The heartbeats in between

The heartbeats in between 
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My husband and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in my surgeon’s office on the fourth floor of Mayo Clinic, almost 700 miles from the oak tree on the ranch in western North Dakota where we were married 14 years ago when I was on the edge of turning 23. We vowed for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, as if we really knew what that meant at all.

But we never know what’s coming, do we? We’ve sure learned that lesson in these 14 years, watching our plans try their hardest to fly out the window while we hang on for dear life. Turns out, even when you think you might never come up for air, there’s always the surface, the other side of the hard things. We just have to wait for it.

And so we treated our latest visit to Rochester as if we already knew the news. Eight weeks out of a sternotomy to remove a cancerous tumor attached to my airway, I was feeling a bit more like myself, a bit more like laughing, a bit lighter from the weight of pain easing. After dropping the kids with the in-laws we took to the road like we were going on vacation. Because why not? We were together. We were OK. We were driving along Interstate and highway surrounded by sunflower fields reaching toward the sky and corn taller than two of us stacked up.

We spent the five days between doctors and tests eating as much as we could and finding shelter from the rain and sun under Minnesota trees and patio umbrellas. Once, as we were indulging in a 2 p.m. cocktail and late lunch, the woman a table over stood up to tell us that we really know how to live. We didn’t know if it was the calamari, the drinks or the loud laughter, but we decided it was the best compliment we could have received.

To know how to live.

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I’ll tell you now that the doctor, on our 14th wedding anniversary, told us I am going to be OK. He said he couldn’t have done a better job repairing my airway. And that the cancer? Well, he got it all.

Life will now look like a big scar down the middle of my chest and a CT scan every six months for the foreseeable future to make sure the cancer stays gone, moving it to the back of my mind, instead of the center of our worries.

And for that we are the lucky ones.

Fourteen years ago I carried sunflowers in my bouquet as I walked down the “aisle” in that cow pasture, toward the man who would become my husband that day. Little did I know that it takes so much more than a wedding to make a marriage. Little did I know that the only thing you can really count on is that things go wrong.

And then, right again.

As we headed west out of Rochester and toward the rolling buttes of home, I imagined those fields of sunflowers waving us on into a new year, a new season, spectators with encouraging smiles, reminding me of the love and support we’ve received from our family, friends and community during these past several months.\

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Reminding me that life is just a series of triumphs, roadblocks, joy and heartache. But my favorite times have always been the millions and billions of heartbeats in between.

A man needs a haircut

A man needs a haircut

My Grandma Edie used to give the neighborhood men haircuts. In the middle of her tiny kitchen at the end of a scoria road in the most rural of North Dakota places, she became a sort of pop-up barbershop to her brothers, cousins, neighbors and, in the old days, her husband and sons.

The phone on the wall would ring and she would pull a kitchen chair out to the middle of the linoleum floor and set her clippers and scissors out on her old kitchen table, the one she just cleared of supper.

Or maybe, if it was a summer evening, she would pull that chair out on the deck or the stoop and wait for the pickup to kick up dust on the road to unload a scruffy-looking man who was just on the other end of the telephone line.

Gramma giving Grampa Pete a haircut in her kitchen

I wasn’t there for all those haircuts, of course, but I was there when I was 7 or 8 or 9 and she was still alive and laughing, and I remember.

I remember the way she draped and fastened an old peach bath towel around the wide shoulders and snapshirt of our neighbor, Dean. His hair was thick and sprinkled with salt and pepper, and maybe, this was the only time I saw him with his hat off. And so I noticed that his forehead was white and smooth, just like his teeth, pushing up his tan and weathered cheeks in a story with a punchline and his big, deep laugh.

Summer days spent on the back of a horse or in the hayfield turn a man like that into a sort of windswept patchwork quilt. I noticed that then, at 7 or 8 or 9, and then I noticed that man, without his hat, half a head of hair on the kitchen floor, defenseless under my grandmother’s clipper and peach towel, the way I’d never seen a man out here before.

