Monday, April 07, 2014

From Lincoln to Today

Over seven days of our spring break our family drove for 27 hours in the car and covered more than 1,500 miles. There was not a single fight in the backseat, thanks in part to the "Frozen" soundtrack which our girls LOVED to sing along with. At the top of their lungs. So while the peace was held, parental sanity was not.

One of the stops on our whirlwind spring break tour was Springfield, IL. Wayne had been there as a boy on the only vacation his family ever took. The initial reason for the trip was to see family, but while in Springfield they stopped by the Abraham Lincoln home in Springfield. Since we were heading south to Arkansas from Wisconsin and had to swing through Illinois anyway, this seemed like the perfect diversion.

What a diversion it was!

The most photographed angle of Lincoln's home.

His writing desk where he wrote many speeches.
Our first tour was of the Lincoln home. This is the 3,100 sq ft  home Lincoln the lawyer made for his family, an unheard of size for the time period. He worked late into the night as a lawyer and politician in order to give his family all the things he didn't have as a young boy:  An education.Sufficient food and clothing. Opportunity. Ironically, his eldest boy, Robert, was distant from his father, as his memories are of Abe saddling up to serve on the judicial circuit and never being home. By the time Robert's younger brothers came along, Abe's work was in town and he was home most days, so they were closer with their dad.

We then went to the Abraham Lincoln National Museum in downtown Springfield, where we spent the majority of the day. You don't have to love Abe Lincoln or history to find this museum and its presentation moving. Humbling. Respectful. Pick your adverb, it was an incredible and somber experience.

Except for this part. This part wasn't quite so somber.
I learned some things about old Abe that I didn't know.

1. He was not a popular president. As a matter of fact, between the time he was elected president and he took office 12 states had seceded from the union, they were so infuriated with his being elected. (Hmmm....I remember some politicians threatening to secede if they had to buy into this "Obamacare" business...)

Lincoln's physical features made him a favorite of political satirists.
2. Once in office, his detractors were many. He appointed some of his fiercest political foes to his cabinet. While this helped him understand what others' positions were on slavery, it was also fatiguing to constantly defend himself among his closest "advisors." One of his advisors only agreed to join him in his anti-slavery stance because he thought all the blacks would sail back to Africa after being freed, even though most of them were American-born.

This scene is seared in Marissa's head. It was very impactful and emotional.
3. Only one of his four sons lived to adulthood. Guess which one? Yep, Robert, the oldest who did not have a close relationship with his dad. The tragic deaths of the other three sons from what are now preventable disease took an emotional toll on Mary. Robert had her committed to an insane asylum after her third son's death, which occurred two years after Lincoln was killed. She wrote letters of protest which were printed in the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers. The public embarrassment of having "shut away" his mother when the asylum stated she was well enough to leave forced him to petition for her release just months after her commitment. She and he never reconciled.

Scenes of Willie's illness in the White House and Mary's grief at his passing.
 4. The Emancipation Proclamation was a heavily debated and disputed document by both sides. Abolitionists said it hadn't actually "freed" anyone: blacks in the north were already free by previous legislature; states in the south said they did not have to follow the law of a "foreign" country, so it made no actual difference in the lives of slaves. It wasn't until after his death that the importance of the statement of that document was recognized and respected.

Representing the reaction to the Emancipation Proclamation
5. Lincoln was assassinated just months after the end of the Civil War. John Wilkes Booth was fine with blacks not being slaves, but when he heard the idea that they may become landowners -- or even have the right to vote! -- he was pushed to the edge. Even though his signature was on it, Lincoln did not get to see the 13th Amendment which abolishes slavery become law as not all the lawmakers had signed it at the time of his death.
The devil snuck in the back way.
The presidential portraits of Lincoln -- one for each of the four years he was in office -- showed him visibly aging what seems like decades every passing year from the heavy responsibility of war. He felt the weight of hundreds of thousands of deaths on his shoulders. I do not think he slept.

The wax figures, scenes, documents, lighting, and audio effects made history literally come to life. No one got bored. Okay, so Marissa kept trying to push me along to see the next room because it was SO COOL, but she definitely was not bored.

