I'm writing you a letter because we haven't been able to talk since last December. Gosh, I guess I'll start by saying “happy birthday!” since your birthday is today.
I did all the talking the last time we spoke, as you were intubated and sedated in the ICU in St. Cloud, Minnesota. It was anguishing to meet under the circumstances, but after not being able to see you for over a month I was grateful to be with you to spend the last hours of your life with you. You looked to be free from acute pain, albeit uncomfortable. After a prolonged fight with COVID-19 and pneumonia, you were ready to leave your pain behind. And you did so peacefully, after we spent as much time as we could together as a family. I wish that your grandchildren, cousins, and in-laws could have been there, too. Very painfully, they could not enter the hospital to say goodbye.
Since that last chat, some things have changed for me while others have stayed the same. To end any suspense, I can tell you, I'm doing great! I've referred to this surprising phenomenon as “reluctant happiness.” I would describe it as feeling confident enough to be happy again after a tragedy without forgetting or diminishing the weight of that loss.
After a two-week wallow at the end of December, I threw myself into work, school, and training for Grandma's full marathon. I now bluntly and semi-seriously recommend running to people when the subject comes up. “Heaven forbid you lose a loved one; but if you do, sign up for the next full marathon." Having to roll out of bed to drag myself to a treadmill or nordic ski trail helped me immensely in those early challenging January days after you passed.
The marathon eventually came, and I enjoyed every step of it. I would say you would have been excited about my success, but that would be stealing the spotlight from Mom. You two were such a great team, but jeez, you were the navigator and the one who could 'wing' a plan in the relationship. To my surprise — and, frankly, probably hers — she did so well! She raced around the course alone, navigated road detours, and winged it with the best of them to deliver me energy gels at multiple points on the racecourse.
I think that's an excellent anecdote for how I see her and the rest of the family now. We're all successfully winging it and navigating through the tricky and painful detours that life has unfairly thrown at us. It's not as much fun without you around, but we each seem to be doing well and finding our own “reluctant happiness” this summer.
Speaking of summer, I've had a great one — and I am grateful! I've focused on stopping to smell the roses or, rather, stopping to smell the smoke. Despite the haze, I've spent a lot of time outside near water whenever I could. You were always the fisherman and sea otter in the family. While I have been fishing only once near Willmar this year, I've found a lot of peace swimming two or three times each week in the cold waters of Lake Superior and the warmer waters of Island Lake. Swimming in Lake Superior is a bittersweet pleasure for me right now because it happens to be the last place you ever went swimming. It was when you and Mom visited me late last summer. We sure did have fun that day on the North Shore, ending with a swim, fire, snacks, and select beverages on Wisconsin Point. I find a lot of comfort in that memory now. And I’m excited to spend more time hiking, swimming, and having fires with snacks and select beverages on the shores of Lake Superior with family and friends for years to come. I hope that metaphorical sting of jumping into that icy lake lessens with time for me, but if it doesn't, I'll be OK.
This summer, I also read a few books next to those two beautiful lakes and Lake Huron, when we went to your cabin to spread your ashes, as you wished. I've found immense comfort by either distracting myself with literature or using it to come to terms with your death. As I recall, you had an affinity for enjoying books. However, I don't recall you ever reading next to a lake as much as I do. You seemed to do most of your reading either at your desk instead of working, in the brown leather chair by the fireplace, or, comically, in the bathroom. I say this with love and admiration; no one could enjoy a John Grisham-esque novel while sitting on the throne after Sunday brunch quite like you.
I did have one small comically sad moment early in January when something that reminded me of you caught me off guard. I was at Super One picking up a single household staple when I saw two of your favorite snacks. All I can say is how much I appreciated self-checkout lines at that moment. I spared some doe-eyed teenager the unpleasant experience of selling toilet paper, summer sausage, and smoked fish to a tearful, middle-aged man. Since that episode, I've purchased other favorite snacks of yours, and I've been lucky and grateful enough to share them or some of your favorite dishes to cook with family and friends.
I should fill you in on the exciting social life of this 30ish, unmarried nurse practitioner student and current registered nurse who is slightly nervous by the chance of having to work through another bleak fall and winter in the hospital due to COVID-19. Despite everything, I've been spending time around old friends whenever the opportunity arises. I've also been lucky enough to make new friends. I am so lucky and grateful for their presence, humor, wisdom, and kindness in my life. I look forward to being able to help them as they have helped me in the future. To start or perhaps continue that process, I've accepted the challenge my sister made at your funeral of bringing your concept of “mandatory fun” to the masses by making this letter to you public in order to share with others the lessons I've learned from you about coping with tragedy.
One, get some exercise. It doesn't have to be a Grandma's full marathon, but committing to riding an exercise bike in the morning or signing up for a 5k can help keep you disciplined and healthy in challenging times.
Two, get outside. Go fishing or swimming.
Three, read books you're genuinely interested in. Feel free to skip the literary “greats.” Worst-case scenario, they distract you; best case, you learn something.
Four, eat delicious and healthy food. Everything in moderation, including summer sausage and smoked fish.
Five, spend time with friends and family. This is a no-brainer, but no excuses. You can make extra spending money later on. Spend time with friends and family now.
Lastly, find meaningful work and try to bring joy and professionalism to that environment. Now I should specify, meaningful work doesn't have to be your job.
To conclude these recommendations, I should state that if you follow these “Jerry Relph's tips to cope with tragedy,” I'm not promising you'll be the happiest person in the world. However, being disciplined about these recommendations will help you cope after an initial tragedy, and the occasional to-be-expected setbacks.
Again, Jerry, you are missed. I am finding my “reluctant happiness” since you had to leave us. However, it's not too hard to see you from time to time in the hearts of your loved ones.
Thanks for not moving too far away.
Steve Broker of Duluth is a registered nurse at Essentia Health.