TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — Sometimes There Is No Spring

T. S. Elliot wrote that April is the cruelest month, but I’d argue that. It comes in the winter.

Winter is more than a metaphor for the twilight of a life, the final whirl of child’s windup toy as the coiled spring inside releases the last of its energy and it freezes in suspended animation, a monument to a life lived.

No, winter is a dying season. Impersonal statistics will bear that out. From December to March, more of us march to the grave than any other time and, if you had to pick one, January would be the cruelest month. It creates more tears than the rest — enough tears to grow tulips in the spring. Maybe that’s what T. S. Elliot was talking about — the memory of winter.

In small, rural newspaper offices in which I’ve spent too much time out of the sun, we don’t need statistics to know these things. It’s all too real. We must face the survivors.

I remember the first one, the trembling hand of a mother handing me an obituary of a teenage son thrown from his prized white pickup and crushed in a rollover. Interesting I should remember the color. In a kinder dimension, he’d be a father now and his children would be graduating from college. So much died with him that night. I still remember his face.

Little of the history we write in small-town newspapers will be broadly shared, but in these moments, we are reminded of its importance and again each summer, when pilgrims return to sift through old issues, searching for remnants of lives long at rest. History can be a grand analysis of broad cause and effect, changing geographies. But always, in the end, in the minutia of it all, it’s personal.

We try to be perfect when the type is set, but few publications are without error. The rule seems to be typos are never visible to the proofreader until there are thousands of copies memorialized forever in print. Gutenberg’s Curse.

But these memorials? We try especially hard to get it right. Long after our own ink has dried up and faded, searchers will come for the past, and they must trust that our work was true.

This week it was a thank-you, handwritten three times before it said as much as could be said, the dust of a husband’s fresh grave not yet settled.

A few weeks ago, it was another mother, an unexplainable cruel confluence of events and an unexpected funeral. This lost son had been born into challenges, one of those children God decides must forever remain a child, one of those rare creatures we love so much it hurts because they smile through adversity, not recognizing much of the time that it’s even there. Is that the lesson they bring to us — that if we don’t acknowledge hardship, it ceases to exist?

His picture was all teeth.

No one knows why he went for a walk on that bitter winter day, only that he didn’t come back.

“I thought of my brother Mike,” I told her.

“I did, too,” she said.

Lame “I’m sorry’s” leaked from my mouth. When she described how they had found him … alone … frozen … gone … that was it for me.

Sometimes we sweep the survivors up in a hug and our chests rattle and wheeze from the hurt, reminding us how impossible it is for these condolences, like the words in the obituaries, to ever say enough. But we have to try.

I’m not sure if pain is something that can be shared, a yoke harnessed to anything at all. Or if it is like a dark cloud billowing until it chooses to stop of its own malevolent whim. I only know it is in our willingness to share the pain that we are most human.

I was reminded of something I scribbled out a year ago after another such a moment:

He walked in slowly, stoically, with checkbook in hand to place a thank-you in the paper. I looked over the neat handwriting. He’d thanked all the people who had expressed sympathies, the pastor, the church ladies who had served the meal. The funeral home.

“$14.30,” I said.

“Is that all?” Because death comes at such a high cost.

He handed me the checkbook, and I filled in everything but the signature.

“I’m sorry for your loss.”

Silence.

“How long were you married?”

“Sixty-six years.”

I stopped and looked up at him. He had pale, gray eyes.

“That’s a long time. I’ll bet it’s pretty quiet around the house.”

His lip trembled. His eyes glistened.

I passed him the checkbook. He signed, struggled a bit to tear the check out cleanly. Her name was still on the check, too. Just a memory now. He neatly wrote the amount in the register.

Silence. He looked so thin.

“I’m really sorry,” I said.

A nod. He croaked out something. A lament. If tears have a sound then that is what they sound like. And then he walked out.

So thin.

Alone.

© Tony Bender, 2018

NICK HENNEN: Now I See — What Is It About Death?

Like birth, I think the hour of our death is very meaningful, whether our earthly minds allow us to solve the puzzle or not. It is drenched in meaning, here and also somewhere else. The year, month, day, hour and second — it is already written for each of us.

My father, “Pops” and “Papa.”
My father, “Pops” and “Papa.”

I think I’m lucky in that I can see the light of that meaning, glowing like a street lantern illuminating my steps through a blackened night, but I can’t really articulate my grief. I am not able to explain what happens to me when it comes knocking. And that’s actually the hardest part.

I have accepted the death of my father, then mentor, then mother. My mind has yet to fully grasp what else it is I’m supposed to know about my devotion to each of them, about their part in the play of my life and about how and why we came to love each other.