The White House and Civil War displays were dark. Somber. Moving. It seemed odd to go from there to the children's shop where the girls could try on period clothes and make dinner from the log cabin kitchen. That was our final stop of the day, and the following day we stopped at Lincoln's tomb before heading south on our journey.
Statue of young Lincoln on the left, and President Lincoln on the right. The heavy mantle of war is on his shoulders, weighing him down.

Ironically, we happened to arrive on the first day of it being re-opened after a 4-month closure for remodeling. Visitors could walk through the circular hall, admiring statues along the way, and eventually view Lincoln's sarcophagus. His wife and first three sons are buried in the tomb with him. His eldest and longest-living son is buried in Arlington National Cemetery, due to his stature as a politician and ambassador during his own lifetime. Many times friends tried to convince him to run for the presidency but he always turned it down, saying that there was something "fatalistic" about wanting to become president.

Considering the assassination attempts on those who followed his father in that office, there's something to be said for that. And, he had some really big footsteps to follow. I'm sure he knew that no matter how good a president, he would never measure up to his father. I don't believe many today would.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Ice Cave Adventure

This winter has been a doozy. And I can still say "this winter" in late March because it still looks and feels like winter out. Highs of 20 degrees, snow in the forecast, no sign of greenery. The birds have returned, but they seem confused. ("What the hell, where's the grass?!")

The one bonus of all this cold weather is that Lake Superior was 97% frozen for the first time since 2009. This means that all the areas of the lakes that are only accessible by kayak or canoe are now accessible by walking, including the ice caves near the Apostle Islands in Bayfield, WI.

I had to go. This felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, even though I know the lake will freeze over again. There was just something about it that felt like I needed to take this chance.

For me, this was a chance. I have a great fear of walking on ice over a large body of water. The stories my dad told me as a child of people going through the ice on Lake Superior, and the times he was out hunting with our dog and broke through ice on a marsh must've scared me to the depth of my being. I consider being on lake ice a very risky venture, something I usually avoid.

And yet, to see those amazing caves! Even if I drove up there and then chickened out, I had to try.

On one particular Monday I floated my idea by Wayne, and by Friday I had plans solidified. I would drive as far as Duluth and stay at my friend Junal's house, then Saturday she and I and her boyfriend would head out to the ice caves, another hour and a half east of Duluth.

And so I went.



It was breath taking. I am so glad I took this chance and made the impromptu trip.

The weather was perfect -- about 20 degrees (a far cry from the weeks of below zero and single-digit temps we'd been having), not much wind, and mostly blue sky. We drove to the area, found parking and took a shuttle to Meyers Beach National Park. The caves were about 1.5 miles down from where we first got on the lake, and then they stretched along for over a mile. We could explore as much or as little as we wanted.

The ice was so incredibly thick that my fears dissipated. Most of the paths were packed down snow, but near the caves it was bare ice which was quite treacherous. There had been several falls, and later I heard that the weekend before a woman broke a vertebrae after taking a spill on the ice. (Glad I didn't know that before-hand).


The ice took on incredible shapes, from round globules of amber to spikes of stalagtites that looked sharp enough to impale a person. We explored a small crevice, also a challenge for me, since I get anxious in tight spaces. But it got larger once I got through the opening, and the ice formations inside were spell-binding.

From inside the crevice, looking upwards at the opening I'd just squeezed through.
The pictures do not do it justice.

One of the caves during summer.

That same cave the day I visited. 
After we explored for a couple hours, we shuttled back to the car and drove to a small place in Cornucopia, population 500, where we could get a burger and a beer. To our surprise they had black bean burger on the menu for the vegetarian among us, and they had locally made "Sassy Nanny" goat cheese that you could add to any burger. Clearly not your everyday small town fare; I assume they are accustomed to catering to people from all over. The goat cheese was fantastic, so tangy and creamy. Cost all of $.50 to add it to my burger, and they slathered so much on I think they were grateful to have someone order it before it went bad.

A burger, a beer and a warm place to rest with good company. Perfect.

We drove back to Duluth and I took off from there back home. It is amazing what adventures a person can have in just 24 hours.

