All the stars were aligned. It was our turn to have our kids for Thanksgiving. Our daughter-in-law got the Friday after Thanksgiving off work, never a given for a doctor. The weather cooperated, no slick roads. Everything pointed to a family holiday. And then it didn’t.
As the COVID numbers raged higher and higher, we set our sights lower and lower. A big family gathering was no longer advised. The governor clamped down on the state, and we downsized to communing with just one family. And in the end, in the interest of protecting Rich’s post-operative health, we scaled back to the recommended single household. Ours.
It’s not the first time we haven’t gathered with our kids and their families. We’ve had off years, when all of them were dining with the in-laws. It happens, it’s only fair. But we always filled the void by getting together with friends – other childless parents. We had a fine time sharing the task of preparing all the traditional dishes and feasting shamelessly. I admit, Thanksgiving to me involves a crowded table – both the overabundance of food choices and the number of occupants surrounding it. They don’t have to be related to me.
We couldn’t share a table with others this year, but it didn’t mean we had to tough it out on our own. We still had the outdoors at our disposal, and made the most of it. Living across from the Lester-Amity trails, we invited friends to join us for a hike in the woods. The snow-covered trails lent a wintry feel, and we meandered happily among the pines as our boots crunched over the path. Respecting distances but in friendly proximity, my spirits lifted with the camaraderie.
Minnesotans that we are, we capped the afternoon with a visit out on the deck. Adirondack chairs fully separated, blankets at the ready and a touch of wine to celebrate.
A hastily arranged family Zoom call brought us all together virtually. Just seeing all their smiling faces brightened my day, and the inevitable chaos of trying to talk to 14 people at once regenerated that spirit of a family gathering. All three of our offspring were cocooned at home with just their spouses and children. We were hardly in this alone.
Everyone was making the most of a strange year. Karen and Matt were making home-made pizzas with their four children. Carl and Chelsea were serving up roast beef with the usual turkey trimmings for their two kids. Erik and Katie, both nursing colds, were basking in the pleasure of a turkey dinner being delivered by Katie’s mom. Not one us of was doing what we thought we’d be doing just a week or so ago.
Our 3-year-old granddaughter urged everyone to get their “ouchies” (vaccinations) soon so we could all be together again. Amen to that.
Although Rich offered to barbecue steak and salmon – our individual favorites – to spare me the work of a Thanksgiving dinner, I declined. We were on our own, but I still wanted that turkey smell. I still craved the side dishes. I really wanted the leftovers for Thanksgiving dinner revisited and turkey sandwiches.
By feeding only ourselves, the stress and drama of the turkey dinner evaporated. A turkey breast roasted in the oven and I puttered over the remaining trimmings. There were no table leaves to add, no large serving dishes to unearth from the pantry. We still laid out our wedding china and put the gravy in my mom’s silver gravy boat. I didn’t miss the last minute panic of getting everything done at once – when it was ready, we sat down to eat.
Candles glowed, as they do every night on our table, and we gave thanks for our many blessings. This year most of all we were thankful for our health, and for the medical teams that discovered and treated Rich’s heart condition. For bringing him back home to recover.
It was a quiet dinner and we did our best to linger, to draw it out and savor the occasion. It tasted like Thanksgiving even if it didn’t feel like it. Turkey for two. I hope this is the last time we do this.
It was a Baptism unlike all others. Planned for Easter Sunday, our grandson was to be baptized with both Carl and Chelsea’s families in full attendance. But it was quickly derailed by the arrival of COVID-19. As the months went by, the likelihood of gathering continued to dwindle, and baby Crosby quickly outgrew the heirloom gown he was going to wear (handmade for my dad 106 years ago). With his first birthday rapidly advancing, new plans were laid. And then re-planned with the ever-changing landscape of COVID.
Careful precautionary measures were put in place. The ceremony would take place outdoors, on the shores of Lake Michigan. Chelsea’s family would arrive a few days beforehand and celebrate the birthday and baptism together. Our family would stay afterwards, for a second round of festivities. We would only meet at the baptism, separated by distance and masks.
It all sounded as safe as possible, combined with staying in an AirBnB where we could retreat to our own space. But soon even those arrangements increased in risk. Rich’s recent open heart surgery put him in a new class of vulnerability. In his weakened condition, was it wise to drive to Milwaukee, where the COVID rates were far higher than home? Should we be gathering with family, even at a distance?
