I am not one for public emotions but I have realized that this needs to get off my chest and out of my heart.
So here goes.
I was one of the lucky ones. One of the lucky folks to grow up with an amazing family in an amazing place. Too often I read about artists and their struggles in childhood. How they were defined by challenging and often negative situations and how that angst and strife were channeled into art and expression.
I was the opposite of that. I often think in awe of the bucolic childhood I had. Almost Norman Rockwell like.
I grew up in a small village outside of a small southern Minnesota town. The majority of my mothers extended family resided there, she grew up there. I knew most of my neighbors and if I did not know them I knew somebody that did.
I routinely bumped into aunts and uncles and cousins about town.
I would wake up at dawn, ride my bike the half mile or so to the blue ribbon trout stream that gurgled through the pastures, cows mooing in the distance, crows cawing overhead and catch German Brown Trout and bring them home to my mother who would cook them with eggs and Morel mushrooms for breakfast.
My grandmother was a pillar of my life and she pretty much hit every Leave it to Beaver grandma stereotype, except she was real and she was better.
The cookie jar actually existed and it was always filled with fresh creations.
Sun tea would be brewing in the vibrant, lush and shady backyard and on hot summer days we would lull there drinking tea and eating cookies before I would dash off with my brother to hook up with my best friends and generally reek havoc on all sorts of things.
I loved it and I did not take it for granted, but now I miss it like I have never missed anything before.
Helen, my grandmother is now 97.
Just last month she was moved into an assisted living apartment in Winona.
Now I realize we all brag about our families and our parents and our grandparents, so there is some of that here. But that said, anybody who came into Helen's orbit realized that she was a very special person.
That was evident if you stopped by her house down by Lake Winona. People of all sorts, stripes, shapes and sizes would stop by frequently to visit, to drop off gifts and chat. Handymen would work on her house pro-bono and friends would help my parents and aunts and uncles work on her yard. The family cared for her hugely in her older years and so did her community.
It has been really inspiring to see.
She is perhaps even more special to me. I had a connection with my grandmother that I have not had with any other human being. Helen is so non-judgemental. Good or bad, right or wrong, she was always open, always there for me regardless if I screwed up or was the hero. She is the same for everybody, wether it was a homeless person on the street or a super successful muckity muck, did not matter.
Helen has been in assisted living for a few weeks.
My initial reaction was to just run right down there. To be with her. However my own immediate family, work and photography got in the way. I dragged my feet, I lingered up here in Duluth.
I did not know why? I had buried the reason deeply.
Then Friday it all came home to me. I took the morning to get out for one last "winter conditions" nordic ski on the Jay Cooke Trails.
The trails were perfect. Icy and fast but still hard wax conditions. My skis were so fast that many times I would have to re-orient myself as to where I was on the trail system. Hills that I would usually stagger up, I was double poling up effortlessly. It was that one day where you can almost understand what a world cup skier actually feels......without the pain and training it takes to feel it.
My mind wandered. I began to relax. I began to think. I got past the work stuff, the family stuff. I thought creatively then I thought about Helen. I thought deeply and I thought honestly and I asked myself why I was not there RIGHT now.
Then it hit me. I realized I was not going because I was afraid. That I was afraid that she was waiting for me to come, that if I went it would be goodbye and that once she said one last farewell to all the special people in her life that she would move on.
I did not want her to move on and because of that I had been stalling.
I cried for another 10km after that thought. It just all came out, came out in big huge waves. I was the only skier out there, but I can only imagine what people would have thought about this big norwegian guy ripping on the trails, sobbing incoherently on one of the most gorgeous days of the winter.
I took Tae that afternoon and made the trek to Winona.
Helen was able to recognize me but she is greatly diminished. It was really hard for her to concentrate and hold a conversation.
Yet she was in there. The spark was there and if you were able to get her alone, in the quiet she was able to have a simple conversation.
I sat with her alone for hours. We also visited with other family members and friends as well. I held her hand a lot.
Eventually Sunday came and folks started to return to their daily lives. Most of my family still lives there and I realized they would see Helen a lot more in the next days.
I was leaving and I was realizing that possibly I was leaving with perhaps the actual last goodbye.
So it was Helen and I and we were alone in her room. I wanted to leave by 5 but I could not.
I could not do it. Finally at 8pm she needed to go to bed. She was tired and I had four hours for home.
I envisioned me saying something so meaningful, so deep. But the more I thought, the more I felt the more I dealt with the idea that I might not see her again and the more I came unglued.
Leaving that room was perhaps the single hardest thing I have done in my life.
It meant letting go, it meant leaving my grandmother, possibly to the rest of her life, yet not being there for it, like she had been so often for me. Skinned knee, broken heart or grief and despair, she had always been there.
My standard farewell to Helen over the years has been "I will see you in two weeks". This time though I could not say it, because we both knew it was not true.
Finally Helen, like she always has, reached out to me with her hand and simply said, it was "OK".
It was ok for me to leave and she knew why.
I wish I could say I just walked out, but the truth is I fell apart, I cried and hugged her and kissed her and told her all I could about how proud I was to her grandson and how I was such a better person because of her and we had a very good back and forth, tearful but meaningful.
Then we both relaxed and she started to get sleepy.
So I kissed her one last time on the forehead, told her I loved her and then walked out of the room and I turned out the light...........