The following weekend was the last weekend of the season -- they closed the access to caves after that. I learned that even though the ice by the caves is still thick enough, ice elsewhere on the lake has melted significantly. This means that you could be standing on the ice by the caves, have a strong wind come along, and suddenly find yourself 3 feet from shore. Or 10 feet, or in the middle of the lake if you weren't paying attention!

In 2009 the ice caves had a total of 8,400 visitors over the entire winter. The day I was there they had more than 14,000 visitors, and over the course of the entire season they had nearly 100,000 visitors to the caves. They chalked up the interest to the fact that it had been 5 years since a good freeze, and many visitors shared their photos via social media, which prompted others to want to make the trek. The biggest challenge was finding parking, so they worked with the local community to plow fields and other areas to create the shuttle areas. The shuttle drivers were all very nice and talked about what a boon to the local economy the caves were. They did such a great job of accommodating the crowds. I hope to see them again another year.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Blessings from the Universe



This is what our mantel looks like right now. While there are a few Valentine's Day cards up there, it is mostly filled with sympathy cards from family and friends.

The support we've gotten from everyone in our lives has been overwhelming. On the day we put Dax down a group of friends organized our girls' activities for day, so that they would be out of the house and having fun while things were happening at home.

We had the vet come to our home, a luxury I am grateful we were able to pay for.  She was kind, sympathic, patient and wonderful. I am so thankful Dax was able to pass away in his favorite place; in front of a roaring fire, on my lap. What a gift.

A good friend of mine came to be with me when the vet came to our house. Wayne dealt with Dax's passing by going for a long, peaceful run in the hush of new fallen snow. Without my friend being with me, it would have been just the vet and I. I could never have asked her to be there -- she volunteered.

As strange as it seems, a back injury which flared up the day before Dax was put down was a blessing. It gave me an afternoon to myself at home with him, resting on the couch with ice, a laptop, and a snoring dog.

Earlier in the month, I lunched with dear friends of mine. We've known each other for nearly two decades. One friend gave the others a belated Christmas gift of a CD set of "This I Believe," an NPR series of 5-minute essays. Now we don't usually exchange gifts, and I had nothing for my friend, but she had enjoyed this series so much that she wanted to share it.

What a gift that has been! The essays are from famous and not-so-famous Americans, writing from their heart about the beliefs that guide their lives. It's not religious, and some of the essays are downright quirky. Many of them were so appropriate for what our family is feeling at this time.

My favorite essay is the one recorded by Oscar Hammerstein, famed composer of The King and I, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma! and many other classics. His essay is titled "Happy Talk," and my favorite lines are:

Why do I believe I am happy? Death has deprived me of many whom I loved. Dismal failure has followed many of my most earnest efforts. People have disappointed me. I have disappointed them. I have disappointed myself...
..Could I not build up a strong case to prove why I am not happy at all? I could, but it would be a false picture, as false as if I were to describe a tree only as it looks in winter. I would be leaving out a list of people I love, who have not died. I would be leaving out an acknowledgement of the many successes that have sprouted among my many failures. I would be leaving out the blessing of good health, the joy of walking in the sunshine.
Ultimately, that's what it comes down to: what we are humans choose to focus on. And as I've written before, I choose joy.

Since Dax's passing, I know of two people in my life who have lost a parent. Another has put her father into hospice care, and one friend's sister is battling breast cancer...again.

There are other people and places for me to put my energy now, for me to support those friends not in grand heroic gestures but in simple acts of kindness. My turn to return to the universe the blessings it has showered on me.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Saying Good-Bye Takes Time

No one who has ever accepted a pet into their lives would ever say, "It's just a dog." When that dog's existence is interwoven into every aspect of your life, the reminders of that loss are small, but constant.

When that dog's life is woven into the lives of your children, the loss is all the more difficult.

Being there the moment Dax died was not as difficult as watching our children say good-bye to him, one at a time, as they left the house that morning. His absence is felt by them every day, as I feel it.
Lindsey and Dax, September 2007.
Marissa and Dax sleeping together, 2010.

It is difficult to guide your children through the grieving process when you yourself feel the loss. I know that losing a pet is not the same as losing a human, but the grieving process is the same.

