Category Archives: Grief

The Cigar Box

Snow fell softly. The old man pulled his threadbare wool coat a little tighter to ward off the cold. He reached up and scrunched his worn and tattered hat down until the brim was just above his gray wiry eyebrows. He shuffled up to the walkway and stopped to look at the old house. It was a white two story wood frame home with black shutters and an old slate roof. Paint was peeling in some places and the shutters had faded with age. The bushes in front needed trimming in the spring. The front porch was just as he remembered it – an old wood 2-seat swing still hung suspended by chains at one the end of the porch, and the vintage metal patio chair, that could use a coat of Rust Oleum, still sat in the same place. He could hear the squeaking of the porch swing somewhere in the cobwebs of his mind. His eyes closed as he remembered the sound. She was once with him on that swing. The corners of his mouth formed the start of a smile, but the image in his mind quickly faded away. The front door was freshly painted a festive red, different than the one he remembered. A holiday wreath hung below the porch light – just above the doorbell. A brass plaque on the door was etched with the last name of the woman he had tracked down – “McIntyre” – the current owner of his childhood home.

He looked down at his scuffed brown shoes and thought again about turning around and leaving. Too much time had passed. He knew he would never find the answers he was searching for, but he had come this far. Maybe it was still there, after all these years. He stuffed his hands in his coat pockets, shuffled up the walk, grabbed the black rot iron railing for support, slowly climbed the 3 wooden steps up to the porch, and stood in front of the freshly painted door. He stared at the doorbell for a moment, then pushed the button.

He heard footsteps on the other side of the door, then the muffled click of the deadbolt sliding back. The door opened and the woman smiled at the old man. “You must be Jim.” she said. “Please come in. I was so glad you called and told me your story about growing up in this house.” She opened the door and stepped aside as Jim nodded his thanks and entered his childhood home.

“I put on a pot of coffee, or I could make you some tea. You must be freezing. Here, let me take your coat.” Jim shrugged off his coat, removed his hat, and handed them to the woman who draped them over the familiar banister by the staircase leading upstairs. “Thank you.” he said. She led him down the short hall to the kitchen. Jim sat down at the small table and looked out the window at the backyard. It seemed smaller than he remembered, but the tree where a tire swing once hung, and provided hours of summer delight, was much larger now, and its canopy would certainly shade the once sunny yard where they had played.

“Would you like cream and sugar?” she asked as she placed a mug of coffee on the table in front of him. His memories of the past flickered away as he nodded yes. She turned and opened the refrigerator, picked up the carton of half & half, got the sugar off the counter, and put them on the table. She poured a mug of coffee for herself and then sat across from Jim.

“It must feel strange coming back to the house where you grew up. I’ve only lived here for a few years, having bought the place from the Gotliebs several years ago. She lost her husband and her kids moved her to a retirement center just off the town square. They didn’t need the headaches of owning another house, so they put it on the market and priced it to sell. I lucked out – right place, right time – and bought it after my husband and I divorced. I don’t have a lot of money to fix the things that need fixing, but I’ve tried to spruce it up where I can. “The door looks nice.” Jim said. “The place is smaller than I remember, but I feel like it was only yesterday that I played catch with my friends in the backyard, or sat on the on the front porch swing with…” Jim’s voice trailed off. His eyes watered. The woman noticed and reached across the table to put her hand on the old man’s arm. His hand was shaking as he picked up the mug to take a sip of his still black coffee.

“After the war dad got a job at the textile factory as an oiler for the machines, and used his GI Bill to buy this house. I was pretty young, but I remember it seemed old even then, and dad was always puttering with his projects around the house. There were other boys in the neighborhood that I played with – right out there in the backyard.” Jim said as he pointed out the window and took another sip of his coffee. “And there was a girl.” His fingers drummed softly on the sides of his mug. The woman listened quietly as Jim summoned the words to continue.

“Her name was Martha. She lived right next door. We all went to school together – not always in the same classroom, but we were pals and stuck together. The guys anyway. Martha always tried to hang around with us, but you know how that goes. We were young bucks and hadn’t seen the need to let a girl hang out with us. She was plucky and didn’t take to us saying ‘no’ to her. She’d just show up in the park when we were going to play ball, or at the drug store when we’d walk down to get a pop. I guess she wore us down, because Martha just became one of the guys – we never gave it a second thought. Well, I guess I did. There were a few times that Martha and I would sit on the porch steps as the other guys walked home after playing in the backyard. We just sat and talked until her mom yelled out their front door that it was time to come home for dinner.”

The woman got up from the table and refilled their coffee mugs. Jim smiled and thanked her. He wrapped his hands around the mug and let the warmth sooth his gnarled fingers. Moments of silence passed before Jim continued.

