Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reflecting on 9/11 after 20 years September 10, 2021

A drawing by my then young son of “something to remember” for a grade school assignment: A plane crashing into the World Trade Center. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

TWENTY YEARS. TWO DECADES. Two hundred and forty months.

Whatever words are attached to the time that has passed since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States, the reality of that day in our nation’s history remains forever imprinted upon our collective memories.

On the campus of Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, a plaque honors an alumna who died on 9/11. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

That day changed us. It changed how we view each other and the world. The acts of those terrorists not only claimed lives, but our sense of security. Our sense of peace. And much more.

I remember well that September morning, how my then seven-year-old son and his friend Sam reacted to scenes unfolding on our television set. My husband had phoned me from work, alerting me to the attacks. I switched on the TV. And the boys saw it all, right alongside me. Perhaps I should have been a responsible mother/caregiver and turned off the television. But I didn’t.

I reconstructed a tower using the same blocks my son and his friend used on September 11, 2001, to duplicate what they saw on television. These are also the same airplanes they flew into the tower. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo September 2001.

Soon Caleb and Sam were building twin towers with wooden blocks and flying toy airplanes into the skyscrapers. It was heart-breaking to watch. Both reality unfolding on the screen and then the re-enactment on my living room floor.

For a Minnesota mom geographically far-removed from the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and a field in Pennsylvania, none of this seemed distant. I felt the collective fear. I felt the collective pain. I felt the collective grief.

A memorial at the Faribault Fire Department honoring those who died on 9/11. The department will host a commemoration this Saturday, September 11, beginning at 7:46 am. That includes a welcome by the fire chief, a flag presentation, ringing of the bell and a brief eulogy. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo.

Today I remember, 20 years later, those who died. The families left without loved ones. The heroes. And those two little boys who saw, yet didn’t fully-understand, the events unfolding far from Minnesota. Yet too close.

Here’s a poem I wrote shortly after September 11, 2001:

September 11, 2001

You clutch your silver toy jetliners

then blast them into the twin towers,

blocks scattering across the floor.

Like that show on TV,

you tell me,

where the planes crashed

into those two tall buildings.

—————————————-

Somehow I must tell you

that this was no show on TV,

but real people

in real buildings.

Moms and Dads

with little boys just like you,

boys who build towers and fly toy airplanes.

—————————————————————

How do I begin to show you the truth

behind a scene so terrifying

that it keeps replaying in my mind?

Hollywood could have written the script,

the latest disaster film, grossing millions

for an industry embedded in itself.

You’re right; this could be a show on TV.

———————————————————-

Except this is very real,

so real that I want you to believe

those were just pretend buildings, pretend airplanes.

But you see the worry in my eyes,

hear the sadness in my voice.

You know the truth,

even before I tell you.

——————————-

My son, only seven years old,

too young to fully understand

the evil that has invaded the world,

the fear that grips the American heart, my heart,

the sense of security forever lost.

Like so many blocks scattered across the floor,

we must pick up the pieces and rebuild, peace by peace.

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Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Learning about Minnesota’s worst mining disaster September 1, 2021

A photo of iron ore miners displayed at the Soo Line Depot Museum in Crosby, Minnesota. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

I CANNOT IMAGINE WORKING as a miner. Underground. Enclosed in tight spaces. Enveloping darkness. Fear and danger and sometimes unsafe working conditions. I couldn’t do the job. I need light and air and space. To feel free, not trapped.

A photo of the Milford Mine displayed at the Crosby museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

On February 5, 1924, nearly 50 men mining iron ore in the Milford Mine on the Cuyuna Iron Range in central Minnesota faced their greatest fear. Death. They were only 15 minutes from the end of their shift when the unthinkable happened at 3:45 pm on a Tuesday. When mud, water and quicksand from Foley Lake flooded the shaft. Only seven of the 48 miners escaped.

Mining photos and equipment are part of the museum display. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted photo July 2021.

