april 26, 2020—southern MN drive by

We’re all doing what we must these days (except huffing Lysol, right?), to help flatten a silent, deadly threat that’s creeping across the globe. Still, I hope we never get to the point where donning a mask before heading outside becomes as reflexive as grabbing for the keys. I hope we never get to a point where spacing ourselves six feet apart from loved ones becomes more intuitive than gravitating toward one another. I hope we never get to a point where flinching and darting across the street is a more acceptable social grace than smiling and saying hi as we pass on the sidewalk.

I am dangerously close to exhausting my sad supply of hand sanitizer, and if there’s any to be found in the Twin Cities, no one’s letting on (or maybe I was just longing for an reason to break out of the city limits for a day…). Recently, my sister, Gretchen, scored a gallon from Drummers Garden Center in Mankato and offered to split her bounty. Since Gov. Walz’s shelter-in-place order allows leaving one’s home for “necessary supplies” “pleasure driving,” “outdoor activities” and “essential intrastate travel,” a drive down to St. Peter to acquire the goods seems to fit for each of those edicts. My plan: cruise to St. Peter, get the goods, cruise back home.

But, typical me, I never stick to a plan—I tend to wander far and away and back again, and today, in spite of tight restrictions, was no different. First stop: Gretchen’s, where we stand too far apart in the parking lot; Rocco strains at his leash, I release my grip and he tears across the lot, nearly knocking Gretchen over with his over exuberant greeting. Out of the back of my ol’ Jeep, I fill spray bottles with 80% ethyl alcohol that smells like tequila gone bad (which is either redundant or an oxymoron depending on your thoughts about tequila), thinking this is another scenario that I hope to never repeat. I toss Gretch a few handmade masks to give to her apt. building handyman a kind, funny man, nearing, if not already in his 80s, who shovels snow from her patio and plucks litter from the parking lot, and fixes doorknobs that fall off and light switches that don’t switch, and doesn’t watch much news—he’d asked Gretchen the other day, with great concern, what’s the deal with this virus and should he be worried and what should he be doing, which broke my heart. The least I could do is offer a couple of masks to help ease his worry. I try calling Jill and Kurt, to pay them a quick visit while I’m in town, but neither answer.

Instead of turning back toward Mpls, I get a wild hair to swing into Mankato, where I am graced by the blessed sight of Joe and his dad, Jesse, who come out to the front step of Joe’s apartment building to say ‘hi.’ Joe’s dad, likely the sweetest man on the planet today, was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor just as the pandemic shit hit the fan; by a divine grace of something that no one will ever be able to explain but we fully, reverently acknowledge, Joe was able to bring his dad, who lives near Madison, WI, to Mankato to be with Joe for home hospice care. Other than bare-bones hospice staff, and brief, scarce outdoor visits from much farther than 6 feet away, they are robbed of so much that should be part of Jesse’s care and Joe’s support right now…still, they’re managing hospice with a side of pandemic with grace and wisdom, quiet times and humor, lots and lots of movies and home cooked meals …I hand over another couple of homemade masks and a goodie bag of treats from the co-op; after a too-short visit and a reluctant good bye, I buzz over to my brother Mikey’s, on the other end of town, where I catch him coming out of the garage, about to tackle some lawn work.

It takes more than a few minutes to catch up with Mikey (he and Kim have a big blended family so there’s a lot to catch up on, and Mikey’s a talker and a joker, so much like our dad in that way, he always has a great story or three to tell), still, our time goes too fast. I finally let Mikey get back to his yard, then suddenly realize I’ve been so busy being elated at seeing everyone in person, I’d forgotten to take photos to document our visits. I snap a few of Mikey, then quickly back-track back to Joe’s, for a couple pics of him and his dad, before heading back toward home.

In the meantime, Jill learns of my appearance in southern MN and wants to take a social-distancing walk. She, Gretchen, Rocco and I converge on a corner in St. Peter, then meander the small city, taking note of green buds, tulips and crocus that have burst open, the aroma of magnolia laced with grilled brats and burgers fills the air. Everything about this scene—my sisters and me walking and talking and laughing and taking photos—feels normal, but everything feels more than slightly off-kilter, too, and I hope the off-kilter part is another thing that we never have to get used to. We keep our walk short, and at the end, perform a traditional Hildebrandt good-bye that’s as long as the spaces between us, before Jill takes off for her home. I walk Gretchen back to her place, and after more goodbyes, finally slide into the Jeep, to head back to Minneapolis.

As I leave St. Peter, I swing by my brother, Kurt’s house on the edge of town, hoping to catch them at home (where else would they be?). My niece, Katy, emerges from the house and breaks into a big smile when she sees me pull into the drive. Her brother, Shea, appears, another big smile, Kurt and Teresa, also smiling, appear soon after; they’re in the middle of a big landscaping project—why hire out help when the kids are around possibly forever, Teresa says. They fill me in on their vision for the gardens, that Noah’s back up in Mpls, that Teresa’s picked up a new pastime—quarantine hair cutting. One more too-quick visit, another quick photo op, another lump-in-my-throat farewell, before I finally climb back into my Jeep and point it toward Minneapolis, for real this time.

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