade since Elsie went home. We had been married 66 years. It is more than an epilogue. It is new chapter of life I could not have imagined back then.
It was a raw February morning. I leaned into the wind, hurrying to the Social Security office to tend to business related to Elsie’s recent death. Suddenly I was falling, tripped up by an errant sidewalk brick. I lay stunned, assessing the damage. Nothing broken, but I could not get to my feet and not soul was in sight. As I scrunched toward the building hoping for a handhold, a man rounded the corner. He hurried to me. Determining I was not injured, he helped me up. “You look familiar,” he said. I gave him my name. “Oh, you just lost your wife. I’m so sorry. I sure enjoy your books.”
I have no idea who he was. I call him the Angel of Second Avenue West.
During Elsie’s final months, a distressing bowel problem hit me. Chalking it up stress, I lived with it. Elsie died the day before Valentine’s Day and son Joel and Sue invited me to spend the rest of the winter with them in their Tucson retreat. Though the bowel annoyance persisted, I limped along through the winter and summer before confessing to my primary care doctor. She scolded me and ordered a colonoscopy.
In mid-October 2010, I sat with son Kevin awaiting the results. The doctor finally arrived: “I’m sorry to tell you, you have rectal cancer.” I paused: “OK, werun tests. If the cancer has spread, I’ll do nothing.” Finding no cancer elsewhere, a lady surgeon whacked a foot off my intestine and hung a bag on my belly.
After four days, I moved to rehab not feeling perky. No appetite. The second evening a nurse, insisting I eat something to gain strength, spooned soup in my mouth. My belly exploded, spewing black gunk. “Feces!” said the nurse and summoned an ambulance.
The crew laid a warm blanket over me and wheeled me to the unheated ambulance then left me untended to complete paperwork. The ambulance was bone cold and the blanket soon lost its warmth. Colder and sicker than I had ever been, I lost it. “Lord, I quit!” From somewhere came, “Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.” Peace flooded in. Soon we rattled over frozen streets to St. Mary’s where they poked a tube down my nose and hooked me to a pump. Sleep came to a lullaby, “I’ll tell you when to quit.”
At that time, I was living with son Kevin and Tena in the home Elsie and I bought in 1977. Soon after she got hurt, they had left their careers to help me care for her, living in the basement rooms. When Elsie died, I moved downstairs. Kevin and Tena settled in upstairs and we began conversation with the bank for them to buy.
I returned to Tucson in late fall, 2012. Cancer free and generally healthy, I decided to try living alone for the first time in my life. Duluth was my city of choice. I began an online apartment search and suffered sticker shock. No way could I afford the cheapest apartment. Elsie’s care had eaten all my assets except Social Security and a modest preacher’s pension. Joel introduced me to the HUD Section 8 federal rent assistance plan for low income. I punched up the computer and phoned seniors’ assistance in Duluth and found Lakeland Shores in my old Lakeside neighborhood. Though it was a smallish efficiency, all basic needs would be within walking distance (I no longer drove). I emailed for an application and filed it.
The reply devastated me: Ineligible. My income after deductibles was $196 a year over the HUD ceiling. Unless my deductions increased, I did not qualify. I knew little about deductions and phoned the manager for clarification. I got an answer machine and no callback. An urgent email got no reply, nor did a special delivery letter.
Weeks passed and frustration mounted. I grumbled to God and all who would listen, including daughter Sally in Duluth who mentioned my plight to a group of friends. One of them suggested Woodland Garden Apartments, a facility my search had not discovered. I later learned the facility did not advertise—it is always full with a waiting list.
Sally visited Woodland Garden and manager Jill my story who gave her an application. It was identical with the Lakeland Shores’ form I phoned Jill, reminding her of my rejection. She replied, “Leave that to me; your next address will be Woodland Garden. But expect to wait six months to a year.” But within days, Jill phoned. A resident died and Jill hoped to fill the vacancy by early July. Could I come? Indeed I could!
I emailed the news to son Kevin and Tena in Duluth. They drove to Woodland Garden to see where old Dad would be living but found access restricted. A resident happened to be in the lobby asked their purpose and offered a guided tour. My future apartment was locked so she showed them hers, which was configured like mine. Kevin emailed a report. “We met the nicest lady. Her name was Norma.” I moved into Woodland Garden on July7, 2013 and set about meeting fellow residents–54 women and 9 men.
