The Great River Road, Part 1: Itasca SP to Grand Rapids, MN

“Rivers know this: there is no hurry. We shall get there some day.” – A. A. Milne, Pooh’s Little Instruction Book

This may be the beginning of a great adventure tale. At least that is our hope. Some bucket list items require a little more energy, boldness, craziness, and gas than others. Channeling our inner Lewis & Clark, we have set out to drive the 2,340-mile Great River Road that goes the entire length of the Mississippi River. We’ll traverse ten states, going at whatever pace feels right at the time. We’ll stop for the occasional roadside attraction, antique store, historic site, or interesting eatery. We’ll hike trails, attend worship services, and have conversations with some amazing people across this great nation of ours. Going against my usual Type-A over-planning mentality, we’re going to try to be somewhat spontaneous. We’ll be open to whatever opportunities and sights God sets before us. Helen Keller once said, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” While Miss Keller probably never envisioned (sorry) driving the entire Great River Road in an RV, I think she’s on to something. So let the adventure begin…

Click on the following link to watch a short intro video, then read on.

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August 22, 2015 – Day 1 – Itasca State Park to Grand Rapids, Minnesota

 Our previous blog covered Itasca State Park in some detail, so I won’t repeat that here. Our Great River Road adventure officially began there at the headwaters of the Mississippi River. We joined other tourists in walking across the stones that mark the official starting line, as Lake Itasca slowly and casually provides the waters for a small stream that will become a mighty river. After soaking in the significance of this place and moment, we attached our Honda Fit to the RV, piled in the RV like Clark and Ellen Griswold, said a prayer, and began our journey.

Bring it!
Bring it!

Our journey lasted 5 seconds. In what became the first of two “RV fails” in the first few miles of our journey, I messed up. Royally. In my rush to get going, I left out one critical step in hooking up the Fit. I kept the car in park, rather than putting it in neutral. So as I slowly accelerated out of my parking spot, something didn’t sound or feel right…and that became all the more apparent when a man ran out in front of me waving his hands and shouting something. I’m not sure what he was yelling, but “loser” and “idiot” would have been fair and accurate descriptions of me.

This sad episode in a Lake Itasca parking lot will go down in my personal pantheon of car fails. It ranks right up there with the time, while driving to Northern Burlington High School during my senior year, I suddenly observed a yellow traffic signal. Rather than accelerate through the light, I slammed on my brakes, causing my ’73 Mercury Montego to come to a screeching stop, while my right front hubcap flew off the car and sailed into a nearby field. As I pulled over and exited the car to retrieve my hubcap, several of my fellow high school drivers yelled at me as they went by. They said something about me being a “loser” and “idiot”. And then there was the time, a few years ago, when the control knob for our RAV-4 air conditioner somehow came loose and collapsed inside the dashboard panel. I did what any logical man would do…I set out to retrieve it using long BBQ tongs. Not only did I not rescue the knob, but I got the tongs stuck in the instrument panel as well. As I traveled to Scott’s Automotive to have Rob Hight fix my problem, I brainstormed possible explanations for BBQ tongs being lodged in the instrument panel. BBQ date night gone wrong? Driving With Tongs (DWT)? In the end, I brought Rob over to look at my instrument panel and simply said, “I’m an idiot and a loser.” He looked at the situation in disbelief, smiled, and silently acknowledged my assessment of the situation.

Aside from some nice skid marks across the parking lot, the Fit survived and a lesson had been learned. We exited the parking lot, crossed the diminutive Mississippi River for the first official time in the RV, and headed north toward Bemidji. Ten minutes down the road we had our second fail and lesson learned. We weren’t paying close enough attention and missed the marker telling us to turn right to stay on the Great River Road. Normally that’s not a big deal…just turn the car around. But on narrow, secluded two-lane country roads, you don’t just turn an RV around…especially with a vehicle in tow. After several miles, we finally came to a small Fire Department on the right with a small parking lot in front of it. I turned in to the parking lot…my second mistake of the day (well, third if you count the missed turn). You see the parking lot wasn’t big enough to execute a full turn around…and RVs with tow vehicles don’t do reverse. So, I had to put the RV in Park and exit, as Lil Jan mumbled something about “it’s okay, honey” or maybe it was “stupid loser”. I then had to completely disconnect the Fit, back it out of the way, reposition the RV, reconnect the Fit, etc. Aside from a 20-minute delay and my crushed ego, we were fine and got back onto the Great River Road!