The hauntings began minutes after he died. I heard him sigh from in front of the fireplace 20 minutes after the vet had taken his cooling body out of the house. Lindsey saw him sniffing his way into the kitchen a day later. Two days after his death, I awoke to the sound of his toenails clicking on the hardwood floors. Marissa heard him snore. (So appropriate.)

It's been almost a week and the hauntings have nearly stopped.

For the first day, I did not leave the house and I did not see people outside of our immediate family. I could not bear to see people whose lives had not been turned upside down the way ours had.

That first day reminded me of the day I brought Lindsey home from the hospital. I remember sitting on our living room couch, nursing this tiny, little newborn child whom I was somehow responsible for. I saw people walking by our house, shopping bags or coffee cups in their hands, chatting and laughing together. I wanted to shout at them, "Don't you know how life has changed?!" It didn't matter to them, but everything was different to me. When Dax died, the world suddenly had a huge void that only my family fell into.

By the next day, I needed to get out, to leave the sadness and emptiness behind. Our family went to the mall and hung out in one of the sitting areas for hours. We went to a funny movie. For a while, we forgot. It wasn't until we began the drive home that we remembered we were coming home to an empty house.

We have now entered the dreaming stage.

Dreams of Dax in a better place, dreams of him when he was a young dog and could run with wild abandon. The girls have dreamed about him too and tell me their dreams when they awake.

We all went through a period when we did not want to be alone. Wayne left for a business trip just as we were getting back to our routine, so it was just the girls and I at home. We were happy to sleep together in the same bed because we all were afraid to be alone. Dax's spirit and the hauntings were so strong in our house that we were comforted by them, yet afraid to be alone with them. If any of us were alone too long, the grief would overcome us until we were beyond functioning. Both girls had a blanket of Dax's to snuggle. I would breathe deeply of Dax's scent from the blankets while they slept. By the time Wayne returned two days later, that stage had passed and the girls were okay sleeping in their own beds.

Now the milestones.

First, Dax missed his first meal at 5:00 the day he died. Then he missed his breakfast for the first time. Tomorrow marks a week since his passing, then it'll be two weeks, then a month. He'll miss Lindsey's birthday in May, and Marissa's in July (he loved to help unwrap presents, which is why their birthdays are significant). He'll miss his first birthday in August (he would've been 16). Then he'll miss Christmas. And eventually it will be the one-year anniversary of his death, with many milestones in between, and many after.

At the same time, I continue to greet and talk as if Dax is with us. When we leave the house in the morning, I'll say "Bye, Dax, keep the house safe!" When I lock up for the night, turning lights off behind me, I'll call out, "Goodnight Dax, love you, puppers."

I find comfort in calling out to him as if he's still here. I figure if we're going to hear him around the house anyways, we may as well greet him as if he is.

It's getting better. It's getting better faster than I thought it would. Maybe I have a step back I'm going to take in the near future, but for now, it feels okay.

It feels right that we helped him find peace when we did, perhaps that's what is helping me. When I look back and realize that his poor back legs didn't stop shaking and quivering for years until the vet administered the sedative shot to him, I realize how much he had deteriorated and we had simply become accustomed to it.

Through all of this, I have learned that I am stronger than I thought I could be. I never imagined that I would have the strength to be there with Dax in his last moments, yet I was. I never imagined that I would be able to have conversations with my daughters about Dax's life and death, yet I can, through my own tears.

I've learned that their seeing my tears and my own grief helps them understand that they are not alone in theirs. The fact that they saw their father cry about Dax's departure helps them understand that everyone in this family is hurting, but we're in it together, and we'll be okay.

We'll be okay.

Monday, February 17, 2014

I Thought I Saw You


I awoke this morning to the sound of your nails click-click-clicking on the floors. It was around the time you usually wake up, wanting your breakfast.

The first night of your absence Marissa felt my slippered foot under the table and exclaimed, "Oh Dax! You're so warm!" An hour later she asked if it would be okay for you to come downstairs and snuggle while we watched the Olympics. An hour after that, she asked if it was her turn to sleep with you. Each time I didn't have to say anything; she remembered by the look in my eyes that you were gone.