But a man needs a haircut, even when there’s calves to check or fences to fix. And maybe they didn’t want to make the long trip to town, maybe they didn’t have time, or the money, or they had a wedding the next day and time got away from them, and so they called my grandma down the road. She did a fine job. They had coffee or sun tea and a good visit.

I gave my first haircut at the ranch the summer we first moved back. I took the dog clipper to my husband’s mane in that very same kitchen where my grandma set up shop. I clipped a towel around his shoulders and watched his hair fall to the same linoleum floor, freeing his neck up of the curls that formed in the sweat of the August heat.

I did a terrible job, but my husband stood up, put his hat back on and thanked me as he headed out the door to fix a broken tractor.null

This spring, my dad came in from checking the cows and was desperate to tame the scruff of his wild white hair. It had been years, but I dug out those dog clippers again and shaved it all off in the kitchen, just as my little sister walked in to gasp loud enough to cause concern. “It’s just hair,” he said, and he was glad it was gone, grateful for his hat to fit right again as he headed back out to fix a fence.

The next day, I sat my husband down on the deck, poured myself a drink and spent the next hour trimming, shaving, clipping and obsessing over the shape of his hair with his beard trimmer and my daughters’ safety scissors.

The white of his forehead and salt and pepper in his hair reminded me of Dean, and I decided that if I was going to provide this service, I might as well learn how to be good at it. Because not only did it make the men in my life feel a bit lighter, it made me feel glad for another way to take care of them.

So I ordered myself some professional scissors and my sister’s sending her husband over here next week. If you need me, I guess it’s official: I give the neighborhood men haircuts.

The adventures of tiny ranch girls…

Kids and ponies
The adventures of tiny ranch girls
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My little sister has been living in a new house on the ranch over the hill with her family for a year now. In the fall, her family welcomed a new little girl, Emma, who is now 8 months old. Her oldest daughter, Ada, is 3.

 

This means at any given moment, you could drive into the Veeder ranch and likely see a swarm of wild blond hair, glitter, flowing dresses, skinned knees, pretty chaos running down the scoria road squealing, with my sister and me trailing behind, occasionally hollering things like “Be careful!” or “Don’t push!” or “OK, OK, let the frog go now…”

Yeah. Right now, there are four girls between us — aged 4, 3, 2 and 8 months — roaming the barnyard. Which means in addition to six cats, four dogs and 10 horses, we also now have two little ponies.

Two ponies, named (you could probably guess it) Sparkles and Tootsie.

Of course.

Along with the kittens, the backyard sprinkler and endless Popsicles, these ponies have been the center of our life at the ranch this summer. Every morning my little sister puts her roly-poly baby in her pack, grabs her 3-year-old and goes down to the barn to brush, pet, pamper and, of course, feed the ponies who could care less if there’s a little girl hanging on their necks, pulling on their tails or brushing their bellies, as long as they get treats.

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And after supper, if the weather is right and they’re all behaving well enough to brave it, I call my sister and we meet them at the barn to saddle up the ponies and teach the girls to ride.

I could weave you a magical tale right now about the bonds between little girls and horses. I have plenty of firsthand experience falling in love with horses out here myself. And yes, there have been dozens of sweet moments captured between these little girls and these mini equines — but mostly it’s a firestorm of lesson upon lesson packed into a pink, noisy, explosion at the barn.

And it sounds a lot like: “OK, don’t scream around the horses remember? No, no running behind them… calm, remember? You’ve gotta stay calm… OK, OK, that’s enough grain. Woah, enough I said!”

“Edie, don’t drop the reigns. You have to hold onto them when you get off.”

“Oh, you’re trotting! Good job, good… woah, woah, woah, you’ve gotta hang on!”

“Where’s Rosie? Rosie!? Oh Lord, is your head stuck in the gate? Wait there, what the heck girl? How in the world… Daddy! Rosie’s head’s stuck in the gate!”

“OK, it’s Ada’s turn! OK, it’s Rosie’s turn. OK, it’s Edie’s turn. Yeah, you have to take turns. Yeah, you can lead her… no she doesn’t want to run… girls, no screaming around the ponies.”