Our first big stop was Bemidji…the first city on the Mississippi. Bemidji is perhaps best known as the home to Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, so we stopped by their statues to pay our respects. The city is also know for its fishing…walleye and other varieties on Lake Bemidji…and over 400 fishing lakes within 25 miles of the city.

We walked around the town in search of a Post Office, and stumbled upon The Least of These Social Change Boutique…a boutique and art studio with a bold vision: to change the world. According to the Bemidji Pioneer (local paper)…”the primary focus of this faith-inspired non-profit program is to engage individuals in volunteering their time, talents, gifts, and creativity to make our community and our world a better place. The new art studio will serve as a hub for both youth and adults to use creativity to raise funding and awareness for a broad range of social issues, causes and local and international non-profit organizations.” The owners, Jennifer Anderson and Jennifer Kovach, were in Uganda during our visit, but we had the pleasure to meet and talk to Heidi, a volunteer. Imagine that…the first person we met on the Great River Road is a volunteer…trying to change the world! How cool is that? Heidi explained that the name of the store is based on Matthew 25:40 which reads, “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ The owners acquire local hand-crafted items plus fair trade products from around the world in order to raise money for those in need…both locally and internationally. I kept thinking it’s the kind of store that Amber Colon and Bob Dorsey (friends of ours from Florida) need to open some day. Amber and Bob, you and others can read more about this store’s mission on their Facebook page… https://www.facebook.com/theleastoftheseboutique/timeline

Checking out The Least of These Boutique
Checking out The Least of These Boutique

In addition to helping those in need through store sales, Heidi and other volunteers create sleeping mats for area homeless people. Each mat is made out of 1000 plastic shopping bags. They cut the bags into loops, cut off the handles and the bottom seam, and loop the loops together to make a continuous string of Plarn (plastic yarn). Next, they crochet the balls of Plarn into 3 1/2′ X 6′ mats.  Meeting twice a month at a local church fellowship hall, the ladies have made 28 mats so far (using 28,000 plastic bags!). Each mat comes with a luggage tag explaining what it is, who it is from (Bag ladies of Bemidji), and the following Bible verse for a blessing: “When you lie down, you will not be afraid; when you lie down, your sleep will be sweet.” – Proverbs 3:24.

Meet Miss Heidi Henson
Meet Miss Heidi…An Unsung Hero Making a Difference

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox may be the most famous Bemidji residents, but we were more excited to meet Heidi and learn about her volunteer work at this incredibly cool store with an amazing mission. Many talk about helping the homeless, and then there are a few special people who actually do something about it.

The Bag Ladies of Bemidji
The Bag Ladies of Bemidji

With a renewed faith in humanity, we left Bemidji and traveled east to Grand Rapids. After taking in a movie (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation…which was quite good), we set up “camp” for the night at the local Walmart parking lot. As I listened to the hum of a generator on a nearby truck before falling asleep, I thought about the homeless out there who would sleep at least a little more comfortably as a result of the Bag Ladies of Bemidji.

Despite a rough start to the morning with a few RV fails, it was a good first day…and our journey is underway!

Big Steve

Changing the World...One Mat at a Time
Changing the World…One Mat at a Time
Mat Instructions
Mat Instructions

 

 

 

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Campground Review: Lake Itasca State Park, MN

Lake Itasca
Lake Itasca

Dates: August 20-22, 2015

Campsite: 77e

Overall Score: 4.42 (out of 5)

Summary: This massive 32,500 acre state park is one of the most beautiful places we’ve been, camping or otherwise. It is the second oldest state park in America (behind Niagara Falls) and the oldest and 3rd most visited state park in Minnesota. Its rolling landscape, created by glaciers thousands of years ago, conceals over 100 lakes within maple, oak, birch, pine, and spruce forests.

