Sunday Column: One, two, cha cha cha…

What do you do when the longest, coldest, most bone chilling, miserable winter you can remember on the North Dakota prairie finally turns into March–a month you previously considered to contain some sort of promise of a thaw –only instead of that whole lamb thing, it slaps you in the frozen face with the not-so-warm-and-fuzzy behavior of twenty below zero?

You put on that leotard,

and you dance.

Coming Home: These North Dakota hips don’t lie
by Jessie Veeder
3-2-14
Fargo Forum
http://www.inforum.com

One. Two. Cha. Cha. Cha.


The day he lived.

10 days ago my dad lived.

My dad, with his beautifully raspy voice, his strong, callused hands, his passion for this landscape and the creatures that exist here. My dad who loves unconditionally and laughs with a promise that things will be ok.  My dad who’s given the shirt off his back, the boots from his feet and all his heart to those he loves or those who need him.

Our dad who knows things. Takes care of things.

Takes care of us.

The weather report warned us that the early January thaw was about to turn treacherous, sending snow blowing across slushy roads, turning them to ice and dropping the temperatures to dangerous lows. But it was warm that early Friday morning when Pops struggled to find the phone to make a call that would save his life.

That evening as Husband drove us home in that mild winter air I was uneasy. There was no reason for it really. We had just finished a nice dinner with my family, celebrating my mom and little sister’s birthday. We laughed. We ordered steak. We watched Little Man move from lap to lap around the table. And then we all said goodnight and happy birthday.

But on the road that night as the tires hummed along the highway I looked up at the stars with a lump in my throat and a knot in my stomach and asked my husband if he ever feels lonesome for something. Something he can’t describe.

He said he thought so. He said he understood.  Then we pulled into the drive, trudged up the steps and tucked ourselves in safe and unaware that in a few short hours, at 2 a.m. the phone would ring in the darkness, threatening to change the comfortable and blessed life we take for granted.

The hours that followed are indescribable, a nightmare that threatened to paralyze me and send me gasping for air at the sound of my father’s voice asking for help and the sight of him lying helpless on the floor. But deep down under the fear that percolated and boiled up in my throat was an untried and reassuring belief that this was only an obstacle and not the end.

The stars spun in the warm January night and under those stars our neighbors responded to the call, loading up in the fire-trucks and an ambulance, asking their God for strength to make the miles in time to help a suffering friend laying too far from town, too far from help.

And so how do you thank that God for second chances? My dad looked up at me from the floor of the home where he raised three girls and loved one woman, the walls that absorbed the sound of a family’s laughter and arguments, the notes of his guitar, the smells of supper warming on the stove and a life well lived and he told me he was dying.

I held his hand, looked him in the eye and without a waver, without a tear, I said no. No, you are not.

But he was. I didn’t believe it then. I didn’t know it then, but he was.

That big strong heart of his, the one that taught us – showed us – compassion and patience, bravery and tenderness, was torn and leaking and poisoning his body.

And with each passing minute, each hour it took to load him in the ambulance, to get him to town, to test, to poke and prod and diagnose and medicate, to plead with the nurses and doctor, to fight to make him comfortable, to hold his hand and ask him where it hurt, where is it…what is it…what can we do…do something…help him…the odds fell quickly and silently away from his favor.

“Dissection of the Aorta,” the doctor said. “We’re calling an airplane. There’s no time to talk now…”

My mother’s hand went to her mouth. My sisters gasped. The temperature dropped outside where the wind blew chilled rain across the plains and I ran out there to stand in it, to come to grips with the idea that we might go on living in this world without my dad.

But I could not accept it. This wasn’t our story.

I pushed down the fear and walked back inside where we hugged him goodbye for now.

“See you in the big town,” I said.

“Are you sure you want to drive those roads? The weather’s getting bad,” he told us. “I’ll be ok, really. You don’t have to come all that way.”

Just like dad to worry about us.

Silent and shaken we crawled in the pickup, 180 miles of daunting highway stretching before us under the darkening and freezing winter skies.

And up in those skies they flew him, my dad, on the wings of the plane and some merciful angels, to get to where he was going in time to be saved.