“OK, no crying either. It’s OK…”

“Rosie! Rosie, don’t climb so high on the fence. Where’s Ada? Ada, enough splashing in the water tank… Edie, Edie, slow down now. Pull back and say ‘woah!'”

And on and on like this until someone gets an owie or the adults and the ponies in the pen wear out. But the adventure doesn’t end there — anything can happen in that quarter of a mile back to our houses.

Last night? Well, it was a detour to inspect a grass snake…

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followed by heroically freeing our dog, Remi, from my little sister’s sticky fly trap…

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Yesterday, it was a ladybug and a handful of sunflowers…

And today? Well, in this magical place, with these girls running wild, anything is possible.

And my sister and I, well, we’ll be right behind them, yelling “Be careful!” and saving the frogs and salamanders from their tiny dress pockets and purses.

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It takes a village to heal

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It takes a village to heal
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It’s been over four weeks since surgeons at Mayo Clinic cut open my sternum, moved my ribs and lungs and heart valves (and whatever else was in the way) so they could remove the cancerous tumor attached to my airway.

And so they cut my airway, reattached it, then put my lungs back where they belonged and pulled and stapled my ribs back together.

They stitched my chin to my neck to make sure I didn’t move my head too far back, and then, day by day, during my stay in the hospital, a new tube or IV came out. And then the chin stitches were removed, and then three X-rays, one bronchoscopy and five days later, I was released back into the world that keeps on turning even while we hold our breath.

They think they got all the cancer. They think, but we’re still waiting to hear for sure.

I’m back at the ranch now with what I hope is the worst part behind me, slowly feeling a bit better and stronger each day.

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Time will do that for you if you let it. It will get you to where you need to be. I’ve learned this lesson in my life before, but I’m still humbled by how helpless I feel in my own home, surrounded by the mess and the laundry and the projects we’ve made for ourselves.

All of that has to wait now the same way I have to wait to be able to grab my young daughters, lift them up, hug them tight or push them on the swing. Every morning, little Rosie asks me if my “owie” is better, which is code for, “Can you hold me yet?” And when I tell her I can’t, she sits beside me and we hold hands.

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I wish I could tell you I’ve taken time to read the books I haven’t had a chance to read, or written some profound music or poetry, or had some major revelation, but mostly, when you’re healing from something as traumatic as this, it seems like it takes about all the energy you have to mend. And lots of terrible shows on Netflix.

I can tell you I have never been more physically vulnerable. And when you find yourself so helpless, your family, friends and community, they are illuminated. All of a sudden you see them, and the way their hearts open, because you can no longer afford to say, “Oh no, that’s OK, we got this.”

Because in times like these, without your village, you don’t have it. To survive it you have to be gone, displaced, completely distracted, and it takes all you have in you to get through days of pain and healing, let alone continue under any kind of normal. At least for now.

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First family photo, halfway home after surgery…

And so you can’t do it alone. You need someone you trust to take care of the kids. You need your sister to feed the pets and plants. You need all the prayers and the well wishes and meals sent to your door. And while you don’t need that Juneberry pie, or gift cards and cash for gas and hotel stays and hospital bills, it sure helps ease one part of the burden of worry.

And you need your husband or your partner to get you dressed and open your pills and wash your hair and shave your legs and try his best at a ponytail and give up all his pillows in the hotel bed to make sure that you are comfortable. You need him to sit next to you in the hospital for five days wearing a mask and not complain once.

And so here I sit, feet up, a little worse for the wear, but on the other side of the scariest thing I’ve done since parachuting out of a plane over the ocean.

I am a lucky woman, so even if they call tomorrow and tell me I need to undergo radiation to become cancer-free, I know I can do it. Because this world we live in, while so genuinely heartbreaking, gives us miracles every day.

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And to me, those miracles look a lot like my children laughing, or the purr of a kitten, the smell of the ranch after a storm or the crunch of a garden pea. To me, those miracles wear scrubs and masks, take my kids for a tea party, come to live with us while I recover, send cards and raise money and call to check in, pick up my medicine and teach me what it means to truly take care of one another.