Bohall Lake
Bohall Lake

Recreation/Amenities: 4.8 – This park has something for everyone. We’ll begin with what it’s best known for…the Headwaters of the Mississippi River. Yes, the world’s third-longest river starts its 2,552-mile journey as a small wilderness stream that can be walked across. So we walked across it. Near the headwaters there is also an outstanding Great River Road interpretive center, museum and gift shop (more on the Great River Road in our next blog). There are 49 miles of hiking trails (we hiked about 5 miles of them). Recommend the 2-mile Dr. Roberts Trail, a loop trail with a few moderate hills along the east arm of Lake Itasca. The .5-mile, out and back Bohall Trail to the secluded Bohall Lake is also terrific. I can only imagine what it would be like to backpack for several days along the lakes and trails of the southern and western portions of the park. Additionally, there are 16 miles of paved biking trails, 28 miles of cross country skiing trails, 31 miles of snowmobile trails, and an 8-mile loop wilderness trail that can be done via car or bike. There’s also fishing, boat rentals (all varieties), a tour/excursion boat, a historic lodge and restaurant (order the Southern Pasta), and giant pines throughout the park. Note:  The modest .2 deduction is due to a lack of equestrian or dirt bike trails.

Miles & miles of trails
Miles & miles of trails

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Hookups & Connectivity: 3.5 – electric only, with dump station. Water sources (spigots) are located throughout the camping area, but not at individual campsites. Free W-Fi, but only if your campsite is close enough to the bathroom/shower building.

Lil Jan Crossing the Mississippi River!
Lil Jan Crossing the Mississippi River!
Watch out, kid, I'll push you in!
Watch out, kid, I’ll push you in!

Local Vicinity Things to Do: 4.5 – There are enough things to do in the park that there’s no reason to leave it. However, Park Rapids is 20 miles south. It features shopping, fishing, golfing, stage entertainment, and family music and comedy shows. Basically, the entire area in and around the park has hardwood and pine forests (for wildlife watching, camping, fishing, hiking/biking) and is also a winter playground with a vast network of snowmobiling and cross-country skiing trails.

Fire Tower
Fire Tower

Cleanliness: 4.6 – well-maintained campsite and facilities.

Intangibles: 4.7 …..

Pros – a good variety of campsites—some more secluded in the woods, some more open by the lake, etc. There’s a climbable 100-foot tall fire tower for a panoramic view of the Lake Itasca watershed. Good balance between hiking, biking, skiing, boating, and driving to explore the park. Contains the largest white pine tree in Minnesota…113 feet tall and 14.5 feet around. Be sure to stop at the Preacher’s Grove and walk under the giant red pines along Lake Itasca.

Headwaters of the Mississippi River
Headwaters of the Mississippi River

Cons – nitpicky, but at rush hour/check-in time, there were 6 or 7 campers backed up waiting to check-in. The check-in staff was competent and friendly, but the process took some time. There are lots of mosquitos (except in winter), especially at certain times of day (near dusk) and on certain trails (for us, that was the Blowdown Trail). So apply liberal amounts of bug repellant.

Lil Jan Chillin' as Big Steve preps for Weiner Roast
Lil Jan Chillin’ as Big Steve preps for Weiner Roast

If you want to travel the entire length of the iconic Mississippi River (and we do, and we are)…it all begins at the headwaters in beautiful Itasca State Park. It was named a National Natural Landmark in 1965 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. Put this one on your bucket list!

Big Steve

Pines along Bohall Trail
Pines along Bohall Trail

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Music City Memories

Although Lil Jan and I have visited some amazing places all over the world, some of our fondest memories happened in Nashville, Tennessee…Music City USA. It was in Nashville where we first laid eyes on each other, had our first date, and shared our first kiss. It was in Nashville where we fell in love, graduated from college, got married, and rented our first little duplex. We recently decided to return there to reminisce on some old memories and make a few new ones.

