On a Warm Day in June

I wrote about my brother Bob’s illness and subsequent death in The Winter of Grief.What I saved for this story is events I experienced, especially in the last year, involving my brother. Here’s the backstory: When Bob was diagnosed with Parkinson’s and Dementia in 2010, he started his care in a nursing home in the small, rural town where his youngest son lived, in Ord, NE. Once he was stabilized he was able to move to the Assisted Living facility in that town. He was sixty-five years old, and noted he was the youngest person there, by at least ten years. Periodically he would talk to me about moving to Kansas. He would also talk to our brother in Colorado about moving to Colorado. Neither of us were able to help him move. I considered the potential of Bob moving to my town and state. Since the major portion of his medical insurance was state-residency based, I did not think I could take on the task of helping him gain residency, thus medical benefits, here. My home state of Kansas had a back-log of Medicaid eligibility, with no promise of that changing. We live in a two-bedroom house, and my son was just starting high school. My stepson lives with us in the summers. Basically we had a full house and couldn’t bring Bob here. This left me feeling lacking and wishing I could be of more help to him. We visited him once a year at that time, even having an extended family gathering at a bed and breakfast in Ord in 2013.

In 2016, Bob’s son left Ord and moved to Grand Island, NE. Bob believed he had no connections to keep him in Ord, and wanted to live in an urban area. We helped him by researching and visiting facilities in Lincoln, NE. We found one that met his needs and wishes, and he moved to Lincoln. Since he was now over one hundred miles closer to me, I hoped to visit him more often. My daughter and her toddler traveled with me that June, to celebrate Bob’s birthday. We took him to a popular restaurant for lunch. He had to traverse a short, steep ramp in the restaurant to be seated. He was using his walker, but started falling forward. Two diners were in range, quickly sized up the situation and reached out to steady him. I was shaken by the potential of him falling and realized I did not have the expertise to lift him off of the floor. I hesitantly drove him out for supper, and later to a twelve-step meeting. They were uneventful and he loved every moment. I was thoroughly exhausted at the end of that birthday celebration and realized I was no longer comfortable transporting him.

Bob enjoyed the city, but his health declined, his needs increased, which meant he no longer qualified for assisted living. He moved to a nursing home in Grand Island, NE at the end of 2016, to be in the same town as his son.

When I retired later in 2017, I considered ways to be involved with his life. I asked Bob and his sons if I could participate in his quarterly Care Plan meetings, via conference call. They were fine with that; Bob indicated he would find my input helpful.

In my social work career, I had attended a multitude of meetings for children that had some of the same features as an adult’s care plan meeting. I knew these meetings could either be a place of a dynamic group process of relevant action plans being shaped or a perfunctory meeting, convening for the sake of meeting state and federal requirements. I had experienced both types. I was hoping for the former. The angle I decided to focus on in his Care Plan meetings was activities meaningful to Bob. As he had been a Lutheran pastor, church and theology was still an interest and passion of his. He had also attended twelve-step support groups and continued to find that fellowship important. I knew he had found rides to both in Ord, but that had faltered when he moved to Lincoln. Our brother in Lincoln gave him information to make those contacts himself, but we didn’t realize he was not able to function at that level anymore. It was so hard to gauge his current capabilities and what he could no longer do independently. Our brother had just begun to make contact for Bob at a local church when Bob moved to Grand Island. The Lincoln pastor contacted a pastor in Grand Island, and we were aware a pastor was making visits to Bob. But he was no longer attending church. His physical decline was enough to not task volunteers with helping him in and out of vehicles. To engage in worship, the activities director had Bob be in charge of starting the DVD player of a freshly burned DVD of a local church service, delivered to the nursing home. When we talked about this, he acknowledged he had little theological alignment with the church but appreciated having exposure to church services. He also helped lead a Bible study. The activities director, our brother and I all tried to set up ways to be participate in Twelve Step groups in Grand Island, but nothing ever worked out.

