Epilogue: The Years since Elsie
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. Reliving them is soul therapy as I approach 95.
I’ll Tell You When to Quit
The next encounter came in late October, 2010. I sat with son Kevin awaiting the findings of a colonoscopy. The doctor’s demeanor spoke before he did: “I’m sorry to tell you, but you have rectal cancer that needs immediate attention.” I paused. “OK. But first we run the tests. If the cancer has spread, I’ll do nothing. My faith is intact.”
My primary care physician Ingrid Nisswandt set up blood work, x-rays, scans—the works—finding no hint of cancer elsewhere. In early November surgeon Melissa Najarian whacked a foot off my intestine and hung a bag on my belly. A few days later I moved me to Rehab though I felt less lousy and had zero appetite. The first evening, insisting I eat to gain strength, spooned something in my mouth and my belly exploded, spewing black gunk all over. “Feces” said the nurse and summoned an ambulance.
It was bone cold out. Laying a warm blanket over me, the crew wheeled me to the unheated vehicle and left me untended to complete paperwork. The blanket soon lost its warmth and I grew cold and sicker than I had ever been, fighting vomiting. In despair I cried, “Lord, I’ve had it; I quit!” From the deep recesses of my brain I heard, “Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.”
Peace flooded in as the ambulance rattled over iced streets to St. Mary’s where masked strangers poked a tube up my nose into my belly and hooked me to a pump. 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 his wife Sue invited me spent the rest of the winter with them in Tucson. I enjoyed Tucson and returned the next fall. Cancer surgery in early 2011 delayed my return until March, 2012 and that’s when the Woodland Garden saga began.
I was living with son Kevin and his wife Tena in Duluth. They had left their jobs to help care for Elsie a few months after her accident. After she died, they bought our home and made space for old Dad. In March, 2012, I felt it was time to live alone for the first time in Duluth, my city of choice.
I began an online search for an apartment from Tucson. Shock! Caring six years for Elsie had eaten all my assets leaving me with only Social Security and a modest preacher’s pension. I could not afford even the cheapest apartment. Joel suggested I look for a HUD Section 8 rent-assistance place. I knew nothing about HUD. Duluth senior services sent a list and I settled on a studio apartment at Lakeland Shores. I phone for an application.
After a wait, the long, complex form arrived. I worked hard and I fired it back, confident I had found my new home. After another long wait, my dream was shattered. The manager’s letter said my income was $196 a year above the HUD ceiling. Unless deductions increased, I did not qualify for rent assistance. I knew little about deductions and emailed for clarification. No response. I phoned and got the answer machine but no return call. An urgent letter drew no answer.
Weeks passed. It was getting hot in Tucson. My frustration mounted and I grumbled to God and all who would listen, including Duluth daughter Sally. One day in conversation with friends Sally mentioned my plight. Someone suggested I try Woodland Garden, a facility that had not surfaced in my search. (I leaned later Woodland Garden is always full with a waiting list.)
Sally visited the facility and told my story to manager Jill, who her an application form, which she mailed to me. I found it was the same as Lakeland Shores’ form. I emailed Jill with my Lakeland Shores 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 with Joel and Sue to wait. Within days, Jill emailed again. A Woodland Garden resident had died and she hoped to fill the vacancy by early July. Could I come? Indeed I could! It was early June.
Learning the news, Kevin and Tena visited Woodland Garden to look around. A woman in the lobby asked their purpose. She gave them a tour and since my apartment was locked, she showed them hers, which was configured like mine.
Kevin emailed their experience: “We met the nicest lady! Her name was Norma.”
My Woodland Garden Home
I moved into Apartment 301 on July7, 2013. I met fellow residents–54 women and 9 men. Each evening clusters of women gathered for card games or conversation—the men did not socialize. The place felt like a college dorm!
When I met Norma from 313, we found many common interests and began evening chats in the library. Romance never entered my mind. I was nearing 90; she was two years older than daughter Sally. Then one evening Norma told me, “I prayed five years for someone to talk to, someone who shared my interests.”