Who am I to give words to the feeling of moving through those miles in the dark, uncertain and silent, mind wandering to a future you can only will and pray for. Who am I to tell you how my stomach knotted with each ring of the phone, what it was like to watch my mother and sisters suffer with worry? Who am I to describe the relief we felt when we got word he made it to the hospital where staff and surgeon were waiting to perform one of the most difficult procedures of their careers?

How can I tell you what those hours were like, waiting with my family while my father was in another room with his chest cut open, his big, strong heart exposed and open to the uncertain world?

How can I describe what it meant to us that you drove all those miles behind us in the storm, neighbor, to sit with us and ease the silence while we waited hours for news of his life as the earth froze over?

What words do I use to thank the doctor who walked into that waiting room with news that he saved him? The nurses who cared for him? The family and friends who sent prayers and positive thoughts into the universe, begging for mercy for a man we still need with us here, while all around the world people with much better odds of living were being taken up into those spinning stars.

Ten days ago my dad lived. The earth froze solid while he slept. 60 below zero the weatherman said and we were frozen too with fear of the unknown. We touched his hand while he slept and told him we loved him.

Two days after that he breathed on his own and the air warmed up enough to let the snow fall. In the dark of the night we took turns sitting with him in that room in that city full of lights and unfamiliar noises as he healed, passing one another’s footprints in the snow on our way back and forth from the hotel to his bedside.

Twelve hours later he was walking down the hall of that hospital aware of his mortality, grateful for his saviors, both unseen and on this earth, and planning his escape back to the ranch where there is so much more work to be done, more people to love and more life to be lived.

“I almost died,” he said as the drugs wore off and he came back to us.

“But you didn’t dad. I told you you wouldn’t,” I said.

“You know why I didn’t?”

“Why?”

“Because I’m a son-of-a-bitch.”

Maybe not a son-of-a-bitch, but the strongest man I know.  How comforting that his sense of humor was so quick to reappear.

And with each passing day that laughter eased our worries, the temperature warmed and the earth thawed out as we all learned to breathe again.

Our dad is a miracle. Doctors and nurses got word of his survival and recovery and stopped by to see him, to tell him he’s an anomaly.

I could tell you the odds. I knew them all along, but it doesn’t matter now. He was meant to stay with us.

Because ten days ago, in a world that worked to freeze up, crush us and break our hearts, my dad’s heart, big and strong and open, against all odds in a world that can be cruel and forgiving all at the same time, kept beating.

Ten days ago he lived.

 

As simple as a plum.

Western North Dakota grows wild plums. In the patches of brush where the poison ivy sneaks and the cows go to get away from the flies, they start as blossoms on the thorny branches and, under the hot sun, turn from green in early July to red to a dark purple bite-sized berry just waiting to be picked in the beginning of autumn.

Wild plums mean summer is almost over. They mean roundup is on its way. They mean sucking on pits and spitting them at your little sister. They mean scratches from branches on a detour for a snack on the way to get the bull out of the trees.

They mean Pops’ stories of grampa sitting at the table in the winter dipping into a jar of canned wild plums , drenching them in cream and stacking the pits neatly on the table.

They mean memories of grandma’s jelly on peanut butter toast.

They mean reassurance that sweet things can grow in brutal places.

They mean a passing surprize on our way through a pasture and coming back later with the farm pickup to fill up a bucket, me squished in the middle seat between my husband and my dad, the Twins playing on the radio as we bump along on prairie trails that haven’t been under a tire in months looking for that magical patch of fruit, wondering out loud if we could of dreamed it.

Laughing at the thought.

Wild plums mean listening to the two men banter as they pick and reach and gather like little boys, making plans for the best way to fill our bucket.

“Shake the tree, we can get the ones on top.”

“Keep ‘em out of the cow poop…poop plums are no good.”

“Are you eating them Jess. Hey, no eating!”

“I’ve never seen a patch like this. Jessie, you can make so much jelly!”

Yes. I could. With the 6 gallons of plums we picked last night standing in the bed of the pickup, ducked down in the clearing where the cows lay, scaling along the edges of the trees, I could make jars of jelly, pies, pastries and syrups to last until next plum picking season.

