And She Wasn’t Laughing

It was a raw February morning. I was on my way to the Social Security office to tend to matters related to wife Elsie’s death. I hurried along, leaning into the wind. Suddenly I was falling, tripped up by an errant brick. I landed hard and lay stunned: nothing broken, but I could not get to my feet and there was not a soul in sight. Winter pedestrians use Duluth’s extensive skywalks.

As I scrunched toward the building hoping for a handhold, a man rounded the corner. He picked up my hat and glasses and helped me to my feet. “You look familiar,” he said. I gave him my name.  “Oh, you just lost your wife! So sorry.” Then he added, “I sure enjoy your books.” I had no idea who he was. I call him the Angel of Second Avenue West.  That was the first of a string of remarkable encounters that led me to Woodland Garden.  

Elsie died on February 13, 2009.  She fell in early 2003 injuring her spine. Severe arthritis prevented surgical repair. Her lower right leg hurt constantly, relieved only by  strong medications. I looked after her for five years at home, with creeping dementia adding its problems. She spent her last 16 months under hospice care in Chris Jensen Health Center.

Six months after Elsie’s injury, son Kevin and wife Tena came to help with Elsie’s care, living in the lower level of our home. I set about to make the house handicap friendly, taking a reverse mortgage to cover costs.  

Following Elsie’s death, son Joel and wife Sue kindly invited me to live out the winter with them in their park model in a Tucson, Arizona resort. I joined them the following winter, struggling with nagging discomfort. I delayed my return to Tucson to check out the discomfort and learned I had rectal cancer. Surgery in late November, 2011, left me with a colostomy.

The surgery went well and after four hospital days, I was moved to North Shore Rehab though I felt less than perky—no appetite. A nurse, insisting I eat to gain strength, spooned soup in my mouth and my belly exploded, spewing out black gunk. “Feces!” said the nurse and summoned an ambulance. The crew laid a warm blanket over me, hustled me to the unheated vehicle, and left me untended while they completed paperwork. The blanket soon lost its warmth and I grew colder and more miserable than I had ever been in my life. I lost it. . I cried out, “Lord, I quit!” From somewhere came “Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.” God doesn’t talk to me as some claim, but the impression was overwhelming. Soon the ambulance soon rattled over icy streets to the hospital where they ran a tube through my nose to my belly and hooked to a pump. Sleep came to a lullaby: “I’ll tell you when to quit.” That encounter would stand me in good stead in days to come.

I returned to Tucson in late October 2012 and began weighing my future. I decided to live alone for the first time in my life with hometown Duluth as my city of choice. A brief online search brought sticker shock. I could not afford the cheapest apartment! Remodeling our home ate my equity leaving me with Social Security and a modest preacher’s pension as my assets.

I despaired for my future until Joel told me about HUD Section 8, rent subsidy for low income people and I refocused my online search to HUD-assisted properties. I found an efficiency apartment at Lakeland Shores in my boyhood community. Though uncomfortably small, it would put most of my basic needs; important since I no longer drove. I phoned for an application. I labored over the pages of government gobbledygook that reached me arrived mailed to Lakeland Shores.

After a long wait, the reply came with another shock. My income was $196 a year over the HUD ceiling! Unless my income went down or my deductibles increased, I did not qualify. Knowing little about deductibles, I phoned Lakeland Shores and got the answer machine. I left an urgent message. Two weeks passed with no reply. I fired off an email followed by a special delivery letter. Days passed with no reply. June arrived and Joel was closing down their park model home for the season. I grumbled to God and all who would listen, including daughter Sally, my go-to person in Duluth.

One day, she shared my plight with a group of friends. One of them suggested Woodland Garden Apartments, a HUD facility my search had not uncovered. (I later learned they did not advertise; they were always full with a long waiting list.) Sally Visited Woodland Garden, explained my circumstances to manager Jill, who gave Jill, reminding her of my refection. She replied, “Leave that to me. Your next address will be Woodland Garden. But expect to wait six months to a year.”

Within days, Jill phoned with news that a resident had died and she wanted to fill the apartment in early July. Could I come? I emailed the news to Kevin. He and Tena decided to check out their old father’s future home but found the entrance secured. A woman resident chanced to be in the lobby. Learning their purpose, she offered to guide a tour. Finding my apartment locked, she showed them hers, which was configured the same.