And now that I know how it feels to be on this side of things, I understand better the ways to take care, too.

But for now, if you need me, I’ll be here, holding my daughters’ hands, eating casserole, walking slowly to the mailbox and healing up…

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Where we float

Lake Sakakawea Sunset

There’s something about having access to a lake like Lake Sakakawea that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Jessie Veeder / The Forum

Where we float
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Recently, I loaded the girls up in the car for an impromptu trip to the shore of Lake Sakakawea, where my husband was finishing up a carpentry job on a cabin.

Our ranch is only about a half-hour drive to the shores of that big rustic lake surrounded by buttes and ranch country with more shoreline than California. As teenagers, my boyfriend and I would take every chance we could get to load up his dad’s old pickup with the canoe, or, if we were lucky and could get it running, his fishing boat, and head down to her muddy shores.

There’s something about having access to a lake like this that makes a 16-year-old feel simultaneously invincible and terrified. Like kings of the universe, but insignificant enough to understand that there are things in this world that could swallow us whole.

I stood on the edge of that water with our young daughters as we watched that boy I loved then, now a full-grown man, skip rocks halfway across the bay. The sun revealed a glint of white around his temples where his dark hair used to bleach in the sun, the same way our daughters’ hair is turning white under the first rays of summer.

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I felt the cool clay on my bare feet, the same bare feet that I used to prop up on the dash of his gray Thunderbird going way too fast with the windows rolled down, on our way to find a spot where we could fling open the doors of that old car, strip some layers off of our hot skin and run into the water, frantic and young and splashing until that lake did, in fact, swallow us up, just like it promised. But just for a moment, before we had to come up for air.

And the thing about love is that you can fall into it with anyone, anywhere. And maybe I fell in love with him in the halls of that high school when everything else was awkward and uncertain, except the boy who showed up each day to walk me to science class. But the campfires he built and the fish he caught and the cool water and the laughing and the way that he kissed me in that Thunderbird kept me there with him to see what the next summer might bring.

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That was 20 summers ago. Twenty summers that brought us right back here to the muddy banks where it began, watching our babies strip down to undies, splashing, tossing rocks and searching the banks of this massive shore for treasure upon treasure upon treasure, me with our girls and my darling dear husband, enamored, exhausted and smack-dab in the maddening middle part.

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And sometimes it feels like we were never those kids, like it was a million years ago, but in a million more our daughters will be doing the same. And then unlike us, they will likely fall in love again, and again and again until the timing is right or, more likely, completely wrong, and so then they will dive.

And I will watch them and be reminded about the falling part, the frantic, feet flying toward the freezing water, gasping for air, falling part and be glad for the memories…

And then, when I need to, I will tell them about the holding each other up part. Because that part, well, that’s where we float.

Chad and Jessie

 

How to be grateful

Thank you all for the outpouring of support, well wishes, love and prayers as we take  the next step to get this cancer out of me. I talked to the thoractic surgeon at Mayo on Friday and it sounds like they will open me up at my sternum to get the best look at the remaining tumor. The goal is to remove all of it by cutting my tracheal tract and putting it back together.  They will have a big team of doctors there to make sure they can handle any surprises and will be able to tell right away if they were able to get it all. If they can’t, I will be given the time I need to heal up and then we will proceed with radiation. This type of tumor responds well to radiation (and not well to chemo). 

I feel confident in the plan, nervous, and ready to get it behind me. I’m expecting the surgery to be scheduled in June sometime, but we haven’t made those plans yet. 

We have received such an outpouring of love from people far and wide and we feel your prayers and thoughts lifting us up and we are so grateful. 

How to be grateful
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When my girls walk out the door to play outside, and the sun is shining, and the wind is calm, as they run toward the playground or up the road to the big rocks, they say, “It’s a beautiful day!” Or, “It’s a perfect day for a walk,” or “It’s a good day to ride our bikes.”

And there are plenty of things that I say and do that I don’t want my kids to repeat (because I am a mother, but I’m far from perfect,) but I beam when I hear them have this sort of gratitude for a sunny day.