“By the time we were in high school my buddies started getting their driver’s licenses and finding girlfriends. Some played sports, others of us had to get jobs. I ended up working at the hardware store on the highway after school. We still hung out together – mostly on weekends – but on the way home from work I’d walk by Martha’s house. She would be sitting on her front stoop as I turned the corner and walked up the street. Even from a distance I could see her look in my direction – my heart would skip a beat when she smiled. As I got closer Martha would get up and meet me on the sidewalk in front of her house, take my hand in hers, and walk next door to my house where we would sit on the swing together. We’d just talk. We laughed a lot.”

“There were some days when I’d come around the corner and not see Martha on the front stoop. My heart wound sink, then I’d remember she had a dentist appointment or activity after school. One day, as I walked by her house on the way home, I saw an envelope propped up by the stoop. I slowed down and looked. Squinting, I walked closer. It had my name on it. I reached down and picked it up. I opened it as I walked up the steps to our front porch. Inside was a stick figure sketch of a boy and a girl, walking, and holding hands. I smiled, folded the paper up, and put it in my pocket. That night I went down to the basement and got one of my dad’s old cigar boxes that he used to keep screws and nails organized. I took it back upstairs and put the drawing in it. Every boy has a secret hiding place for a Playboy or a pack of cigarettes. Mine was behind a loose board in my bedroom closet. It wasn’t very big, but I never had a lot of contraband to hide. The cigar box fit in the small cubbyhole if I turned it on it’s side. The board fit snuggly over the opening to my secret compartment.

Over the next two years we were inseparable. The cigar box got filled with notes, drawings, trinkets, gum wrappers folded into silver hearts, theater tickets folded into airplanes, birthday cards, IOUs for a present when one of us had some extra money, a matchbook from a restaurant we went to, a fishing lure from a fun evening fishing off the public dock at the park, and a chapstick that had touched her lips. I had to use an oversized rubber band to keep the lid closed. Those years were the best years of my life.”

Jim grew quiet and the woman stood and said “Would you like a tour of the house? I don’t know what things are the same and what things may be different, but I’d like to know what you remember.” Jim nodded and got up to follow her. They walked down the hall, back to the front door, and turned to go into the living room. The front window looked out past the front porch to the sidewalk and street. “This is where our Christmas tree was placed.” Jim said. “I remember how big it looked with all the lights – those big bulbs we used to have. And the gifts under the tree.” He looked around, taking in the memories. The room had been painted a different color (and he wondered how many times, and how many colors, and he wondered if the floral wallpaper of his youth still remained under various coats of paint). The hardwood floor, cold on his young and always barefoot feet, was now hidden under the somewhat soiled and worn carpet. The woman saw him looking and offered an apology – new carpet was one of the things she wanted to get for the house. Maybe next year. If the car made it through another winter without needing repairs. Or new tires. The list is long, but carpet is on it. Jim smiled at the woman. She looked away.

To break the uncomfortable silence, Jim said “I remember the dining room being green. Dark green.” They walked back past the front door and looked around. It was much lighter now and the hardwood floor was still there and looked quite nice. Someone had had it refinished along the way. The woman sat at the dining room table and Jim sat, too. “Did you and Martha stay together? Did you get married? It seems from the way you’ve talked about her, that you two were meant to be.” His hands rested on the table, his fingers woven together, and he stared off into the distance as his mind wandered back in time.

“After I graduated from high school I got a job at the textile factory where dad worked. Martha enrolled at the community college and started taking classes to become a dental hygienist. We began making plans for the future when the letter arrived. I had been drafted into the Army. While this changed our plans, we decided to pack as much into our summer as we could before I had to report to Ft. Lewis for Basic Training. That summer we became more than friends, if you know what I mean. We just didn’t see the need to wait any longer, and knew the future could have risks if I was sent overseas (which I knew was more than certain). During that wonderful summer more than a few items were added to the cigar box which remained hidden in my closet.”

“I made it through Basic Training and went on to my AIT school that fall. My orders arrived after I graduated and I had a 3 week leave before I left for Vietnam. Martha and I knew we could get through the year apart and would just put our plans on hold until I got back.”

Jim’s eyes watered up with tears and he rubbed to clear his reddened eyes. His chin quivered as he tried to continue. “I was 2 months into my tour when the letter arrived from Martha’s mom through the Red Cross. Martha had died in a car accident on her way home from class.” Jim started to sob at the table. The woman got up and walked around the table to put her arm around his shaking shoulders. Tears ran down her cheeks, too. The old house was silent except for the anguished cries of the two who shared one’s pain.