I cannot imagine the horrible scene which unfolded in that mine as these hardworking men struggled to get out. To survive. To return to their families. To see the light of day. To breathe.

The headline in the Duluth newspaper erroneously reports that 42 (not 41) miners drowned. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Forty-one men died as the 200-foot deep mine shaft filled with water to within 15 feet of the surface in just 20 minutes. That’s not much time to scramble up a ladder to safety.

Canaries really were used to detect gas levels in mines, as replicated at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Until two months ago, my knowledge of Minnesota’s worst mining disaster was limited to just that—an awareness that this tragedy happened. Beyond that, I was uninformed. I don’t recall ever hearing of this disaster in any history classes.

Info on use of caged canaries is included in the museum exhibit. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

Yet, this event, this substantial loss of life in a single horrific tragedy, needs to be taught and remembered. It’s an important part of our state’s mining history and of the families who lost loved ones in the Milford Mine. I expect many a family in the Crosby area—the mine was located just miles from town—can trace genealogy back to the disaster.

The Soo Line Depot Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

In Crosby, the Soo Line Depot Museum, 101 1st St. NE, features a display on iron ore mining with an emphasis on the mining disaster at Milford. The displays heightened my interest, my desire to learn more. And I did by visiting Milford Mine Memorial Park located some four miles north of Crosby on Milford Lake Drive, just off Crow Wing County Road 30, just off Minnesota State Highway 6.

Miners pose for a photo in this image displayed in the Soo Line Depot Museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots photo July 2021.

I’ll take you to that memorial park, which personalizes this tragedy and honors the men who died and those who survived. It’s a remarkable park in volume of historical information and setting—on-site of the disaster. Boardwalks and hiking trails lead visitors into the woods, across marshland and along a mining lake. In a beautiful natural setting, where, 97 years ago, 41 miners died, trapped underground.

A list of mines on the Cuyuna Range shown at the museum. Minnesota Prairie Roots copyrighted file photo July 2021.

NOTE: The Soo Line Depot Museum closes for the season on Labor Day weekend and reopens Memorial Day weekend. Milford Mine Memorial Park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A strong message from a man who died of COVID-19 June 11, 2021

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Robert Tersteeg. Image from KLGR website.

HIS LAST NAME, Tersteeg, grabbed my attention as I scrolled through the local funeral announcements on the KLGR radio website. I occasionally check the site since I grew up near Redwood Falls.

Back when I lived in this region of southwestern Minnesota, I associated the surname Tersteeg with a grocery store in this Redwood County community. My mom shopped there and my siblings and I sometimes accompanied her.

But the obituary was for Robert Tersteeg, 46, of Minot, North Dakota, and a native of Bird Island. Not someone from my home county, but from neighboring Renville County. Still, I read the obituary given Robert’s young age and familiar name.

He died on June 3 at the University of Minnesota Hospital “after a fierce battle with COVID-19.”

Now that could be the end of the story. But Rob’s family—or more accurately Rob—wanted more to be shared about this “vicious virus.” The part that humanizes COVID-19, that reveals the regrets of a man who died from the virus:

Rob’s final wish was that his journey with COVID might save even just one more loving husband, son, father, uncle, friend. Rob regretted not being vaccinated and, immediately upon hospitalization, made Amy (his wife) promise to vaccinate the kids (Nikolai, Olivia, Kaylie).

Saturday morning those who loved Rob will gather for his funeral at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Bird Island. He is not just another number in the statistics of COVID deaths. He was a family man who loved and was loved. And now he is gone, too soon, leaving one final wish—a desire to save lives with his message to “get vaccinated.”

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NOTE: If you are anti-vaccine, please do not comment on this post. I won’t publish your comment on this, my personal blog. I feel grateful to Rob’s family for publicly sharing his final wish/message in a desire to save lives.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Mourning Week Day, age six May 4, 2021

Week Day. Photo source: Hamilton Funeral Home.