I had to look twice at a patch of sunlight on the floor yesterday, knowing that if you'd been here you would have found it and curled up for a snooze in the warmth.


The image of you lying on a towel carelessly left in the hallway struck me as I climbed the stairs. A patch of sunlight had found the towel and I know you would have been there.


Last night Lindsey thought she saw you coming into the kitchen just as she pulled a pan of brownies out of the oven. It was about the time you would have walked in; having not heard any of the kitchen noises, you usually arrived when the food came out of the oven and you could smell the good smells.

She nearly bent down to greet you, only to realize it was her imagination. She straightened up with disappointment and sadness in her eyes.

I swore I heard you sigh in the middle of the night, your long, contented sigh of a change of position and comfort. Only I know it couldn't have been you.

I expected to see you as I walked down the stairs this morning, and looked expectantly for you in front of the fireplace.



Empty places. Empty moments. Empty hearts.

I know that there are losses greater than ours. I know that there are parents mourning their children, friends mourning friends, husbands mourning wives, children mourning parents. But grief is still grief, and the fact that you were woven into every facet of our lives makes the loss of you palatable every moment of the day. Even when we aren't here, I have to brace myself to coming home to an empty house.

Some day I will hear your sighs in the sound of the wind. I will hear your paws in the crunch of new fallen snow. I will smile when I hear the happy barks of other dogs in the park. By then I will remember you with fondness, and think about how lucky we were to have you in our lives for 15 whole years.

Until then, those sounds are haunting our home and making our hearts ache.

Author's Note: The last time I suffered a loss of significant consequence, I wrote every day in a journal to my loved one for more than a year.  I took comfort in writing to him as if he were still on earth to read the words. More than 20 years later, my writing has moved to the electronic page and I have an audience to read it.

If you think I'm oversharing, that's your opinion. Writing is my therapy and sharing these thoughts helps me through it. By sharing I find others who have suffered a similar loss and relate to me, so I don't feel so alone in this process. 

This may be the last post on this subject, I may curtail my journal-like entries to the drafts folder. Or you may be reading more about this journey. Whichever I do, I thank you for your kindness and understanding.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Last Morning

5:38 a.m. That's when Dax awoke this morning and decided it was breakfast time.

I obliged him immediately, because I know this is his last breakfast. He doesn't know that, so it's just another breakfast to him.

The last 24 hours have been surreal. Last supper. Last time eating popcorn. Last everything. We know, and the girls will hug him with tears in their eyes, but he is oblivious and just wants down to sniff the floor for more popcorn.

The girls planned to sleep together in the same bed with him last night so that it was fair that they both sleep with him the last time. But every time they tried to shut their eyes they got sad about missing that snuggle time with him, so they didn't fall asleep. They eventually ended up in our bed and I in Lindsey's with the dog, who let out stinky toots all night from all the treats he'd been fed that evening.

I have been on this grief journey before. I didn't know when the journey would start, but once it did it was the most difficult time of my life. It seems so strange to pick the day to start that journey to mourn your dog. To make an appointment with someone to end the life of a creature you love so much, and then pay her to do it. Weird.

I know what to expect. The emptiness when you come home at the end of the day. The times you ask, "Where's Dax?" then realize, he's not here and never will be. Re-remembering every morning that you don't have a dog to feed anymore and getting sad about it all over again. Sitting on the couch and wishing you had a warm little body to snuggle next to you. Having a bowl of popcorn and seeing the kernels that accidentally drop to the floor remain uneaten.

Dax is snuggling with me right now, and it seems odd to be sitting here writing this. How do you share last moments with a dog? At this stage in the game he does not want someone to pet or kiss him, he just wants to be next to you, finishing out his night's sleep with contented snores. (Which is what he's doing right now.)

I share my last moments with him by being that warm body that he wants to curl up next to. By writing my thoughts about what an amazing dog he has been for our family, so patient and willing to put up with our girls' shenanigans.

5:50 a.m., February 15, post-breakfast snooze
He always wanted to do exactly what you wanted to do, no matter what it was. If you wanted to go for a walk then he did, too. If you didn't, he wouldn't pester you for one. If you were sick and needed to sleep all day, he was right there beside you, snuggling and snoring the day away, even when he was a young dog, when most young pups wouldn't leave you alone and wanted to play or run if you were home to do so.