Dad spent a lifetime in broadcasting and loved teaching us kids the ropes.
Dad spent a lifetime in broadcasting and loved teaching us kids the ropes.

And with all three, feelings of great significance wash over me on certain days, like when they left or on dates of things we celebrated together. It starts off as a really strong feeling. I will wonder, what is it? What’s wrong? And then I notice the date, or a that a date is coming instead of the other way around. These are signposts I think, and evidence to some kind of intelligent communication from beyond.

Somedays I feel like I’m standing on the edge of a rabbit hole. “Mom, are you there?” I call out to myself in the quiet. I talk to all three of these souls like they are with me all the time. I’m not even embarrassed about it.

Me and my mentor, Alan Colmes in 2015.
Me and my mentor, Alan Colmes in 2015.

Sometimes I’m stopped cold when their presence pops into my reality and I spin into another dimension. Like the reoccurring thought chasing me lately, that my mentor never saw me transform (as much, only just the beginning … and man, was he accepting!) into the stronger, taller and uniquely complex man I am today. I was a different person entirely when I saw him last. That hurts and like a razor cut it bleeds slowly and painfully. “But I look so different now,” I say softly as if he can hear me.

For my father, it is simply true that he is everywhere with me. If I’m having a bad day, I reach for his Minnesota Twins cap. I chose it after he died because it was the most worn. Dark sweat stains along the rim, knowing they were his made me feel close to him. I loved him enough that I feel like we never left each other, that instead he is now just slightly out of reach.

I think I’m getting there with my father and mentor. Not 100 percent, mind you, but I’m no longer in the weird stages of grief where you never know what to expect.

I’m not there for mom yet. A mom is such a big thing, yes? That’s part of it I’m sure.

“Mommy!” We all can imagine saying this, or feel the orphaned reality when we utter those words, or just you know, watch “Bambi.” Mom is mom all day, and she was important to me in so many ways and, and it is still so very new it seems.

And it is also true that I’m exhausted by grief, so I put it off until my body is begging me to stop. To turn off the music, shut down the laptop, to put away the pen and paper, switch off the lights, back away from the world and just grieve. Even then, “I don’t want to,” my mind will argue. “I’m busy!” “I can’t today. I’m too tired,” “hurts too much,” “I don’t like to cry,” on and on with the excuses of the mind. But in time I give in and tears flow a little bit.

It’s like trimming the hedges. You put it off by snipping a few clips here and there until at once you realize it’s grown tall enough to block your sun.

I imagine I could use a raging sob, which is very cathartic right? I’m just not sure where to find it. When is the last time you sobbed? I like the idea because it puts a focus on the physical and occurs mostly outside of the mind.

Sudden deaths like my father and mentor came easy. I shouldn’t say that, they came whether I wanted them to or not. The process began like a break in a dam. There wasn’t a second for debate on when this event would occur. The wave hit me the moment I learned. Like tripping and falling as the water slams your body further into the ocean floor, it is unexpected and without reserve. I lost myself in the news, but when someone is slowly dying over time, a pattern of grief emerges that becomes much more complex.

There is guilt and anger and all of the stages of grief, but they are entirely different when that someone spent so much time being completely vulnerable.

While alive, you grieve what they once were but you’re still celebrating their life. And in the end, every single breath. After they leave, you realize your small pond of grief has become an ocean. It feels overwhelming.

I know I need to take that time to open the door to the moment of her death. I haven’t done this yet. I have only experienced and then ran away from it. I think doing so will feel like making a conscious, though anxious decision to cliff dive. To leave earth for a bit flailing wildly into the unknown. To crash into the cool waters below, and to eventually heal.

I will. I will. I can’t just yet but I am looking forward to the time when I can tell my mind a story about the good, bad, ugly, great reality of all the memories that make up our relationship as mother and son.

“Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future”  —  Robert Shuller

LILLIAN CROOK: WildDakotaWoman — ‘Well I’ll be Damned, Here Comes Your Ghost Again’: Remembering David Ohm

“Well I’ll be damned, here comes your ghost again …”  — Joan Baez “Diamonds and Rust”

I am now going to write about one of the most painful chapters of my long life.

I am going to remember David. David Ohm. Dead these 40 years now. I can hardly believe that when I write it. And write this story I shall, as I cannot keep it buried within any longer. The pain goes on, as does the healing. Together, we who knew and loved him mourned and, together, we share very vivid memories of him and, thank goodness, enduring friendships.

I grew up with David. We, the children of Slope and Bowman counties.

He first flickered into my consciousness when I was at the neighbor’s branding, Johnny and Corinne Getz’s, there on Deep Creek in Slope County, North Dakota.  He was a close friend of my (later) brother-in-law, Craig McLaughlin. I was at the branding, doing whatever it was assigned to me, no doubt, helping with the cooking and the myriad chores of the day and getting in on the branding fun outdoors as soon as I could manage it.

