The Angel of First Avenue West

On a raw, windy morning the week after Elsie’s homegoing, I was hurrying to the Social Security office to tend to required business. Traffic on Superior Street was light. I leaned into the wind. 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 there was not soul in sight. As I scrunched toward the building, hoping for a handhold, a man rounded First Avenue West 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.” The man guided me to the door I was seeking and walked on. I had no idea who he was.

That was the first of a string or remarkable encounters scattered through the next seven years. Writing Epilogue is therapy for me at 94 as I try to figure out what’s going on.

I’ll Tell You When to Quit

In late October, 2010, son Kevin, with whom I was living, sat with me at Lakewalk Surgery Center awaiting results of a colonoscopy. When the doctor arrived, his demeanor spoke before he did: “I’m sorry to tell you; you have rectal cancer.” I paused. “OK. We’ll run the tests. If the cancer has spread, I’ll do nothing.  My faith is intact.”

I turned to my primary care physician, Dr. Ingrid Nisswandt. She set up blood work, x-rays, scans, the works. They found no hint of cancer elsewhere. In late November, I checked into St. Mary’s, where Dr. Melissa Najarian whacked a foot or so off my intestine and hung a bag on my belly.

They moved me from the hospital to rehab feeling less that perky; zero appetite. A nurse insisted I eat to gain strength and spooned something into my mouth. My belly exploded, spewing black gunk all over. “Feces,” said the nurse and summoned an ambulance.

The crew laid a warm blanket over me and wheeled me to the unheated vehicle, then left to complete paperwork. It was bitter cold out and the blanket soon lost its warmth. I shivered, colder than I had ever been in my life, all the while, fighting vomiting. Misery piled up and I cried to the Lord, “I’ve had it; I quit!”

I never hear heavenly voices, but the message came loud and clear: “Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.” Peace flooded my heart as the ambulance rattled to St. Mary’s. Masked people poked a tube down my nose into my belly and hooked me to a pump. I fell asleep, warmed by word from heaven: “I’ll tell you when to quit.”

Frustrated in Tucson

After Elsie died, son Joel and his wife Sue invited me to their winter retreat in Tucson, Arizona to escape what was left of Minnesota winter. I enjoyed Tucson and returned in autumn, 2010.

Cancer surgery delayed my return until March, 2012. That’s when the miracle of Woodland Garden began.

I was living with son Kevin and his wife Tena. They had come to help me care for Elsie after her accident. Following her death, they bought our home and made space for old Dad. I felt it was time to ease that load and my apartment search began with Duluth as my site of choice.

I knew finances would be nip and tuck. Remolding our home for Elsie’s care ate all my assets, but Social Security and preacher’s pension provided reliable income. Then dismay: My computer search revealed I could not afford even the cheapest apartment. Joel suggested I look into the HUD, Section 8, Federal rent-assistance program and I went back online. I phoned Duluth senior services.

One apartment rose to the top: Lakeland Shores in my old Lakeside community. It was walking distance from most everything I would need—important because I had quit driving. I phoned Lakeland Shores for an application.

After a considerable wait, a long, complex form arrived. I labored over it and fired it back, confident I had found my new home. The manager’s reply shattered my dream. My application was ejected. My income was $196 a year above the HUD ceiling. Unless my income came down or deductions increase, I did not qualify for rent assistance.

Deductions? I knew little about deductions. I emailed for clarification. No response. I phoned and got an answer machine, no return call. The manager ignored my urgent letter. Frustration mounted; I grew ornery. I grumbled to God and all who would listen.

Enter Duluth daughter Sally: I had kept her posted on my apartment search. One day in casual conversation with friends she mentioned my plight. One friend suggested I try Woodland Garden.

I had not heard of Woodland Garden. The facility had not surfaced online nor had senior services mentioned it.  I leaned later Woodland Garden did not advertise—it was always full, with a waiting list. Sally visited the facility and talked with manager Jill, who gave Sally an application form. I found it identical to the Lakeland Shores form.

I emailed Jill, telling her my rejection story. I asked what might be different at Woodland Garden. She replied, “Leave that to me; your next address will be Woodland Garden, but expect six months to a year wait.

Waiting was no problem. Joel and Sue had invited me to live with them as long as I wished. Then, within days, Jill emailed me with word that a Woodland Garden resident had died. Jill hoped to fill the vacancy by early July. Could I come?

Hearing the news, Kevin and Tena headed for Woodland Garden to look around. They found the building secured, accessible only by key. They told me a woman in the lobby spotted them, asked their purpose, and walked them through the facility. Finding my apartment (301) locked, she showed them hers (313), which was configured like mine. Kevin said, “She is the nicest lady! Her name is Norma.”

My Woodland Garden Home

On July 7, 2013, I moved into Woodland Garden. My living room became a museum—every item on the wall a memory. I met fellow residents–54 women and 9 men. Each evening clusters of women gathered for card games or conversation. The place felt more like a college dorm than a seniors’ residence.