Because they’re so young, it gives me a bit of hope that the declaration and recognition of the good and beautiful things that they see and feel might become a sort of instinct that will serve them well when life is less than fair, less than perfect or unexpected in the worst ways.

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Since the removal of the tumor that was blocking my tracheal tract this month, and the unexpected diagnosis that it is “cancerous,” I’ve been thinking about what has notoriously pushed me through the difficult times in the past. And I’ve been thinking about gratitude and how it serves me.

But first, I want to share that I’ve been having a hard time saying that I have cancer because I don’t feel like the amount of suffering I am going to endure here warrants that loaded and scary word. Because I’ve seen cancer take its difficult toll on the people I know and love and I’ve seen sickness ravage their bodies and take the light from their eyes.

I don’t know this for certain, but from what I understand, my life with this diagnosis will be short-lived. And because of that, something in me wants to save that word for the warriors who’ve had to fight harder. And the ones that we lost to it.

I realize now the “it could be worse” mantra is one I go to when I’m staring down a fear or suffering with grief or worry. I would say it during our infertility struggle and pregnancy losses, and I would say it when my dad was sick and dying in the hospital bed. He survived. We all survived it. It could be worse. We are the lucky ones.

To recognize others’ suffering beyond our own, I think, is a useful tool. But then, sometimes, so is walking to the top of a hill and crying out “Why?!” In my life, I’ve done both.

But for now all I can think is that I’m thankful to breathe better and thankful for a diagnosis and for good doctors and a supportive community and that it’s a beautiful day to watch my girls drink from the water hose and tear off their clothes to run naked in the sprinkler.

Thankful that, because the stars aligned just right to keep me safe, I can be here for that.

And I’m thankful that all through my childhood, the people who surrounded me pointed out their blessings as they saw them so that I could see them, too.

Even if it was as simple as melting snow on the hilltops, a ripe tomato from the garden, the back of a good horse, enough Juneberries to make a pie or just the sunshine on our shoulders on a perfect day to ride our bikes.

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The carpet sea of lava

The carpet sea of lava
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I wonder if they’ll remember this, when their dad was a jungle gym and they were so small and wild, hanging off his arms like monkey bars, standing on the tops of his bent legs and leaping off into a carpet sea of lava without fear.

In the movies, they would slow this part down, the part where I sat on the floor of our bedroom in my pajamas, watching my young family roughhouse and play.

In the movie, they would play a suggestive song and hone in on my children’s big, wide-open laughs, pieces of their blond hair loose from pigtails and floating in the sunbeam from the crack in the curtains, his strong hands tossing them safely while they squeal. And my smile, too. You would see it, grateful but apprehensive about the turn our story’s taken.

And anxious to get back to complaining about the constant state of stickiness on our countertops the way people do when things are going along just fine enough that you get to be genuinely annoyed by crumbs and laundry and the light fixture that flickers and muddy little boots tracking in on floors that never stay clean, instead of so damn grateful for it all.

But this isn’t a movie — we can’t slow any of it down. And my soundtrack is the voices in my head going down rabbit holes and back again, panicking and then reassuring myself the way I’ve done when faced with tough news about the delicate health of my family members. I know how to find faith there, to center myself. But I’m not sure how to be the one who needs prayers.

For six months, I’ve been having a hard time getting my breath. Was it a cold I couldn’t shake. Asthma? Stress? Was it the reason for the headaches I couldn’t tame with Advil or a nap?

Last week, I found out why. A tumor blocking 90% of my tracheal and bronchial tract. A slow-moving cancer that has likely been growing in my body and spreading to my airway for years, just waiting to make its presence known when it became life-threatening enough to send us rushing to Rochester, Minn., to meet with the experts at one of the best hospitals in the country.

And so that’s what we did. We wrung our hands and clenched our teeth and took deep breaths and called our family and met with the experts and got a plan. And then my husband and I, we sat for three days in a hotel room waiting for the next step, unable to go anywhere to distract ourselves in a world that is all but entirely shut down.