The daylight had faded. The woman stood to turn on the dining room light, and dimmed it with the switch. “Jim, would you like to see the rest of the house? Your room? You came back for a reason, and I’m glad you’ve shared part of this journey with me. But there is more to see. Something to find.” Jim wiped his shirt sleeve across his eyes. The woman walked into the kitchen and came back with a box of Kleenex. Jim thanked her as he pulled a couple sheets out of the box and dabbed his eyes. “I would like to see my room” Jim told her. They got up from the table and walked back into the entryway. Jim started up the stairs and then turned to look back at the woman who was still standing by the front door at the bottom of the stairs. “Take your time, Jim. I’ll make some more coffee. Maybe I’ll see if I still have some brandy in the cupboard.” Jim nodded and turned back to go up the familiar stairs for the first time in so many years.

He walked by the first bedroom – his parent’s back then – with just a glance. Then past the small bathroom (which still looked very much like he remembered – no major upgrades – and the memories came flooding back). The next door was his old room. He stopped in the doorway and looked in. The floor, the window looking out over the backyard, and the electrical outlet below the window (one of only two in the room). Jim chuckled when he thought of all the gadgets he tried to plug in at once, and his dad yelling when a fuse blew – plunging the house into silent darkness. The room was a guest room now – not filled with all the “guy stuff” that filled this room years ago. He walked inside and sat on the edge of the bed. The closet door was in front of him. It was closed. A calendar hung on the door where his dartboard used to hang. He looked closer and saw the tiny holes, painted over, but still visible, where darts that missed the target stuck in the door. There were quite a few – he laughed when he remembered how bad he was with darts. His friends were even worse.

The smile faded away as he recalled another letter he received in Vietnam, three months before he could come home. His dad had lost his job when the textile factory had suddenly shut down. He had found another opportunity, but they had to sell the house and move across the state. Money was tight and they had to move quickly. Before he could write back to tell his dad about the cigar box in his closet, the house had been sold, the movers had boxed up their things, and his dad had relocated for his new job.

So many years had passed, and the house had changed hands how many times? He wondered if someone had discovered his secret hiding place and found the cigar box – his only remaining connection to Martha. She was still the only woman who had ever captured his heart. Hearing his name called out by the First Sergeant at mail call had always been a high point in his day while “in country” and away from home. Letters from Martha warmed his lonely nights. The day his name was called, and the letter arrived from Martha’s mom, everything changed. Too far away to help, too far away to grieve, and too busy in Vietnam to even cry. He kept his promise to Martha – to keep his head down and come home in one piece – but it was never even considered that he would come home to shattered dreams. Jim never found his footing. He wandered from one job to the next after leaving the service. He stumbled from one relationship to another – never finding again what he once had and lost. It was this lonely journey that brought him back here. To this house. This room.

Jim stood up slowly. His legs stiff. Tired of wandering. He moved forward and approached the closet door. His boney hand grasped the old glass doorknob. Firmly. With long lost determination he turned the knob and pulled the door open slowly. The closet was dark and smelled faintly of mothballs. He reached forward for the string that used to hang from the bare light bulb. It was still there. He gave it a tug, but the bulb was burned out. He reached into his pocket and pulled out his cellphone, pushed the home button, turned around, and used the soft light to illuminate the wall just above the door. As a boy he had to stand on a box to reach the board, but today his fingers found the edge of the wood where it stuck out just enough to get a grip with his fingernails. He pulled and the board moved. Another tug and the board fell to the floor. Jim closed his eyes and said a prayer to a god he had given up on many years ago – maybe he pleaded, maybe he bargained, maybe he just yelled at god to make this right. He kept his eyes closed as he reached over his head and into the cubbyhole. His fingers touched the cigar box then lifted it out of his secret hiding place (which evidently had served its purpose well for over 50 years). He sat down on the floor of the closet and wept as he removed the rubber band that had grown brittle with age. The lid sprung open exposing a box chocked full of a lost love’s treasured mementos.

“Jim? Are you ok?” The woman came into the bedroom carrying a tray and saw him sitting in the closet. “I thought you might need some light – I brought a flashlight. And some brandy. Can I join you?” She saw a genuine smile crawl across the old man’s face. “Yes, I’d like that, very much.”

For the next hour or two, and the better part of a bottle of brandy, the two new friends sat together on the floor in the dark closet, lit only with a flashlight, and went through all the simple contents of the box – each having a story – and celebrated one life lost, and another life found.

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And then there was a Hummingbird

The house seems so empty. I still yell out “Hershey, we’re home!” when I come in from the garage. I still do a double-take when I walk through the kitchen and see her empty dish, thinking I’d let Hershey run out of water. My morning routine of yoga on the living room floor still has me watching down the hall for her to come out and sit by me. The last piece of toast always belonged to Hershey – I still look for her at my feet before reluctantly putting it in my mouth.