But even if I didn’t. Even if we did nothing more than feed those wild plums to the birds, it wouldn’t matter. The magic of wild and pure things is in their discovery and the sweet reminder that happiness can be as simple as a wild plum patch.

The prayer shawl.

I stood in line at the Post Office in Boomtown yesterday morning. I had been avoiding the chore for a few days, having received a note in my mailbox out here in the country letting me know that I had a package to pick up in town.

I thought it was the print cartridges I ordered or maybe some photographs. I thought it could wait.

Because standing in line at the Post Office in Boomtown is an errand that ranks right up there with attending your root cannel appointment or using that little plastic baggie to pick up the poop your dog just deposited on the walking path near the park while people drive by, watching…judging.

Anyway, welcome an extra 7,000 people into what was once a town of 1,500 three or four years ago and some services are bound to suffer.

At least we’re all in it together.

At least I get to hear some great southern accents while I chat with my fellow postal service patrons about the weather, the roads and the damn long line.

I was expecting much of the same as I pulled into the parking lot yesterday, grabbed my purse and my packages and prepared myself to wait. I was pleasantly surprised to find just a few friendly neighbors standing in line and happy at the thought that the timing for my visit just might have saved me an extra forty-five minutes.

So I stood patiently by the envelopes and boxes, checked email on my phone and ran the list of things I needed to get done today through my head:

Write column, pick up milk, hang posters, plan lunch meeting, call Little Sister back, think about dinner, update websites, I should take a walk, try to get home before dark so I can take a walk, get paint for the entryway, send in my time sheet, return emails, edit photos, craft club, oh yeah, I have craft club this week, make snack for craft club, cat food, do we need cat food?

Oh, ok, I’m up.

I handed the postal worker my envelopes and the little pink slip that told her a package had arrived for me. She disappeared in the back while I fumbled through my purse for some cash. I looked up and she handed me a large, rectangle box. Too big to be my print cartridges, not the right shape for photos.

“What did I order?” I wondered out loud as I took the package from her hands and glanced at the return address.

Arizona.

My grandparents are in Arizona. Huh. The package is from my gramma. My gram sent me something from Arizona on an ordinary Tuesday in March.

I shook it a bit, my curiosity peaked as I hurried past the line of people who had quickly congregated in a neat row behind me. I flung open the door and trudged through the melting snow to get to my car, sat down behind the wheel, threw my purse in the seat next to me and anxiously ripped open the box, pulling out a soft object wrapped in tissue paper.

Carefully I peeled back the paper to reveal soft purple yarn knitted in tight weaves and a note that read…

Dearest Jessie, 

All winter long I have pictured you sitting at home in your chair writing your column and journal and composing music. So enclosed you will find a purple shawl (a good color for you). It’s a prayer shawl. It is to keep you warm and comfortable–to make you feel good deep inside as well as on the outside. 

It is made with love and some mistakes! As I did the knitting my thoughts were about you, Jessie, our wonderful, talented granddaughter.

All my love, 

Gramma G

Tears sprung to my eyes right there in that busy, slushy parking lot in Boomtown as cars pulled in and out, people rushed to appointments, to the grocery store, to meetings, to school and to pick up their children from daycare on time. My grandmother’s handwriting expressing her thoughts about me on a  note card embellished with golden butterflies made me think of her sitting by the window, her knitting needles on her lap and the warm Arizona sun shining on her face.

gram

I buried my face in the shawl, breathing in her smell, thinking of her thinking of me and the worry that had been lodged in the center of my guts for weeks was replaced by a very palpable feeling of calm and an overwhelming appreciation and love for my Gramma who once taught me to knit and who always, always makes sure her grandchildren know she’s proud of them.

To know that you are in someone’s thoughts, to know that you are loved this much, is a blessing I wish upon everyone.

My Gramma G. has always been one of the brightest and most positive lights in my world. If I would have known her hug was waiting for me in that post office at the moment I needed it the most I would have dropped everything and run there to receive it.

I would wait in line for hours for a gift like this.

Thank you Gramma. I love it. I absolutely love it.

And I love you too.

Jessie

The years to come…

Dear Husband,

I opened my eyes this morning as the sun moved slowly up over the trees and through our open windows to find you still in bed next to me, your chest rising and falling as you slept beneath the bedding you helped me pick out yesterday in a whirlwind shopping spree to replace the things we lost in the fire.