Of course I hunted out Norma, the girl from 313. I learned she was just two year older than daughter Sally. We found many common interests and began evening chats in the library, stirring suspicions we had fun cultivating. I grew fond on Noma, but the 19-year age difference quelled any thought of romance.

One evening in our conversation, Norma said, “I have prayed for five years for someone to talk to, someone who shared my interests.”  That explained my frustration in Tucson.

The list of shared interest grew. Norma tended the library; I was a book guy. Our ancestors hailed from the same part of Finland. When they moved to America in the late 1,800s, they settled in adjoining townships in Northwest Wisconsin. Norma was Lutheran, I was Baptist, but we knew the same God.

The Lost Week

Then, an interruption: My gimpy left hip grew increasingly intolerable and I signed in at St. Mary’s for surgery. The replacement went well, and four hospital days, I was hauled to Lake Shore rehab, and again everything went haywire. This time, I have no memory of the ambulance ride to St. Mary’s. I entered a strange world, totally unaware I was wired and plumbed in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia and intestinal infection.

Scenes kept changing. I later identified delusion with what was going on in my care.  I had conversations, felt desperate thirst. I heard voices. One voice said hospice, palliative care; another, and Dad, you have to fight. I concluded I was dying! There was no fear.

A slow transition to reality began.  I lay in a hospital bed, comfortable, propped up by pillows. There was a garden with rustic dock and boathouse behind my bed. Friends filed by, some crying.

I heard a hospital official talking with Kevin: “You have three days to move. Your insurance will cover hospice but not rehab.” Apparently, I was going to live!

But just ahead, the most terrifying encounter of my life.

Morphine Delusion

Kevin had watched over me faithfully throughout the lost week. When the doctor initiated hospice care, Kevin grew dissatisfied with information he was getting. He negotiated a new doctor who scanned my chart and affirmed the diagnosis. My system was breaking down. With nothing to lose, he withdrew all treatment, and a remarkable recovery began.

The search for a rehab site led Chris Jensen Health Center which offered a bed in three days—meeting the deadline. I faced three more miserable nights in the hospital. Sleep refused to come and no sleep aid worked. On night three, I was assigned a new nurse was assigned. Apparently thinking pain caused my sleeplessness; she came with a syringe and squirted strange-tasting fluid in my mouth.

“What is it?” I Asked. “Morphine.” “Will I sleep?” “Oh, you will sleep!”

But I didn’t sleep. The morphine plunged me into unimaginable terror, a vortex sucking me down, down. Old men in dark suits piled furniture made of rough-cast concrete on a pile. A taunting voice said, “There is a theological issue 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, all delusion cleared and I was in bed, my mind clear.

On Fourth of July weekend I moved to Chris Jensen facing six tough weeks of rehab. I made it home just back to Woodland Garden in time for my 90th birthday.

The Mailbox Caper

The lost week and morphine delusion left a permanent mark. Emotional responses grew less stable. Facing death and abject terror will do that. I became increasingly reflective. I understood the physiology of aging—our parts wear out; but had given little thought to the philosophy of aging—purpose, life interests, relationships. We form assumptions: falling in love belonged to younger people.

I had been away nearly two months and residents welcomed my return warmly. As Norma and I resumed evening chats, I realized how much I had missed her.

One morning, we joined residents in the lobby for the daily mail wait. Spirits were unusually high. The mailman finally arrived and residents moved toward the mailboxes arrayed on the wall opposite the elevator, Norma just ahead of me. She reached her box, retrieved a fistful of envelopes, then, fitting the group’s jovial mood, she kissed me and turned to the elevator.

Something I have never encountered walloped me. I elbowed to the mailboxes, my arthritic fingers struggling with the small key. The lock finally yielded, and turned toward the elevator, gripped by a compelling desire to hold Norma and tell her I loved her. After an interminable wait, the elevator arrived. I punched third floor.

The elevator opens to the library. I looked around, but Norma was gone. I dared knock on her door. Grabbing a book, I sat for two hours pretending to read, hoping librarian Norma would appear. The emotional surge persisted.

I returned to my apartment. Lunch held no interest, nor did routine afternoon chores. I returned to the library and puttered with books and magazines. Time dragged and evening came. I returned to my apartment. Sleep was out of the question.

To vent my feelings, I fired up the computer, opened a new document and began a mushy love letter, fully intending to delete it. “Dearest Norma, please doesn’t laugh, but I’ve fallen in love with you… ”

Romantic clichés spilled out. I wrote and rewrote, finding some relief. I read the screen one last time, highlighted it, I reached for delete. Then, gripped by foolhardy abandon, I hit print, hunted out an envelope, and padded down the hall to 313. I sled the letter under Norma’s door.

Back in my apartment, near panic. What kind of fool was I? Compared with me, Norma was a young woman. Certainly she would laugh. It was a long night.

Daylight came and life stirred at Woodland Garden. I was making coffee when I heard a knock on my door.  Norma stood there, love letter in hand. She wasn’t laughing.

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