After Hershey was cremated I knew I would spread her ashes in places that meant something to us – under the Bucky Tree in our yard, at Lake Minnetonka along the shore where she ran, and on the path around Staring Lake where we walked together almost everyday when I started losing weight. At first I wasn’t ready to let go of her ashes – they remained on the mantel in the box and velvet bag, by the photo-book I had made at Shutterfly of her life with us, and a snip of her fur that I cut off just before the vet arrived. A shrine of sorts, I suppose. A place I could still feel the connection while trying to let her go. The weeks after Hershey left us were an emotional roller coaster for all of us as we found our own ways to grieve.

I was sitting at the small table on the front porch. Spring had turned to summer and I noticed that even the brown spot in the yard where Hershey did her business was starting to fill in with new green grass. My mind drifted back to “Rainbows and Butterflies” as I thought about how in the midst of my deepest sadness something surprising cuts through the gloom to let me know everything will be ok. I thought of Hershey and wondered what might happen. Nothing came to me.

Years ago I put a Hummingbird feeder in our yard. It became a family joke because as hard as I tried the Hummingbirds never came. Even the red plastic had faded with the passage of time. One year I didn’t even put it out. I had pretty much given up. This year we cleaned up the garden in front of our house, spread mulch, added new plants, and hung flower baskets. The bird bath is in place and I decided to try the Hummingbird feeder again. I cleaned it, filled it with properly mixed nectar, and hung it on the Shepherd’s Hook in a sunny spot in the garden. Then I watched. Nothing.

In the first days after Hershey was gone I’d sit on the front porch. At one point I remember saying “Hershey, bring me a Hummingbird. If I see a Hummingbird I’ll know you’re ok.” And then I told Veloice and the kids what I had asked Hershey to do.

For a couple of weeks I watched expectantly, cleaned and refilled the feeder regularly, but no feathered friends paid a visit to my obviously jinxed feeder. I knew it was a long shot – and Hershey never did listen to me, or let me know that she even cared. She usually turned her back to me whenever I talked to her. But I thought if a dog crossed the Rainbow Bridge, maybe they could put some serendipity into play for those who were left behind.

After spreading Hershey’s ashes under the Bucky Tree, and at Lake Minnetonka with Kayla last week, I had a small amount left to spread during my daily walk at Staring Lake today. I parked the car and walked the short distance to the pier where I sat on the bench and thanked Hershey while I sprinkled some of her ashes into the water. I walked the 2-1/4 miles around Staring in silence and sprinkled the remaining ashes at different places along the path where I remembered being with her. Then I drove home.

The box on the mantel is now empty and I guess I felt like today I let her go. I walked into the kitchen to get my keys and looked out the kitchen window – a Hummingbird was flitting around the feeder. And I’ve been watching it all afternoon while I write this.

There is nothing miraculous about a Hummingbird finding a feeder, but today? After years of hanging the feeder, trying and giving up, only to try again, unsuccessfully? Really? After I told Veloice that Hershey would send me a Hummingbird? It shows up an hour after I get home from spreading the last of her ashes at Staring Lake? Seriously? I asked Hershey to bring me a Hummingbird so I’d know she was ok. It happened. You can call it a coincidence, but I know better.

For weeks my tears fell at the very thought of Hershey being gone. I clung to her ashes. Today I let her go and my heart is full of joy. I know Hershey is free and I know she will always be close to my heart. Upon seeing the Hummingbird today, I felt reassured that one day I will cross that Rainbow Bridge and see Hershey racing toward me, yelping with glee.

Of Rainbows and Butterflies 

Like most people, I don’t understand God. Religion can be a straight jacket the older I get, and spirituality seems too easy and forgiving for any disciplined search for answers. I came to the conclusion many years ago that humans had just climbed out of the goo, as is evident from reading the headlines of any newspaper, and Homo sapiens have a long way to go before they evolve enough to have any serious grown-up relationship with a creator. In the meantime we fuss with the meaning of life and maybe accept the fact that anyone who says they have all the answers – doesn’t. But I still feel the presence of God in many ways and continually seek a relationship with that creative, mysterious, loving power that seems to be woven into every nook and cranny of this amazing creation that is all around us.

When I pay attention to the whispers in my mind, and to the random occurrences that happen around me – every minute of every day – sometimes the two intersect in a moment of serendipity where the meaning of a random happening is suddenly transformed into a moment of wonder and awe. This story is about several of those moments that slowly came together over many years. Ordinary rainbows and some migrating Monarch butterflies came into my life at times of pain and despair, were seen in their moment of serendipity by a mind that was willing to see, open to understand, and have provided comfort for many years now – that everything will be just fine.

