This folder tells about my life after Elsie. We had 66 years together, and I had never given thought to life after she was gone. But life has a way of shaping itself.
Shaping began on a raw February morning the Tuesday after Elsie’s memorial service. I was on my way to the Social Security office to tend to required business. I leaned into the wind as I hurried along Superior Street to the bank where the SS office was located. Suddenly I was falling, tripped by an errant sidewalk brick. I fell hard and lay stunned. Nothing was broken, but I could not get to my feet. There was not a soul was in sight. Winter pedestrians use sheltered skyways.
I scrunched toward the building, hoping for a handhold. Just then a man rounded the corner from Michigan Street. He hurried to me. Finding I was not injured, he helped me to my feet. “You look familiar,” he said. I gave him my name. “Oh, you just lost your wife. I’m so sorry.” He Then he added, “I sure enjoy your books.” He moved on. I have no idea who he was. I call him the Angel of Second Avenue West.
That was the first of a string of remarkable experiences that led me to Woodland Garden and the girl from 313.
Elsie’s slow dying began on the last weekend of 2001. She fell, injuring her spine. Arthritis prevented surgical repair, leaving her with crippling leg pain. For five years she lived at home as creeping dementia added its problems.
Son Kevin and wife Tena came to help in mid-spring. They lived on the lower level, and I remodeled the upstairs family room for Elsie and me. I set about making our home handicap friendly. Finally home care became too difficult and we moved Elsie to Chris Jensen Health under hospice care. She lived 16 months and died February 13, 2009. Son Joel and his wife Sue invited me to their Tucson retreat for the rest of winter. I returned the following winter.
In late 2911, surgery for colon left me with a colostomy but the cancer was gone. After three hospital days they moved me feeling less than perky with an aversion to food. A caregiver, insisting I eat to gain strength, spooned warm soup in my mouth. My belly exploded, spewing black gunk. “Feces!” said the caregiver and summoned an ambulance.
The crew laid a warm blanket over me and left me in the unheated ambulance while they completed paperwork. The blanket soon lost its warmth and I grew colder and sicker than I had ever been in my life. I cried out, “Lord, I quit!”
Now God doesn’t talk to me, but the response came loud and clear: “Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.” Soon we rattled over frozen streets to the hospital where the staff poked a tube through my nose and hooked me to a belly pump. Sleep came to a lullaby: “I’ll tell you when to quit.” Problem solved. In October 2012 I returned to be with Joel and Sue in Tucson weighing the future, considering living alone for the first time in my life with Duluth as my city of choice. An online search brought sticker shock. I had zero savings and Social Security and preacher’s pension. I found I could not afford the cheapest apartment.
Joel introduced me to HUD Section 8, for low income persons. I refocused my phone and online search and found an efficiency apartment in Lakeland Shores close to my boyhood neighborhood. I phoned for an application. It came—pages of government gobbledygook. I filed it promptly and waited.
The reply brought another shock: My application was rejected. My income after deductibles was $196 a year over the HUD ceiling! Knowing little about deductibles, I phoned for clarification. I got an answer machine and left a message. After two weeks with no reply, I emailed and sent an urgent letter. More time passed. June was approaching; Joel and Sue were closing down. No response. I grumbled to God and all who would listen, including Duluth daughter Sally.
Sally was my go-to person in Duluth. One day she shared my apartment plight with a group of friends. Someone suggested I try Woodland Garden Apartments, a facility my search had not discovered. (I learned later Woodland Garden did not advertise; it was always full with a waiting list.) Sally checked it out, explained my need to Manager Jill, and secured an application. When it reached me, I found it identical with the one Lakeland Shores provided. I phoned Jill, reminding her of my problem. She replied, “Leave it to me. Your next address will be Woodland Garden. But expect to wait six months to a year.” I fired off the application. Within days, Jill phoned: “We had an unexpected death. I‘d liked to fill the apartment in early July. Could you make it?” I assured her I could.
I emailed the good news to Kevin and he and Tena drove to Woodland Garden to check out their old father’s future home. They found the entrance secured, but a resident chanced to be in the lobby, asked their purpose, and offered a guided tour. Finding my apartment locked, she showed them hers, which was configured like mine. Kevin’s reported their visit and said: “The nicest showed us about. Her name was Norma.” I moved into 301 on July 7 and the Woodland Garden saga began.