So he laid down and I laid on his chest and we pretended we were on vacation and it was raining. We ordered in food and watched terrible television and woke up early on Monday morning and headed to Mayo Clinic where I hugged him goodbye, the doctors removed the tumor from my airway and I woke up to deep breaths again. Feeling good. Feeling just fine. Headed home.

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That part is over. The next step is going to be rougher, a surgery that we’ll learn more about in a few days, one that will have me in the hospital and away from my sticky counters and muddy floors for a while.

In my life as a writer, lessons seem to find me where I stand. Yesterday, my little sister wondered out loud why we need to keep being reminded, in these dramatic ways, to be grateful.

Is there something more I need to learn here? I don’t know yet. Do these things happen for a reason? Maybe.

But maybe they just happen and it’s up to us to do with them what we will. And there have been some divine interventions that have taken me out of the path of disaster on this journey so far, so I’m just going to work on the brave part.

I know I can be brave.

And I know I can be angry as well as grateful. Terrified and hopeful. Panicked and at peace. In my life, I’ve been all of those things at once already. I’ve had some good practice. But until now, I didn’t know the fear of not being able to be there for my children.

There’s no other option than the option of being OK, so I’m going to be OK.

Yes, in the movies, they would slow this all down, so maybe I can, a little bit, to be like my children — impervious to the worries of the world, dangling from jungle gym arms, too wild and held by too much love to fear the carpet sea of lava.

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No one’s sleeping

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My oldest daughter hasn’t been sleeping well lately.

Nighttime has become a routine of reading four books, then one more, please one more, and then singing three songs and then one more and then fulfilling a request to tell her the entire plot of “Frozen” while she comes up with another excuse for me not to leave her alone in her room.

“Please don’t go. Now tell me about ‘Frozen II.’ Please. Stay and snuggle me…”

She doesn’t want to be alone. And so none of us have been sleeping well lately, struggling between wanting to teach our 4-year-old independence and self-soothing and just giving into laying down with her, holding on tight before she grows too big to need us this way anymore.

Who cares if I wind up with a foot in my face and my body dangling halfway off the bed with no covers in reach? Who cares if we’re sleeping with her until she goes to college?

“Why now?” I wonder aloud to my husband as we telepathically will the other parent to deal with her 2 a.m. visit to our bedroom.

Is she growing? Is she scared of something? Are we spoiling her beyond repair? Are there really monsters in her closet? How do we not screw this child up?

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Last night, after the bedtime stories and snuggles and songs and snuggles, I tried a compromise to spending the night with her and set up camp outside her bedroom door. I could hear her tossing and turning as I scrolled through the news on my phone that, minute by minute, seemed to pile up to what was starting to feel suspiciously like the end of the world.

Every once in a while, my daughter would get out of her bed to check to see if I was still there, and with each check-in I reassured her, but tried not to give in. “I’m still here. Go lay in bed. I’m still here. Please, try to go to sleep.”

This went on for a good hour or so, which left me alone on the hard hallway floor facing the news of a country that’s divided and a disease that’s spreading and a world that’s uncertain and populations of people trying not to panic.

ARCHIVE: Read more of Jessie Veeder’s Coming Home columns

And even though I knew I should tear myself away from it, take a deep breath and find my perspective again, I just felt my own anxiety rising in the back of my throat. In the dark and quiet of a privileged life in a house on the ranch that used to feel so far from everything, I was feeling scared.

And the fear wasn’t necessarily for myself, but for a world full of people who could be impacted beyond repair, not necessarily just by the things out of our control, but more disturbingly, by the decisions we make. How do we not screw this up?

Suddenly, it was me who needed reassurance. Suddenly, it was me who didn’t want to be alone in the dark with my own thoughts. Suddenly, I could relate to my daughter who had been tossing and turning and worrying and checking to make sure I was still there for her for the past hour.

She just wanted to feel safe. I just wanted to feel safe, laying smack in the middle of a metaphor my tiny daughter had created for me.

Because collectively, right now, that’s what we all want. To feel like we’re taken care of and that we have the means to take care of ourselves.

