And so we’re a week into Summer, emerging from what I think is the darkest Spring of my life (my personal style book says capitalize the seasons, but I am almost reluctant to do so this year — this Spring doesn’t really deserve any recognition).
The only Springs darker that I can recall are 1968, the year I got drafted, and 1984, the year my dad died. But as bad as they were, they hold no candle to 2020.
Each year I await the first day of Spring — the Vernal Equinox — with great anticipation. Lillian and I were married on that day in 2004, and we usually find a way to celebrate not just the end of Winter and the coming of Spring but to celebrate the beginning of our lives together.
But not this year. Usually we go to the Bad Lands and do what’s appropriate for the weather. Sometimes we hike and camp and cook over a fire. Sometimes we hunker down in the shelter of the Rough Riders Hotel and eat steaks at the Little Missouri Saloon. This year, we stayed home.
This year, the Equinox fell on the weekend all national sporting events were canceled — the sports page had no scores to report. It was the weekend Gov. Doug Burgum announced he was closing the state’s schools for five days starting Monday. Five days stretched into five months, at least. They never reopened and we don’t know when they will.
North Dakota’s political conventions were canceled. The state basketball tournaments, too. The nightly news reported the 1,000th American had died from coronavirus, a number that has risen to more than 100,000 now, and still climbing. The 2020 Olympics were postponed for a year.
Not only did schools close, but a lot of businesses and professional offices shut their doors to try to figure out what to do next. Within just a few days, as the weather warmed, Lillian and I at least made a day-trip to the Bad Lands with family members — all of us traveling in separate cars — for a 6-mile hike in the national park, and a picnic. But that was about the end of our joy for the Spring.
That next weekend we had a Zoom family reunion with all six of my siblings and talked of the possibility of meeting again someday in person. And Sunday, we watched church on our computer, which we’re still doing.
On April 4, I posted my first “KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE” note on Facebook, trying to remind all my Facebook friends to find something every day to be cheerful about. I wrote “KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE Note of the Day: It’s really easy to choose a wardrobe in the morning when you’re not going anywhere. Just grab a pair of sweatpants and a sweatshirt and you’re good for the day.” I’ve posted every day since.
We began self-imposed exile from the world. Lillian agreed to go shopping, stock up on things we might need and we agreed I would just stay home. I’ve pretty much been here ever since.
Except … Except for the nine days I spent in the hospital as my doctors pumped me full of antibiotics to to clear up an acute case of cellulitis, a staph infection that attacked my right leg.
The nine days in the hospital was followed by two weeks of recovery at home. My doctor told me it was OK to feel a little self-pity, calling it an “unfair” disease. I replied with some resignation that it was symptomatic of my world right now — I’ve got a friend going through chemotherapy and radiation, another doing dialysis four days a week, a third who lost half his foot to diabetes this Spring and one five years younger than me who just had a quadruple heart bypass. My friends and I are getting old, and dealing with normal problems of the elderly. I guess it’s all a matter of perspective, he replied. But all those things made a dark Spring a whole lot darker.
The hardest thing we experienced, though, was watching Lillian’s mom and dad, alone, in their respective nursing home rooms. We visited their windows and talked on the phone. We Skyped with them from home. We watched her dad slip away, alone, while his children sang hymns outside his window, opened just a crack by a sympathetic nursing home employee. He died Memorial Day, after a week of being unresponsive, in his bed at the nursing home, surrounded by … no one.
We will bury him July 10 on the hillside south of Mandan in the North Dakota Veterans Cemetery. It’s taken that long just to plan a funeral and get family here to pay their respects.
In the middle taking care of a half-crippled, recovering husband, planning her dad’s funeral and running traffic for a family spread over half a continent, Lillian got the word her 86-year-old mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer. That’s meant days at the Bismarck Cancer Center preparing for treatment. Fortunately, the doctors say it is treatable, at least as treatable as it can be in a body that old.
And then came the police mayhem, the protests, the riots. Over and over, night after night, on the television, we saw, and continue to see, America at its worst, including the images of America’s worst president.
And drought. The Weather Bureau says it was the driest Spring in recorded history in North Dakota. And now we’re a week into Summer, and nothing has changed. How long can this go on?