As I browsed through the department stores’ collection of overpriced and overwhelming choices, you didn’t comment on the color I selected or complain about my affinity for floral patterns. You told me to find what I wanted and patiently walked with me to three different stores as I compared and discussed and asked for your opinion.

I’m sure there were a million other places you would have rather been than in the home section of a furniture store on a beautiful summer Saturday, but I would have never guessed it the way you laughed as we laid down on one on of those ridiculous, foldable, vibrating, computerized, over the top beds they had on display and watched in amazement as I slowly sunk so deep into the foam top I was sure I could never be retrieved.

You grabbed my hands and pulled me into your arms in the middle of the department store and suggested maybe we should concentrate on pillows.

You’re picky about things like pillows, enduringly patient…

And exhausted from a month that set us back on our heels and reminded us every day to keep working, keep moving, keep laughing at the things we can’t control and keep pushing, pushing, pushing through.

Husband, this morning as I watch you dream I have a list a mile long waiting for my feet to hit the floor, but all I want to do today is lay here next to you, surrounded by the walls of a house that’s unfinished but ours.  I don’t want to dig through boxes or paint a wall or make those calls or write those emails. I don’t want to send you off to work in your buttoned up shirt where the world gets you and your steady hands, even temper and unexpected wit.

I want to keep you here for the best part of the day, the part where the moon disappears in front of the big windows we planned and makes way for the splash of colors the sun brings with it.

I want to keep you here to watch it. I want to bring you coffee and make you eggs on the new stove, the one you picked out with the extra burner for the big meals you intend to create in this kitchen.

The kitchen we intend to cook meals in for the rest of our lives.

Husband, yesterday was our sixth wedding anniversary.

You know this, you wouldn’t forget, although we’re not so hooked on the celebration of another year passed,

but the idea of the years that are to come.

Because I’ll tell you Husband, I’m unbelievably blessed to have grown up with you, but even more amazed by the fact that despite the storms, the fires, the tears and the impossibly unpredictable things, each year I’ve spent by your side swinging a hammer, riding a horse,

jumping into a new career, cold lakes,

or out of the damn sky, I can honestly say I never been scared.

Well, I might have been just a little scared here…

Because I know that as long as you have a choice, you will be there in the morning moving quietly through your early routine, leaving me hot coffee waiting in the pot and dressing in the dark so that you don’t wake me.

So Husband, this morning, I don’t want to wake you.

I want you to keep your sleepy head on those pillows you picked and I want you to dream of bay horses and hunting trips to Alaska.

I don’t want you to worry about hooking up the washing machine or finishing the basement. I want to cook you eggs over easy in olive oil with pepper just the way you like them and I want to keep you here with me on the first day of our seventh year.

But more than anything husband, today I just want to bring you coffee and I want you to know that I am so happy to love you.

With all my heart,

Your Wife

A picture comes to life…

Well, we moved some furniture into the new house this weekend and it is looking like my birthday month will be the month we move into our new home, whether or not the staircase and/or master bedroom, trim work or basement is complete.

I’ve lived in construction zone before, and I’m prepared to do it again. Just imagining us sipping coffee on our deck (which does not exist yet either) and watching the sun come up over the hills we’re nestled in together reminds me that life is a work in progress that is worth the wait.

Sometimes I get a little anxious about it all. I catch myself thinking that other people have it figured out..that other people have houses complete with carpet and painted walls and tiles, a beautiful, finished staircase and money left over to go on a Mediterranean Cruise.

The reality is, some people do. Some people have the vision and the cash to make what they want appear before them without a smudge of tile mortar crusted to their unshaven legs.

We are not those people. We are the people with the vision and the muscle to watch it come to fruition before us slowly, with a little sweat, a lot of muscle and a few tears mixed in.

But despite the hard work, saw dust on my clothes and paint in my hair, I have to say, at this moment where we’re able to see the light at the end of the tunnel, I wouldn’t trade the experience of doing it ourselves for all of the contractors in California.

Because there is something about working alongside your family as they hammer and nail and paint and move heavy things in an effort to see your dream realized. There’s something about hearing thier encouraging comments and seeing their excitement as things come together that makes me grateful to get my hands dirty with them.