First on our agenda was a visit to our alma mater, Lipscomb University. As we strolled along the campus, we walked near what used to be an open field near the southeast corner of campus. It was on that field, in the fall of 1984, that the incoming freshmen class gathered for the freshmen mixer. Former Lipscomb President Willard Collins welcomed us to the university and, in his booming voice, invited us to enjoy the games and other festivities that evening. But he also gave us a warning. He said, “Be careful who you talk to tonight, because you might just meet your future mate.” (Sounds like a country song.) I laughed at that suggestion, not realizing that about 20 minutes later I would meet my future mate.

One of the icebreaker games that evening involved music being played while the entire freshmen class walked around the giant field. When the music stopped, the freshmen guys took a knee and each of the ladies would rush to find a guy’s knee to sit on. You then had 30 seconds to tell the other person your name, major, and hometown. As luck, fate, or perhaps Divine Providence would have it, Lil Janet Climer sat down on my knee and we shared our information. My recollection is that she instantly fell in love with me, although she maintains that by the end of the night, she simply thought I was obnoxious. Whatever. After the mixer ended, we ended up going with a group of new friends to McDonald’s. We both ended up in that group because my roommate, Kurt, was from her hometown. When Kurt and my other two suitemates got back to our dorm room later that evening, we pulled out our freshmen pictorial directories and one of us (probably me) suggested we go through it and circle ten girls that we potentially would marry some day. As I scanned the pictures and descriptions, I came across Janet Climer, the cute young lady from Summitville, Tennessee who had a charming southern accent and had spent 30 seconds on my knee earlier in the evening. Without hesitation, I circled her picture. A few months later I asked her out on a date, and randomly picked a dollar movie, because money was tight. The movie was Purple Rain, a disastrous choice. (Sorry, honey… “I never meant to cause you any problems…I never meant to cause you any pain…”). We somehow survived that date and have been dating ever since.

After strolling and reminiscing around Lipscomb, it was time to make our way to downtown Nashville. Our first stop was Centennial Park, home of the full-size replica of the Greek Parthenon. It’s a beautiful park featuring lakes, fountains, flowers, and walking paths. On these hallowed grounds, 28 years ago, we took our relationship to a whole new level. Asking someone to marry you is an enormous, life-changing, deal. I wanted it to be special and Centennial Park seemed like a special place to make it happen. I also wanted a record of what happened…some sort of proof in case she ever denied saying yes to the obnoxious Air Force kid from Tucson, Arizona. So I talked to my roommate, Dave Esslinger, and the conversation went something like this…

Dave: “Why don’t you just have me take some pictures of you proposing to her?”

Me: “Because I want it to be a surprise.   If she sees you, especially with a camera, she’ll know something’s up.”

Dave: “No worries. I’ll go under cover. She’ll never see me.”

Me: “I don’t know, it seems kind of risky.”

Dave: “Trust me, you guys will never see me. It will be like I don’t exist. But I’ll get some great photos.”

Me: “Well, alright, but we better not see you. That would ruin everything.”

Dave: “I got this. You just do your part and don’t worry about me.”

With the engagement ring in my pocket, I picked up Janet from her dorm, and we headed toward Centennial Park. As we drove into nearby Green Hills in Nashville, we decided to go through the Wendy’s drive-through to get a bite to eat (because what could be a more romantic meal prior to a proposal than Wendy’s?). As I sat in the queue to pay the lady at the window, I looked in my rear-view window and saw…DAVE!!! Yes, “Mr. Invisible Man”, “Mr. You’ll Never See Me” was in the car behind us, slumped down, head barely visible above the steering wheel, with a ball cap pulled down to partially shield his face. He was tailing us! In a Wendy’s drive-through! Unacceptable! I tried to remain calm and not draw Janet’s attention to the situation. Fortunately, she was pretty focused on her Frosty.

