Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Reuniting after a year of separation March 15, 2021

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The main street through Belview, Minnesota.

WE ARRIVED NEARLY A HALF HOUR early in the small southwestern Minnesota community. But I didn’t want to be late for my scheduled 10:30 am visit. So, after a brief tour around Belview and stopping for several photo ops, Randy pulled the van into the parking lot next to the low-slung building adjoining the city park.

I slid the back passenger side door open, camera secured over my shoulder, and grabbed a cloth tote bag from the seat. Inside I’d stashed several family photos, my bible, a devotional and two pictures colored by my nearly 5-year-old granddaughter. Randy eased out a vase of flowers secured in a bucket.

Our destination. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Then we headed across the parking lot on this Saturday morning in March, aiming west a short distance to the front entry. I looked for the doorbell I was told to ring. I pushed the button. We waited, the cold prairie wind sweeping around the care center. I shivered. Randy punched the button again. Peering through the double glass doors, I saw figures at the far end of the hallway. Soon a woman approached and invited us inside. I leaned into the heavy interior door, barely able to push its weight inward.

Once in the building, staff checked us in, took our temps, asked if we were experiencing any symptoms of illness. Apparently I didn’t answer. “If you were, you wouldn’t be here, right?” the young aide prompted. I nodded. Then I grabbed the goggles I was told to take and slipped them over my prescription eyeglasses with some hesitancy.

AN EMOTIONAL MOMENT

That’s when I saw her. My mom. Staff wheeling her across the carpet toward me. A short distance from her room to our designated meeting spot in the day room. In that moment, profound emotions overtook me and I cried. Not uncontrollable crying. But crying that represented a year of separation. One year had passed since I last saw Mom face-to-face. “Are you OK?” a staffer asked with concern.

I was. And I wasn’t. I understood that I needed to pull myself together, that this was not about me and how I felt, but about my mom. My arms ached to reach out and hug her, to hold her hand, to touch her and never let go. To kiss her cheeks.

RECONNECTING

Staff wheeled Mom to the end of a table in the day room. Randy and I were advised to keep a six-foot distance. We knew enough to keep our masks on. A screen provided some privacy. But I was cognizant of people occasionally moving on the other side. Yet, it really didn’t matter. I was here. In the same room with my sweet mom. Randy and I would have 15 minutes with her together before he had to leave and I could move into her room for a compassionate care visit. Mom is in hospice.

Mom’s health is such that conversation with her is one-sided. Us talking. Her listening, if she could hear us over the whir of her oxygen machine. Randy and I talked in raised voices. And when I showed her photos of my grandchildren, her great grandchildren, the skin around her eyes crinkled, indicating a smile beneath her face mask. There were more smiles and moments of connection, of understanding, of recognition. And those were enough to bring me joy. And her, too. I could see it in her reaction.

When Randy told Mom goodbye, she didn’t understand why he had to leave. Mercifully, her cognition and memory are such that she doesn’t comprehend COVID and all that entails, including the reason we haven’t seen her face-to-face in exactly one year.

CURIOUS GEORGE AND GOOD SAMARITANS AND A SMILEY FACE

Mom holds her Curious George.

We moved to her room, me carrying the vase of vivid flowers. Once there, I asked the aide to switch off the Curious George DVD playing on the TV. Mom was already fixated on the cartoon, which she loves. A stack of DVDs featuring the mischievous monkey rested on a table below the television and a stuffed animal Curious George sat on a recliner in the corner. I picked it up and gave it to her and Mom cuddled the monkey on her lap.

I looked around her room, bulletin boards crammed with family photos. I commented on the picture of Jesus the Good Shepherd that graced her bedroom wall on the farm. And I admired the bright over-sized smiley face posted on the bathroom door and felt gratitude to my aunt and uncle, who live just blocks away, for making this for Mom. Below, I saw a picture of a dog fish colored by my granddaughter in a rainbow of hues.

I talked with Mom about cream cheese roll-out cookies and my older brother sneaking ice cream from the freezer and eating it atop the haystack. She laughed. I talked about how she worked so hard to raise a family of six children and that now it was time for her to rest. Occasionally her eyes fluttered shut and I could tell she was growing tired. I continued to talk on other topics, although I’m uncertain how much she heard or comprehended. Yet, I have to think my mere presence, the sound of my voice, comforted her.

A staffer popped in for a moment, praising Mom for eating her pancake and drinking her juice and milk at breakfast. “Good job, Mom,” I said, feeling like I was the mom and she the child. And, in many ways, that would be accurate.