Mom

The cancer diagnosis came way too early in mom’s life. Still in her 40s, mom had a mastectomy and chemo. After almost 5 years the cancer had come back again. Another mastectomy, radiation, and more chemo. They didn’t have all the anti-nausea drugs that we have today, so mom would go through terrible days of sickness after each chemo treatment. During her 14 year battle with cancer she found some strength and solace in her Bible Study Fellowship classes and we had more than a few talks about God, faith, life, and death. It was during one of those talks when I visited her in Minneapolis, shortly before she died, that mom told me that I could always find her in a rainbow.

The call came a week later. I had just arrived at my office when my sister called and told me mom was not doing well. A short time later she called me back and told me mom was gone. I drove home and met my wife at the door, tears streaming down both of our faces, went inside and packed a bag for a trip back to Minneapolis. The next few days were a blur of activity as we helped dad adjust to a strange new reality and plan mom’s memorial service. A few days later I returned home.

I got my bag out of the car and walked up the steps to our front door and went inside. My wife gave me a knowing hug and we went into the kitchen to talk about my trip. At some point in the conversation I was standing by the counter and telling her about my last visit with mom and img_4470how she told me I could always find her in a rainbow. A smile spread across my wife’s face and I asked her what was wrong. She pointed at me and said “look at your sweater.” I looked down and saw a small rainbow dancing close to my heart. It was being cast by one of those little crystal balls that you hang in a window, but still! We both laughed and said “mom’s here, and everything is just fine.” I had my wife grab the camera and take a picture – and I’m sure glad I did. It wimg_4474asn’t the last time mom showed up in a rainbow.

In our bedroom is a print of Jesus hugging a person in the clouds – a simple image that conveys the comforting message that God has one more surprise when the time comes. One afternoon I walked into our bedroom and my eyes were drawn to the picture where a colorful rainbow was dancing across the glass. I had been thinking about mom and the serendipity of that moment put a smile on my face. I felt mom close by and knew everything would be just fine.

It was a Friday afternoon, the car was packed with our camping equipment, cooler, and sleeping bags, the kids piled into the backseat, and we were off to Litchfield for the weekend. We drove through the town and found a city park with campsites by a small lake and a playground close by – it was perfect for our weekend getaway. We picked our site and unloaded the car. The sun was getting low so I got the tent up as fast as I could while Veloice started getting our cooler and cook-stove ready to make dinner. That’s when I felt the first drop of rain. The sky to the west had darkened and we scrambled to get things inside the tent and car befoimg_4469re it poured. Thankfully, it was a quick afternoon shower and the sun came back out as it slipped closer to the horizon. The kids and I started getting ready to make dinner on the picnic table when Veloice said “look!” I turned around and saw a huge rainbow just over the trees behind our campsite. Without a second thought I yelled “hey mom!” just as Veloice took a snapshot of me pointing to the rainbow. It didn’t come out in the photo very well, but it was there and it was a great way to start the rest of the weekend. On Sunday afternoon we took down the tent, packed the car, and headed back home. After putting things away I walked into the kitchen where Veloice was sorting through the mail and the Sunday paper. “You aren’t going to believe this” she said handing me the colorful comic section of the paper. Right on the top was “Ziggy” standing by his tent, looking at a rainbow over the trees, and saying “hey mom, I’m home!” I stared at the comic for a minute thinking about the rainbow over our tent on Friday and saying “hey mom!” img_4468-3too. It took a minute to realize that Ziggy was saying “hi” to Mother Nature in the comic, but the serendipity of that moment was beautiful. If it hadn’t rained on us, or if the evening clouds had blocked the setting sun, there would have been no rainbow, or if it had rained an hour earlier we wouldn’t have been there to see it. A million reasons why it might not have happened, and one very good reason why it did. Of course, the Ziggy comic strip could have been about anything else that Sunday, but it was a rainbow over a tent and mom. Rainbows happen when conditions are right – there’s nothing special about sunlight refracting through water droplets into a spectrum of color. And there’s nothing astounding about a comic of Ziggy recognizing Mother Nature. But when the two random acts happen together, and your mind is open to being aware of the serendipity of that moment, a new memory is created with a meaning that is larger, and more heartfelt, than either of the events by themselves. The rain, sunlight, and comic all came together in a moment of wonder. The amazing found in the mundane. Thanks, mom.

Dad

As a young boy I was very fortunate that our family had a summer place in Silver Lake, WI. My great-grandfather had purchased it in 1898 and it was a place that all of our extended family enjoyed over the years. Dad was a movie buff and usually had a camera in his hands. He would splice the film and add titles providing a wonderful movie record of our exploits at the lake. There is one scene that dad took of me when I was probably 10 years old, sitting on the end of the pier as the sun went down. The lake was calm and the sunset was beautiful. Dad used that shot as the final scene in that summer’s home movie. Dad always liked sunsets, and I saw some of the best during my summers at Silver Lake.