And it means everything to be able to stand next to a husband who so desperately wants to make our dreams come true that he works long days and comes home to climb ladders, string wires and nail flooring only to put his hands on his hips and look at me all frazzled, sweaty and cranky and say “dream house, dream girl.”

It means everything to believe him.

It means the most to feel the same way.

So this week my mind’s in a thousand different places–in my music, in my writing, in my work, in the clothes and paperwork I can’t find and the budget we need to stretch to get this done. But I’m going to work hard to stay in the moment and notice the smile on my husband’s face as he checks off his list and gets us one step closer to having coffee together in our new home.

Our view from the kitchen…

Because I want to remember this, as hard as it’s been. I want to remember that when I was sixteen I drew him a picture.

And when I turned twenty-nine he made that picture come to life.

We’ll get the goat and the pigs next year…

A poem for the hot summer sun…

Summer if I could put you in the pocket of my jeans

I would take the way the sun shines through my dad’s fresh garden peas.

Then I’d grab the smell of green grass and the sky a vivid blue

I’d leave behind misquotes and I’d forget my shoes.

And oh, if I could catch you under an old mason jar lid

I’d be sure grab a baseball and the sprinklers for the kids.

Then I’d saddle up the horses and put the cattle out to graze

because I need my ponies ready at the end of long, hot days.

We’ve talked about this summer, how you come and go too fast

and I’d like to find a way to hold on tight and make it last.

So summer, I have warned you that I might just catch your light

and keep you by my bedside for those long December nights.

What makes you happy…

He’s playing the guitar, though he’s not so good
and you’re dancing in the kitchen when you know you should
be scrubbing up the dishes, putting them away
checking off the list you made for the day.

But you’re hair’s looking good and your jeans fit right
and the sun came up this morning shining big and bright
and you aren’t about to waste another minute sad
life’s too short, so take what you have.

You have sprinkles on your cookies and it’s no holiday
a man who makes you dinner and swears he’ll stay
through broken plans and messes, unexpected things
so who needs fancy dresses and diamond rings?

When you have too many boots and you can’t decide
a big brown dog waiting for you outside
blue sky above and all those trees
flushed rosy cheeks and grass stained knees

So open up the door and let the morning in
smile as warm breezes kiss your skin
run wild like the girl you want to be
what keeps you going, keeps you feeling free?

What makes you wrap your arms around him unexpectedly
slip on your favorite shoes and grab the keys
forget about it girl, take one more bite
and while you’re at it, stay out all night

And shake it pretty momma like you just don’t care
jump in the lake in your underwear
let them see you laughing, see you come undone
yes, life’s too short, girl, have some fun.

What makes you happy? Tell me please, I must know!

How you spend your weekend…

Weekends around the ranch, no matter how well intentioned and thought out, are usually pretty unpredictable. Where some families have a nice and lovely routine that includes pancakes in the morning, taking kids to practices, catching a movie and maybe going out to eat with the family on Sunday after church, around here we try to keep our plan simple so as to not disappoint:  wake up when the sun gets up and see if we can’t get something done between the hours of sunrise and sunset.

Sometimes we rock it. Sometimes we accomplish our goals of moving cows, mowing the lawn, fixing fence, taking down the little Christmas tree, taking a walk, nailing something to something else and feeding all the damn cats in time to cook supper together and kick back in our respective spots on our comfy furniture with our feet up before hitting the sack.

Other times our biggest accomplishment of the weekend is getting out of our sweatpants.

And usually those Saturdays come after the Friday that the band plays in town.

Uff. Da.

Because when the band plays in town we don’t roll back to the ranch until 2 am.

And, well, you know what I say about 2am? Well, usually nothing because usually I’m sleeping. But if I happen to see it, I scold it. Because nothing good happens after midnight…and nobody is beautiful at 2 am…especially not yours truly.

I’ve known this to be true even during my stint as a younger woman who may or may not have been the only one caught sleeping at the completely innocent and organized after prom party.

2 am and I never got along.