Norma tended the library; I was a book guy. Our ancestors hailed from the same part of Finland. When they emigrated to America in the late 1,800s, they settled in adjoining townships in Northwest Wisconsin. Our evening chats continued for most of a year when an extended interruption occurred.
My Lost Week
I had endured a gimpy left hip for months and the pain final grew intolerable. I signed in for hip replacement and the surgery went flawless. After four days in St. Mary’s, they shipped me to Lake Shore Rehab, where something went wrong. I do not remember the ambulance ride to back to St. Mary’s. I entered a strange world with changing scenes, totally unaware I was wired and plumbed in a hospital bed fighting pneumonia and intestinal infection.
I met strangers, had conversations, and once felt desperate thirst. The scenes remain real. Occasional voices drifted to me. “Dad, you have to fight.” I head hospice, palliative care. I was dying! No fear, rather, a sense of exhilaration. Then a gradual transition to reality
I lay in a hospital bed propped up by pillows. Behind me was a garden and rustic dock and boathouse. Friends filed by, some crying. Then urgent voices: “You have three days. Your insurance will cover hospice but not rehab.” I was going to live!
But just ahead lay the most terrifying encounter of my life.
The Morphine Delusion
Kevin had watched over me throughout my lost week. Dissatisfied with information he was getting, he negotiated a different doctor, who affirmed the death diagnosis—my systems were breaking down. With nothing to lose, he withdrew all treatment, precipitating a remarkable recovery which led to the insurance conversation. A bed would become available at Chris Jenson Health Center in three days leaving three more nights in the hospital.
I hated nights. I could not sleep. No sleep aid worked. I begged for help. On night three, new nurse, apparently thinking pain caused my sleeplessness came with a syringe and squirted evil-tasting fluid in my mouth. “Swallow,” she said. “What is it?” I asked. “Morphine.” “Will I sleep?” “Oh, you will sleep!”
But I didn’t sleep. Instead, I plunged into a world of unimaginable terror. A vortex was sucking me down. A strange scene developed. Old men in dark suits with vests were piling rough-cast concrete furniture on a pile. A voice taunted me: “There are theological issues here and you are responsible, but you can do nothing about it.” I recall shouting, “I don’t care the consequences! I will do what’s right!” In that instant the delusion cleared. I was in a hospital bed, comfortable, for the first time fully aware.
On the Saturday before July 4th, I was moved to Chris Jensen facing six tough weeks of rehab. I returned to Woodland Garden just in time for my 90th birthday.
The Mailbox Caper
The lost week and morphine encounter left a permanent mark. Emotional responses deepened significantly. I had been away nearly two months and realized how much I had missed Norma. I created occasions to spent time with her including the daily mail wait in the lobby. We called is the comedy hour.
Spirits ran high one morning; the mail was late. When the mailman finally arrived, Norma and I joined the jovial cluster around the mailboxes. Norma collected her mail first, and in keeping with the fun mood, she kissed me and sought the elevator. A visceral something walloped me. I elbowed to my mailbox, arthritic fingers fumbling with the small key. Junk mail. I hurried to 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 floor three. The door opened to the library but Norma was gone.
I didn’t dare knock on Norma’s door. I grabbed a magazine and pretended to read, hoping she might come to sort books. The emotional surge kept me there two hours. I returned to my apartment but lunch held no interest nor did computer chores. I returned to the library and puttered with books all afternoon.
At suppertime I gave up. Eating was out of the question. To vent my feelings I fired up the computer and began a love letter, fully intending to delete it. I wrote and rewrote, clichés spilling out. “Dearest Norma, please don’t laugh, but I’ve fallen in love with you… ”
Writing brought some relief. I read the letter one last time and reached for delete. But overpowered by foolhardy abandon, I hit print, hunted out an envelope and padded down the hall. I slid the letter under Noma’s door.
I returned to my apartment in near panic. What kind of fool was I? Norma would surely laugh. It was a long night.
Morning final came and I was making coffee when I heard the knock. I opened the door. Norma stood there, love letter in hand. She wasn’t laughing.