After that, the next we crossed paths that I recall clearly was when I was at his sister’s dance party, at their home in Bowman, N.D., just next door to my Grandpa Andy’s house. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” was coming out of the record player. He was tres cool, doing his older brother stuff with his buddies.

Over the years, we saw each other on a regular basis, as it was, after all, rural North Dakota, and he was Craig’s best friend. Craig and David had many hijinks together over the years, and they kept their parents hopping.

In the winter I was 17, my sister and his aforementioned pal, Craig McLaughlin, were married, and we all celebrated the marriage at the McLaughlin home in Bowman after the wedding in the Rhame Lutheran Church. David and I were in the wedding party. He was a student at Jamestown College.

One night the following summer, when I was 18, with my pals at the Ludlow, S.D., bar, our paths crossed again, and there was a strong spark between us. We went home from that bar together, and were, from that point onward, nearly inseparable. We were young.

We worked our respective summer jobs, me at Malcolm Stewart’s dental practice and he at the Bowman Golf Course, and then we were otherwise together, talking books and music and life. We knew each other well, and we shared a love of many things, including the Bad Lands. Another connection between us was that his parents had lived in Okinawa, as had my family, although not at the same time.

Later that summer, we drove to Jamestown (where he’d been a college student the previous two years) in his parents’ station wagon to pick up the stuff from his apartment. While he loaded his stuff, I sat in a wicker chair and read his issues of Rolling Stone magazine.

Then, one night in late July, after we’d been to a wedding party south of Rhame, he took me home to my family farm, and I never saw him again. Driving home to Bowman from our farm, on the Farm to Market road, he fell asleep, rolled his car and was killed instantly. At the moment he died, he was listening to the Ozark Mountain Daredevils on his Porsche car stereo.

With overpowering sorrow, we buried him. He was so very much loved, by his parents, by his siblings, by his friends. We were all expected to go on with life, but none of us were the same thereafter.

His friends came from far and wide.  His family’s hearts were broken. His family was much loved in the southwest North Dakota region, and many came to show their support.

We all picked up and went on with our lives. What choice did we have?

His younger brother is, to this day, one of my best friends and an exceptional man is he, one of whom I’m very proud.

When David died, he was reading the book “Simple Justice” by Richard Kluger. His mother has that book. On his turntable was the album by Jimmy Buffett “Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes.”  Nearby was Jackson Browne’s “The Pretender.”

These record albums were what his family and I listened to over and over in the months as we grieved, struggling to grapple with what had happened.

We all soldiered on. A powerful bond was forged between us, and we were forevermore changed. This is a photo of me taken by Paul in that time period, in the Ohm kitchen in Bowman.

We miss you still, so very much, all these 40 years later. I remember exactly the last thing he said to me, and his family knows what he said, but I’m not writing it here.

These days, I shift through emails with confirmation of hotel reservations and other such banal topics. What kind of world is this?

It is the world of the living.

What would he have done with his life we all wonder? What would his children have been like? What would he be doing with gadgets like Facebook and Twitter.  We all have our thoughts. Personally, I think there is a strong possibility he would have become a lawyer and, perhaps, even become governor. I’m certain he would have rocked his world.

Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer”:

Keep a fire burning in your eye

Pay attention to the open sky

You never know what will be coming down

I don’t remember losing track of you

You were always dancing in and out of view

I must have thought you’d always be around

Always keeping things real by playing the clown

Now you’re nowhere to be found

I don’t know what happens when people die

Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try

It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear

That I can’t sing

I can’t help listening

And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round

Crying as they ease you down

‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing

Dancing our sorrow away

(Right on dancing)

No matter what fate chooses to play

(There’s nothing you can do about it anyway)

Just do the steps that you’ve been shown

By everyone you’ve ever known

Until the dance becomes your very own

No matter how close to yours

Another’s steps have grown

In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

Keep a fire for the human race

Let your prayers go drifting into space

You never know what will be coming down

Perhaps a better world is drawing near

And just as easily it could all disappear

Along with whatever meaning you might have found

Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around

(The world keeps turning around and around)

Go on and make a joyful sound

Into a dancer you have grown

From a seed somebody else has thrown

Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own

And somewhere between the time you arrive

And the time you go

May lie a reason you were alive

But you’ll never know

The following photos and mementos are courtesy of Paul Ohm.

Here is a song written and performed by Rick Watson that includes David.

In the days and weeks following his death, we shifted through all of the cards and letters people sent and selected these words for his headstone.

“Death removes but the touch

And not the awareness of all good.

And he who has lived one spring or more possesses the spiritual life

of one who has lived a score of springs.” — Kahlil Gibran