In June, 2018, my husband Ken and I were heading out for our daily walk. It had been pretty hot, so we thought of going to our local indoor track, but decided to face the heat and walk in our neighborhood. We have several different routes we take, but on the one we chose that day, about a mile into the walk, I saw a car with a Nebraska specialty license plate that said “ELCAREV”. Not being a congenital Lutheran from Nebraska, as I was, I explained to Ken this plate indicated the car belonged to a minister of the Lutheran branch called the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), which was the brand I had spent most of my life attending. And that REV stood for Reverend. As we started walking away, a woman walked out of the house and towards this car. I called out to her, “Cool license plate; where do you live?” She did that thing I so recognize; she started qualifying that her town was small, and I probably wouldn’t have heard of it. She said she lived in Ord, NE and is the minister at Bethany Lutheran Church. I responded, not only had I heard of Ord, but we had been there to visit my brother, Bob Larson. She said, “I know Bob, he is a member of my church!” She then explained she had lost touch with him when he moved to Lincoln. Her home office (It’s actually the Nebraska Synod Office, for those of you who like accuracy and relate to church jargon. I like deciphering jargon.) had recently contacted her to let her know Bob’s current address. She said she made the drive to Grand Island weekly for text study (They also call if Peri-copes study. More jargon!) and had begun to visit Bob and serve him communion. I was washed with gratitude to know Bob was being spiritually nurtured in a manner familiar and dear to him.

Rev. Glenda explained her two adult sons live in Lawrence, but in two different parts of town. She just happened to be at this son’s house, and she just happened to decide to go to her car to retrieve her water bottle. When we just happened to be walking by. We were all in awe of this harmonic convergence and all tearing up. We exchanged phone numbers so we could continue to communicate about Bob.

With this dramatic insertion of my brother into my local life, I decided I needed to contact his nursing home to find out when his next Care Plan meeting was scheduled. I was surprised to learn it was the next week, on Wednesday, June 20th! Two of my cousins I lived down the road, so to speak, in Nebraska, so I asked them for lodging and a visit. They were both available on the dates I needed! The trip was falling together seamlessly.

I saw Bob on Monday, asking him what he wanted addressed at his Care Plan meeting on Wednesday. He gave me several items; some made sense to me, some didn’t. But, overall, we had a coherent conversation. I told him of meeting Rev. Glenda and he acknowledged she was visiting him. I then drove further west, to stay with my cousin.

A year prior, my nephew told me Bob wished, when he died, to have a Lutheran funeral service and to be buried at the same cemetery as our parents. It’s a rural cemetery, formerly connected to a German Lutheran Church and parochial school. I knew nothing about the process of getting a burial plot there, but my cousins did. I asked them and found out it was simple to reserve a burial plot; one cousin gave me the contact person.

Tuesday was a day to hang out with my cousin hosting me, and we decided to visit the cemetery, to see our parents’ graves, and take a look at available burial spots for my brother’s request. We found a spot right beside my parents.

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Our parents gravestone. In the background is a corn field with rotational irrigation equipment. So apropos for the multitude of NE farmers’ resting place.


She suggested we visit the local funeral home, to gather more information about burial at Immanuel Cemetery. The information from the funeral director was specific and not as complicated as I had imagined . I later passed on the information to my nephews, for use in that unforeseen future.

The next day I said goodbye to my cousins and drove back to Grand Island, to attend Bob’s Care Plan meeting. Bob seemed disoriented, so I was glad I had had the conversation a couple of days prior, to share his concerns. After his meeting I drove to a local fast food of Bob’s choice, Runza Hut, a local favorite, and brought it back for Bob’s lunch. He enjoyed every last bite.

I drove home via Lincoln, NE, so I could have supper with our brother. Knowing he is proficient at wood working, it occurred to me to ask him to consider making an urn for Bob’s ashes. He gave me a decisive yes. I really considered this planning for an event years away, but was grateful plans were falling in place so well.