I didn’t want to face the decision. Forging ahead, I poured my heart into creating a new baptismal gown for Crosby. I chose sturdier (and warmer) wedding gown satin in place of Dad’s delicate fabric. Replicating the inset lace took some googling for instructions, but I relished recreating the slanted lace decoration on the skirt, then added it to the sleeves for good measure. Sewing fed my soul and was a welcome diversion from coronary woes.
As the date approached, so did apprehension, but holding it at bay in favor of family unity we made the journey. As if to smile with favor on the plans, God delivered a beautiful morning for the baptism – brisk November air with deep blue skies mirrored in Lake Michigan’s waters, sunshine radiating limited warmth and infinite light.
Well bundled to ward off the chill and masked against COVID, the baptism proceeded. No church would have been more sacred. No ceremony more holy. No congregation more thankful to be present. We all bore witness to God’s love and acceptance.
The ceremony complete, we moved to Carl and Chelsea’s front yard where the sun lingered and so did we. It lasted long enough to savor the morning and its significance among those we love.
Soon afterward, the weather turned windy, wet and stormy as if to close the chapter on the baptism. Rich and I retreated to the seclusion of our AirBnB, where he rested and remained segregated from the rest of the clan. But as the afternoon waned, I returned briefly for one more occasion – Crosby’s first birthday. Documented with pictures and a full report for Rich.
We have all been inspired to inventiveness throughout this year of COVID. It’s not over yet, and we will continue to be challenged to find ways to celebrate yet remain safe. Surely this was one for the family history books.
I almost didn’t answer my phone. It was a Duluth number, one I didn’t recognize. My rule of thumb is to ignore unknown calls. My finger advanced toward the Decline button, then hesitated. I pressed Answer.
“This is the emergency room at Essentia. We have your husband here.”
What? Isn’t he here, at home?
“Don’t worry. He fell while trail running. He’s okay.”
Hastily I tossed his warm sweater and wind pants in a bag and flew out the door, assuming I was going to bring him home. But the nurse and I were both wrong. He wasn’t okay, and I didn’t bring him home for another 13 days. I soon became a passenger on a trip I didn’t want to take.
Rich looked at me sheepishly when I walked into the room in the ER. “I blacked out while running, and came to nauseous and groveling on the ground.” Immediately, my mind went back three weeks, when he returned home after crashing his bike on the North Shore.
“My helmet is toast,” he said slowly. “I think I have a concussion.”
Naturally I linked the two events. So did Rich, and the medical staff in that little room nodded. Tests were ordered and they kept him overnight to confirm the results.
“I’m not buying that concussion story.” This was the new hospitalist the next morning. “That wouldn’t cause you to black out.”
More tests, this time focused on the heart, confirming her suspicions. Rich had known for years that he had mitro valve prolapse, a non-threatening deformity that never impacted his health – until now. It had deteriorated to the extent that there was significant backflow between the ventricles and his heart was greatly enlarged as a result of compensating for the problem for a long time. His heart output was diminished to half what it should be and he had irregular heartbeats.
For a man who has pursued active sports almost daily and kept himself in good shape throughout his life, this was a blow. He went from a fit athlete to a hospital patient with a bad heart, right before my very eyes. But it got worse.
“The valve is in such bad shape, we are not sure it can be repaired. We will need to do open heart surgery in order to see its condition and change course to a replacement if need be.”
The very words Open Heart Surgery conjured terror in my own heart, and I wasn’t even the one facing it. I had plenty of bedside time to come to grips with the sudden change in Rich’s life – and therefore my life – while kept captive in the hospital over the weekend. Although they offered to let him go home to wait, it came with a stiff warning.
“If you have another incident like you did on the trail, your heart may not start again.”
It was enough to keep him under watchful eyes and a heart monitor in his hospital bed.
The days were long leading up to that big surgery. Rich didn’t feel all that bad, he just knew he was in bad shape. It was scary knowing just what they were about to do to him. The best times were when someone asked him about birding. Word spread quickly, all about his photography and “his owls.” Rich’s face would light up and his mood lifted when he recounted following the baby owlets throughout the spring and summer. It was like seeing the old Rich return for the moment.
The day of the big surgery came and I was allowed to come before visitor hours to be with him beforehand. Inevitably, it was delayed, leaving us hours to kill with that hanging over us, out of things to say to one another in the heavy waiting. Then suddenly, “It’s time.”
