Welcome back to Magnetic North, where the blustery winds of winter stir old memories. So very, very many memories of getting the farm ready for winter and the holidays - they warm my heart, if not my fingers and toes!
This time of year Paul and I usually get our woodpile restocked and stacked. AND we haul half a dozen bales of golden dry straw to the goat barn and another two to the chicken coop. We overdo it, spreading the stuff in all corners and mounding it about two feet deep - so it’s really the human equivalent of dressing the bed with flannels and comforters.
For the past three years, Paul hasn’t been able to help. In March of ‘09 he broke his hip in a nasty late March ice and snowstorm while carrying water to the chicken coop! As terrible as that was, Paul’s health was already compromised. Five years before the broken hip, doctors at the Mayo Clinic said Paul had “mild cognitive impairment.” Simply put, his brain was getting smaller.
Well, so big deal, I thought, what 79-year-old guy doesn’t have have a cog or two impaired? And for a few years more, until the broken hip and three operations, Paul carried on much as always. True, in the summer of ‘08, I became the sole driver in the family. And then there were some errors in judgment - putting hot embers from the fireplace into a paper grocery bag stands out - that no old boy scout would ever make. Eventually our denial caved. Our life was getting smaller too.
With the relentless shrinkage of his brain went Paul's marvelous talent for thinking through a project, like putting a new deck on the chicken coop or building a bird feeder. Then away went his ability to dress himself, or write his name or read. But never, ever his sense of humor… handy thing when living with me. Not to mention a horde of accident-prone critters.
And every single day, come snow, fog, wind or what have you, Paul would look out the windows and marvel that we could ever have found such a magical place. I couldn't imagine his ever leaving here. And I knew I would do anything to keep him where he loved being.
And then one day Paul looked out the window and shocked me by asking “When can we go home?” It was one of the cruelest moments for me, to know that he had lost his sense of place. A place he cherished. About that time there were other frightening changes. His mind told him to walk when he couldn’t. Or to get out of bed to leave the house in the middle of the night.
It was time. On Sept. 19 Paul moved to the Veterans Home in Silver Bay. The hardest day of my life. And probably his too.
As I write this, I am looking out the window facing the barn. A ridiculous and yet beautiful female turkey is staring in the window at me, willing me to get off my duff and feed her. The grass holds on to just a tinge of green following the morning frost and the goats wander in slow motion around and around the corral. Going into their winter trance where all that matters is the morning hay. The evening grain. And someone to keep their straw deep and sweet.
Soon I will get in the car and drive for an hour to see Paul at the Veterans Home. But first, he and I will do chores.
Yes, I said “we.” ‘Cause when you do something seasonally for 20-some years with another person, they are there, in spirit, from then on. For instance, in the barn yesterday, I could almost hear Paul chastising me for forgetting to bring the chore scissors needed to cut the binding twine off the straw bales. And in the coop, I imagined he’d take one look at the oldest nest box hanging by a splinter and say, “Why don’t you pop for a new box, one of those metal jobs, and just burn that piece of garbage?”
Believe me, the giggles are few and far between in these first months without Paul in the house. After living with and loving him for 25 years, with the last five being with him pretty much 24/7, I am in a bit of a daze. A daze broken often with tears over the smallest thing. Besides that, now that I am caregiver to only a motley crew of critters, I hardly know what to do with myself. When to eat. When to get up or go to bed.
I found that as that as Paul’s impairment increased, my own mental and physical health declined. And even though I have probably never prayed so often and so fervently in my life, spiritually I was in rough shape as well.
In the beginning I tried hiring help, respite people to spend a few hours with Paul one day a week. But frankly, it was so expensive that I felt unable to do anything on my free day that required spending money. That’s when Care Partners came into my life by way of a friend who had just trained as one of their first volunteers.
What this great local organization did for me was provide a volunteer, free of charge, to stay with Paul so I could have an afternoon off. Also free, came a registered nurse visit monthly. My "caregiver coach," she called herself. And what a great coach she was and still is. Because when I began thinking of the next step of Paul’s and my journey together, she was there to help me think things through. Tough things made tougher by raw emotions and fatigue.
I know that had I kept Paul at home, which was always my goal, Care Partners would have helped and supported me 100 percent in that. And when I came to the conclusion that moving him was best for him and me, they were there too. They still are and will be the whole way. What a priceless gift.
And while I will never be able to repay them, I came up with a scheme to give back. Some smidgen back. It’s something that actually started many years ago with Paul’s decision to let the east end of our meadow grow up in spruce trees. It was so rocky hardly any hay grew there, but now there is a large and handsome stand of Christmas trees, within shouting distance of our house.
And so for the next three Sundays I will host a Christmas tree cutting benefit at Paul’s and my farm. Kids are welcome. Dogs have to stay in the vehicle since the goats and geese will be loose. All that is asked is a donation to Care Partners in exchange for a tree. Details are on the WTIP website, in the paper and on the Boreal calendar.
Paul was so happy when I told him about it this week. Nothing gave him more joy than sharing our place with friends, old and new. And since the tree stand was his idea to begin with I know he will be there in spirit. Just as he is when I do chores, chop kindling or watch the mallard flock set down on our pond.
For this place holds on to to those who love it. It hugs us close and warms us for years to come. Come see for yourselves. Come and cut a tree on Sunday. Cider and cookies and memories, are free.