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

JIM FUGLIE: View From The Prairie — Another Trip Around The Sun

Sometime after I went to bed last night, I completed my 70th trip around the sun. Today I begin my 71st.

They’ve been interesting trips. I’ve enjoyed most of all of them. They’ve all been different. If I could do them over, there are probably a few different roads I’d choose, a few different off-ramps I’d take, a few different corners I’d turn. But for the most part, they’ve been pretty good trips. If I viewed them as just different parts of one long trip, I’d agree with Jerry Garcia — it’s been a long, strange trip.

But I like looking at them as separate trips. The first few were in Chicago, where I learned to walk and talk. The rest, for the most part, have begun and ended in North Dakota, the place I love. My parents made the decision to bring me here for my fourth trip, looked after me for the next 15 or so, and then I made the decision to spend most of the rest of them here, with the exception of minitrips outside the state to make life a little more interesting, and the four trips my Uncle Sam took me on around the globe.

I’ve made about eight more trips than my dad did, but I’ve got a ways to go to pass my mother’s record. That would be a good goal, I guess. She made 85. And by God, she made the most of them. If you’d have asked her as she approached the end of her last trip, she’d have said every one of them was a good one. She was the most positive and optimistic woman I’ve ever known. Maybe that’s where I get it from.

I was reminded over this just-passed long weekend of the value of family and good friends. My siblings and I all gathered for a couple of days in the North Dakota Bad Lands, and they all said nice things about me at supper Saturday night. I am grateful for all of them, and to my parents for giving them to me.

And in a little gathering on my patio yesterday, a kind of a spontaneous rally around a cake and a jug of lemonade, friends gave me little gifts and encouraged me to make a whole bunch more trips.

I think I will. And I think I’ll follow Neil Young’s advice: “My, my, hey, hey, it’s better to burn out than fade away.” Lillian gave me this T-shirt yesterday. I’m going to wear it once a week for the rest of my trips. Until I burn out.

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

PAULA MEHMEL: Shoot the Rapids — The Chance Of Life

It’s been an interesting week.

It started last Thursday, when Ian and I were driving to work. I had just passed the Veteran’s Boulevard underpass when I saw what looked to me like a mushroom cloud of dust in my rear-view mirror. I immediately told Ian, and he turned around and saw it as well, and we both commented that something bad had just happened.

Throughout the morning, I kept an eye on my Facebook newsfeed and eventually saw a report that Interstate 94 had closed in both directions due to a crash that involved two semis that had blocked the freeway going both east and west but that no one was injured in the accident.

Satisfied that I had my answer to the mystery of the mushroom-shaped cloud of dust, and thankful that no one was hurt, I put the accident out of my mind.

However, later that night, I saw a report that they had video of the accident, and it was really quite remarkable that there were no injuries. I clicked play and watched with amazement as a semi rolled over on the on-ramp on the eastbound lane, landing on top of another semi and sending that truck hurling into oncoming traffic in the westbound lane.

It was stunning that no other cars were involved, as the car behind the semi braked quickly enough, and there were no cars in the westbound lane of traffic when the other semi went over the median into the other lane.

Then I watched the video again a bit closer and a frightening reality hit me. The car in front of the semi was mine. I timed it out and had I been a second and a half slower, the semi on the onramp would have rolled on top of Ian and me.

A second and a half. Between potentially dying in a car crash with my son or seeing dust rise in our rear-view mirror.

I went to bed saying a prayer of thankfulness for every second of life, knowing that seconds do count.

Fast-forward to last night. Ian, his friend, Jack, and I had gone to the International Refugee Day Potluck at Lutheran Social Services and after we returned home, we stood by my car in the driveway.

At one point, I looked down at my phone to check the updated results of the Georgia 6 election and suddenly I heard Jack yell, “Paula,” and instinctively, having no idea what was happening, I lurched forward. As I did I felt a sudden pain on my arm and heard the sound of something crashing onto the driveway.

I fell to my knees, my arm in pain, and then turned around to see a large dead branch had fallen off the tree next to our driveway, and the thickest portion had landed right where I was standing. Had Jack not yelled my name when he heard the crack of the branch and saw the leaves start to flutter on this windless night, my head would have taken the hit solidly, instead of it being a glancing blow to my arm as I lunged away from where I was standing.

I can’t say with assurance that I would have died, but being hit in the head by something that heavy dropped from that high could have easily altered my life.

So twice in less than I week, I was faced with my own mortality, the fleeting nature of life and capriciousness of time and chance.

My profession makes it hard for me to ignore how quickly life can change. I get phone calls in the middle of the night and have police showing up at my door asking me to go be the bearer of shocking and heartbreaking news.

The truth is, we are all often seconds away from life-altering events. One turn here, one slow beat there, and we could all face imminent doom each day. And sometimes, it goes our way, and sometimes, unexpected and tragic accidents happen. That is the nature of life.

I think it is probably a good thing that we don’t get to see, in the vivid terms I experienced this week, how close we often come to death. Because I believe such knowledge could end up leaving us terrified and afraid to move. Honestly, I haven’t walked into my yard since the branch fell without glancing up at the tree with a great trepidation and more than a little anxiety.

However, seeing first on a video and then in the detritus of a limb of a tree on my driveway, the reality of how I was seconds and then milliseconds away from mortal peril, also gave me great cause to pause and reflect.

Life, at its very core, is both a matter of chance as well as a gift. The fact that the one sperm met the one egg to form you into the very individual you are and me into who I am is both improbable and incredible.

There is so much in life that we absolutely cannot control. Yet, I find myself too often becoming obsessed by those things over which I have no power. Now, more than ever, I find myself focusing my time and energy on what is happening, externally, in the world, without fixing the same energy into changing the world where I can.

