This was a strange trip. The idea was to just go home for a visit, a long week in Duluth. My brother and sister would be working during the week but I’d have time to visit my mother, hang out in the evening with family, and see everyone during the weekend. Mark would be in Tuscany studying Italian with a friend and it would be pleasant.
Then my niece got the news no one wanted: the cancer that had attacked her then-eight-year-old son a couple years ago was back. He’d been declared cancer free just six or eight months earlier, though everyone knew there was a chance it would return. It did, a lot sooner than we’d expected, and this time there was no treatment. He’s fine for now, but his days are distinctly limited. So instead of a week just hanging out in Duluth, we decided to rent a few cabins on a lake near Grand Rapids and invite whatever siblings could make it back to spend the Fourth of July week being family, doing what we could to support each other. In the end it ended up being Al & Anita fresh off our holiday in Greece along with their two kids, my sister Marie and her three adult children from North Carolina, and the whole Duluth gang.
Here’s the weird part. Needless to say, there was a lot of pain in the crowd. Dexter’s tumors are still extremely small – microscopic, I assume – so the cancer isn’t bothering him to any measurable extent. But everyone always knows they’re back and at some point in a few months, probably not a lot more, they will start taking over. And so the kids play – and it’s enormously fun watching the youngsters frolic at a lake-side resort – while the adults read and talk and cook and play cards and all that. But every so often you catch yourself having maybe too much fun, forgetting for a moment, recognizing that this is the last time we’ll be together this way without the seemingly unbearable pain of Dex’s cancer. You can ignore the sadness for a while, but it’s always lurking ready to remind you how incomprehensibly unfair life can be.
Still, we carry on. The long week together gave me time to connect with nieces and nephews I rarely see. I spent lots of time with my siblings and the two sisters-in-law who were there but that still leaves plenty of time to walk or find a quiet place to read. My mother’s Alzheimers continues it’s inexorable path, but for now at least it’s just a matter of short-term memory; she certainly knows who we are and what’s going on around her. Ask her who drove her out to the lodge that morning, though, and that’s another story.
The lake itself is really beautiful, as these Northern Minnesota lakes all are. I’d love the area around Grand Rapids even if I didn’t know it was the birthplace of Francis Gum, better known as Judy Garland. The people here are just always so friendly, like when I went into a grocery store to get quarters to do laundry and the woman just smiles and says “Of course, honey!” (Try that on the East Coast….) My favorite time of the day is early morning when few people are up; I go down to the lake in the quiet and read, watch the ducks, and listen to the loons. Sometimes I wonder why I travel all over the world looking for beauty when it’s really right here. And then my brother Vic is a great cook who apparently likes cooking for big crowds, so we never wanted for good food. All in all a good place to spend a week of mixed joy and pain.
After a week, though, it was definitely time to hit the road again. You could tell the Duluth crowd appreciated having us there to share this sad journey, but they were also happy to see us leaving so they could have their normal lives back. For now, then, it’s back to Italy to join Mark for the last few days of our stay in Tuscany.