It has been nearly twenty-four years since I left home for my first year of college. I didn’t realize it (as much) then, but my first eighteen years had been ones of isolation and reticence. In the past decade-and-a-half my life has taken many interesting and unexpected turns, including completing college (which took me out of state to Oklahoma), working the first jobs in my vocation (which led me to a first-ring suburb of Minneapolis and then to a county-seat size community further west in the state), the return to academia and the completion of my graduate degree, and an additional three opportunities to work in pastoral ministry. In this midst of these changes I have left one denomination to become part of another, married a friend I met in college, and acquired ten children through adoption. These have been years of addition and expansion.
But they are rapidly becoming years of subtraction and retraction, as well. In just two years Claudia and I have assisted our oldest son in departing the familiar nest for college (he is already half done with his college career), watched as two other sons have been in and out of our home alternating with social services (and now corrections) placements, and witnessed the growing acquisition of years in the lives of our children. The age span is now nineteen through ten. If I have ever felt like a middle-aged adult, it is now. And, as the old cliche goes, I wonder where the time has gone.
Yesterday our sons Jimmy and Ricardo accompanied me on a trip to visit my mother, my grandmother, and assorted aunts and cousins. We traveled the four miles north from our new home because my grandmother, who shares my birthday separated by forty-five years, recently had a stroke. We arrived at my mother’s house yesterday afternoon, invited her into our car with us, and traveled another hour to visit my grandmother, recovering in a stroke recovery unit in a northeastern Minnesota hospital.
In my vocational life I have visited scores of people in various stages of personal transition and devastation, so I was emotionally prepared for our visit. In visiting other stroke victims, I have learned that there are levels of stroke incapacitation, from near paralysis and inability to speak, to relatively unimpaired. We arrived mid-afternoon to begin our visit and discovered a grandmother who was tired but very aware of our presence. She knew who we were, although she was unable to bring our names to the surface to speak them. She is able to communicate to some degree, although she is unable to write and unable to put together sentences at this time. Her chief expressed frustration is not knowing what is going on or what to expect. She is confused as to why she is in the hospital at all, especially a strange hospital outside of her usual familiarity.
We ended up spending three hours with grandma, including a wheelchair walk outside in the bright sunlight and a protracted, irritating experience attempting to get her television to work. While we were there she opened a card from our son Dominyk (he had created it himself several days ago immediately upon hearing of Grandma’s health crisis) and a package from my sister (a glass flower in a vase she purchased on a recent visit to the Corning Glass Museum in Corning, NY). She read and understood the cards, smiling and laughing at appropriate junctures.
I was relieved to see that in spite of her stroke my grandmother was doing better than some might have expected. She has been changed by this vascular intrusion, but essentially is the woman I have known all of my life.
Things here in the home area of my birth and early years changes little over the years. It is still relatively isolated (ten miles from the nearest town of 800) and quite quiet (we took a mile-long walk last night on the highway closest my mother’s house and encountered only one vehicle the entire time). In some ways it is like stepping back into other times and other days.
But things have changed. My grandmother is no longer in her sixties, cooking and baking and driving herself about as she pleased. My mother is no longer in her forties (although it would be hard to tell due to her active lifestyle and relative youth). My aunts are now reaching the ages of retirement, and my cousins and I are providing the family with the next generation, albeit through distinctive means (two of my cousins through birth, one through in vitro fertilization and ourselves through adoption).
Some things remain the same. The haunting call of the common loon on a still Minnesota June night. The flickering brilliance of the firefly (lightning bug) flitting through the early evening twilight. The ever-present mosquitoes (unofficial state bird of Minnesota, it is rumored), penetrating dermis with their pointed prosbici. The ecological pleasures of rural, north country living is a respite from a more fast-paced, intense lifestyle we now experience.
This brief, twenty-four hour visit, has been a trip to other times and other days.