To this point we had discouraged our children from coming. Due to COVID, patients were allowed only one visitor a day, and that was me. We tried to tell them there was no need to come, but they knew better and Karen arrived in town before they wheeled Rich into surgery. We met up in the parking lot entryway, where she handed me a large steaming hot latte and a bag lunch. Despite a negative COVID test, she was masked and backed away to visit, console and support me from a social distance. Even when I retreated to the waiting room, just knowing she was there was a great comfort.
I received multiple updates throughout the surgery, learning that they had to replace the valve and best of all hearing it was going well. I passed them along to the kids, both to keep them informed and to occupy my time, to feel useful. The final report was in person from the surgeon, who delivered a glowing report – the surgery went without a hitch and Rich was doing really well. That news brought huge relief and joy, and I texted it out to the kids with a thankful heart. But in no way did it prepare me for what came next.
At 5:45pm I was informed that I could go see Rich in the ICU. I eagerly but nervously rode the elevator to the highly controlled floor where I had to be buzzed into his area then ushered into his room. There I found him encumbered with tubes, needles, IV lines, monitors, machines and collection bags. “Doing great” didn’t look great to me at all. It took all my fortitude to believe those words as I sidled up to his bed, hoping I wouldn’t bump something I shouldn’t. But the nurse’s quiet manner as she moved around checking, adjusting and explaining in a hushed voice reassured me. I spoke to Rich and slipped my hand into his, my squeeze answered by his in return. It spoke more than words.
We spent almost five days in the ICU, an eternity. I was amazed at how I could wile away the hours and days in a bedside chair. There was a constant parade of doctors, RNs, nurse practioners, aides, surgeons, chaplains who came to talk to us. I took on the role of notetaker, trying to capture every instruction, every warning, every bit of encouragement they had to offer, then try to understand it. Rich made it a point to get everyone’s name, and to thank them. He even thanked those who administered IVs, who poked him, who interrupted his rest yet again.
“I’m just glad to be here. Not to be undergoing all this, but to be here where you can take care of it all. Fix what’s wrong with me.”
On the home front, the kids had organized a rota, driving long distances to take turns being there for us. I would arrive home at the end of each long day to find a hot dinner waiting, and a willing ear when I poured out my day’s anguish. They made sure I got outside, running with me in the early mornings or taking dark headlamp walks at night.
Day by day Rich shed the tubes, his IVs and even got up to walk. But the monitors continued to beep and buzz, drawing scrutiny by everyone who came in the room. Soon we were hit by another unforeseen pronouncement.
“You’re going to need a pacemaker and defibrillator. Now.”
Although the new valve was doing its work, the heart was damaged enough to need help. The pacemaker would ensure a regular heartbeat, and the defibrillator would come into play should his heart stop again. The logic was there, but it carried an emotional toll.
“My heart can’t do its work on its own any more,” Rich lamented.
This time they assured us it was a routine procedure – not even called a surgery. The device was implanted in his left chest and connected to his heart with two wires. I caught up with him in the hall as they wheeled him to his new room, and already he was conversing easily.
From there, Rich made rapid progress and was out the door in just two more days. The moment we arrived home was emotionally charged and Rich shed tears as he climbed the 27 steps up to our front door – returning to a home he wondered if he would ever see again. Being able to hear his owls hooting outside, watch his beloved birds at the feeders and sleep in his own bed again next to me.
His journey – our journey – is hardly over. Recovery is hard work, and the fatigue that comes with healing is unfamiliar to a normally healthy person. But we are all thankful that he’s here with us. Thankful that he fell where he could be helped to safety. Thankful that the medical team discovered the underlying problem. Thankful for each and every person who cared for him in the hospital. Thankful for the support of friends and family. And thankful for modern medicine and technology.
“I’m not as scared as I was before,” Rich says. “I know I still have heart problems, but now I have my own personal paramedic team in my chest.”
I can already see that I’m going to have one heck of a time holding him back from skiing before long. Watch out, Rich. I’m moving from the passenger side into the driver’s seat.
It’s not easy being small. I can’t reach half the shelves in my kitchen, and even carrying my toddler grandchildren can prove a challenge. So the idea of hoisting a kayak overhead to perch in a rack on top of my car is a non-starter. Which is a problem.
In my old age I have decided I need more independence. Perhaps it’s COVID, prompting me to find ways to enjoy outdoor recreation on my own, without relying on anyone else to make it happen. My activity of choice is kayaking, which is fine if I’m at the cabin, content to drag our weighty boat down to the dock and plunk it in the lake. But what about further exploration? New lakes to discover, shorelines to cruise, rivers to reconnoiter. There has to be a way.