Woodland Garden seemed more like a college dorm than a seniors’ residence for 56 women and nine men, none of whom socialized much. Each evening women clustered in small groups to play cards or chat. I met Norma from 313. She was the volunteer librarian. As we chatted, we discovered we had several surprising coincidences in family histories, which led to nightly long conversations in the library. Our ancestors hailed from the same part of Finland. When families emigrated to America, they settled in adjoining Northwest Wisconsin townships. 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.
Our friendship continued about a year when my left hip called for replacement. I checked in at St. Mary’s in early June. The surgery went well and I returned to Lake Shore Health Center for rehab. There, something went haywire; internal infection and disorientation. I have no memory of the ambulance ride to the hospital, or of the week in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia and intestinal infection, tethered to machines and tubes. My lost week began.
I remember vividly the strange world I occupied. I would later discover that events in that world reflected my bed care. Desperately thirsty, I pled for a sip of water. I spotted an old communion service across a dark-paneled room. Hoping for a dreg of wine, I worked my way to it. Another time, I coughed up blood. I moved from scene to scene with no sense of passing time.
Then words drifted up to me: hospice, palliative care; and, Dad, you have to fight. I concluded I was dying! There was no fear; rather, exhilaration. Transition to reality began. I found myself in a hospital bed propped up by pillows. A garden with rustic dock lay just off the head of my bed. Word of my dying had got out and friends came to say goodbye. They filed by, some crying, and retreated to the garden. But the story wasn’t over. Not content with information he was getting, Kevin negotiated another doctor. He scanned my chart, affirmed the diagnosis, and abruptly halted all treatment. Inexplicably, I began to recover!
I heard Kevin and an official discussing insurance. It covered hospice but not rehab. Since I was no longer dying, I had three days to relocate. But just ahead lay the most terrifying experience of my life.
Three days! Daytime 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 night three, a new nurse came on duty. Apparently thinking my sleeplessness was caused pain, squirted evil-tasting fluid in my mouth. Morphine, she said. Will I sleep? Oh, you will sleep! But instead of sleep, I sank into unimaginable terror–a vortex sucking me down, down. Old men in dark suits were heaping furniture made of rough-cast cement on a pile. A voice taunted me: there are theological issues here and you are responsible, but you can do nothing about it. I remember shouting, I don’t care the consequence; I will do what’s right!
In that instant, all 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 welcomed me.
But the morphine encounter left a permanent its mark: Emotional responses deepened; I grew increasingly reflective and friends grew increasingly dear. I realized how much I had missed Noma. But falling in love? That was for kids.
We resumed evening chats and I sought opportunities to be with her. One morning we joined the daily mail-wait. Spirits ran unusually high with banter and laughter. Finally the mailman arrived and residents moved toward the mailboxes on the wall, Norma just ahead of me. She collected her mail and befitting the jovial mood, kissed me. Then she sought the elevator. Something overpowering walloped me. I elbowed to my mailbox, my arthritic fingers struggling with the small key. I finally collected my mail and hurried to the elevator, gripped by a driving desire to hold Norma and tell her I loved her.
The elevator finally reached floor three and the library. Norma was gone. I didn’t dare knock on her door. Hoping she would appear to check returned books, I grabbed a chair and pretended to read. Around one o’clock, I sought my apartment, but lunch held no interest.
I returned to the library and puttered until supper time. Still no Norma. I gave up as early winter darkness fell and I fired up the computer. I began a mushy love letter, fully intending to delete it. Clichés worthy of a lovesick teen tumbled out. I wrote and rewrote, always with the same lead: Dearest Norma, please don’t laugh, but I’ve fallen in love with you.
Writing brought some relief. I read the screen one last time and reached for delete, but foolhardy abandon took over. I hit print, found an envelope, and padded down the hall to 313. I slid the letter under Norma’s the door.
I returned to my apartment in near panic. What kind of fool was I? Surely she would laugh. It was a long, sleepless 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.