EPILOGUE, by Lloyd Mattson
Epilogue picks up where All the Days of My Life leaves off. The memorial service was grand; hurting days had ended. After 66 years with Elsie, I was a widower with no idea where life would take me.
The Angel of Second Avenue West
It was a raw morning. I leaned into the wind, hurrying to the Social Security office to tend to business related to Elsie’s death. Suddenly I was falling, tripped up by an errant sidewalk brick. I rolled to protect my face and 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 from Michigan Street. He hurried toward me, gathering my hat and glasses. Determining I was OK, he helped me up. “You look familiar,” he said. I gave him my name. “Oh, you just lost your wife. I’m so sorry.” Then he added, “I sure enjoy your books.” He guided me to the door I was seeking and walked on. I have no idea who he was.
This was the first of a string or remarkable encounters over the next years that brought me to where I am in life today.
I’ll Tell You When to Quit
The next mysterious encounter came in October, 2010. I sat with son Kevin in a recovery room waiting on the results of my colonoscopy. The doctor’s demeanor spoke before he did: “I’m sorry, but you have rectal cancer.” I replied, “OK. First we run tests. If the cancer has spread, I’ll do nothing. My faith is intact.”
Ingrid Nisswandt, my primary care doctor, set up blood work, x-rays, scans—the works. No hint of cancer elsewhere. In early November, surgeon Melissa Najarian whacked a foot off my intestine and hung a bag on my belly. After four hospital days, they hauled me to rehab, though I felt lousy and had zero appetite.
The second evening, insisting I eat something to gain strength, the nurse spooned soup in my mouth. My belly exploded. Black gunk flew out. “Feces” said the nurse and summoned an ambulance. The night was bone cold. They laid a warm blanket over me and wheeled me to the unheated ambulance, leaving me untended while the crew completed paperwork.
The blanket soon lost its warmth. I grew colder and sicker than I had ever been. I cried in despair, I’ve had it, Lord, I quit! From somewhere came the reply: Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.
Peace flooded in. We rattled over frozen streets to St. Mary’s where a kind medic poked a tube down my nose into my belly. He hooked me to a pump and blessed sleep came, warmed by word from heaven: “I’ll tell you when to quit.”
Frustrated in Tucson
Shortly after Elsie’s death, son Joel and Sue invited me to their winter retreat in Tucson. I enjoyed the winter escape and returned the next fall. Then cancer surgery in November 2011 kept me home until March, 2012. I returned to Tucson and the Woodland Garden saga began.
I was living with son Kevin and Tena in the home Elsie and I bought in 1979. They came to help care for her a few weeks after the accident and bought the home after she died.
My recovery from colon cancer and general good health suggested I could hang around awhile and I decided to set a new course. I would live alone. .Duluth was my city of choice. I began an online search from Tucson. Sticker shock: I could not afford the cheapest respectable apartment!
Elsie’s care ate all assets except Social Security and a modest preacher’s pension. Joel suggested the HUD Section 8, the rent-assistance plan. I knew nothing about it and cobbled together an online list. Lakeland Shores in my old Duluth neighborhood caught my eye. I submitted the complex application, confident I had found a new home.
The response shattered my dream. My income was $196 a year above the ceiling! Unless my deductions increased, I did not qualify for rent assistance. I knew little about deductions and emailed Lakeland Shores for clarification. No response. Phone calls reached an answer machine. No call-back. And no response to emails or urgent letters.
Weeks passed; frustration mounted. I grumbled to God and all who would listen, including Duluth daughter Sally. Then, a ray of hope:
Daughter Sally was my Duluth contact throughout my frustrating apartment search. One day she casually mentioned my plight to a group of friends. Someone suggested I try Woodland Garden–a HUD facility that had not surfaced in my search. I later learned Woodland Garden does not advertise. It is always full, with a waiting list. Sally visited with manager Jill, telling her my story. Jill gave Sally an application which she sent to me. I found it was identical to Lakeland Shores’ form. Regrettably, I had not kept the paper work, which meant repeating a tedious process with uncertain results. I emailed Jill my story. She replied, “Leave it to me; your next address will be Woodland Garden. But expect to wait six months to a year. I filed the application and settled in to wait.
Within days, Jill emailed word that a resident had died. She hoped to fill the vacancy in early July. Could I come? Indeed I could! It was early June.
Learning the news, Kevin and Tena visited Woodland Garden to see where old Dad would be living. They found access restricted to persons with a key. A woman in the lobby spotted them and asked their purpose. She said random visits were not allowed but offed to guide a tour. Finding my apartment locked, she showed them hers, which was configured like mine. Kevin emailed their experience: “We met the nicest lady! Her name was Norma.”
I moved into Woodland Garden, Apartment 301 on July7, 2013 and set about meeting fellow residents–54 women and 9 men. The men did not socialize—three were married, one lived with his sister. The women clustered each evening to play cards or converse. The place felt like a coed college dorm.
I met Norma from 313 in the library, which was uncommonly well organized. The book selection interested me. I learned Norma was the volunteer librarian. We began regular evening chats in the library and discovered many common interests.