With a little searching, I learn that there are two options: an “origami” folding kayak and an inflatable kayak. The first offers lightweight, high performance vessels with a hefty price tag. Not my bag. The second has a wide range of choices, from an oversized floatie to tough white-water models. I focus my research on something in the middle and soon zero in on Advanced Elements kayaks. Offering high quality inflatable materials with a strong fabric covering is a good start, but they also feature built-in aluminum ribs in the bow and stern to provide tracking that rivals a hard-shell kayak. It doesn’t take long to narrow my selection down to the AdvancedFrame Sport Kayak. At 10’5″ in length and a mere 26 pounds that packs into a carrying case that is 30″ x 17″ x 8″ I know I’ve found my kayak. The next model up has a few more bells and whistles, but packs another 10 pounds. This time it pays to be small – the sport version is enough for me.
But what about set-up and take-down? Will I spend all day on the shore just getting the thing ready for my adventure? A few YouTube videos calm my fears – it looks to be pretty slick. I press Add to Cart, throw in a double-action hand pump and wait for it to arrive.
My timing is not ideal. Early November is not the best season in the far north to venture out in a kayak. Especially when the nearest body of water is the largest of our Great Lakes, and extremely cold. But the weather gods look upon me with favor.
As the sun begins its descent on a clear afternoon in the 60s, I take my new kayak up to McQuade Harbor for its maiden voyage. A short trial run. As advertised, the kayak unfolds easily and I make quick work of pumping it up. About two minutes to fill the main chamber, followed by another minute for the floor. Half a pump inflates each of the deck risers and I’m good to go! In total, less than 15 minutes from the back of my car to water readiness.
I’m delighted to find low docks in the safe harbor where I can slip my kayak into the water and ease myself into the cockpit. It takes only a few swift strokes with my paddle and I already know that it feels like a “real” kayak. Even when I venture outside the breakwaters into the Big Lake, the boat takes the mild waves well and tracks nicely along the shoreline. It feels good.
Deflating the kayak proves to be equally easy. And it folds into its case with room to spare. I’m impressed with any manufacturer that understands that at the end of my excursion I’m not interested in fighting with my kayak to wrangle it into a tight space.
Two days hence, flat water and warm sunshine beckon. I won’t get another chance this year, so I tote my kayak down to the mouth of Lester River. No dock this time, only a rock beach so I gingerly float my kayak in the shallow water, wade out and climb in. I find I don’t need more than a few inches to clear the rocks and soon I’m skimming across the calm water.
I’ve been waiting years for this moment. I grew up in this fine city of Duluth, always admiring the houses on London Road with prime real estate on Lake Superior. Ten years ago we moved back here, and I’ve been dying to see what those houses look like from the water. Today I’m going to find out.
Houses are mirrored in the calm water as I cruise by. Even within a short distance, I find a huge variation in the backyard shoreline. Some homes boast lawns that slope gently down to an accessible pebble beach – definitely among the elite minority of landscapes. More often the yards meet a steep drop at the water’s edge. Some cliffs defy access, leaving homeowners with a splendid view but the inability to touch the water that laps or pummels their shore. In between are a myriad of inventive approaches. Ancient walls of stone, brand new cement retaining walls, enormous boulders holding back the lake’s fury – all in desperation to hang on to the land that the lake would like to claim. Where a bit of beach lies at the base of the cliff, homeowners exhibit great ingenuity with ladders, steps and guardrails to guide them down.
I’m fascinated by the rear view of the homes. Windows stretch across wide expanses, decks stretch across, stories climb high, all to take in the lake’s beauty. Old gazebos and small bath houses occasionally populate the shore, echoes of the golden days in which they were erected. And I paddle past the granddam of estates, Glensheen Mansion.
Homes give way to high-rises, as the senior care center and apartments loom above the waters. My arms begin to tire, I feel a twinge in my elbow and my legs tell me they have been static for too long. But still I press on. I pass the expanse of ledge rock I scrambled over this summer, pursuing my grandchildren who are far more nimble than I.
The Aerial Lift Bridge taunts me from afar. In my dreams I would journey down to the stately structure and ply the waters between the piers to pass under the roadway. But I will leave that for another day. Turning my fine craft around, I retrace my route and examine the homes once again, from modest to grand standing shoulder to shoulder on this Big Lake.
Having dipped my paddle into the world of exploring new waters, I sense it is only the beginning. I beach my kayak knowing we will make a great combo. Me and my kayak to go.