The summer of Nancy
My family kept asking, “You’re going up north, again?” I replied, “Yes, because I’ve decided this is The Summer of Nancy!”
My instincts sent me up north a lot this summer of 2015. I needed time to figure out some things and breathe. I have worked non-stop for at least eight years, trying to get out of debt and, for the past four years, taking care of Barry.
I’m very glad I took this time away because I have met new friends, learned about mushrooms and explored new parts of the Superior Hiking Trail. I took a boat trip with a friend on Lake Superior and saw the Canadian landscape for the first time from the water. At the end of August, I walked the last miles of the Superior Hiking Trail from the Kadunce River to the very end where it meets the Border Trail. This journey took a week because most days I had to walk in to a certain point on the trail and then back the same way to where I parked my car. Then the next day I would walk from the other direction to the point I stopped the day before. Basically, I walked each section of the trail twice. On two days I didn’t have to backtrack because I was lucky to be dropped off by a friend. On this stretch, my mission was to look for mushrooms and to finish the remaining section of the trail. It felt really good to have a plan.
Each day of that week was beautiful with no rain. I had not felt this relaxed in years. While hiking, I thought about a book titled “Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers” by Anne Lamott that my sister-in-law gave Barry when he was first diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia (FTD). I am a huge fan of Lamott’s writing. Every autumn I re-read Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I also encourage my students to read it before they start any writing project.
Barry couldn’t read the book because FTD had taken away the skill of reading soon after he was diagnosed. I kept the book by my bed for a couple of years before I broke down and read it. Back then I was an angry and bitter person. My life was crashing in around me and I could not stop thinking about all we had lost and all the things I now would never do with Barry. It was such a sad time.
I was grieving over the loss of my husband. He was here physically but the old Barry was long gone. For a couple of those years, I spent a lot of time saying, HELP God! But when things kept getting worse and worse, I mostly gave up asking Him for help. One day at the care center while feeding Barry lunch, a fellow who feeds his wife there each day said from across the room that he prays for Barry and me every day. I stopped feeding Barry and snapped back at him, “Well don’t bother! Your prayers aren’t doing any good. Stupid God isn’t listening!” I had given up all hope. The poor guy looked sad and shocked! That night I drew a picture of God wearing a stocking cap on that large piece of paper that I had put up in my studio a few weeks earlier. Beneath the picture, I wrote: “I kind of wonder if I can make it. Can I God? PS, are you there? Hello hello hello hello hello.” NO ANSWER!
It was a pretty desperate time.
Now on these final hikes four years later, I realized that instead of saying “help” I was now saying “thanks!” Thanks for this spectacular view today; thanks for the awesome mushroom I cut up and ate for dinner. Thanks for my grandchildren and my own kids. Thanks for new friends and old ones. Thanks Lake Superior for giving me my smile back. I wasn’t quite ready to admit I was saying thanks to God. I still was feeling abandoned.
Barry was back at the care center, staring at the wall and repeating things to himself while I was out living my life. When I thought about this dichotomy, I felt weepy, and I still do each time I go to see him. I know in my heart that the help I asked for Barry is that God would let him die so he wouldn’t suffer anymore. This is not easy to admit, and it makes me feel guilty every time I think about it. In a single day while hiking, I can feel unbelievably happy, then, suddenly, I feel sad and guilty because I am having so much fun. I suppose this is all part of the process we go through when losing someone we love.
One day I met a guy on the trail and we talked for a couple of hours while hiking in the same direction. He had problems too. It’s good to remember that nobody gets out of this life without something bad happening in their lives. We all have times when we need help!
Late one night that week, I woke up needing to go to the bathroom. But I was afraid to go to the outhouse because a bear recently came into the yard and knocked over a bee hive. I was alone and did not want to get trapped in the outhouse if he came back! As I stepped cautiously outside, I looked around for the bear and then up at the sky. There were a zillion stars out. I could see the Milky Way. My head had been down for so long praying for help and trying to get through the each day that I had forgotten to look up. Now here I was shivering in my t-shirt as the entire universe seemed to wrap its arms around me. I heard myself saying, “Wow!! Thank you God!” I finally understood the last essential prayer in Anne Lamott’s book. Wow is the perfect word — the only word to describe what I felt at that moment. I sat down on a lawn chair and looked up at the amazing sky for a long time. I wasn’t about to let my fear of a bear stop me from taking all this in. The journey with Barry has been a long one and we are still on it, but looking up at that sky that night, I knew that we were not alone after all. And Wow that is a good feeling!
End of the Trail
After a few more days, it was time to go home. Labor Day was coming and I really needed to end The Summer of Nancy and get back to work. I walked to the end of the Superior Hiking Trail and then up to the Border Trail Look Out where I had lunch while looking across to Canada. I asked a guy who was working on the Border Route Trail how far it went. He said it goes across the Boundary Waters and Minnesota and then all the way to Oregon. Wow, I thought as I hiked back down to my car ready to head south and back to work. Maybe someday I’ll follow the trail all the way.