TODAY A FAMILY BURIES their six-year-old daughter and sister on the southwestern Minnesota prairie. My heart breaks. Tears flow. And sorrow roots deep within me.

To see the photo of an adorable girl with a sweet smile and braided pigtails makes this all too real. This COVID-19. This deadly virus which, on April 25, claimed the life of Week Day.

She emigrated with her family from a Thai refugee camp to Marshall, Minnesota, in December 2015. Week was not quite 18 months old. The daughter of Mu Mu and He Lars. And then big sister to Michael.

And when she passed, the first grade student of Ms Hewitt and a classmate and friend at Park Side Elementary School.

My heart breaks for those who knew and loved this little girl. The girl who loved the color pink and singing and dancing and drawing and painting. The little girl with the kind heart, best attitude, bright smile.

Any death from COVID-19 is tragic. But, when a child loses her life, it’s especially difficult to take.

If you wish to show your love and support to the family of Week, please send cards, words of encouragement and donations to:

Hamilton Funeral Home

Family of Week Day

701 Jewett St.

Marshall, MN. 56258

Thank you.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Ashes to ashes February 18, 2021

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Photographed at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, New Trier, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo March 2017.

ASH WEDNESDAY PASSED yesterday not without my lack of awareness of this special day in the Christian church. Rather, I experienced the day with an acute awareness rooted in a recent personal loss—the death of my father-in-law.

Now, a day after the Wednesday symbolizing death and repentance and the beginning of Lent, I am thinking of my husband’s father, his funeral and burial only one week ago.

…for dust you are and to dust you will return—Genesis 3:19.

I doubt any words can better describe the reality of death. Ashes to ashes. Dust to dust. That’s basic. Understandable. Maybe uncomfortable for some. But it’s truth. We’re all going to die, whether at age 90 like my father-in-law or age 19 like my nephew Justin in 2001. Sometimes death takes our loved ones way too soon.

Last Thursday, as we celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for Tom and heard the priest speak those familiar words of dust to dust, grief and reality descended. Yet, as a woman of faith, hope balances that in the belief that I will see my loved ones again in heaven. Dad Helbling. Justin. My dad and grandparents and many aunts and uncles…and others I’ve had the joy of loving. For to love is to also open one’s heart to grief. And to hope.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

A time to mourn, on a frigid February day in Minnesota February 12, 2021

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THERE IS A TIME for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven…a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…

Thursday was a day to mourn as the Helbling family celebrated the Mass of Christian Burial for my father-in-law, Tom Helbling. He died on February 5 at the age of 90.

St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman, MN. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

It was an unusually frigid February day in central Minnesota with the temp hovering around zero as we gathered at St. Michael’s Catholic Church in Buckman. Over the course of more than three hours, memories imprinted upon me. Memories shaped in part by a global pandemic, which affected the ways in which we could be comforted. Randy and I declined hugs and handshakes. There would be no luncheon, the time of one-on-one visits. No getting together with siblings, at least for us, either before the funeral or after.

Yet, simply being together in the same building brought comfort. Comfort came, too, in flowers and music and Scripture. Like the words of Ecclesiastes 3:1-14, read by my sister-in-law Rosie. When she read a time to embrace and a time to refrain, I thought, how fitting for a funeral during COVID-19.

The casket spray, which incorporated a tractor photo and a toy tractor.

Images seared into my mind—like the lowering of the casket lid over my father-in-law. Or the surprise of seeing my then preschool-aged son in an image atop the casket spray. He was perched on the seat of his grandpa’s Ford 9N tractor in a photo I took decades ago.

We sat in the front pew to the left. Above the altar, in the blue ceiling, are the heavenly angels that drew my focus. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

Many times throughout the service—especially during the farewell chant and song of angels welcoming Dad into heaven—I focused on the heavenly angels painted on the ceiling high above the altar. What a gift the artists and craftsmen of this aged church left for mourners. Art comforts.