I’m sorry. I hate to write like this. I’m an optimist by nature. But DAMN! This story has all the makings of a really bad country song. All it needs is a dead dog. Got it. Our faithful canine companion of 15 years, Lizzie, died of old age. Where’s George Jones when we need him? This has been a train wreck just made for a No. 1 hit by Old George.
Until this week. It’s been a red-letter week for me. I got to go shopping. Lillian has kept me pretty close to home the last few months. I am, after all, old, and vulnerable, and have this “underlying health condition,” cellulitis, which she reminds me, “You have staph in your body.”
But this week I got the OK to venture out. I’ve been hungry for baby back ribs, and the best (and least expensive) ones in town are at Sam’s Club. So Wednesday, I donned my mask, pulled my hat down over my forehead and ears so all that showed were my eyes, dashed in the front door of Sam’s and headed straight for the meat department in the back, where to my great disappointment, I found the pork cooler pretty much empty — no ribs. I searched carefully around the back of the store in case they might have moved the ribs, to no avail. So I started for the door, and then something told me to go back and just take one more look, in case I missed something.
I went back to the pork cooler, but still no ribs. As I turned to head for the front of the store to leave, a young fellow came through the double doors pushing a cart full of meat out of the big cooler in the back. I stopped and asked him, hoping against hope, if they had any baby back ribs. He pointed down at his cart and said, “Here’s the last of them.”
With no hesitation, I grabbed a 6-pound package right off his cart, thanked him, set it down on the edge of the cooler, got out my phone, turned on the Sam’s Club app, scanned the price tag on the ribs, pushed the button that said “Check Out,” paid for those ribs right there on my phone (old dog, new trick) and headed for the front door, where I showed the phone to John, the friendly door guard, who scanned it and said, “Have a great day,” and I headed for my car and home.
I thought to myself as I crossed the parking lot how lucky it was that I decided to take one more look and bumped into that kid with the cart. And then I thought, “That was just too coincidental.” If I had given up and headed for the door, instead of turning back for one last look, I wouldn’t have had ribs for supper last night. But something, maybe somebody, told me to turn around.
A Guardian Angel? Yeah, you might think I am goofy, but the other day, when my friend (everybody’s friend) Sister Thomas died, I said something nice about her on my Facebook page. And I prayed for her that night (not that she needed it). The next day, I think she paid me back, by telling me to go back and look for ribs one more time. I believe in that kind of stuff, especially when Sister Thomas is involved. I thanked her for those ribs when I took them off the grill last night. I think I have a new Guardian Angel. I will report back.
I followed that trip up with a visit to the Bis-Man Food Co-op on Thursday. Lillian’s been as hungry for tacos as I have for ribs, so I said I’d get the taco fixins’. It was a great trip. I went in the early afternoon, when I figured it would be the least busy. I was right. There were just a handful of people in the store, all of us wearing masks. I was in and out in about ten minutes. Added a watermelon to the taco fixins’.
Now you might think I’ve wasted a lot of your time and mine, writing about two insignificant shopping trips, but I’ve been pretty much in lockdown for three months, and these were big deals for me.
I’m not downplaying the continuing danger. I’m really careful. I wear a mask. I don’t touch anything in the store except what I’m buying. I keep hand sanitizer in my car so I can clean up as soon as I leave the store. When I get home, I set the groceries on the counter, go back and wipe down the door knobs and anything else I touched when I came in, then wipe down each of the items I bought, and wash the fruit and vegetables in the sink, then wash the counter, then my hands, while saying (at Lillian’s instructions) two Hail Mary’s. So far, it’s working.
Tacos for supper tonight. And today, I’m making one more shopping trip, to Captain Jack’s for Chelada and Margarita fixins’. In the middle of everything, it’s the little things that matter.
KEEP ON THE SUNNY SIDE!
ndunavan June 26, 2020 at 12:49 pm
Enjoyed this immensely. ThanksReply
John Burke June 27, 2020 at 10:06 am
Thank you, Jim, for this thoughtful and, ultimately, optimistic essay. If ever there was an angel who walked among us, it would be Sr. Thomas. I knew her in the 1960s, and her wonderful spirit has remained with me ever since. As we learn to live in this strange new world, perhaps the Summer will be better than the Spring.Reply