The Mighty Parthenon (replica)
The Mighty Parthenon (replica)

We pulled onto Hillsboro Pike and headed toward Centennial Park. I sped up, hoping to put some distance between Dave and us. No such luck. The right lane slowed, and sure enough, Dave went zooming by in the left lane, still slumped down, ball cap pulled down to his eyes. He looked like a Mario Kart character that had been rejected early in the design process. My heart nearly stopped, as I was certain Janet would notice him and suspect something. Fortunately, she never looked his way. We made it to Centennial Park and found a nice shady place by the water with a great view of the mighty Parthenon. We laid down on a blanket, talked about life, and for just a moment I forgot that Dave was somewhere out there on the prowl. I finally got up the nerve to pop the question. I asked her what she was thinking about. She said, “not much, just enjoying being here…what are you thinking about?” I slowly pulled the ring from my pocket, placed it before her, cleared my throat, and said, “I was wondering how great it would be for you to be my wife. Will you marry me?” She reached towards her face, fell back on the blanket, and said, “Yes! Yes!” As we embraced and soaked in the beauty of the moment, our bliss was interrupted by a middle-aged man walking by. He got our attention and said, “Excuse me. I hate to bother you. But there’s a man in a trench coat and ball cap behind a tree over there taking pictures of you.” Dave! Mr. Invisible! Well, at least he made good on his promise. We had our photographic evidence (now located in a scrapbook in a box in a condo in Florida), and by some small miracle, Janet never noticed him stalking us.

Centennial Park
Centennial Park

So there we were, in 2015, walking those same hallowed grounds. Unfortunately, we couldn’t come to any agreement on the exact spot where I proposed. In hindsight, I should have asked the city of Nashville to erect a monument there. Or maybe Dave could have rented a spy plane and taken some aerial photos. After strolling around some more, we headed to Hattie B’s Hot Chicken for lunch. Wow! Hot chicken! Where have you been all my life? Public service announcement: go there and get yourself some hot chicken and thank me later. We waited in line outside in the heat for 30 minutes to get in, but it was worth the wait. The hot chicken was…HOT! I had sweat beads on my forehead and tears in my eyes before I even got to the pimento mac n cheese. (That, too, sounds like a country song.)

Hot Chicken! That's what I'm talking' bout
Hot Chicken! That’s what I’m talkin’ bout

After finishing our meal and sharing a banana pudding, we headed toward Nashville’s country music district. We strolled passed the Ryman auditorium and ducked into Tootsies Orchid Lounge, the famous watering hole. Country singers like Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Waylon Jennings have all visited or performed at Tootsies. In fact, Willie Nelson got his first songwriting job after singing there. Songs have been written about it, and movies (including “Coal Miner’s Daughter”) have been filmed there. We went in to see what all the fuss was about, but mainly because I had to pee. The place was packed to max capacity, with an aspiring country band jamming on the small stage by the front door. I had to turn sideways and shuffle sideways through a gauntlet of drinking, singing, and partying country fans and tourists. This is how diseases are passed. I somehow negotiated my way to the bathroom, and took my place at the urinal next to a Cowboy with dip in his mouth and a bit of a scowl on his face. For some unexplained reason, I looked over at him, violating urinal protocol, especially at a country & western bar. Then, equally unexplainable, I felt the need to make small talk… “I’m here with my wife.” He didn’t speak…he simply nodded once, looked over his opposite shoulder, and turned and exited without flushing or washing his hands.

Great music, no personal space
Tootsies…where Legends are born

Our next stop was the Country Music Hall of Fame, which turned out to be well worth the admission price and a great way to spend a couple of hours. We saw Elvis’ gold Cadillac, hundreds of exhibits, old footage of country music history, the original hand-written lyrics to country songs, and much more. We then walked across the Pedestrian Bridge for a great view of the waterfront and Titans stadium.

A Legend
A Legend

On our way back toward the parking garage, I decided to surprise Janet with a short detour to our final stop…queue the Star Wars theme song…The Hermitage Hotel! Like Centennial Park, there are no monuments or historic markers devoted to us at The Hermitage…but there should be. Because on March 25, 1988, we spent our wedding night at the Hermitage! As we entered the lobby (in 2015), I was pleasantly surprised to see they had set out delicious homemade cookies and lemonade for us. Assuming these amenities were part of our original hotel room price from ’88, I helped myself to them. My plan was for us to spend several minutes reminiscing about our wedding night, but it was mostly a blur. We didn’t remember where we parked, our room number, or who made the first move (pretty sure it was me, though). As far as we can recall, we were alone and whatever happened in that room was a good thing. (Possible words to a country song?) At least it was good enough to celebrate in the lobby with cookies and lemonade 27 years later!