After mom passed away, dad and I grew very close and we spent lots of time on my boat on Lake Minnetonka. I remember taking him tubing on his 70th birthday and seeing the terrific sunset that filled the sky as we put the boat on the trailer for the short trip home. If mom had rainbows, dad had sunsets.

Dad’s final years were a slow decline as Alzheimer’s took its toll. Just before Christmas one year I told dad we should take some photographs and I’d help him write some cards to his friends. Veloice took a bunch of shots of dad and me standing in front of our fireplace. Once the roll was used up she handed me the camera and I started to roll up the film, but noticed there was one shot left. I said “hey, dad! I got one more picture to take.” and he threw his arms up and had this big smile on his face. I snapped the shot. When the photos were developed I picked the best ones to send to his friends in their Christmas card, but that last shot was priceless and I framed it to keep.

I got the call that dad had fallen and I rushed over to Pioneer Estates where dad had been living for the last few years as his Alzheimer’s progressed. Seeing he was in pain and had bumped his head, I drove him to the emergency room where he was evaluated. He had a bleed in his brain and the prognosis was not good. We moved dad to hospice and made sure he was comfortable. The days slipped away, and so did dad. I was there early that morning, reading the paper while the Frank Sinatra tape played in the background. His pulse was thready and I knew the end was near. The dawn was breaking outside the hospital window and I looked at dad. His eyes opened – they were as clear as ever – and I wrapped my arms around him and told him it was ok to go. Mom was waiting for him. I told him we would be fine. Then he took his last breath. I looked up at the ceiling and said “You did it! You did it your way.” and knew that he was no longer in pain. I turned and looked out the window – the sun had just come up on that crystal clear May morning and there were two sun dogs. Rainbows. Mom was here to take dad home. I smiled and looked down and saw the framed photo I had taken of dad with his arms up and that huge smile on his face. After going through years of Alzheimer’s there hadn’t been lots of smiles. This photo told me he was ok now.

Dad was cremated and had requested we take his ashes back to Silver Lake. I called Skip McCallum (a friend who had purchased Silver Lake from our family many years before) and he said that would be fine. A couple of weeks later I made the trip back to the lake. After catching up with Skip he told me to head down to the pier with dad’s ashes. Sitting on the end of the pier, and remembering all of the wonderful times we had spent together at Silver Lake, I simg_4472prinkled dad’s ashes on the surface of the water. He must have known what I was doing because the sunset kept getting better and better until the sky and the reflection in the water exploded into the most spectacular sunset I had ever seen. I felt the pier shake and turned around to see Skip coming down to join me with a tray of Gin & Tonics. I knew everything was going to be just fine. Dad had choreographed his final scene at Silver Lake.img_4471

Grandpa

The call came early in the morning – before sunrise – and awakened me from a sound sleep. My wife, Veloice, had gone back to Belmond, Iowa to be with her dad while he had surgery to put another stent in his heart. I knew any call this early could not be a call I wanted to answer, and I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. I had shaken Bill’s hand just last weekend after the annual 4th of July festivities in Belmond – an annual ritual for our family. We knew he was going back into the hospital for the procedure, and I wished him a speedy recovery as I turned and walked out the door to join the rest of our family in the van for the trip back to the Twin Cities. Never once did the thought cross my mind that those would be our last words to each other. Things had deteriorated quickly during the night, but nobody had expected him to pass away due to complications from the procedure.

I answered the phone and heard my wife say “dad died” through her tearful sobs. Those two words hit me in the chest like a sledge-hammer. Everything we said to each other in the following moments seemed empty and meaningless, just a feeble attempt at comforting when you knew the other person’s world had just been turned upside down. Knowing Veloice would have her hands full, I told her I would call the kids and make arrangements for them to get back to Belmond. I woke Kayla up and told her that Grandpa had passed away during the night. She wept in my arms as we sat together on her bed and hugged each other tightly. Then I called our other two daughters, Megan and Emily, and broke the sad news to them as gently as possible. By mid-day Kayla and I were in the car heading south on I-35 back to Iowa. Megan and Mike would soon be heading down from the Twin Cities and Emily was catching a plane home from college. It was a silent ride as Kayla and I felt the sadness overwhelm our hearts with each passing mile.

When we arrived at Veloice’s childhood home, and I walked up the same steps that I climbed so many years ago when I first came to meet Veloice’s family, we joined the rest of the family who were also dealing with their own shock and sadness. There were hugs and empty stares; there were tears and words of assurance. But most of all there was just emptiness as each of us began to comprehend the hole in our own lives now that “Grandpa” was gone.