After that, when I called Bob the conversations had digressed with the progression of his dementia. In November of 2018, my nephew let me know Bob was placed on Hospice care. They said he had declined, but they did not see death as imminent. He basically needed more daily care. I texted Rev. Glenda to let her know they had included chaplain care in the hospice services.

I wasn’t involved in his September Care Plan meeting as they had staff changes, who didn’t know to contact me. For Bob’s December Care Plan meeting, I again participated via conference call. The goals for his Care Plan were now comfort care, not rehabilitative care. This was hard to hear, but helpful to face the reality of Bob’s condition.

I was still surprised, though, when my nephew’s wife called to tell me in early January Bob was not eating and declining. I texted Rev. Glenda to tell her Ken and I were heading to Nebraska on a Sunday to say our goodbyes. Glenda did not anticipate coming to Grand Island at that time. A few hours later she texted me and said she was coming! This meant she was driving the eighty miles one way, after presiding at two church services that morning. My brother and his wife from Colorado came, my nephew and his wife were there, and Bob reveled in being surrounded by family. My nephew, his wife and I took opportunities to talk with Rev. Glenda about funeral services, within the confines of limited funds. Rev. Glenda offered her services and the services of her church in Ord with no need for payment. We were deeply touched, and relieved.

It turned out to be our last time to see Bob as he died six days later. My nephew and his wife worked with Rev. Glenda to arrange the funeral service. Our brother was able to build the wooden urn in time for the funeral service. The inurnment of ashes at the cemetery on the plains would wait for better weather.

Our family gathered, and Rev. Glenda a officiated a service honoring Bob. She told anecdotes of his church life in Ord; stories new to me. She told us when she moved to Ord she was still doing graduate work. She asked Bob to read her papers and said he gave constructive feedback. When Bob died Rev. Glenda informed the NE Synod Office and the Assistant to the Bishop participated in the funeral service. None of Bob’s family even considered this as an option, but we knew Bob would appreciate the acknowledgement of his ministry. And we were grateful for the immense care Rev. Glenda gave to the details and her ministry to us. Rev. Glenda turned out to be a blessing to my brother and his relatives. Much of this falling together because Ken and I decided to take a walk in our neighborhood on a warm day in June.

The Winter of Grief

On January 4th, my nephew’s wife called to say my brother Bob was not eating and was declining. I hadn’t seen him since last June, and in December was told he could no longer participate in the phone conversations I had just had a month prior. I knew I needed to visit him. I remembered August of 2014, when my sister-in-law called, saying my brother Paul was riddled with cancer and was expected to die within the week. I waited three days, and while driving to Omaha to see him, my sister-in-law called again to say he had died. I regretted waiting. I wanted to avoid more regrets, so on January 6th, my husband and I made the two hundred mile one-way trip to see him. When I walked into his dining room, he saw me, lifted his shoulders in a happy shrug just like our mother, smiled and said, “Sister”. We hugged and spent time together, being joined by his son and daughter-in-law and another brother and his wife. His pastor even joined us, making an eighty-mile trip to do so. We had had as satisfying a visit as allowed by the narrow scope of topics with his dementia and the Parkinson’s limiting his speech.

The round trip was easy as the weather was mild, the roads were clear. It met my needs to talk with him, hug him, and once again to tell him I loved him.

On Friday, January 11th, I went to bed with the knowledge my brother Bob was not expected to live through the weekend. I informed my siblings through our private Facebook group and email. My urge to immediately drive the two hundred miles to his nursing home again, to hold his hand, was tempered by inclement winter weather. On Saturday at 3:30 am, I startled awake from a dream: I was following a leader through an outdoor amphitheater, with the goal of going to the woods beyond. The leader was already out, motioning me to join him when I reached the top of the seating and the sloping of a roof. As I started to pass through this narrow opening, I realized I was walking into a maze of spider webs. All kinds of sizes and types of spiders fell on me, with spider webs and spiders entangling in my long hair. I quickly backed up, looking for other openings, but they were too small. I awoke, without finding a passage.