The building felt more like a college dorm than a seniors’ residence. Each evening women and an occasional man clustered in small groups to play cards or chat. I met Norma, the volunteer librarian. We chatted and discovered several mutual interests which led to evening chats in the library. We learned our ancestors hailed from the same part of Finland and settled in adjoining Northwest Wisconsin townships I the late 1,900s.I grew increasingly fond of Norma but romance never entered my mind. She was 17 years younger than me. Our nightly visits drew notice from fellow residents and we loved to tease them.
I had lived in Woodland Garden about a year when old age afflicted my left hip, calling for replacement. In early June I checked in at St. Mary’s. The surgery went well and after three days I moved to Lake Shore Health Center for rehab. On the second day, something went haywire. I have no memory of the ambulance ride to the hospital. I was in Cleveland in a sleek white van tended by my oldest son Keith. My lost week began.
For seven days I lived in a strange world totally unaware I was wired and plumbed in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia and intestinal infection. I would later discover that events in my strange world reflected my bed care.
Desperate thirst sent me across a small wood-paneled room to an old aluminum communion service, hoping for a dreg of wine. Another time, I coughed red blood in a Kleenex. I moved from scene to scene with no sense of passing time. Then word drifted to me: hospice, palliative care; Dad, you have to fight. I concluded I was dying! There was no fear; rather, exhilaration. I found myself in a hospital bed propped up by pillows with a garden just off the head of my bed. There was a rustic dock and weathered boat house. Then visitors began to file by, some crying. They moved to the garden.
In the real word, son Kevin stood by me. When I was declared terminal, he sent out word, hence my visitors. Not satisfied with information he was getting, he negotiated another doctor. He scanned my chart, affirmed the diagnosis, and, with nothing to lose, he stopped all medication and treatment. Inexplicably, I began to recover.
From my bed I heard Kevin and a hospital official discussing insurance. The official gave Kevin three days to move me to rehab. Whoa! I was going to survive! But just ahead lay the most terrifying experience of my life.
I managed days fairly well, but nights were torture. I watched every hour tick by. I begged for help, but no sleep-aid worked. On the final night, a new nurse came on duty. Apparently thinking pain caused my sleeplessness, she squirted evil-tasting fluid in my mouth. Morphine, she said. Will I sleep? Oh, you will sleep! Instead I sank into unimaginable terror–a vortex sucking me down as old men in dark suits heaped rough-cast cement on a pile. A voice taunted me: there are theological issues here and you can do nothing about it. I remember shouting, I don’t care the consequence; I will do what’s right!
In that instant, the terror fled. I lay in my bed fully alert and at peace. Do with that what you will. On the Fourth of July weekend a van transported me to Chris Jensen Health Center to begin six grueling weeks of rehab. I returned home just in time to celebrate my 90th birthday, Woodland Garden friends welcomed me home.
But the morphine left its mark. My emotional responses deepened; I grew increasingly reflective. Friends grew increasingly dear. I realized how much I had missed Noma. But falling in love? That was for kids.
Norma and I resumed our evening chats. I sought opportunities to be with her. One morning we joined the group in the lobby waiting for the mailman, a daily ritual. Spirits ran unusually high. The mailman finally arrived the group moved toward the rows of mailboxes on the wall, Norma just ahead of me. She collected her mail and befitting the jovial mood, she kissed me then turned to the elevator.
Something overpowering walloped me and I elbowed to my mailbox, arthritic fingers struggling with the key. I finally collected my mail and hurried to the elevator, gripped by a desire to hold Norma and tell her I loved her. The elevator finally came. I punched floor three, opening to the library. Norma was gone. I didn’t dare knock on her door. I grabbed a book and sat two hours pretending to read, hoping Norma would appear.
Around one o’clock I sought my apartment, but lunch held no interest. Returning to the library, I puttered through the afternoon. Time dragged and I finally gave up. Supper was out of the question. Early winter darkness fell and I fired up the computer. I began a mushy love letter, intending to delete it. I wrote and rewrote with the same lead: Dearest Norma, please don’t laugh, but I’ve fallen in love with you. Clichés worthy of a lovesick teen tumbled out.
Writing brought some relief. I read the screen one last time and I reached for delete, but foolhardy abandon swept over me. I hit print, found an envelope and padded down the hall to 313. I slid the letter silently under the door and returned to my apartment in near panic. What kind of fool was I? Surely she would laugh! It was a long, long night.
I was making morning coffee when I heard a knock on my door. Norma stood there, love letter in hand. And she wasn’t laughing.