The day quickly filled with dreaded but necessary activities: Grandma was already meeting with her former neighbor and funeral director to make arrangements for Grandpa’s service. Veloice and her brother, Todd, were making calls to friends and relatives while Todd’s wife, Ann, and I tried to keep the kids busy.

By late afternoon I wandered out to the screened in porch out back. I sat down in one of the cushioned patio chairs and felt the emotions well up inside of me. Then I cried. It was through teary eyes that I first saw the Monarch butterfly. I watched it flit around the bushes, just on the other side of the screen. Maybe I was thinking about God’s miraculous universe, or maybe just about the simple beauty of a lone butterfly in the middle of an emotional hurricane – but it captured my attention and a sense of peace came over me. From bush to bush, it fluttered, stopping occasionally to sit on a leaf with its wings slowly folding up and down. Never staying in one place for very long, it was off again, fluttering around the bushes in a delightful dance. Then it was gone. I smiled and was about to get up when it came back and started its dance all over again. This time I felt something else stir deep inside of me and my heart started to sing!

I heard the familiar “slam” of the screen door and looked up and saw Todd – his slouch and long face so uncharacteristic. “Your dad’s here” I said pointing at the butterfly that continued to linger outside the porch. Todd looked at me and I realized how silly that must have sounded to him. Bill, the consummate outdoorsman, would have picked an elk or an eagle, maybe a deer or a pheasant – surely not a butterfly. What was I thinking? But I looked at Todd and said “I really think he’s here right now.”

In an instant, my mind flashed back many years, to a conversation with my mom shortly before she passed away: she told me I could always find her in a rainbow. Since that day I have always marveled at beautiful rainbows, smiled, and said “hi mom!” I also remembered when my dad passed away in my arms and how I looked up at the ceiling after he took his last breath. I knew in my heart that his spirit was still in that room. When I turned around and looked out the window at the early morning sunrise, I saw two colorful “Sun Dogs” and knew mom had come for dad. Those rainbows were a reminder from mom telling me that everything would be ok. Now, as I watched the Monarch, I had that same feeling again, and started to laugh as I watched the butterfly continue its carefree dance outside the patio screen. I was sure Bill’s spirit was here, telling us it was ok. But why a butterfly?

Later that afternoon I had to drive back to the Twin Cities, but would return the next day for Grandpa’s service. I headed out-of-town taking the familiar country roads back to the Interstate. In the distance I could see “the tree” – a tall evergreen that stands alone in a small family cemetery, by the country intersection where you make the turn to drive into Belmond on the two lane blacktop. Over the years it had become a standing joke with our family. Every time we would drive to Belmond Veloice would always say “Have I ever told you about that tree?” and we would all laugh. Her dad had always used that tree as a “landmark” in knowing where to turn on his way back to town. For over 30 years, we had too.

As I pulled up to the stop sign my tears fell again. I looked over at the tree and said “You should be bowed over right now!” That’s when a bunch of Monarch butterflies swirled around my car. img_4502No, there were hundreds of them! They were everywhere! I’d never seen anything like it and my tears turned to laughter once again as I thought about the butterfly outside the porch. Bill was here letting us know, maybe in our own ways, that everything was fine. Still laughing and crying at the same time, I started to turn left and was careful not to hurt any of the messengers in that cloud of orange and black fluttering wings that swirled around my car. As I drove away, watching the intersection and lone evergreen tree fade into the distance in my rearview mirror, I kept thinking: why a butterfly?

Once I got home I went right to the basement and found what I was looking for – the wooden Monarch butterfly that Grandpa had made for us years ago to hang outside by our front door. As I held it, and gently brushed off the accumulated dust, I finally understood the significance of the butterfly. It was his hands that had made so many things over the years. It was his tools and the small, cramped workshop where so many family treasures that fill our homes today were created. It was his carving and painting. It was his love of nature and his creativity in making gifts for all of his kids and grandchildren. It was his humor. And it was his love for each of us. I was hanging it up in a special place on our 3-season porch when Veloice called to see if I had made it home alright. My voice was shaking as I told her about the butterfly outside the screen, and the swarm that surround my car by “the tree” when I left Belmond. It had taken a while to understand, but once the Monarch was hung I smiled as I thought about the serendipity that is such a wonderful mystery in our daily lives. It’s all around us, but we have to be open to it. Sometimes it’s easily found in quiet moments, and in other times it has to push through the veil that separates our earthly lives from the place that we have known only in our hearts – a place where our spirits dance with butterflies, where butterflies can find us even when we forget them, and where they can still remind us that everything is just fine. Thanks, Grandpa. I remember.