Pipes on the St. Michael’s organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

So does music, especially music. “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee” and “The Lord is My Shepherd” and “Holy God, We Praise Thy Name” and many other songs filled this massive church with the most beautiful, heavenly music performed by musicians in the balcony. St. Michael’s has incredible acoustics. Randy and I suggested to his classmate Janel prior to the service that perhaps the musical team could play a polka or waltz in honor of Dad, who so enjoyed both and who also played piano, organ and accordion (not the concertina, as the priest noted). My sister-in-law Vivian shared with me later that the hymn “Whispering Hope,” played before the casket closed, was a popular waltz at wedding dances in the area and was a favorite of her parents. I love nuances like that which personalize a funeral.

As I sat through the service next to Randy on an uncomfortably hard straight-back pew, physically-distanced from family, I determined not to cry. I didn’t want to cry into my mask. I considered how surreal this felt to experience a funeral during a global pandemic. And how surreal also to experience a funeral during Minnesota’s longest cold snap in nearly three decades.

We dressed for the weather, wearing long johns under our dress pants. Randy told me his dad wore long johns often back on the farm so this extra layer of warmth seemed another fitting tribute. Before heading to the cemetery, we slipped out of dress shoes into snow boots.

The crucifix carried to the cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

And then, once grandchildren slid their grandfather’s casket into the hearse for the short drive to the cemetery, mourners followed by foot, crossing Minnesota State Highway 25. A church officiant stood half-way into the traffic lane, bundled for warmth, purple mask covering his face, holding a pole with crucifix atop as traffic waited out of respect for us to cross the road. It was a strong visual moment for me. The red pick-up truck parked curbside contrasting with mourners dressed in black. Waiting vehicles. Masks and stocking caps and bald heads (among those who chose to brave the elements minus head coverings). The priest in his, oh, so Minnesotan red buffalo plaid coat and matching ear flapper cap. An icy parking lot with occasional welcome patches of gravel. And then, the final steps across the snow to the burial site.

This art rises above St. Michael’s Cemetery. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo September 2020.

As my nieces and nephews carried my father-in-law’s casket, I felt the heaviness of grief. The cold of death, balanced by the promise of eternal life. Grief and joy.

And then, in one last act of love, we each stepped up to pull flowers from the casket spray to lay upon the casket. I chose a red rose, not yet blackened by the cold, placed it on the shiny grey surface. And then, with my mittened hand, I patted the lid twice in a final farewell to my father-in-law.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

In loving memory of my father-in-law February 9, 2021

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Tom and Betty Helbling, photographed in 1988.

HE DIED PEACEFULLY Friday morning, two of his daughters by his side.

He is my father-in-law, Tom. Age 90. His death came quickly after a short hospitalization, discharge, sudden change in health, admittance to hospice, then gone the next day.

Mass of Christian burial for my father-in-law will be celebrated in St. Michael’s Catholic Church, Buckman.

Now we are preparing to say goodbye in the deep of a brutally cold stretch of weather here in Minnesota in the midst of a global pandemic. Both add to the challenges.

Today, though, I want to focus on Tom and my memories of the man I’ve known for nearly 40 years. A man with a large and loving family, whom he loved, even if he didn’t often openly show it.

Tom and Betty Helbling, circa early 1950s.

Tom has always been surrounded by a large family, beginning with his birth into a blended family in rural St. Anthony, North Dakota, in December 1930. After farming on the Helbling homestead, Tom and his wife, Betty, moved in 1963 with their young children to a central Minnesota farm. Their family grew to nine children, 18 grandchildren and 20 great grandchildren.

As a young child, Tom briefly attended Catholic boarding school, which leads to one of my favorite stories about him. Apparently oatmeal was often served for breakfast. And Tom disliked oatmeal. One morning he stuffed the cooked grain in his pocket rather than eat it, so the story goes. I expect it wasn’t long before the nuns discovered the oatmeal mess and meted out punishment.

