october 27, 2020…moving pictures, part 2

Moving Pictures. A Farewell Tour to 25 years in the Twin Cities, part 2.

#1. Oldridge Avenue revisited, Feb, 2005 – August 2011: In 2005, we moved from our beloved bungalow in Roseville to a groovy li’l ’70’s walk-out rambler in the country near the Wisconsin border, a year after I opened my salon. “The best of both worlds,” our realtor said about “country living close to the city.” And for a very short time, I concurred.

“The worst of all worlds,” I soon thought about this land of Michele Bachman and imposing, stone-cold McMansions, where neighbors kept to themselves and friends didn’t come to visit and the dreaded commute that I had so far avoided my whole adult life became a necessity not a choice, where Bob had his first heart attack, then our sweet husky, Liddy died, then my dad died, then Bob’s cancer, and then, and then, and then…

I started writing things that weren’t epic Christmas letters while living here—first on CaringBridge when Bob had his first heart attack in 2007, then on a blog, when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009. The blog’s only intent was to share with family and friends what was going on with Bob, who, when all was said and done, would spend more days in a hospital than in our home during those 19 months he was ill. All he ever wanted, when he was in the hospital, was to be back at his home in the country. All I ever wanted, when he was in the hospital, was to be anywhere but alone in that country home. After over a year of assault by treatment and disease, a few days before Christmas in 2010, I brought him home to our country house for good, for hospice.

I trailed him like a shadow those long, last days; I couldn’t leave him alone for any length of time, for fear he’d fall, he was so frail, more confused every day. But, even in such a state, dammit if he wouldn’t sit still for a moment for me to catch my breath, for me to catch a few winks—instead, he’d fumble and stumble through the house, from bed, to living room, to bathroom, back to living room, back to bedroom, round and round we orbited our small hospice universe, occasionally collapsing into bed, only to repeat the routine throughout the night. The days were mostly uneventful, though.

Shortly before he died, we were in the bathroom together late one night; I was waiting for him to finish so I could clean him and help him back to bed. The end was too close, I couldn’t stop crying, I couldn’t stop our little universe from unraveling, I couldn’t stop him from dying, I couldn’t stop anything, but forever a control freak, it didn’t stop me from desperately trying.

“I’ll take care of you like this forever, if you promise not to leave me,” I bartered with tears.

“You say that as though I have a choice,” he laughed quietly at my words.

“Will you give me a sign then, after you die, to let me know you’re nearby, that you’re okay?”

“I can do that, as long as you quit saying I’m leaving you,” he said with a weak smile. He sat quiet for a while then announced, with surprising clarity, “I’ll send a great horned owl.” My heart sank. Great horned owls were a dime a dozen out here in the woods.

“I won’t know which one is from you,” I whispered.

“Don’t worry, you’ll know,” he said. He was so serious and so sick, what else could I do but believe him? He died a few weeks later, on May 3, 2011.

The emptiness of his absence swallowed me whole, as black holes are wont to do, nightmares don’t follow rules and didn’t leave when daylight appeared, instead, gnawing on me from the inside-out. The gouges carved into woodwork from his walker, the camping gear lining the shelves in the garage, the soundtrack from the music of his memorial service that wove in and out of my brain all hours, for days, then weeks, then months on on end interrupted conversations, kept me from sleep, never let me forget. I couldn’t press pause, I couldn’t hit stop, songs I used to love now haunted and repelled. At night, I’d stand on the cold dark deck in bare feet, where we used to have wine parties, and scream into the blackness till my dogs ran for cover and my voice grew raspy and my neighbors must have wondered why banshees liked to congregate on our property.

In the wake of Bob’s death, everything, like me, was breaking down and giving up. The washer stopped washing, the dryer stopped drying, then the freezer began leaking, the ceramic cooktop refused to cook. Our trusty ol’ lawnmower, that barely had a patch of actual lawn to mow, fizzled out. I fixed every one of those things myself, thanks to YouTube and an unhealthily-developing aversion to allowing anyone, even repair people, into my world. My mom stayed with me a lot out here, she told me later she feared for my life. She willingly (?) agreed to help me move all our furniture from the first floor to the finished basement and the basement furniture to the first floor, I was desperate to scramble the memories, dismayed that no matter the reconfiguration, they remained front and center in my brain.

She was with me when the chimney began drip, drip, dripping into the fireplace when it rained, when the garage flooded in spring and we had to shovel knee-deep water out and around the building to the ravine below. She was with me when massive tree branches from the oaks that umbrellaed our house, felled by wind, crashed onto the deck and the roof. It was as though the house was the external expression of what was raging inside of me. She had good reason to be fearful.

Things got harder, not better, on Oldridge. I didn’t cook, I didn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I slid deeper into despair. But I did paint the kitchen, and the interior of every closet, and the vertical blinds, and I started swinging kettlebells, which sounds like an odd thing to do in the throes of grief, which was my dear friend, Lisa’s fault. Lisa, who had unexpectedly lost her beloved son, Sam, shortly before Bob, invited me to a class, “It’s a small group—everyone knows I’m the crazy grieving mom—you can be my crazy widow sidekick, we’ll be quite the spectacle. Yes, you will still bawl your eyes out in class—Roni, our instructor is so cool about it—but you will also think about not dropping a 25 lb. cast iron cannonball on your head, too…” And I got my motorcycle license, which, in hindsight, is probably the worst thing a person in the depths of grief should be allowed to do, then my kettlebell instructor’s certificate, then my Pilates teacher’s certificate and then, and then, and then…

The nightmares in the house were relentless. One sleepless night a few months after Bob’s departure, with the soundtrack of his life looping in my brain, I hopped on Craigslist, my eyes sliding down the list of “Homes for Rent” until they came to rest on a boxy old stone house in the Cathedral Hill neighborhood of St. Paul. Reasonable rent (reasonable for a crazed widow with a $2200 mortgage and no job), no garage, perfect size for me and two dogs . . . after shooting an inquiry email to the owner, after quelling the looping music with the only way I knew how, a couple of stiff gin and tonics, I slid into fitful sleep. The next day, I signed the lease for this old home, paid the deposit, move-in date set for mid-August.

