When Death Becomes a Mystery

We know that we are going to die. We read about death in the newspapers. People we know and do not know. Obituaries are posted on social media.

The further away a death is from me the less I question it. It’s just a fact. People die.

But then Sam Spratt died. He was 25 years old. On Wednesday, May 19, 2021, he was in a car accident and died at the scene. He was our neighbor and Juan and Crystel’s caregiver for over four years. Death suddenly became a mystery to me. Why did Sam die? Was he done living his life? Did he accomplish all that he wanted? My world instantly felt less safe. I was nervous getting in my car. Now I knew I could die. If Sam could die, I could die.

There is no more do-over for Sam. What he did in this life is done. Or is it?

Sam’s funeral was overflowing with young, middle-aged, and old people. Friends, neighbors, relatives, high school classmates. Attendees spoke about how kind Sam was. How understanding. The deep conversations they had.

Juan and Crystel experienced the same with Sam. Sam was 12 years old and the kids were 5 when he started nannying for us. Monday to Friday he came to our house while Jody and I were at work. He even spent an occasional overnight when Jody and I were out of town.

Sam and our children became a familiar sight throughout the Richfield community and parts of Edina. For years they pedaled their bikes to dentist and orthodontist appointments, Tae Kwon Do, swim lessons, movies, library, restaurants, bowling, swimming pool and the neighborhood parks. Sam took on the additional responsibility of Juan and Crystel’s friends for play dates in our backyard swimming pool.

I was compelled to write a blog post about our experience with Sam when I read a parenting book that warned against having a teenage boy babysit – the children would be at risk.

With intention, Jody and I welcomed Sam into our home and into our lives. We were blessed to have this teenage boy responsible for our children’s safety.

On Easter five weeks before he died, Sam walked down the street to our house to visit with Juan and Crystel. He was planning to come to their graduation party in June. “He wouldn’t miss it!” he said. The three of them chatted as they would do, cajoling and teasing each other. Juan and Crystel were ‘his kids.’ He had taught them how to read, made sure they brushed their teeth, and that they weeded the garden.

Now he’s teaching Juan and Crystel about death, grief, and loss. How to navigate when a loved one is no longer with us.

His death continues to be a mystery to me. I’m still asking questions. Still pausing my mind when I pass the area where he died.

Sam was right, though. He did show up for Juan and Crystel’s graduation. I finally looked at Juan and Crystel’s picture boards at the end of their graduation party. Juan had many photos of himself, Crystel, Jody and me on his board. Prominently displayed in the center was a photo of Juan, Sam and Crystel.

I’m reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day.

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?

I nurtured two souls, Sam can say. I gave them my heart and they gave me theirs. To that end, I taught them love for another.

Sam Spratt October 17, 1995 – May 19, 2021.  Never forgotten.

Rest in Peace, Patty C.

I first met Patty in 1978. We were both English majors at Drake University in Des Moines. I was in my early 20s, she in her mid-30s.

We didn’t have a lot in common.

I lived with a roommate I didn’t like in a campus dorm. She lived with her husband and young son in a four-bedroom house about 15 minutes away. I was a poor college junior who spent my weekends drinking beer that cost $1 a pitcher. She spent her weekends with her parents, swimming in their indoor swimming pool and sipping cocktails graced with fruit from their lemon and lime trees.

Both English majors, Patty and I were paired up on a class paper we worked diligently on to earn an A. I no longer recall what grade we received, but we became good friends in the process. She enjoyed hearing my stories about dorm life, and I liked hearing stories about her parents’ home and lavish lifestyle.  

Looking back, what I think we enjoyed most was sharing our hopes and dreams with someone who not only truly listened, often for hours on end, but also believed in our ability to achieve those dreams.

A year later, in December of 1979, I graduated and moved back to Minneapolis where I went to work for the Minnesota Senate, first as a page and then as an intern researching DWI legislation.

In mid-August of 1980, out of the blue, I received a letter from Drake University’s English department offering me a graduate-school fellowship. In exchange for teaching two sections of freshman English and working 10 hours each week in the school’s writing lab, I would earn a master’s degree in English.

I wanted to accept the school’s offer, but I’d already spent all my savings getting my undergrad degree. And having been raised by a dad whose mantra was, “If you can’t pay cash, don’t buy it,” I was reluctant to take on more student debt.

But then Patty invited me to come live with her. And suddenly my dream of earning a master’s became a reality.

The rules for living at Patty’s were simple: two dos and two don’ts. Do empty the dishwasher each morning and do grocery shopping with her once a week. Don’t smoke pot in the house and don’t have sex with her husband (she’d once found him in bed with one of her best friends).

We quickly settled into a routine. Her husband dropped me off on campus on his way to work each morning, and Patty drove me home each afternoon after we had both finished our classes.

We read books and wrote papers, and spent our free time penning bad poetry, drinking beer (her husband worked at Coors) and frying ourselves in the sun.