Soon the staffer returned and handed me a sheet of paper and said Mom might like it if I read some of the information thereon. My eyes landed on a story about Neil Sedaka, then quickly shifted to an article about National Good Samaritan Day on March 13. I scanned the piece, chose tidbits to share about the Good Samaritan parable from the bible. To show kindness. To help others. It seemed fitting for this day, in this small town care center where staff show great compassion. I will always feel grateful to the healthcare workers and other staff who have cared for my mom like a family member.

SAYING GOODBYE

The smiley face poster, from Mom’s in-laws, on the exterior bathroom door.

As time ticked toward 11:30 and lunch and the end of my hour-long allotted visit, I knew I needed to leave. “I have to go. Maybe next time I can take you outside so you can hear the birds, see the trees.” Mom smiled beneath her face mask. “I love you, Mom.” Tears brimmed.

“I love you,” she replied. Her words felt like a hug, a kiss. Bringing us together after a year of separation caused by a pandemic.

In the doorway I stopped, turned for one final look at Mom. “I love you,” I repeated, then crossed the lobby to the staffer monitoring the front door. “I’ll need you to sign out,” she said. By then I was already crying, barely able to find a pen to note my departure time. I thanked her, observed the compassion in her eyes.

Then I walked into the sunshine of an incredibly beautiful Saturday in March in southwestern Minnesota. I turned left toward the parking lot where Randy waited. I opened the van door, swung onto the seat, removed my face mask and then sobbed uncontrollably, shoulders heaving, face in my hands. Emotionally-exhausted.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Grateful for time with my grandchildren March 12, 2021

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Isaac works on his favorite alphabet puzzle shortly after waking up last Sunday morning.

AS I WATCH NEWS FOOTAGE of grandparents and grandchildren reuniting after a year of separation due to COVID-19, tears flow. I cry at the unbridled joy and love of these families. I cry at all that has defined this unbelievably difficult year. I cry at the loss due to temporary and permanent separation. And I cry in relief that soon, as more and more people are vaccinated, we can be together again. Friends. And family.

I long for the day soon when I can wrap my second daughter in my arms, hold her close, feel her spiraling curls brushing my face. I long, too, for the day when I can kiss my mom, hold her hand and hug her in her long-term care center.

Yet, I feel fortunate that, throughout this past year, I’ve still seen my grandchildren. Randy and I discussed early on with our eldest and her husband the risks and the efforts we were each taking to stay as safe as possible. The biggest COVID exposure risk comes from Randy, who works as an automotive machinist, with some customers still half-masking or not masking. Our granddaughter did not attend preschool this year, her mom opting instead to purchase a curriculum and teach her daughter (and son) at home. I feel grateful for that choice.

In the middle of this pandemic, our eldest and her family moved into a new home in the south metro, placing them much closer to us, just a half-hour away. Now it’s easier to buzz up there or them down here for a short visit. Or an overnight.

Last weekend, Isabelle, almost five, and Isaac, two, stayed overnight with us, giving their parents a break and time alone. We love having the kids here. Saturday evening I made homemade pizza with both littles working the rolling pin across the dough. They ate a lot of pizza.

Isabelle and Isaac play with toys in our living room during a previous overnight stay. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2020.

Every visit, after the initial hugs and kisses, Randy heads to the basement with Izzy and Isaac to pull toys from the shelves. Toys their mom and/or aunt and uncle played with while growing up. The Fisher Price school bus and Little People. The Disney castle and accompanying characters. The BRIO train set. The Little Mermaid. Matchbox cars. A toy piano and typewriter. Yes, typewriter. And so many more toys that our living room looks like a toy store from 30 years ago.

Isaac, focused on completing the alphabet puzzle.

At some point, I also pull out the puzzles for Isaac, who loves puzzles, especially the alphabet one. He knows his letters and numbers (he recently turned two) and is fascinated by clocks. When I read My First Counting Book, Isaac’s more interested in the numbers on each page than the pictures of animals. He likes to carry around a vintage alarm clock from my small collection.

And Isaac likes to get up early. At 5:45 a.m. Sunday. He peered through the curtains, out the front picture window to see the sliver of moon between trees, then the pink sky and, finally, the golden morning sun. Somehow I didn’t mind the early rising to experience sunrise through my grandson.

Isaac, in his sister’s hand-me-down boots, seeks out another puddle during our Sunday afternoon walk.

This visit, we also spent time outdoors, not an option when the grandkids stayed with us during an arctic blast in early February. With the much warmer temps, the kids played at the playground. Then we walked, with Isaac pausing often to splash in puddles. We also stopped to see Faribo Frosty, a gigantic snowman built annually by the Hoisington family.

Grandpa and grandkids check out Faribo Frosty.

In this year of challenges, of giving up so much, my grandchildren remain a true source of joy. For those grandparents reading this who have not seen their grandkids in a year, or only from a distance, my heart hurts for you. I hope soon that you can be reunited with those you love and that tears of joy will flow.