Grandma

Enough time had passed since Grandpa died and Grandma was ready to get on with her life, activities, and her friends in Belmond. Veloice and Todd had helped her move into the retirement center and tackled the endless list of tasks to empty the house and get it ready for sale. Grandma had just settled into the next chapter of her life when she came up to visit our family in Minnesota.

She had just seen her doctor in Belmond but he shrugged off her concern. It was just a cough – probably a cold or something. Veloice, an oncology nurse, insisted she come up to Minneapolis to get it checked out. While not unexpected, our prayers had failed to change the prognosis and the doctor’s words stunned us once again. It was lung cancer and the following months were filled with radiation and chemo treatments while we took care of Grandma in our home. Unlike the suddenness of Grandpa’s passing, we watched as Grandma’s health declined with each new day. There were good days and bad, there was laughter and hidden tears. There was the hum of the oxygen machine and the hours spent sharing stories from the past. Each day became ever more important as time kept slipping away.

When the doctor told us that there was nothing else they could do, the family and kids all came home to be by Grandma’s side. On that last morning I knew Veloice and Todd needed to be with their mom and offered to take the younger kids with me for the morning. We went to Round Lake Park in Eden Prairie so they could play and get some fresh air. As we got out of the car I lined them up and said “Now listen to me – if I whistle I want you all to come running. I don’t want to hear about only ‘2 more times down the slide’, or ‘can we stay just another 10 minutes?’” They agreed and ran off to the playground. I walked slowly over to the play area and sat down on a bench to watch the kids. I started looking for a Monarch butterfly, but there were none around.

A little while later I saw one of my neighbors pushing a stroller and said “Hi Julie!” She saw me and came over to say hi. “What are you doing?” she asked. “Watching for a Monarch” I replied and then told her about Veloice’s mom. As we sat together on the bench, I told her about the Monarchs that I had seen after Veloice’s dad died, and the rainbows that I had seen on so many occasions since my mom had passed away. I just knew that Bill would come to take Jean home – just like mom had come to take dad.

Our conversation turned to the kids while they giggled and laughed on the playground and we all soaked up the warmth of the sunny morning. A moment later I looked at Julie and said “my phone is about to ring.” She looked at me quizzically. I pointed to a lone Monarch flitting around in front of us. She looked back at me, her eyes saying everything, and then my phone rang. It was Ann, “Grandma just passed away.” “I know. Grandpa was just here to take her home. I’ll be right there.” I whistled for the kids and they came running.

The ride to the hospital was quiet – all of us deep in our own thoughts – each of us having been here before – young and old alike. We walked into the hospital room and joined the rest of our family around Grandma who had slipped away peacefully. I know in my heart that Grandpa came to tell her it was ok to let go. So did I, as I sat on the bench and watched the Monarch dance and remind me once again that life is full of so many wonderful miracles and mysteries that most of us miss, or disavow, because it’s “safer” than letting in the incredible. We make up excuses to explain things we don’t understand, because believing is harder than denying. But in God’s amazing creation, anything is possible – and everything is possible. In the case of Rainbows and Butterflies, well those were for me. They both have roots in the relationships of people who were important to me, and both came back to me in ways that brought comfort in the middle of pain. And yet both are simple things of beauty that fill our world every day. As I get up in years I spend more time looking back and hoping I’ve made the right choices – it’s pretty obvious to me that I’ve come farther than I have yet to go. I have my own experiences and  have made my own choices and am willing to live with their results – maybe that’s what leads to having some wisdom as you watch others around you. But as I grow old, I want to think more with my heart and less with my brain. I don’t need to figure it all out or have all the answers. It seems to me that the important answers in life have always been there, and in plain view all the time.

Do you make time to sit outside once in a while and watch for butterflies? Do you see their colors and get amazed by their flight? Have you read about the migration of the Monarch – from Mexico to Canada? Or are you more worried about your stock portfolio? As I’ve told you in this story, I already know that Monarchs do more than fly from Mexico to Canada – they carry the wishes and “Good News” of others on their wings. They bring hope and assurance in their dance among the bushes. They really are as simple as the magnificent colors of a rainbow, embossed across a dark, angry sky – the sunlight after the passing storm letting you know that everything is ok and creating a wonder before your very eyes. Do you rush outside after the storm to look for the rainbow? Or do you worry about the branches that are hanging out of your tree? I think there is room for both, but we tend to forget to look for the rainbows in our lives and only find time to worry about things that we already know will pass.

Rainbows and Butterflies – messengers of the Creator – sent when I needed them most, and reaffirming that my life, and the lives of those around me, have always been in good hands, and that everything will be just fine.