I can explain...
I can explain…

I’m thankful that Lil Janet Climer sat on my knee at the freshmen mixer, and that I circled her name in the freshmen yearbook. I’m thankful that I asked her out and that, 3 years later, I asked her to marry me. I’m especially thankful she said yes. Nashville may be known to most people as a place where country music legends are made. But to me, it will always be the place where I fell in love with my soul mate. That, too, could be a country song.

Big Steve

P.S. While in Tennessee recently, we enjoyed a meal in historic Bell Buckle with our famous, invisible photographer, Dave Esslinger, and his lovely wife, Bonnie. Dave is now an elementary school principal in Franklin, and Bonnie runs an antique store in Columbia, among other entrepreneurial pursuits. It was great to catch up and talk about old and new memories with them!

Bigs Dave & Steve Antique-ing
Bigs Dave & Steve Antique-ing
Bonnie & Lil Jan Acting Quaint
Bonnie & Lil Jan Acting Quaint

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Oreos and Morphine: Reflections on a Journey’s End

I hadn’t planned on writing this blog. It would be easier to simply close this chapter of our lives and move on to the next thing. It’s not a travel adventure and it’s not funny, so you may want to skip it altogether. But I’m going to share these experiences because writing is therapeutic for me, and I’m in need of therapy. Also, our experiences may help others facing similar challenges or decisions in the future.

My precious mom died a few days ago at 77 years of age after a long battle with cancer originating in her bile duct. My dad, sisters, and wife, along with a handful of other caregivers, joined together to care for my mom over the past several months. I will spare you some of the details because they are too sensitive and not appropriate to share outside of our family. I really just want to reflect on some of the decisions we faced and some of our lessons learned from this experience.

  1. Be Tough. Watching a loved one slowly die is a gut-wrenching, emotionally draining experience. Being a personal caregiver for the person, and not just a visitor to a hospital or nursing home, makes the whole process even more difficult. If you ever have to do this, you better come with a soft heart surrounded by a layer of toughness, because this will test your compassion, toughness, and resiliency like nothing else. Initially, I compared the process to that of parenting an infant or toddler. But there is a key difference. In most instances, the parent of a baby is anticipating that their infant will grow and reach milestones like their first step, first word, or first day at school. That’s pretty motivating. With a dying person, the milestones involve a progression of physical deterioration and other seemingly “bad things”, at least until the very end when your loved one’s pain is gone. Although the period of time was much shorter, we found caring for a dying parent much more difficult than anything we had to do while raising our two sons.