© Copyright 2021 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

 

Dealing with separation during COVID-19 July 21, 2020

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I took this photo of my mom in early March, before care centers closed to visitors. This is inside her room.

 

SEPARATION. It’s a difficult word. One fraught with emotion and consequences and challenges. Never have I felt such depth of separation as during these months of living during a global pandemic.

Separation from friends and family. Separation from places and routines and all that defines a sense of normalcy.

Yet, despite the loss I feel in separation, it is far worse for our seniors, for those like my mom and my father-in-law, both living in long-term care centers. Mom lives in a small facility in a small southwestern Minnesota town. My husband’s dad lives in a large facility in one of our state’s bigger central Minnesota cities. That care center has had cases of COVID among residents and staff.

Yet, they both have faced the same issues—confinement to their rooms, isolation, lack of physical contact with family… Some of that has changed now as these homes are opening up more to in-house activities and outside supervised visits with family and friends. That takes the edge off. Yet, for too many, the long-term effects of cognitive and physical decline linger.

I’m not criticizing the decisions made. In Minnesota, most COVID-19 deaths have occurred in long-term congregate care settings. Every effort needs to be taken to protect this especially vulnerable population. There’s still no physical contact allowed, and rightly so. Staff are doing their best to provide compassionate and loving care.

I last visited my mom, through glass, in late June. If you missed that post, you can read about that experience by clicking here.

But prior to that visit, I wrote another post, this one for Warner Press, an Indiana-based Christian publishing company. I lead Warner’s blogging ministry. That post, “Dealing with Separation during COVID-19,” published today. I’d encourage you to click here and read that story. And then, if you’re so inclined, leave a comment on that post or on the Warner Facebook page. I expect this post will resonate with many of you. Feel free to share the post with others also.

If you’re dealing with separation from a loved one, especially an aging parent, I understand your hurt. Your grief. Your pain. None of this is easy. Not for us. But, especially, for them.

 

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling
Disclaimer: I am paid for my work as the Warner Press blog coordinator.

 

Another birthday party missed… April 4, 2020

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My granddaughter, Isabelle (“Izzy” for short). Photographed when she was about 17 hours old in April 2016. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

MY CELLPHONE PINGED YESTERDAY with a notification. For my granddaughter’s fourth birthday party. Today. At an interactive indoor play area in the northern Twin Cities metro. The party was canceled a few weeks ago, but I’d forgotten to delete the notice from my phone.

So today, instead of celebrating with my darling Isabelle, her parents and little brother, and a whole bunch of Izzy’s friends, I am home. Separated from the ones I love because of the COVID-19 crisis. I have no reason to complain. Everyone in my immediate family is healthy and in the extended family, too, although we had a bit of a scare recently. My mom remains on hospice in a care center 120 miles distant.

We are all making the best of this pandemic which now shapes our lives. We do what we must to stay healthy and to keep others healthy. While out grocery shopping earlier and then on to a Big Box store to buy a garage door because, you know, the garage door just had to break right now, I saw some people with masks. Not a lot. But I noticed more social distancing signs and the larger retail store banning anyone under age 16 from entering. I also saw too many folks not heeding social distancing. I steered clear of them, including employees at one local grocery store which has no COVID-related signs, nothing.

 

Izzy’s first birthday cake. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo April 2016.

 

Yes, I should have been hugging my granddaughter today instead of grocery shopping and buying a garage door. I should have been watching Izzy blow out candles while singing happy birthday to her and celebrating with gift-opening and cake. The year before last, I missed her party because of a blizzard. In retrospect, that is nothing compared to missing a birthday party due to coronavirus.

Isabelle, in a video chat earlier this week, seemed unfazed by the change in plans. She excitedly shared, “I’m celebrating with my family!” She told me about the planned pink birthday cake—her favorite color—frosted and decorated with unicorn sprinkles. I inwardly thanked her parents for stressing to their daughter what she will still have, not what she’s lost in the postponed (until October) party.

 

One of my favorite photos of Isabelle is this one I took of her in September 2019. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

 

I decided to add to Izzy’s celebration by reaching out to friends and family with a request to send birthday cards to my granddaughter. Many responded and for that I am grateful.

This afternoon, while returning home with the $470 garage door strapped to the top of our van, I saw a family celebrating what appeared to be a birthday. A clutch of colorful balloons decorated the front stoop and people stood in the yard. Social distancing. The scene made me think of my sweet Isabelle and how much I miss her. Especially on her birthday. And I wonder just how long it will be until I can hug her again.

© Copyright 2020 Audrey Kletscher Helbling