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 leaned into the wind as I hurried along. Suddenly I was falling, tripped up by an errant brick. I landed hard and lay stunned: nothing was broken but I could not get to my feet, and there was not a soul in sight–winter pedestrians use Duluth’s extensive skyways.
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 have no idea who he was. I call him the Angel of Second Avenue West.
This was the first of a string of remarkable experiences that led me to Woodland Garden and the epilogue of my life.
Elsie died on February 13, 2009 after suffering six years of constant leg pain caused by a fall. . Arthritis prevented surgical repair of her damaged spine. We kept her home five years with creeping dementia adding its problems. I shared the converted family room as our bedroom. She lived her last 16 months under hospice at Chris Jensen Health Care Center. I was with her from mid-morning to bedtime each day.
Six months after Elsie’s injury son Kevin and wife Tena came to help with Elsie’s care. They lived in the lower level of our home and I set about to make the house handicap friendly.
Following Elsie’s mid-February death, son Joel and wife Sue invited me to Tucson to live out the winter in their park model in a large resort. I returned the following winter. Then in late 2011, I had rectal cancer surgery that left me with a colostomy. After four hospital days, I was moved to North Shore Rehab though I felt less than perky. No appetite. A zealous nurse, insisting I eat to gain strength, spooned warm soup in 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 placed me in the cold ambulance while they completed paperwork. The blanket soon lost its warmth. I grew colder and more miserable than I had ever been in my life and lost. I cried out, “Lord, I quit!” From somewhere came “Quit what? You never started anything. I’ll tell you when to quit.” The ambulance soon rattled over icy streets to the hospital where they poked a tube down my nose into my belly and hooked to a pump. I slept to a sweet lullaby: “I’ll tell you when to quit.”
In late October 2012, I returned to Tucson and began weighing my future. I had never lived alone and decided to give it a try with Duluth as my city of choice. An online search brought sticker shock. I could not afford the cheapest apartment! I had no assets beyond Social Security and a modest preacher’s pension. A reverse mortgage to pay for remodeling ate my home equity.
Joel told me about HUD Section 8, rent subsidy for low income people. I refocused my online search and found an efficiency apartment at Lakeland Shores in my old boyhood community. It would put most of my basic needs within walking distance. I no longer drove. I immediately phoned for an application and filed it, many pages of government gobbledygook.
The reply brought another shock: I was rejected! My income after deductibles was $196 a year over the HUD ceiling! Knowing little about deductibles, I phoned Lakeland Shores and left a message on the answer machine. Two weeks passed. No reply. I fired off an email and special delivery letter. Weeks passed. No reply. June arrived and Joel was closing down for the season. I grumbled to God and all who would listen, including my daughter Sally, my go-to person in Duluth. 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 checked it out and talked with Manager Jill, who gave her an application. When it reached me, I found it to be identical to the Lakeland Shores ap. I phoned Jill, reminding her of my rejection. She replied, “Leave it to me. Your next address will be Woodland Garden. But expect to wait six months to a year.”
Within days, Jill phoned. A resident had died and she wanted to fill the apartment in early July. Could I come?
I emailed the news to Kevin and he and Tena decided to check out their old father’s future home. They found the entrance locked but a resident chanced to be in the lobby. She determined their interest and to guide a tour. Finding my apartment locked, she showed them hers, which was configured like mine. Kevin emailed, “We met the nicest lady! She gave us the tour. Her name was Norma.” I moved into apartment 301 on July 7 and saga began.
Woodland Garden seemed more like a college dorm than a seniors’ residence. There were 56 women and nine men. None of the men socialized much, but each evening several clusters of women gathered to play cards or chat. I sat in on the second floor cluster and got acquainted with Norma from 313. I learned she was the volunteer librarian and being a book guy, we visited often.
While visiting, we discovered several coincidences in our family histories. Our ancestors lived in the same part of Finland and when they emigrated to America in the late 1800s, they settled in adjoining townships in Northwest Wisconsin. Norma met some of my kin when she was a child. 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. . The surgery went well and I again sent to Lake Shore Health Center for rehab. There, something went terribly haywire. Internal infection and disorientation set in. I have no memory of the ambulance to the hospital or of a solid week in bed tethered to machines and tubes. They were fighting pneumonia and a variety of troubles.
I vividly remember the strange world I lived in. I later learned that each episode of the week reflected my bed care. Once, desperately thirsty, I begged for a sip of water. An austere woman told me I was on a liquid-controlled regimen. I spotted an old aluminum communion tray across a dark-paneled room. I felt my way to it, hoping a dreg remained. Another time, I coughed up 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 I heard hospice, palliative care; and Dad, you have to fight. Whoa! I was dying! Exhilaration gripped me. At that point I began a slow return to reality.
I lay propped up in a hospital bed with a garden, rustic dock and flower garden just off the head of my bed. Friends filed by, some crying. They retreated to the imaginary garden. But the story wasn’t over. Not content with information Kevin was getting, he negotiated a second doctor. He scanned my chart and affirmed the death diagnosis. With nothing to lose, he halted all treatment. Inexplicably, I immediately began to recover.
Then I heard Kevin discussing insurance with a hospital official. Mine would cover hospital care but not rehab. Since I was no longer dying, I had three days to relocate. Three days!
I handled daytime I managed fairly well, but nights were agony. I watched every hour tick by. I begged for sleep help but nothing worked. On night three, a new nurse came on. Assuming pain caused my sleeplessness, she 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 was trying to suck me 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, terror fled. I lay in my bed fully alert, 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 experience left its mark. My emotional responses deepened. I cried more easily. I grew increasingly reflective and friends grew increasingly dear. And I realized how much I had missed Norma. But falling in love? That was for kids.
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. Finally the mailman 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 sought the elevator.
Something overpowering walloped me. I longed to hold Norma and tell her I loved her. I elbowed my way to the mailbox, my fingers struggling with the small key. I finally collected my mail and hurried to the elevator. It finally came and I punched floor three. It opened onto the library. Of course Norma was gone. I didn’t dare knock on her door. Hoping Norma 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 puttered in 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. Cliches worthy of a lovesick teen poured 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 my work one last time and reached for delete. But with foolhardy abandon, I hit print. I found an envelope and padded down the hall to 313. I 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. Norma stood there, love letter in hand. And she wasn’t laughing.