suck it up

  1. Weigh the Care-Giving Options. It seems there are 3 basic ways a person’s life can end. 1) quickly, as in a car accident or sudden illness that takes their life immediately or in just a few days. Case in point: My paternal grandfather was in seemingly good health for a 79 year old, but died instantly following a heart attack while out walking his dog. 2) a prolonged illness in which the final weeks, months, or years are spent in a nursing home of some type. This was the case with my other grandfather, who spent the last several years of his life in a nursing home suffering from chronic health issues. 3) a long-term illness in which the person remains at home for several months or years and is cared for there until the end. The decision on whether to care for a loved one at home or place them in some sort of facility can be really difficult. We seriously considered putting mom in a nursing home and even visited a couple of local facilities. But, ultimately, dad decided that he, along with his family, hospice workers, and friends could work together to provide for my mom at home during the last several weeks, and that’s what we did. I’m glad we did that, although there were moments when I would have voted for the nursing home. Dad even said that had it not been for his network of family and other caregivers, he would have had to place mom in a local facility. Each situation is unique, but I think you have to factor in the condition of the person, type and expected duration of care, availability/willingness of family and other caregivers to help, availability of long-term care insurance, and possibly other financial considerations (the two facilities we visited would have run over $6400/month, although that was not really a factor in keeping mom at home).
  1. Minor in Pharmacy. If you decide to care for a dying person at home, you will need to become proficient in understanding and administering a host of medications. Our hospice nurses were beyond wonderful and guided us through the process. However, on many a night, we had to make judgment calls on the amount or frequency of morphine and other medications, within the parameters set by the nurses. This becomes even trickier when your loved one can no longer verbally communicate pain levels, and so you must rely on signals like a furrowed brow. Another difficult stage to navigate is when the person is medicated and cannot think rationally, but is still mobile. If you’re a heavy sleeper and/or are not physically in the same room as your loved one, you may need to consider child-proof locks on doors or turning off the gas to the stove. This will help prevent your loved one from roaming at night and harming themselves or others.
  1. Work as a Team. Difficult end-of-life situations can either bring a family together or tear it apart. I’ve heard horror stories of families fighting over a loved one’s possessions or arguing over the care-giving options. Stress can bring out the worst in people. I’m so thankful that was not the case with my family. We came together, worked as a team, and encouraged one another. One of the benefits of this is that it allows others on the team to take much-needed breaks from caregiving. Janet and I were able to go on several morning hikes, and take quick trips to Nashville and St Louis, because either my sisters were coming in for the weekend or some other caregiver would be there. We were also able to get my dad out of the house to attend church services and for two rounds of disc golf, which allowed him to get a breather and re-charge his spiritual battery. There was also a stage where mom would call out for assistance every few minutes for hours at a time, and we took turns on sitting with her and responding to those calls. We were a close family already, but this situation brought us even closer. Our team was also blessed with some amazing, non-family caregivers…Lynn, Sharon, and Faye from AseraCare Hospice-Nashville and Tina from my parent’s church. In addition to caring for mom, they were constantly encouraging us and were sympathetic to our needs. Thank you, ladies.

Caregiving 2

  1. Marry Up. On a similar note, I couldn’t be prouder of my wife, Lil Jan. If you want a classic case of rising to the occasion, she is it. I well remember her wedding vows to me, which involved loving, honoring, and cherishing…for better or worse…in sickness and in health, etc. But the context there typically involves doing those things for the spouse…not necessarily the mother-in-law. She did very difficult, exhausting things for my mom that went well beyond even a broad interpretation of those vows. She had my mom’s back and she had our family’s back. Her love and compassion for my mom was extraordinary, and truly modeled the unconditional love of Christ. We sometimes kid Janet because she has a “bossy gene”, and both sides of the family will often defer to her on what restaurant to go to, where to go on vacation, etc. It takes the pressure off when we “just let Janet decide”. Whether we call that bossiness or simply leadership, I can only say her determination and boldness in ensuring mom got the right care and right dosages…often at 3 in the morning…was needed and appreciated. I married an amazing woman and I will always remember the compassion she showed my mom.
  1. Expect Bizarre Words & Actions. When cancer spreads throughout the body and your loved one is taking morphine and other medications, they will eventually become “not themselves”. By that I mean they may begin to say things or request things that are bizarre or nonsensical…similar to a heavily medicated toddler. As an example, my mom began to request Oreo cookies almost hourly for several days, and ultimately went through several packages of them. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at a package of Oreos again without thinking of her. They also might make odd requests, like wanting to sit in the car at midnight or walk up and down the steps at 3 in the morning. Towards the end, I found myself regularly saying, “that’s mom, but that’s not really mom.” I guess my point here is to not take things said by a dying, heavily medicated person too literally or personally. On the other hand, don’t be too dismissive, as your loved one might surprise you and recall a sweet memory from the past as you sit and talk to them.
  1. Cards Still Matter. The outpouring of love and support for my mom and our family was so uplifting and encouraging. As an example, we used to worship at a church in Brandon, Florida, and I was generally aware of and appreciated a card-writing ministry done by several of the ladies there. But when you are sitting next to your dying mother and see numerous cards from these same ladies…ladies who are 1000 miles away and have never met her…it takes on a whole new meaning. So thank you Bell Shoals ladies! And thanks to all the others who called or sent a card, text, or Facebook message. My dad also mentioned the support given to him by his dear friends, the Balls and the Elders, and others in the neighborhood who have waved at him, said an encouraging word, or provided food. Just as we rallied around my mom, I feel like our friends and extended family rallied around us.