I was staring down at the results of a congressional race over which I had absolutely no influence while the bough above me was breaking and coming crashing down on my head. Had Jack not been paying attention to the world around him, I could have been lost to the world around me.

Does this mean I should ignore the news and the effects of what is transpiring right now in our country? Hardly. But there is a difference between being aware and being obsessed. I think it is just as bad to stick one’s head into the news and not engage with the world as it is to stick one’s head in the sand.

So I resolved this week to limit my consumption of social media, cable news and online articles and pour that time and energy into caring for those who are being left behind and those who are around me. I need to look up and watch out for those whose lives are coming crashing down around them as they face a reduction in their health care benefits or changes in their housing benefits and engage in more conversations with people who may not see the world the way I do, to help bridge the great divide in our country.

I need to spend more time listening to the voices of the disenfranchised and sharing their stories than I do to the talking heads on television news. And I need to spend more time living my life rather than watching what is happening when I have no power or control of the outcome.

For me, it wasn’t so much getting hit upside the head that told me that but rather missing getting hit upside the head by a branch.

Life is chance and I have no idea what will happen tomorrow, or what might have happened if I had been a second earlier or a second slower. But in the meantime, I am going to take every chance I get to live life, fully engaged and keep my head up.

TONY J BENDER: That’s Life — The Sanctity Of Life And Tax Cuts

I’m exhausted from winning so much. America is so great again. Stop it already. My trophy case is full.

Sure, a lot of people think the House of Representatives didn’t have the votes to pass health care reform last week, but when you factor in the Electoral Collage, it was a huge win. Yuuuge.

You should have seen everyone coming out to celebrate. It was biggly bigger than the inauguration, which had more people there than actually exist — if you factor in visitors from other planets. Most of them from Uranus. We should deport them.

Check the satellite imagery we got from the Klingons. There are bodies everywhere. Hold it, they’re not moving! We must have time-traveled to the near future to a time after the Republicans fixed health care. If the Rev. Jim Jones was alive and in Congress, he’d be heading up health care reform. (Insert your own Kool-Aid reference. Must I do everything around here?)

The point is, trillions of people showed up to celebrate health care reform. Trillions. That’s even after you deduct 10 Russians — and counting. That Vlad — doing his part for population control.

“It is a missed opportunity to save the American people from the death spiral of this very flawed law,” said North Dakota Congressman Kevin Cramer, deeply regretting he was unable to save 24 million Americans from being insured. Everyone knows health insurance is a death sentence, and freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

The Republicans have been offering up swing-bed foreplay for seven years: “When we get back in power, we’re going to be so good to you. It’s gonna be the best ever. Gonna rock your world, baby. Anthony Weiner’s got nothing on us.” Now, after seven years of steamy talk about co-pays, here comes the booty call and … pfffffffft! Ironically, under their plan, Viagra isn’t covered. But then again, neither is Planned Parenthood, so it’s a wash. After strutting around all this time like Mick Jagger in Spandex, it turns out the bulge was a handgun.

Meanwhile, in Bismarck, you can’t wear jeans on the Senate floor, but I think a heater is OK. Conservative priorities. They’re only temporarily pro-life. If it involves life expectancy or gun control, all bets are off — unless Al Carlson gets his casinos built. For the first time at the Capitol, being Sergeant at Arms really means something. Jesus once said, “Blessed are the marksmen.” And everyone knows God wrote the Second Commandment to the Constitution.

Janne Myrdal keeps a Glock in her chastity belt. And a Ruger. And curiously, some guy named Jake. He’s either from NRA or State Farm. I’m not sure if he does health insurance, though.

SIDEBAR: I once knew a girl from Zap, N.D., whose Mossberg got the clap. (If you’re still feeling Irish, insert limerick here.) Don’t worry, it was covered under Obamacare.  Her over-and-under was cured with antibiotics. In the future, you’ll have to rely on leeches and a prayer chain.

The point is, Sen. Myrdal is a great American. She’s got an entire arsenal in there. It’s a yuuuge chastity belt. It’s like the Grand Canyon. When you yodel, it echoes forever. There’s so much chastity in there. Don’t confuse it with the sanctimony. I think I see Jesus in the corner. He’s holding a Beretta.

I’m going to drop some 9mm cartridges in the collection plate on Easter Sunday. I think there should be a service the night before, too. A Saturday Night Special.

I’m puzzled the family-values folks couldn’t rally people around the idea of raising the cost of premiums and deductibles, cutting coverage and giving tax breaks to oppressed millionaires. Is this even America anymore? It’s sad when the Russians are more effective in our political process than Congress. Soon we’ll have a borscht stand at every casino.

Now, that we’ve won at health care reform, we’re moving on to tax reform to save the Koch Brothers from having to eat the cheap caviar. You can see millionaires on every street corner holding signs in their tattered tuxedos: “Will contribute to your campaign for tax breaks.”

Who knew health insurance could be so complicated? Oh, and being president is hard. It really messes with your golf swing. Though it’s not being reported by the lame stream, drive by, irrelevant, fake news media, it wrecks havoc on your basketball game, too. President Trump is throwing up so many bricks, he may have to join a union. The International Brotherhood of Tweeters?

Unlike the guy he subbed in for, he can’t go to his left worth a damn, and he keeps arguing with the referees. To be fair, he is a prolific dribbler, which is why Melania is sleeping alone. Who wants to sleep on the drool spot? Anyway, the president is busy spooning with Putin.

Fear not. You’re in good hands. (Does Allstate still do do health insurance?) Small hands, but good hands. The best. Believe me. Winning. We haven’t won like this since, like, ever. It’s like Charlie Sheen is president.

© Tony Bender, 2017