I drove home afterward, collapsed onto my sofa and cried like I had yet to cry since Bob died, which was an impressive feat, because for the past twenty-two months, all I did was cry. I was getting really good at it, as natural as breathing. I was pummeled by worry: what the hell am I doing? I can’t just move—I don’t have this house ready for sale, it’s a terrible market—what if it doesn’t sell? Am I dishonoring Bob’s memory and all he went through by leaving his beloved country cottage? what if, what if, what if. . . I lay on the couch, heavy sobs wracking my body. I was so tired, I wanted my eyes to close forever, my mind to grow dead still.

From the corner of my eye, I saw a bright flash outside. I wanted to lie there, ignore the flash but then, I was standing. Then, I was walking through the patio door. Then I was standing on the deck. That time of year, our backyard, choked with towering cottonwoods, expansive oaks, slender birches, would fill in so lush and full, it was nearly impossible to discern anything else from deep layers of foliage. Sometimes, I remember, I did love this house, because it felt like we lived in the treetops. I stood on the deck, my eyes scanning the landscape. For what? I wasn’t sure. Until the thick backdrop was interrupted by a shadowy football-shaped silhouette that grew feathers as I stared. Then, the piercing gaze of a great horned owl, perched on a low branch just beyond the deck, burned through to mine. How I found it, I couldn’t say. I’m a terrible birder—they all look like black blobs to me. It was broad daylight, an odd time for a great horned owl to be out and about; sunlight couldn’t penetrate to its shadowy location, no crows were harassing it. The owl was so close, I could see its golden eyes blinking, the mottled pattern on its chest expanding and contracting with each breath, the breeze flicking at its tufted horned feathers.

We stood still for several minutes, staring at each other until the owl finally broke the stare-down. Turning its head to look behind, then back at me for one long last gaze, the owl alighting from the branch and slid into the woods, swallowed by layers of green. I wish I could say that with the appearance of this owl, the despondency that had settled heavy into the spaces between my cells suddenly drained out of my feet, through the slats of the deck, seeping into the ground below, but that would imply a fairy tale ending, and unfortunately, that’s not what happens when you let your head rule your world.

#2. Iglehart Avenue, St. Paul, from August, 2011 – January 2012: I’ve written a lot about this old stone house on the cusp of St. Paul’s Cathedral Hill neighborhood. An awfully expensive, horribly maintained, absolutely charming drafty box of a house, with windows so sagging in their frames, my mom feared someone would slide a blunt object between the frame and window, pop it open and gain entry. I never did tell her about the time I found a butter knife on the outside sill of my kitchen window when I was weeding flower beds.

I submitted 30 hastily-assembled pages from my blog to Hamline University at the literal 11th hour, and was accepted to their MFA in Creative Writing while here. I watched drug deals outside my living room window while here. I saw a SWAT team tear across my front yard and storm an abandoned house two doors down. Nearly every home on my block, except mine, was burglarized that summer; my mom said people are going to get suspicious of the widow and her two dogs in the old house. I was only here 6 months before some of the brain fog dissipated enough for me to admit that I couldn’t continue to pay for two homes indefinitely. Which, in hindsight, was the absolute wrong decision, but again, when brains take over…I begrudgingly broke the Iglehart lease and moved back to Oldridge in the middle of winter in 2012.

Back to Oldridge, Feb. 2012 – May-ish 2013: My beloved old dog, Gaia, died shortly after we moved back to Oldridge. I tried selling the place conventionally with a realtor, I tried unconventionallly, for sale by owner, I tried renting the house out and in the process, inadvertently coaxed every shady character to crawl out from under every rock in the tri-state area and try their hand at swindling the grieving widow on Oldridge. In the end, CitiMortgage beat them to it. I waged a two-year battle with said lender, trying to prove that “death of a spouse” was an actual hardship. They didn’t buy it. I lost handfuls of hair going head-to-head with our lender (which I thought about collecting and sending to them as more proof of hardship). I lost the equivalent of ten years of sleep. I lost an alarming amount of weight, which prompted people to say, “You’re looking great! Things must be getting better, huh?” I learned that’s how others will determine how well you are doing, by your exterior, and I thought, “hmm. Maybe I need to let loose my inner shitstorm in public.”

I started grad school while back at Oldridge. I began teaching kettlebells and Pilates back at Oldridge. I finally threw my hands up in exasperation and walked away from the house on Oldridge, in the spring of 2013, back to St. Paul, declaring firmly that never again would I fight like a madwoman for an inanimate object. Another human being? Absolutely, always, every time. But a material thing, a resounding no.

#3. Detour—Park Row, St. Peter, MN. May 2011 to December 2018: My mom’s cozy living room in her dollhouse apartment in St. Peter, MN. I probably spent more time tucked into the shadowy corner of my mom’s sofa, than anywhere, for a very long time after Bob died. I probably should have paid half her rent. Of the three girls in my family, most who know us would say I am the most independent (some might say headstrong, stubborn, obstinate, whatever). I used to think this, too. Curiously, though, I have many pictures of me as a little girl, practically welded to my mom’s side. I notice this recurring theme throughout the years, me and my mom, cheek to cheek, arm in arm, squeezing her shoulders, clutching her waist, like she was my lifeboat, and I was a ragged sail attached to her, flailing in the wind.

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