We traveled usually more than twice a year to see my Grandfather. Our family was fond of camping and particularly liked the Devil’s Lake area. It was about 12 miles from where my Grandfather lived. On July 11,1966 we were camped at Devil’s Lake and were unaware of what was about to happen.
The night had just the right chill for a camp fire. As was the usual custom-----I got out my guitar,tuned it and we began to sing. Folks began to bring their folding chairs and blankets and before we knew it we had 30 people around our campfire, singing laughing, talking and enjoying each other. The group was just a happy one, we had a great time. I fortunately knew lots of folk songs and I played until my fingers hurt. Finally about 11 pm we decided that we had better quit before the rangers stopped us.
The next morning we woke to one of those muggy,misty mornings that you can some time have in July. I had a terrible headache and was feeling slightly unsettled and strange. I mentioned this to my family as we breakfast on cereal.
Bob suggested since the weather was not good for swimming that we should go into Baraboo do a little shopping and have lunch there. Good idea. My Mother and Dad were coming up for a long weekend; staying at a motel nearby but they would spend days at the lake with us. We did need some extra things. So we followed our plans.
We all were feeling somewhat somber and completely ” out of sorts” and as we talked about it. But it did not seem to correct our feelings.We finished shopping and I went to a pay phone and called my Aunt Alice . I wanted to tell her that Mother and Dad were coming up and I invited she and Arland to come out to the lake for supper. Before I could get my invitation out she told me that Grampa had a stroke and the home had just called her and she was headed there. She would try to reach me when she had any news.
“Oh,no!” I said,that is why we have been feeling so awful.”( I have had these premonitions before when bad things were happening.) We had a very quiet lunch and we talked about Grampa. We still couldn’t shake our somber feelings. We headed back for camp.
We arrived about 4:30 pm. There was a note on our trailer door. “Come to Ranger station.” Bob volunteered to walk over. “Probably your folks calling to tell us what time they are coming.”
“OK. Let me get this stuff in the cooler and I’ll be right over.” He nodded. The kids were getting things out of the car and were looking forward to swimming suits soon. The sun was shining and it was warm.
Seems like I had finished the tasks at hand and I looked up. Bob was walking towards me with a very serious face.
“Harvard Hospital called and they want you to call back. Your mother has had a stroke.”
“I knew something had happened!” I ran toward the ranger station pay phone with Bob at my heels.
I was shaking as I dialed. The switchboard answered. I asked, “Is Beth Horn on duty to day?”
“Beth Horn,” she answered crisply.
“Beth, this is Jean Fleming.”
She responded first in a calm,quiet voice,” Yes, Jean.” She was an old friend and she was nervous.”Your mother had a stroke in the Dr.’s office. She collapsed in your fathers arms.”
“Is she all right?”
There was a long pause and Beth was breathing like someone who has been
running. “You better come home as soon as you can,your Dad needs you.”
“I’m begging you Beth,did my mother die or is she dying?”
“Oh, Jean I will lose my job if anyone finds out I told you. Your Dad said you were 140 miles away.”
“Beth, they will never hear it from me,my god, you are my friend. Is she dead?”
“Listen to what I am going to say to you. Yes, (long pause)your mother fell into your fathers arms and he thought she was still alive but even with the Dr. there,she never had a chance. “ Beth was sobbing and I was,too.
“Thank you,no one will ever know. Beth,I am sorry I pressured you but I needed to know because my Grandfather had a stroke up here in Wisconsin around noon today and he may not make it.”
I heard Beth gasp.” Oh. oh, no, Jean.”
“Thanks, Beth. Please tell Dad we will be there as soon as we can get packed up. Thank you again, Beth.”
Beth gave me a tearful goodbye and said,“Please,please,drive carefully,Sweetie.”
It was not until much later did I realize what I had asked this dear friend to do and I did apologize for putting such pressure on her,but she did handle it with such finesse.
Bob put his arm around my shoulder as we walked back to the campsite. My Mother was only 59. She had pancreatic cancer and had gradually going down hill since last October. In the spring I took a 2 months leave of absence from the newspaper and spent almost every day with her trying to keep her interested in life. Her day ended at 6:30 pm.
Prior to last year there was no one in her circle of of her friends that could keep up with her. She worked tirelessly for the hospital auxiliary; she played cards twice a week; did flower arrangements for the church and spent quality,loving time with her grandchildren. A whirlwind had been shut down.
We needed to tell the kids; I guess our faces told most of it. We hugged them and sat there sobbing our story out.
Robin said, ” I knew something terrible had happened. I could tell that’s
why we all felt so bad.” She sobbed.
Jeff nodded,”I think you are right. We all loved Gramma so much we could all feel her leaving.”
Bob brought us back to reality. “We need to get packed and on the road. Grampa is going to need us.”
I had been seated on the picnic table with my eyes down and trying to compose myself. I knew we had tough days ahead. I needed to pull myself together. I looked up and I could not believe my eyes . There were people walking towards me some with tears in there eyes. How did they know---?
What I didn’t know was Jeff had walked upon part of my conversation with Beth and when I turned around he ran off to the bathroom crying. He was stopped by some of the folks that were singing with us the night before and he told them he thought his gramma had died.
People came from everywhere,they hugged and talked with the children. A woman asked them to tell her all the things they liked best about their gramma and told them to think about that. I told two of the woman helping me pack the trailer ,that my Grampa had his stroke today almost at the same time my mother had hers and he was not expected to make it either. They both looked at me and the one woman said softly,”Oh,my god, this is awful.”
Our camping neighbors were amazing; they helped us packed,take down our kitchen tarp,tended our fire pit,packed our car,hooked up our trailer lights. It was overwhelming, we were ready to go in a little over an hour. It would have taken us 3 hours to do that by our selves. It was an out pouring of love from total strangers. We thanked them the best we could.
A man shouted,”Be sure to fill your gas tank before you get on the freeway.” Such good advice when one cannot think.
I stood next to the car with my hand on the car door and a woman named Terry crushed a ten dollar bill in my hand, “ Buy your mother some flowers. I have never met her--- but I met you and I am glad.”
I wept on the shoulder of a woman that I had met yesterday, and would probably never see again and I was comforted. As we drove down the freeway it was I who thought about the many things I loved about my mother and I chatted with my children about what they liked best about her. That was comforting---what a wonderful suggestion for grieving children.