Yes, Tom could be particular about the foods he ate. He liked, in my opinion, the strangest foods—Braunschweiger, summer sausage, pickled beets, herring… And, yes, his son, my husband Randy, also likes herring. Shortly before his health declined, Tom enjoyed a few of those favorites delivered to his care center room by a daughter.

Ripened corn field. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Visitor restrictions due to COVID-19 were hard on Tom, as they have been for most living in congregate care centers and their families. But my father-in-law has overcome much in his life, most notably the loss of his left hand and forearm following an October 1967 farming accident. The accident happened when Tom hopped off the tractor to hand-feed corn into a plugged corn chopper. The rollers sliced off his fingers and pulled in his hand, trapping it. As Tom screamed for help, Randy, only 11 years old, disengaged the power take-off, then raced across fields and swampland to a neighbor’s farm. It’s a harrowing story that could have easily turned tragic.

My father-in-law’s prosthetic hand. Tom put a band-aid on his hand after he burned a hole in it while frying potatoes in 2009. I laughed so hard. Prior to getting his hand, Tom wore a hook to replace his amputated limb. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Despite a missing limb, Tom managed to continue milking cows and, in later years, to run a small engine repair business. He also grew and sold strawberries and pumpkins. I remember harvesting pumpkins with him one cold October evening, rain slicking the field with mud. We were drenched and miserable by the time we’d plucked those pumpkins.

One of my favorite photos of Tom giving an impromptu concert on his Lowrey organ. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

It is the creative side of Tom which I especially appreciated. He was a multi-talented life-long musician who played the piano, organ and accordion (until he lost his hand). He could play music by ear and had a piano tuning business. At age 81, he took refresher organ lessons and in 2012 gave an impromptu concert for Randy and me in the small St. Cloud apartment he shared with his second wife, Janice. His first wife, Betty, died in 1993. He treated us to Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “Somewhere My Love” from the movie Dr. Zhivago. What a gift to us.

Threshing on the home place in North Dakota, a painting by my father-in-law, Tom Helbling.

Tom also painted, a hobby he took up late in life. Randy and I have two of his original oil paintings and several prints. They are a reminder of my father-in-law, of his history, of his rural upbringing, of his creative side. I consider these a legacy gift. Valued now more than ever at his passing.


© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

My poem included in collection vying for Minnesota writing award September 23, 2020

 

Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

WE ARE SIXTEEN STRONG, 16 area poets whose collected poetry, Legacies: Poetic Living Wills, is now a finalist in the 2020 Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest.

I learned of this honor only recently via Northfield Poet Laureate Rob Hardy. A gifted poet and tireless promoter of poets and poetry, he submitted the collection to the debut contest sponsored by the Minnesota Library Foundation, Minnesota libraries and Bibliolabs.

According to the MN Reads MN Writes website, the new contest is designed “to recognize community-created writing and to highlight the central role that libraries play in providing support for local authors and the communities they serve.”

I crafted my poem, “Life at Forty Degrees,” in response to Hardy’s 2018 call for submissions to an anthology of “poetic living wills.”

The content of the poetry collections is summarized as “poems (that) deal with death and dying, with the things that make life meaningful in the face of death, and with the legacies that the poets hope to leave behind or have received from others before them.” My poem, about hanging laundry on the clothesline, focuses on the legacy passed on to me by my grandmothers.

You can read the collection by clicking here.

The winner of the first-ever Minnesota Authors Project: Communities Create contest will be announced later this month at the annual Minnesota Library Association’s annual conference. No matter the outcome, I feel honored to stand in the “finalist” category with 15 other gifted poets from Northfield and nearby (like me from Faribault).

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Heartbroken on May 14 May 14, 2020

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Aunt Sue and Uncle John

SHE IS STUNNINGLY BEAUTIFUL, the young woman in the long-sleeved simple white dress with eight decorative buttons and a corsage accenting the bodice. Her thick black hair is pulled back in a pony tail held in place by a white ribbon and a sprig of flowers. Next to her stands a tall, lean man dressed in suit and tie, a single carnation pinned to his lapel.

