Talking with my daughter-in-law tonight, I was struck by the number of times serendipity seems to have changed the direction of my life.
Not long after attending a high school presentation by a local college about the value of a liberal arts education, but preferring to go to school somewhere in the Midwest, I was recruited by Ripon College, a liberal arts school in the Midwest.
Four days before graduating from Ripon and wishing I could stay in Wisconsin, I walked into a radio station in Waupaca and learned they needed a news director.
Out of work as a newly “born again” Christian, I tuned into my favorite Christian radio station and heard the general manager talking about how they wanted to start up a news department.
Red went looking for a record collector so she could give away her LPs and found me.
Perhaps the most amazing example came after I was offered the job as editor of the Door County Advocate. I was unsure whether to take the job or stay at my position in Green Bay. Red and I visited the county and happened upon the newspaper office, which was closed.
On the wall outside the front door was an engraved reproduction of the front page of the first Advocate, published March 22, 1862. It so happens I was also born on March 22, a few decades after that. My time at the Advocate became the highlight of my career.
And here I am at another crossroads, having lost my beloved Red. I almost can hardly wait to see what God will show me next.
I stayed up Wednesday night missing Red, watching TV, and playing computer solitaire while waiting to see if I had won $1 billion. The numbers were drawn, and what do you know, the 292 million to 1 odds did not shine in my favor.
I went back to missing Red, and I realized that I have already won the lottery once in this lifetime, so I shouldn’t be greedy.
Twenty-six years with this sweet, smart and compassionate woman are worth more than a billion dollars anyway.
It’s not what you think. I’m not planning to reallocate my resources so I can go explore ruins or exotic islands and rain forests and teeming cities.
No: I aim to see the world.
I resolve to look around me and see not just the sleeping dogs and dust bunnies but the way the sun brightens and nourishes everything it touches — and the rain, too, in its turn. I plan to be aware of how the air fills my lungs differently when I consciously take in a breath as opposed to leaving the automatic pilot in control.
I plan to notice the echinacea and the compass plants that have bloomed in recent days, and I intend to watch the bees and the beetles visit the new flowers to do their thing. I plan to watch the pelicans fly high overhead and contemplate what they see from their vantage point.
When I resolve to see the world, I expect to see things that sadden as much as delight me, but I expect most of all to see things that fascinate me, for the world is nothing if not fascinating. See how much there is to see! Perhaps that’s why our eyes glaze over and we forget to look: There is just so much, and when we try to see it all, our senses overload. But how much we miss when we pass over and shut it down!
I’m not talking about the sensory overload from doom-scrolling and media shouting and artificial intelligence and algorithms — no, I’m talking about what I see when I lift my eyes from the screen to the hills, to the sky, and to the wonders right next to me, just beyond my reach, whether it’s a rabbit frozen in my back yard hoping I don’t see or it’s a weed growing between the cracks in an ancient sidewalk.
See the world! I’m not talking about taking a journey through soul-sapping airports for hours and days to see what there is to see far, far away, although you’re certainly welcome to do so. I’m talking about seeing the world where you’re planted, being aware of the wonder and the beauty and, yes, the appalling and the ugly, the right here and the right now.
We grow accustomed to our surroundings, to our world, to our quotidian, so much so that we stop seeing it, and in doing so we rob ourselves of life itself. We are meant to see the world — every part of it, every second — and to drink it in, and savor it, and change what we can and accept what we can’t, but to see it all.
I read a few Psalms to my beloved Red as she passed to what comes next. I was amused with myself as I read her the 23rd.
I was reading the New International Version translation of the ancient song, so clearly the words in front of me were: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall lack nothing. He makes me lie down in green pastures, he restores my soul.”
But darned if the words that came out of my mouth weren’t: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul.”
That darned King James; even after all these years — the NIV came out in 1978 — the old words of his poetry still resonate in my mind.
And such a reassuring message —
“Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies … Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.”
They may be the most comforting words ever written. OK, I’m prone to hyperbole, but they’re pretty darn good, aren’t they?
Friday night we officially said goodbye to Red. I spent the morning assembling three bulletin boards full of photos that made me realize again what a very beautiful woman I spent the last quarter century with. I collected a pair of her soiled work gloves, some gardening tools and several garden hats to display by her urn. And I packed a small table she refinished and beautifully decorated to show off her artistic touch.
Speaking of the urn, I thought I was holding together remarkably well until I turned the corner into the room where her earthly remains were stored in that pretty lavender colored container. Sometimes the grief creeps up on you, and sometimes it’s a sucker punch. This was definitely the latter; I was unable to function for a few moments and had to sit down.
A comforting number of people were able to make it — if you didn’t, no worries, I understand — some from a great distance. We cried, we laughed, and mostly we remembered one very remarkable woman. I am not worthy of such a woman, but she took me into her life anyway, and I am forever blessed as a result.
Several of my friends have lost their own wives and came to support me because they have lived through the same nightmare. It was good to see them and I hope to see them again soon.