He loved chasing bubbles. One of my favorite videos is of him and Lindsey when she was just a baby and we discovered for the first time that he loved to chase bubbles. We would blow the bubbles at Lindsey, and Dax would run up and bite them as quickly as he could before they got to her. He would leap and jump and twirl around to catch as many as possible. Lindsey chortled that baby laugh that is so funny to hear and both Wayne and I were doubled over in laughter, tears squeezing out of our eyes from the sight and sound. We finally had to stop when the bubbles began frothing from the sides of his mouth, his eyes dazed and wild with obsession.

Now, he can't see the bubbles to chase them and couldn't chase them if he saw them. He doesn't "hoover" the floor clean like he used to, because he can't see the bits of food, even though he can smell them.


His medical issues are numerous and challenging, and we are simply putting off the inevitable by making him suffer through the pain of moving his arthritic joints and the embarrassment of not being able to control his bladder. (And he is embarrassed, too, you can tell.)

I will be there with him in his last moments, to provide familiarity and comfort. I have to do this, because I cannot imagine not being there for him in his final moments, when he's always been there for me.

Wish me strength for this afternoon.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Would You Risk Ruining Lake Superior Forever...for a Job?

I welcome to my blog my good friend and writer, Janey PalmerShe is a Twin Cities-based communications consultant who owns a home on Lake Superior. Janey isn't typically a politial activist. But there's an issue going on right now in our own backyard that has her hackles raised, and I offered to give her this platform to spread the word. 

Read on and get involved. Our environment's future for generations to come is at stake.

Submerged rocks at Split Rock State Park. Photo credit Steven Gaertner
My hair’s on fire.

No, not literally. But if it were, I’d go to the tap and douse it in water. But what if that water were polluted with sulfuric acid?

The reason my hair is on proverbial fire is because our beloved Lake Superior, the world’s third-largest freshwater lake and home to one of the biggest sources of drinking and hair-extinguishing water, is under threat by mining companies—in the guise of “job creators”— looking to extract copper, nickel and other metals in the very heart of the north woods and at the convergence of streams that carry fresh water into the big lake.
The Lake Superior watershed is one of the most special places in the world.
Poly-Met, a Canadian company, wants to set up the first of what will likely be many copper/nickel mines right outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. The byproduct of this mining is the aforementioned sulfuric acid – and the possibility of this leaching into the streams and into Lake Superior is great, despite what the mining companies say (and there is no real contingency plan to mitigate this built into their proposal).

WestVirginians can tell you why clean, fresh water is important. They can also tell you why regulation is important. And they can also probably tell you why regulation doesn’t always stop bad things from happening. 

The offending polluter in that case? Yep, declared bankruptcy.

As a former public relations pro, my hat is off to Poly-Met. They’ve done a great job plying the hearts and minds of the good people of the Hoyt Lakes area as well as labor unions with promises of jobs. Yes, the mine says it will provide 350 jobs for 20 years, but shouldn’t careers be longer than that? And is mining the only way to make a living up there? It can’t possibly be the only choice. I know there are a lot of very smart people who live up there, and I know if given a chance, together we could find a way to bring economic opportunity to northern Minnesota that doesn’t extract such a high price from all of us.

An environmental impact statement said the best case scenario is that this type of mining will require at least 500 years of water treatment. 500 years! Who in their right mind believes anyone would be willing to keep that up for even 50 years? And there is not enough “assurancemoney” in the world to ensure clean drinking water long after the mines close or declare bankruptcy, the latter of which seems to be de rigueur.

So, 350 questionable local jobs x 20 years = 500+ years of pollution. That’s the equation. Does it add up for you?

If not, I urge you to join me in telling the DNR to deny permits for Poly-Met and any other mining operation like it from now on. The time for public commentary is here. We have a short window of opportunity to get our voice heard. Comments will be accepted until 4:30 PM CT on Thursday, March 13, 2014.

To learn more, click here – and be sure to personalize your message. There’s a lot more at stake than my head of curly locks.