Caregiving

  1. Do Your Homework. For anyone facing a similar situation, I recommend doing some reading on care-giving, end of life decisions, and the specific medical condition your loved one is facing. One of the best things we read was a pamphlet entitled “Gone From My Sight, the Dying Experience” by Barbara Karnes, RN. It was given to us by the hospice ladies and describes in some detail what to expect physically and behaviorally from a dying person. We found it to be highly accurate and we felt better prepared having read it. It also allowed us to get a general idea of how much time mom probably had left, although that is an imprecise science.
  1. Decide on Burial Plans. Your loved one may have specific instructions on this or may leave it up to the family. Some families may live in the same town their whole lives, and have a family burial plot on their land or a nearby cemetery. That is not our family. We have lived all over the world and consider “home” wherever we are currently together. Some families want to have elaborate, expensive funeral services with all the bells and whistles. Nothing wrong with that, but that’s also not our family. Some families like to honor or remember their loved ones who have gone on by travelling long or short distances to a cemetery and placing flowers at a tombstone. Again, nothing wrong with that, but we really don’t do that. We have grandparents we love dearly and remember often, but we rarely drive to their cemeteries for a visit. As for great-grandparents and more distant generations, I don’t know where they are buried. Together, we decided that mom would be cremated. Her soul, the thing that makes her who she is, has gone to be with the Lord, and her physical body is just a shell. God will be giving her a new body when Christ returns some day. Mom’s ashes will be placed in a very special wooden container hand-made by Ellie, her granddaughter. Dad will place that container on the mantel in his living room, and some day his ashes will join hers in that same container. At some point we will spread a few of those ashes at a nearby park or waterfall and say a prayer for mom. And with the family’s permission, I plan to carry a teaspoon of ashes with me during my 2180-mile hike of the Appalachian Trail next year, and spread them at the summit of Mount Katahdin in Maine. As for the ceremony, we have planned a small service at my sister’s farmhouse in Franklin with family, and a few friends and caregivers. We’ll sing some of my mom’s favorite songs, read some of her favorite Scriptures, and take some time to celebrate her life. There will be some tears, but there will also be joy as we reflect on her life and our precious memories with her. As for the money that will be saved by not having a fancy funeral with bells and whistles, my dad has an interesting plan for that money that will be revealed in time.
  1. God is Working. It has been amazing to see God work throughout this whole experience. It was God who placed on our hearts a desire to leave Florida and travel the country in an RV, which positioned us to eventually provide extended care for mom. At the time, we had no idea God’s first mission for us would be spending the summer helping my parents through this challenging time. It was God who guided us through all of the previously discussed decisions to make, and who gave us just enough energy to get through a difficult day or night. It was God who worked through the hearts of our extended family and friends to encourage us with cards, calls, and visits. It was God who arranged schedules and guided travel decisions so that we would all be there at mom’s bedside, praying and comforting her and each other, during her final few moments. It was God who ultimately answered our prayers to take mom home with him, so that there would be no more pain or suffering. Sometimes sickness and dying can cause us to question God, and there were times when we questioned God’s plan and timing. But mostly, we just stepped back and let God work His plan on his terms and timing. Our faith in him is even stronger, and we look forward to the day we’ll be reunited with mom and see God face to face.

I apologize for this long, rambling blog. It was good therapy for me, and I hope it may help someone as they face similar circumstances and decisions. As for us, Janet and I are taking dad for some Mexican food tonight, followed by Wednesday night Bible study at his church. After church, we plan to watch McFarland, USA, and I suspect dad might shed a few tears when the overweight Hispanic runner helps his cross-country team win the state championship. This weekend we’re taking dad on a road trip to St Louis to hear Kyle preach, which will be really cool for him (and us). Yes, we are in a good place now, and we know mom is in an even better place…a place with no morphine, and lots of Oreo cookies.

Big Steve

P.S. A link to mom’s obituary… http://www.cremationsocietyoftn.com/obituaries/Margaret-Peggy-Johnson/#!/Obituary

 

 

 

 

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