After a few more restless hours of sleep, my nephew’s wife called to tell me Bob had died. And my dream made sense; my brother had moved on and I could not follow.

I made a list of my siblings, to not have to trust my memory to remember which of the seven I had called. I added his oldest son on the east coast and our cousin in Nebraska. I was attentive to the time zones they each resided in and called accordingly. To tell them our brother had died was difficult enough, but to tell my other brother that Bob died on his birthday and his granddaughter’s first birthday was a difficulty of its own. I actually found it wonderful to talk to each of my siblings, even for the occasion of delivering our sad news. I am not a regular phone call person and rely on Facebook and gatherings to communicate. After I had completed the list, I found I was exhausted. My adult children were sympathetic and assured me they would attend Bob’s funeral service. My son would travel east from Wyoming; my daughter lives in the same town as I do, but planned to travel later, so she could take less time off, and see her young children before she leaves them for two days.

The service was set for January 23rd, which left time for long-distance travel plans and returning to the regular tasks of life. I made lists to help me focus. I found myself inattentive, ending up with a broken fingernail, an unexplained scratch, and a blistered finger doing a task I had safely done for a decade. I remembered the time I slammed the trunk of the car on my finger, almost twenty years ago as I grappled with the news of my father’s terminal illness. I realized I needed to pay attention if I wanted no further injuries. Or car accidents. I have been involved in three car accidents, none of which were deemed as my fault. I was rear-ended twice in the months after grappling with the pain of divorce and the death of what I had hoped to be a marriage for life. The third car accident was after my mom died. Again, technically not my fault, but these happening in times of grief are notable.

On Monday, January 14th, a friend visited us, and I calmly told her the stories. She listened and shared her stories. I was fine. I joined my book club for breakfast the next morning and found myself interrupting, bringing any topic back to my brother’s passing. When I got in my car, the tears flowed. I texted some friends, who answered with compassionate wisdom. I had coffee with them on Friday, realizing I had once again monopolized the conversation, but they are close friends and wanting to be with me in my grief. I ran to Natural Grocers and discovered a massage therapist was giving free, 20-minute massages. I passed her by as I usually do, then realized this was a gift. I turned around and took her up on her gift. I explained I was grieving, may cry, and that I knew I was carrying grief in my body. In those sweet twenty minutes, she was able to put a dent in the boards usually referred to as shoulders. While massaging my back, I realized I was carrying old griefs as well as this recent grief. I knew I could let the old griefs go. She was as skilled of a listener as she was as a masseuse. I left somewhat lighter than I had come.

I knew I was improving when I could actually complete a couple of tasks on the list in the next days. I started a list of tasks to do after we returned from the funeral service, as the business of life continues on.

I consulted with my sisters about what they were wearing. I grieved that my oldest sister would not be attending. And I decided to continue a project of making sister bracelets for our sisters-in-law. I had made bracelets for my sisters last April, using our mother’s necklace as a base. It was therapeutic to focus on creating for my family while facing our loss. My daughter and I had manicures together; something we do for important occasions.

The day prior to the funeral, my husband and I set out. We drove west, starting with mist, which turned to rain, then freezing rain. When we turned north, the rain changed to blinding snow swirling around us. We wondered why we hadn’t left a day earlier and were relieved to arrive at the motel where we joining my extended family. During the storm, I tearfully told my daughter she should not start her drive that evening, meaning she would not be coming to gather with us. When the interstate closed due to ice and accidents, we both knew she would stay home. She is a great comfort to me, and I knew I would miss her presence.

The funeral was still an eighty-mile drive away from our motel, with the remnants of packed snow on the road continuing to slow our travel and keep us focused in the moment. The sun was shining and the weather predicted above-freezing temperatures.