Kevin reported their visit by email: “We met the nicest lady! She gave us the tour. Her name was Norma.” I moved into Woodland Garden apartment 301 on July 7.

I found the facility more like a co-ed college dorm than a seniors’ residence. There were 56and nine men. None of the men socialized much. Each evening clusters of women gathered to play cards or chat. I joined the second floor cluster and met Norma, the nice lady Keven mentioned. She was the volunteer librarian and being a book guy, we chatted often, discovering several coincidencesin our family histories.

Our ancestors lived in the same part of Finland and emigrated to America in the late 1800s, settling in adjoining townships in Northwest Wisconsin. Norma had met some of my kin when she was a child. We visited most evenings in the library and I grew increasingly fond of Norma, but romance never entered my mind–she was 17 years younger.

Our friendship continued about a year then hip replacement surgery took me away for a time. I entered what I call my lost week. The surgery went well and I again checked in at Lake Shore Health Center for rehab. Something went terribly haywire. Abdominal infection followed by disorientation set in. I have no memory of the ambulance ride to the hospital or of a week in bed tethered to machines and tubes. They were fighting pneumonia and a variety of troubles.

I remember in vivid detail the strange world I lived in. I later learned that each episode reflected my bed care. Once, desperately thirsty, I pled for a sip of water.  An austere refused stating I was on a liquid-controlled regimen. I spotted an old aluminum communion tray across a dark-paneled room. I worked my way to it, hoping a dreg remained. Another time, I coughed up fresh blood in a Kleenex. I asked a woman standing by, what does this mean?

I moved from scene to scene with no sense of passing time; then hospice, palliative care filtered up to me; and, Dad, you have to fight. I was dying! Exhilaration gripped me. At that point, I began a slow return to reality.

I lay propped up comfortably in a hospital bed. Behind my bed was a flower garden with a pond and rustic dock. Friends filed by, some crying. They retreated to the garden. Learning I wasn’t going to make in, Kevin spread the news among my friends.

But the story wasn’t over. Not satisfied with information he was getting, Kevin negotiated a second doctor who scanned my chart and affirmed the diagnosis. He halted all treatment, leaving me in bed untethered. Inexplicably, I immediately began to recover.

From my comfortable bed, I heard Kevin discussing insurance with a hospital official. My insurance covered hospice care but not rehab. The hospital did not offer rehab so I was given three days to relocate.

I handled daytime fairly well, but nights were misery. I watched every hour tick by. I begged for sleep help but nothing worked. On the third night, a new nurse came on duty. Assuming pain caused my sleeplessness, she squirted evil-tasting fluid in my mouth. Morphine, she said. Will I sleep? Oh, you will sleep!

But almost immediately I sank into unimaginable terror with a vortex trying to suck me down. Old men in dark suits heaped small pieces of furniture made of rough-cast cement on a pile and a taunting voice declared: There are theological issues here, and you are responsible, but you can do nothing about it. I shouted I don’t care the consequence; I will do what’s right!

In that instant the terror fled and 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 to Woodland Garden just in time to celebrate my 90th birthday.

But the morphine left its mark. Emotional responses deepened—I cried more easily.  I grew increasingly reflective; friends grew dearer, and I realized how much I had missed Noma. .

We resumed our evening chats and I took every opportunity to be with her.  One morning, we joined the daily wait for the mailman. Spirits ran unusually high with banter and laughter. The mailman finally arrived and the group moved toward the mailboxes on the wall. Norma collected her mail and, befitting the jovial mood, pecked me with a kiss then turned to the elevator.

Something overpowering walloped me, a longing to hold Norma and tell her I loved her. I elbowed to the mailbox, arthritic fingers struggling with the small key. I finally collected my mail and hurried to the elevator and hit floor three whit exits at library. Norma was gone and I didn’t dare knock on her door. Hoping she might 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 until supper time but no Norma. I returned to my apartment and dabbled at supper. As early winter darkness fell, I fired up the computer and began a love letter, fully intending to delete it.

Clichés worthy of a lovesick teen poured forth. 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 gripped me and I hit print. I padded down the hall to 313 and slid the 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, sleepless night.

I was making morning coffee when I heard a knock on my door.  There stood Norma, love letter in hand. And she wasn’t laughing.

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