DAVE VORLAND: It Occurs To Me — Going Home With Mrs. Hovland

I was 6 years old and in the first grade in the spring of 1950 when my parents received my last report card of the year. It was signed by teacher Sylpha Hovland, who certified my promotion to the second grade at Fram Township School No. 3 in Wellsburg, N.D.

I still have the card.

Later, I moved on to Harvey High School, the University of North Dakota and Northwestern University. But in retrospect, I regard Mrs. Hovland as the best teacher I ever had, bar none.

She was very encouraging, focused on solid fundamentals and instilled in us a desire to learn. My subject matter grades were decent (except for penmanship).

But I fared less well in two habits and attitudes categories: “Responsive to Authority” and “Receives suggestions kindly.”

Yeah, she got that right.

The Vorland farm, in 2004.
The Vorland farm, in 2004.

Although the Vorland farm is long gone, most years I try to visit Wellsburg. This picture was taken in 2004, shot from roughly the center of the home quarter. The buildings and trees are now gone. The current owner farms the land fence line to fence line.

The Wellsburg grain elevators also have disappeared. Indeed, so has most of the town.

But the school building still exists, converted into a personal residence.

I’ll travel to Wellsburg and Harvey this summer, as I have done so many times. The novelist Thomas Wolfe was wrong — you CAN go home again.

And this year, I’ll be thinking of Mrs. Hovland.

NICK HENNEN: Now I See — Visiting Home

I didn’t cry when I first saw her but I wanted to. I held it in for a bit in an effort to stay sober and soak in everything.

Changes.

Changes like the time I came back from living in Grand Forks for a few years to Fargo and I saw the back of my dad’s head sitting in the recliner. So much gray was pushing out and a lot less hair on that familiar head … it was striking.

I remember my next words so well they haunt me: “Man, he’s gotten old.” It sounded like a line out of an old book I read, and it felt robotic and unreal to utter it. But the moment felt very real.

And so did this Tuesday afternoon with mom. Only with her, I have seen it under a microscope and in slow motion.

I actually sped to the memory care center after my plane landed. I picked up my rental and zoomed out of the airport lot. I was starving, but there was no way I was going to make any stops before seeing her. I flew out of the car and ran to the sliding glass door, ran to the elevator, tapping my hands as I waited impatiently, and burst out of it when it reached her floor and ran to her room.

I have never done this before. A sense of urgency just came over me. I wanted to see her now. I felt like I was extremely late to something.

There she was, seated for dinner. Slumped over in her wheelchair, her nose dripping as it does all day, every day due to some of the medications she needs, her head drooping, her eyes staring deeply into nothingness. This is raw truth here, and it’s real and it hurts, but it’s what it is.

She did not acknowledge me in a traditional way. She did not speak, but her eyes told me not only that she knows me but also loves me.

She is vastly different this visit. And, of course, and it has been far too long. The biggest change since the last time I was here is her inability to stand on her own in any way. She also has a serious and marked forward lean making sitting in her wheelchair or at the table difficult or at the least uncomfortable.

I tenderly fed her dinner, wiping her nose, which drips like faucet as much as possible in between, and trying to hide my tears. But who was I kidding? I was sobbing.

Afterward, I wheeled her to the assisted living place in the far wing where she used to live what felt like another lifetime ago. We sat watching the wind take over the trees outside the big bay windows. When the breeze came through the doors as someone entered, she actually liked it — I was surprised. (She never used to.) I thought it felt fresh and good, too, because it’s often hot inside.

A little while later, we went to her room to watch the nightly news, and she laughed when I made fun of the anchor’s hair. The light comes in when you least expect it, making life surprisingly precious.

I gave her a strawberry shake then put lotion on her face and hands, so sweet like a little lamb, she lit right up after I did that; opened her eyes wide.

There was an utterly singular moment when I touched her face after the aides so gently and kindly helped to put her to rest. After a busy afternoon, a postlunch nap was needed. We all agreed. I chatted with a nurse about her little boy as Mom hit the pillow and went immediately lights out.

I had run to the car to get my phone charger and asked if they could swoop in and help me get her ready for her nap. They came, and I ran and came quickly back. It’s been like that. I mean, I’ve been feeling like I don’t have a minute to waste, kind of crazy-like.

She was put into the bed, and I was chatting with aide about my music choice, which filled the room. It is called peaceful piano on Spotify, I say; they leave. I grab a chair and scoot as close to her as possible as she rests in bed.

They’ve left and I’m hovering and leaning into the bed and caressing her head and I feel such tightness. And it reminds me of what it’s like feeling your child’s body when they are scared. You notice this. For me, it was very early, of course, they were hungry and maybe something else or there was pain or discomfort, but a child inside you even grows stiff and concerned, and it can be felt in a way that is exactly, like fear. This continues throughout life.

And it’s also true that it cannot be distinguished from anxiety, but it’s there, inside all of us, and we can feel it in each other without words. This is powerful before we have speech and becomes even more powerful after we have lost our words.

I need to be here, I heard in a booming voice inside my head.

The big joke about having voices in your head is that we all do. Obviously. They are busy trying to tell us who and what we are, but if we shut them out, we realize we already know who we are because we feel it. We don’t need it to be constantly defined as does the mind. And sometimes your own voice rings through, and that’s what I heard telling me I was in the right place and at the right time.

I do need to be here, and I’m saying this because I felt that fear and anxiety leave as I caressed her head. She was sleeping before but she needed me to pull out that fear. At least that’s what I want to believe.

Earlier on the second day, she grabbed for my hand when we were stopped by the stained glass in the chapel, a favorite quiet spot for us. She raised it to her lips and kissed it, which I found so deeply touching. As if to say, I appreciate you. Thank you for being here — this is how it felt.

This has been a really incredible visit, so far. Eye-opening changes, a sliver of hope and the time I need to take in how these changes are affecting her. I get the opportunity to feed her breakfast, lunch and dinner and that likely makes me feel better than her, though she’s adjusting to new puree meals and drinking plenty of fluids. But even just drinking those fluids, you can see her struggling to swallow.

Why are we allowed to suffer like this?

For what purpose is this pain?

She takes it all so fiercely. She is a fighter. She has a tremendous and powerful will to live. This can be seen like a flickering fire behind her eyes. It’s really alive inside of her.

Another moment I’ll not forget was when she whispered, “I need you,” as I was feeding her. I had just told her she was eating really great.

Oh man, I thought, “I need you, too.”