Tomorrow as I write this, and today as you read this,I begin living my “new normal.” I wonder what that will be like. It feels pretty empty right now, and it’s up to me to fill it back up. Onward and upward, I guess.
There’s a poignant scene early in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom in which an old pal of Dr. Jones is shot, fatally wounded in the course of assisting the famed archaeologist.
“Hang on, we’ll get you out of here,” Jones tells his friend.
“Not this time, Indy,” his pal says as he perishes. “I’ve followed you on many adventures, but to the great unknown mystery — I go first, Indy!”
I have discovered the cliche is true, as I’ve transitioned smoothly into the old widower who talks with his dearly departed wife all the time as he walks around the house, and the other day I told Red, “Well, you know the answer now — you know what comes next.”
Is she with Jesus? Is she simply gone, asleep forever? Is she on her way to a new life, her spirit waiting to be born or already a newborn? I feel her everywhere, so I tend to believe she remains in some sort of spirit energy, with Jesus or somehow else.
I am a Christian, so my faith tells me she must be in Heaven and having a conversation with Jesus, but I have been cursed with a curious mind, and so I consider the alternative scenarios to be at least possible. When my mind drifts to the possibility of reincarnation, I think about how everyone wants to have been someone important — or close to someone important — in a past life.
“I was a maid in Queen Elizabeth I’s court,” someone might believe. “I was Napoleon’s Empress Josephine,” “I was Kaiser Bill’s batman,” or even “I was Cleopatra.” That’s all well and good, but by gravitating toward historic personages that we all know about, they miss the fact that everyone is someone important, in this life, in past lives, and the next.
Wherever she is, I do pray the great unknown mystery leads to a place where we shall meet again, when the time comes. I draw comfort from that possibility and look forward to that conversation; we have much to talk about.
Please indulge an old-ish man one more story about his late wife.
When I first took Red to see the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it was a rainy night at a county fair not far from Lake Michigan. It was the days before John McEuen rejoined the band, it was a dreary night, and I was disappointed a second time — I had seen them once during my college years and thought they sounded nothing like the crisp ensemble that had made those records. We left early, partly because we had a fidgety 10-year-old in tow and partly because we were tired of getting wet.
That could have been the last of it, but a couple years later Red wanted to show me Big Top Chautauqua in Bayfield, Wisconsin. It’s a spectacular musical venue every summer, under a big tent on a hill not far from Lake Superior. I looked it up and saw that its schedule included a concert featuring John McEuen and Jimmie Ibbotson with special guest Vassar Clements.
“McEuen and Ibbotson were my favorite members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band,” I told her, “and Vassar Clements is the fiddler who stole the show on Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” She agreed this could be a great way to introduce me to the Big Tent, and it was.
John McEuen rejoined NGDB not long afterward, and as far as I’m concerned that revived the band with an energy that continues to this day, even though he has since left again and Ibbotson has retired. We saw the reconstituted Dirt Band at Big Top Chautauqua a few years later, and it was night-and-day from the county fair debacle. I think together we saw them a total of five times, including their immortal 50th anniversary concert at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, my absolute favorite musical memory.
In early June I got an email from Big Top Chautauqua that some of their shows are now being livestreamed, including an upcoming performance on Friday night, June 23, by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. I told Red, and she said that would be great, and so I arranged for us to watch the concert from her room at the hospice residence.
We waited patiently through the warm-up act, and we waited patiently after they announced the band would take the stage in another 30 minutes. Once they started, and it was a magical night.
After Jaime Hanna sang “Girl From the North Country,” Red murmured, “That was beautiful.” Son of co-founder Jeff Hanna, Jaime’s rich voice adds another dimension to the Dirt Band, which I suspect will be his group someday if he wants it — Jeff is going strong at 75, but he’s 75, after all, and 76 on July 11.
McEuen was replaced by Jaime, Ross Holmes and Jim Photoglo, and this was our first experience with the new lineup — they made a PBS special last year, but that was only an hour of highlights, not the complete concert. We liked the new mix — not as much as the Hanna-Jimmie Fadden-Bob Carpenter-Ibbotson-McEuen mix, but pretty close.
When they played Photoglo’s composition “Fishing in the Dark” — one of their biggest country hits — we knew from past experience that they were almost done. Sure enough, here came “Bayou Jubilee” — with Holmes substituting “Orange Blossom Special” for “Sally Was a Goodun” to fine effect — and then “Jambalaya” and the encore of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and “The Weight” spliced inside.
And then the nurses came in to prep my exhausted bride for bed. She was as tired as I’ve ever seen her, but I could tell she’d had a good time.
Red slept most of the time I was there Saturday and Sunday, and a couple of times I apologized for wearing her out and keeping her up past her bedtime. She shut that line of thinking down as only she could, adding, “It was wonderful.” And Tuesday morning she was gone.
Our first date wasn’t the smoothest — that may be a tale for another day — but our last date 26 years later was perfect. And that’s probably more important.