On May 14, 1968, this couple—my Aunt Sue and Uncle John—married. Today would have been their 52nd wedding anniversary. Except Sue died last week of pancreatic cancer. Although we all understood that Sue’s cancer, diagnosed some six months ago, was terminal, her death is still difficult to accept. Her husband of nearly 52 years is heartbroken.

That heartbreak has been compounded by COVID-19. For the week Sue was hospitalized prior to her May 8 death, John could not visit her. Until the end—the day prior and the day of. And now he and his grown children and their families are left to grieve alone. The usual ways in which we comfort and support one another have vanished. You know that if you’ve lost a loved one during this global pandemic.

I wish I could be there for my uncle and cousins, to hold them close and tell them how deeply sorry I am for the loss of their wife and mother, my aunt. Instead phone calls, texts, emails, cards and flowers must suffice…until we can gather at some time to honor Aunt Sue.

She was such an incredibly beautiful woman. And also outgoing and engaging. When John and Sue would drive from Minneapolis to rural southwestern Minnesota with their two kids for family gatherings, Sue was right in the thick of conversation and always eager to play board games. During those games, we threatened to use a timer because she often took too long taking her turn. At Christmas one year, I nearly convinced her that I sharpened a candy cane with a pencil sharpener. Laughter filled the farmhouse and Sue laughed right along.

Sue loved her kids and grandkids, cats and good Italian food and life. And she loved my uncle.

Today I will call Uncle John, to offer my support, but mostly to listen. Maybe he will tell me about the beautiful young woman with the thick dark bangs and her hair pulled back. The lovely bride in the above-the-knee simple white wedding dress and his wife of not-quite 52 years.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

When fact & fiction twist together December 19, 2019

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Minnesota Prairie Roots edited file photo, March 2019.

 

THE ROUTE TOOK US along a twisting river road past decaying and broken trees in dense woods. I worried a limb might drop atop our van as we drove north out of Lucan in southwestern Minnesota.

Then we reached a spot abuzz with people—campers and anglers mostly—stopping at a store to stock up on supplies. We decided to stop, too, and explore this rustic place in the middle of nowhere. Randy parked. Then we, with kids in tow, crossed a narrow walkway over a stream as we hiked toward the store some distance away.

Once inside, a maze of rooms awaited us at this lakeside property. People swarmed the shop. We browsed.

I decided, at some point, that I needed photos of this unique rural general store. But I’d left my camera in the van, a choice I sometimes make when I opt to simply enjoy being in the moment.

But once outside, I couldn’t find the van among the vehicles jammed into parking spaces scattered through the woods. By that time the rest of the family had exited the shop and we began, in earnest, to search for the van. I remembered then, as I crossed the narrow walkway over the stream, that we’d parked on the other side of the waterway. Near an ice cream shop I hadn’t initially noticed. How could that be?

After searching to no avail, I inquired about the missing van. They had it towed, the dispenser of ice cream said. I understood none of this. Sure, we’d experienced problems with the van, but nothing tow-worthy. We needed our vehicle to get to our niece’s 3 p.m. wedding and to visit my mom prior. By this time I was crying, sobbing really, frantic words pouring forth. “My mom is in hospice. She’s dying,” I wailed. “We need our van.”

And then I awakened from my nightmare. Partially. The setting, the general store, the ice cream shop, the story-line are all fictitious—part of a dream I experienced a few nights ago. But snippets are real. Too real.

On the rare occasions when I recall my dreams, I can connect them to thoughts and emotions. My mom is in hospice. For real. I thought I was mentally and emotionally prepared for her ongoing decline in health. I am not. And our 2003 van, just days ago, was in the repair shop, causing me additional angst.

We have places to go, family to see, goodbyes to say…

© Copyright 2019 Audrey Kletscher Helbling