We also talked a lot about our hopes and dreams. Mine started out modest, but she encouraged me to dream bigger and set goals. It was her encouragement that led me to set a goal of someday writing a book. (Decades later, thanks in large part to her, I did: a book on goalsetting that’s been translated into five languages and is helping young people around the globe set their own goals.)

I liked being part of Patty’s family. Quiet early mornings at the kitchen table sipping coffee and writing in our journals. Afternoons playing catch with her son or helping him with his homework. Weekends hanging out with her parents or her husband’s colleagues.

After 18 months, with classes complete, I moved back to Minneapolis.

For years, Patty and I talked often, regularly exchanged long stream-of-consciousness letters, some of which held our deepest desires and our darkest fears and visited one another now and again.

Eventually she and her husband divorced, and she moved to Arkansas. She also got sick: first with a mysterious disease that was never diagnosed, then with tuberculosis followed by heart disease. Along the way, she made me promise that I’d be at her funeral—no matter when or where—and that I’d make sure Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Free Bird was played.

But as the years passed, our letters got less frequent. And although we did come close to getting together in person a few years ago when I vacationed about 50 miles from her home, we never did as she’d woken up that day not feeling well and had to cancel.

I still wrote a couple of times a year. Sometimes I heard back, sometimes I didn’t. Then, I sent several letters that went unanswered. I wasn’t worried at first, but then sent a letter asking if I’d said or done something to upset her. When I still didn’t hear back, I wrote to her sister who called me immediately to tell me Patty had died several months earlier, most likely from a massive heart attack. Patty’s sister and son had wanted to tell me but didn’t know how to reach me.

There was no funeral. I’m glad, as I would have felt terrible missing it.

But I did download Free Bird to my phone. In honor of our friendship, I play it now and again, always with a heart full of gratitude to a forever friend who made a huge difference in my own life, not only by encouraging my early hopes and dreams but also by being the first friend who truly believed I could achieve them.

In Memory

Door County, WI: Sunsets are earlier. Black-eyed Susan dominates gardens as hydrangea fade. Squirrels fearlessly dart across sidewalks, decks and paths to grab early acorns. Field mice and chipmunks are in the same race for food stores.

Trees are beginning to change. Yellowing leaves increase in numbers each day. Kids still run on beaches and play wherever a swing set is not closed. Young people gather with cases of beer, many without masks. More cautious folks crowd outdoor dining places. Multi-generational families wander about as if it were August 1, not September 1. COVID has changed the normal rhythms of summer while Mother Nature delivers heat and humidity where houses didn’t need air conditioning ten years earlier. Lake Michigan pushes beyond its all-time high water mark, devouring docks and houses’ front yards.

When it already feels as if the stars are out of synch, COVID has taken the fathers of three friends or relatives. Three members of the Greatest Generation, living in three different states, in congregate facilities for three very different reasons. Friends and family called them Jim, Dom, and Marlin. They had eleven adult children among them plus almost four dozen grandchildren or great-grandchildren. Two were veterans and one farmed his entire life. Family photos show them joking with great, tall grandsons, sitting with the newest grandbaby resting on an arm, in wheelchairs by Christmas trees. These were men who loved and were loved.

Thanks to COVID, they died comforted by staff members as their families were mostly kept away. In the heat of August, sons and daughters mourned the once strong fathers who built businesses, walked fields, fixed tractors, painted houses, taught them to throw a ball, sang next to them in church, made the final journey of life without endangering family.

The Greatest Generation is disappearing as COVID ignites within our communities. They fought for our country’s freedom, raised families, built the cars and houses and machines of the 20th century USA, fed the world. In turn COVID has left us unable to protect them, not even gather for proper farewells.

As summer sneaks away, as our elderly pass in the settings meant to keep them safe, as our days of small social gatherings and playing games outdoors with our grandchildren are numbered, COVID is like the spreading black-eyed Susan which left unchecked threatens to obliterate the beauty of other blooms.

In honor of James Armstrong, Dominic St. Peter, and Marlin Hunt. With sympathy to their families and to all who have lost loved ones to this pandemic. Friends, please help friends stay healthy and strong.

Black-eyed Susan

A Larger Force

Healthy exercise respecting social distance in the neighborhood appeared difficult with a cluster of kids playing soccer, family groups stretching across walks and streets, dog walking people following the direction of their pets. We drove to the quiet side of a nature preserve where trails are seldom used on weekends. One car stood empty in the parking lot. Parents with a preschool child exited a different car.

We waited for them, but as shoe tying and other preparations continued we made our way to the trail map. The youngster, possibly unaware of social distancing, ran to join us and told her parents that she wanted to be lifted to read the map. Offering her their hands, they assured her they knew the way. We backed away as the child threw a hissy complete with screaming, stomping, and slapping. The right trail choice was any that would create space from the unhappy kid.