But making that drive to town to listen to the band play “Peaceful Easy Feeling” and “Can’t You See” and John Prine songs that make me think about dancing the two step is worth the inevitable next day spent shuffling around the house in sweatpants. Especially because one of my favorite things in the world is singing with these men, my pops, our neighbor, and two or sometimes three of the greatest musicians around.

Oh, and then there’s the talent that just might saunter through the back door sometimes, like the squeeze box player from New Orleans, the fiddle player from the badlands or the base player from the next town.

The music is always good.

And the next day after I have pulled off my boots and washed the smoke out of my hair, no matter the hour we arrived home to our bed, I am always a little rejuvenated, despite that my blood-shot eyes might indicate otherwise.

See, when I was younger and looking over the edge of the nest, waiting to take that inevitable leap, I have to tell you, I think I was realistic about how much I really knew about life. And that’s why I was scared to death. But the few things I did know, like what it felt like to be loved, which direction my car needed to be facing to get me home, how to make a killer bowl of ramen noodles and the fact that leaving this place was inevitable were a good basis for what I now know will be a lifetime spent learning how I might exist here with purpose.

Which brings me to my point. I have one, I think. See, when I left home ten years ago I don’t remember being too delusional about life, although I am sure it snuck its way in there at times as I imagined myself singing on big stages, selling at least enough CDs to pay the bills or writing a best-selling novel. No, I didn’t see myself as a CEO of a company or a big PR Executive even though that might have been the direction my professors were leading me. I didn’t dream of climbing to the top of big mountains, but I would have taken you up on your offer. And I didn’t picture myself with 4.5 children, a white picket fence and a casserole in the oven, although I was open to it if it happened to turn out that way

Casseroles weren’t something I dreamed of then.

But when the clock would hit that magical 11:11 at night, something that I always found so thrilling to catch, do you know what I wished for every time?

A happy life.

Yes. Even though I had no idea what that meant, what my version of a happy life was, I wished for it.

And so here we are a good nine days into the new year and I’m not going to lie, it’s been a tough nine days around here. Because it turns out even my safe-haven, even the rolling hills of the ranch and dreams coming true can’t protect us from pain and uncertainties that can come speeding down the pink road. But it has put this question on my mind as I roll out of bed, trying to move through the fleeting thoughts that come with knowing there are things I may never have and people in my life who may never have the happy life I speak of.

And as I talk to friends and family who might be hurting or reaching for something that they are continually denied or failing to see themselves, to really see themselves, I tell them: try every day to live honestly…and be true.

And so I tell myself.

But what does that mean? Really? What am I saying?

Ok, well, let me bring it back around to those men who play guitar and sing while closing their eyes tight on Saturday nights at the bar in their hometown. Or the woman who gets up in the morning before her children, before her husband, just as the sun is peeking over the horizon to lace up her running shoes and spend an hour propelling her body over the earth, sucking the morning air into her middle-aged lungs. Or the father who sits patiently with his teenage son to teach him the art of wood-turning, the artist who sees the sunrise as a painting, sees a face in the clouds or the single man who finds himself committed to conquering fears and the adrenaline rush that comes with skiing down the face of a snow packed mountain.

What do they have in common? It’s not the result of the painting, the physique that comes with the run, the money made on the piece of art or the applause after the song is over.

No.

It’s the beauty of the wood discovered underneath the bark and the conversation with his son that he might not have had otherwise. It’s giving herself the chance at a morning quiet enough to hear her own heart beat out in the open space she loves, it’s taking notice that the world is the masterpiece and the understanding that the end result can’t possibly give her as much joy as the process of creating it.

It’s singing out loud next to your father and his best friends for the sake of singing. For the sake of committing to doing something that you love with people you care about.

Because in order to live honestly you must know yourself and the tools you need to cope in a world that can be downright unpredictable and overwhelming and sometimes unbelievably sad.

It’s knowing there are things inside you that need to be nourished, things that need to be shared with others, created,  or kept safely next to you on your bedside table. And it’s trying your damnedest to find out what those things are and doing them, even if it means staying up until 2 am.

And so it’s worth it  sometimes (if you have at least one pair of clean underwear left) to let the laundry wait until you get back from your walk, finish that painting, go to your yoga class, visit a friend…

Because the secret to living honestly, staying true and living a happy life, just might be how you spend your weekend….