The pastor gathered us prior to the funeral, reading scripture, telling us some stories, and giving us directions. When she asked if any of us wanted to share stories about our brother Bob, I drew a blank. Bob was twelve years older than me; our childhoods barely intersected. He left for college and only returned a few times a year after that. It didn’t seem the time to tell that when I was a young adult he insisted we no longer keep our childhood abuse a secret, to ensure the next generation did not experience abuse as well. That we became close as adults around this process and later sharing our journeys of recovery from alcoholism. Our talks were from the heart, about how we were living day to day. When our conversations were no longer mutual sharing, and his behavior became self-serving and weird, my interest in communicating with him was squelched. When I found out a couple of years later he had Parkinson’s and dementia, his behavior had a context. I then looked for opportunities to visit him at his assisted living facility. Every time I saw him, his functioning had changed, had declined. Since his diagnosis in 2011, I have been slowly losing our former connection. There were vestiges. We could still talk about the tools of recovery together and how we were using them today.

So no, I had no quick stories to tell. His grandsons were able to tell a couple of stories; ones I had not heard before. One of my brothers told the pastor we had time that evening to share more stories. The moment passed. My emptiness did not. During the funeral service, I find myself in tears. My son put his arm around me to comfort me. I leaned into him, appreciating his comforting. We drove back to the motel on sun-dried, clear roads, enjoying the rural scenery sparkling in the snow.

Back home, and a week later, I was preparing for a short stay of my son. As I converted my craft room back into his guest room, the sadness returned. Sam was going stay to briefly with us, bringing us his car and his cat to care for while he is gone for a year-long overseas assignment.

As we moved on to grocery shopping. I realized I was in an active grief space. I couldn’t face the analytical decisions of choosing produce. I tell my husband I will pick up the yogurt and the tahini; the easy tasks. As I held the quart of yogurt, I imagine I drop it and hear the sound as it hits the floor. The stunted sound of plastic making impact on a cement floor. I see the yogurt splatting, then oozing out. I consider letting go of the yogurt and actualizing this sight and sound. It seems like it would be a relief, that it might help break the tension of my sadness. I resist, knowing it is not really a reality I want right now. But I can’t locate the tahini. What I am locating is my new source of grief: I am now facing my son going overseas for six months, to a military base I am not allowed to visit. We will be able to communicate, but I won’t be able to be in the same space as him. It seems too soon to face this, with the recent passing of my brother. I also realize my son is not dying, and that I may be getting this all mixed together. I return to my husband, who has made all of the produce-purchasing decisions and ask for his help in finding the tahini. He takes me to the correct aisle. He also picks out some chocolate peanut clusters. I resist inhaling them all on the way home and eat one when we get home, remembering overeating does not assuage grief. I looked at the list of tasks I want to complete before Sam comes home and realize I am done with the list for the day. And grateful I still have tomorrow.

When Sam arrives, his nervous excitement about his new adventure helps me feel happy for him. We spend a day together with his sister and her family. The next day I drive him to the airport through winter mist at 4:30 am. I plan to walk in with him, to see him through the security process, but he chooses to tell me goodbye at the curb. Surprised we are parting, the tears flow. I gather myself for the still-winter-dark, overcast drive home, knowing I will be home before it’s without-a-sunrise daylight. Unexpectedly, I find myself relieved that his twelve months have now started. I had had eight months of anticipating this assignment. As it turned out, the anticipation was worse than the actual event. Similarly, I realize I had been dreading my brother’s death since I found out he had Parkinson’s and Dementia. Knowing both of these conditions could go on indefinitely, I now marveled my brother had been able to be released from them in less than a decade from his diagnosis. I find some momentary peace, knowing I will have more grief moments to experience. I take pictures of Sam’s cat, so I can send them to him. And know I will be ready to face my list of tasks tomorrow.