As grandparents we’ve learned about giving young children time to make wise choices instead of forcing action on them. Children of privilege are supported in making choices many times daily from choosing to wear clothes to daycare through patient questioning of resistance at bedtime twelve hours later. Family, friends, complete strangers, might be expected to wait while a child tests the limits or can’t choose. It takes a village after all.

Then comes COVID-19—no negotiations, no children making choices, no endangering strangers by ignoring social distance guidelines. The village has been forced into change.

From closed schools, to prohibited playgrounds that look the same as open playgrounds, to stores asking only one family member do household chores; parenting has pivoted in answer to the dual wham of pandemic and economic storms. Parental instincts to keep things normal for the kids are strained as jobs are lost, employers demand long work hours in the family’s home, distance learning replaces classrooms, and being homebound stretches. Hugs of grandparents, cousins and close friends disappeared with no known date of return. Parents have had little time to concentrate on adapting to new burdens, to problem solve, to explore their personal fears or worries.

Experts say our kids experience anxiety of this crisis just like adults. Some will lose a loved one or friend. The soundtrack of childhood has been interrupted to never play in quite the same way. COVID-19 is drawing new lines on the future maps of kids’ adulthood. Our six-year-old family member misses her classmates, her neighborhood friends, going places with her parents. She understands that the sickness means she can’t ride her bike with other kids, climb or swing at the park, be physically present with her friends. The sickness is beyond her parents’ control. She can make good decisions about a snack or activity, but bigger forces now set the limits beyond the front door.

Technology gives us time to talk, play games, be with family. A plate or two on the table and tiny faces on a screen may be how we celebrate this spring’s holiday and holy day traditions with those we love. Better than no connection, a card or a phone call. COVID-19 denies us the powerful comfort of each other’s warmth, smell, physical presence whether around the dining table, at a special event, at a hospital bedside. Some of us will stay healthy. Some of us will die in the company of strangers. No screaming, stomping or slapping can change what we have to keep doing. We will gather to celebrate or grieve in the future. God willing.

Stay home. Stay safe. Keep others safe. May your holy day traditions provide comfort.

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I Killed Her Off

Rosie and Oreo

Now that Jody’s home safe and sound, I can tell you that I killed her off. I often do this. Jody went to India for work for a week. For a fleeting moment she died, in my mind. How did that look? How did I feel? How would I tell the kids? Probably go to their school and take them out, I thought. I mean, I did it for the cat.

I got a call at work from a person in the area who found Oreo, Crystel’s cat, in their back yard. It was a rainy miserable morning. I told her that I’d be right there. After calling Jody, I drove straight to the middle school. Juan showed up in the office first. I took him to a side room. With tears streaming down my face, I told him Oreo had died.

Perhaps the school thought Oreo was a cherished Aunt or Uncle as I ushered the children solemnly to the car. Juan and Crystel wrapped Oreo tenderly in a blanket, carried her to the car and sat with the cat on their shared lap. We had surmised Oreo got hit by a car and went in the person’s back yard and succumbed to her injuries.

Jody met us at home. The four us stood in the back yard, pointing to where our other animals were buried: 4 cats, a dog, and a hamster. Crystel chose Oreo’s resting spot. In the drizzling rain we shoveled a hole and had a proper burial. Crystel asked to take the rest of the day off. No, it’s just a cat, I thought. I bought her a Chai tea at Caribou and returned her to school. The school counselor was very supportive. I didn’t have the heart to tell her Oreo was a cat. I let the kids do that.

I once went to a therapist who told me that my house would never burn down so I didn’t need to worry when I was away on a trip. I had confessed that I found myself sneaking a look around the corner to my house whenever I returned from traveling. I quit seeing her. What she said wasn’t true. A house could burn down. A barn could burn down. I had experienced both traumas as a young child. Don’t tell me it won’t happen.

Out of curiosity, I did look up to see whether worker’s compensation would apply if Jody died while she was in India. It does.

Killing Jody off doesn’t have anything to do with how far she travels. When she and the kids traveled to Maplelag, four hours from home, for a Nordic ski weekend, I killed them all off. Just for a moment. In that moment, I had their funerals planned, felt their absence and wondered what I would do with my sudden free time.

All week while Jody was in India I felt her absence. I noticed how her absence changed Juan, Crystel and me. The house was quieter, we were quieter. Her energy was no longer visceral. Gone were the hundreds of kindnesses she does in a week such as making me breakfast before the kids get up on the weekends. Later in the morning, on request, making Juan pancakes with chocolate chips. Grocery shopping with Crystel. Making me a week full of salads. It was like the three of us were in a holding pattern waiting for her to return to start our engines. Everything stood still. Except when I opened the door to bring the kids their latest takeout.

Jody most likely doesn’t know how important she is to me, Juan and Crystel. To our household. To the two dogs and two cats that are still living. She is our engine, our heart. What makes our family work as a whole.

I’m so glad she’s home.