I became fond of Norma but romance never crossed my mind. I was 89; Norma was 17 years younger, two years older than daughter Sally. Then one evening Norma said, “I have prayed five years for someone to talk to, someone who shared my interests.”
Evening chats with Norma soon grew to two hours. The list of shared interest lengthened. Our ancestors hailed from the same part of Finland—hours apart on the western coast. When the clans emigrated to America in the late 1,800s they settled in adjoining townships in Northwest Wisconsin. Lutheran Norma occasionally attended childhood activities at Lakeside Baptist, a church my ancestors lunched.
Our chats continue most of a year, drawing notice from fellow residents. We loved to tease them. Then an interruption. My gimpy left hip finally grew intolerable and I signed in for replacement surgery.
The surgery went well and I moved to Lake Shore Health Care Center for rehab. The second day, everything went haywire. I have no memory of the ambulance ride back to St. Mary’s. Instead I was in a green and white van in Cleveland with son Keith was there. I entered my lost week.
For seven days I lived in a strange, changing world, totally unaware I was wired and plumbed in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia and dangerous intestinal infection. I later identified the changing scenes with functions in my care.
I talked with strangers. Once, gripped by desperate thirst, I spotted an old communion tray across a wood-paneled room. I groped my way to it, hoping to find dregs of wine. Occasionally I heard voices. Finally, hospice, palliative care. Dad, you have to fight. I as dying! No fear, rather, exhilaration.
There is much more, all vivid in memory. Reality returned gradually. I lay in a hospital bed propped up by pillows. Visitors filed by, some crying. Behind the bed was a garden with rustic dock and weathered boat house. Then voices again; this time very real, speaking to Kevin: You have three days to relocate. Your insurance covers hospice care but we do not offer rehab. I was going to make it! But just ahead lay the most terrifying experience of my life.
My lost week was not unpleasant, even the prospect of dying, but as delusion faded, I became aware how desperately weak I was. I had not left the bed for a solid week. Kevin had watched over me faithfully throughout the ordeal. When evidence mounted that the infection was winning and hospice care was initiated, he spread the word to friends and loved ones. But he grew increasingly unsatisfied with information the lead doctor was supplying.
He negotiated another doctor. He scanned my chart and affirmed the diagnosis—my system was failing. With nothing to lose, he unplugged me, stopping all treatment. A remarkable recovery began immediately. Do with that what you will.
Since St. Mary’s does not offer rehab, recovery would end insurance coverage. Weak as I was, I was given three days to relocate. By then I was fully aware and med-free. I managed days but nights were torture. I watched every hour tick off; no sleep-aid worked.
On the third day a new nurse came on duty. Apparently thinking pain caused my sleeplessness; she came with a big syringe and squirted evil-tasting fluid in my mouth. What is it? I asked. Morphine. Will I sleep? Oh, you will sleep! But instead of sleep, unimaginable terror gripped me; a vortex was sucking me down, down. Old men in dark suits piled rough- cast cement furniture on a pile. A taunting voice called, “There are theological issues here and you are responsible; but you can do nothing about it.” I recall shouting, “I don’t care the consequence; I will do what’s right!” In that instant, delusion dissolved. I lay in a hospital bed, my mind clear. I knew the day and hour.
On Fourth of July weekend, a van hauled me to Chris Jensen facing six tough weeks of rehab. Woodland Garden friends welcomed me home just in time for my 90th birthday party.
The Mailbox Caper
The morphine left its mark. Emotional responses grew less stable; I grew increasingly reflective. I understood aging—our parts wear out. But I had given little thought to relationships. Friends were friends. Falling in love was for kids. How wrong I was!
I had been away from home nearly two months. Norma and I resumed evening chats in the library. I realized how much I had missed her. I created opportunities to be with her. One morning we joined the mail-wait group in the lobby. Spirits were running high. The mail finally came and residents clustered around the bank of boxes on the east well. Norma was just ahead of me. She collected her mail, and befitting the morning’s mood, she planted a kiss then sought the elevator. Something walloped me. I elbowed to the mailboxes, arthritic fingers struggling with the small key. The lock finally yielded and I pushed my way to the elevator gripped by a compelling desire to hold Norma and tell her I loved her. After an interminable wait, the elevator returned and I punched floor three.
The elevator opens onto the library. I looked around. No Norma. I didn’t dare knock on her door. I grabbed a book and sat two hours pretending to read, hoping Norma would appear to check returned books. I returned to my apartment but lunch held no interest. I went back to the library and puttered. Time dragged. I headed home. Supper was out of the question. To vent my feelings, I fired up the computer and began a mushy love letter, intending to delete it. “Dearest Norma, please don’t laugh, but I’ve fallen in love with you… ” Clichés poured out.
The hour grew late. Writing brought some relief. I reread my work one last time and reached for delete. But with foolhardy abandon I hit print padded down to 313, sliding my letter under Norma’s door. I returned to my apartment in near panic. What kind of fool was I? Surely she would laugh! It was a long night.
Life stirred in Woodland Garden. 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.