We want to have a plan. We want to be in control. And if we can’t be in control, we at least want to feel like we have the right people, our community, sitting on the other side of the door telling us not to worry.

We’re here.

We’ve got you.

Rest easy tonight.

I know it’s not just this house losing sleep these days. So I got up off the floor and went in to lay with my daughter, who curled in next to my body and immediately fell asleep. And it might not be the right thing, but it felt right to me then, because sometimes the only thing we can do is be present and hold on.

Now, let me tell you about “Frozen II.”

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Honoring a Legend

Honoring a Legend
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Last week, our family and community lost a legend.

He was a man who wore a world of stories on his face. He looked like he stepped out of a Western movie, tall and lean, dark and perfectly weathered, waiting to get to the punch line under a black cowboy hat.

I want to write his book here, to tell you all about a man who was part of the honor guard that watched over the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, that he was chosen to be Queen Elizabeth’s personal bodyguard during one of her visits to the U.S., that he was one of the 13 children my great-grandparents raised on the edge of these rugged Badlands.

Lynn Linseth (far left) serving in the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Special to The Forum

Lynn Linseth (far left) serving in the honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

I want to tell you that from such humble beginnings he went on to become a soldier and a boxer who wrecked cars and got in bar fights and loved his family and community and raised bucking horses and children and grandchildren and lived a thousand lifetimes in his 80-plus years.

I want to write his story, but I only know him as Great-Uncle Lynn who would come over to Gramma’s when I was a kid and sit at her kitchen table while she poured him a cup of coffee and maybe laid out a plate of cookies from the freezer.

I wish I had been old enough to listen to what they were talking about. In my mind, it would have unlocked the mystery of this man who seemed to me to hold the world up. But likely the two of them, brother and sister with a lifetime of memories and struggles together, were just talking about the weather and who came to visit last night, like the diary my grandma kept, the one I page through even years after she died, for a glimpse of what she might have been lingering over, worrying about or hoping for, as if knowing her secrets might somehow make up for the fact that I never got to ask her if she ever got lonely out here with all this sky and land.

Did it ever feel like she was being swallowed up in the beauty and burden of it all, the way I feel some days when the winter is long and the list of bills and chores is longer? And how do I make the buns she used to make, the ones my dad still remembers but will never taste again…

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Lynn Linseth. Special to The Forum
Lynn Linseth.

My grandmother was robbed of becoming an old woman, but despite his times around the sun, it seems like Great-Uncle Lynn never really grew old, not to the ones who admired him so deeply. Not to the kids he teased and taught. Not to the ones who are part of his legacy.

We all thought he just might live forever. But forever doesn’t exist here, not on this earth anyway.

And the passing of Lynn Linseth, more than anything, collectively seems to feel like the air going out of our lungs.

Because we wish we knew him better. Because we should have slowed down and asked him. Because time comes for us all. Because he broke the mold. Because the world needs more real cowboys, and who’s gonna show them now?

Rest easy, Lynn. Your story lives on in the people who loved you, and there were so many people who loved you.

We’ll see you, young and fit and full of it, when we all meet again.

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Oh Christmas Pug, Oh Christmas Pug…

The Christmas pug
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Holiday magic. It’s 6:30 a.m. the day after Christmas and I’m in it up to my ankles here at the ranch, dodging unwrapped boxes, doll strollers, toy kitchen utensils and half-eaten candy canes, bleary eyed and still full from last night’s supper on my way to the coffeepot.

And now, holiday magic is chewing on the slipper that’s attached to my foot. And although it tickles, it’s a better plan than the doll-sized plastic sunglasses I just extracted from her tiny jaws while the rest of the house sleeps.

Because, OK, OK, I’m up, I’m up. And, you guessed it, holiday magic is a puppy.

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Actually, her name is Millie Sunny Elizabeth Scofield. She’s a tiny 8-week-old pug, and I am officially insane.

But I figure, at this point, with a 2-year-old and a 4-year-old taking turns strapping her into the doll stroller, I’m surrounded by so much cute and chaos that maybe no one will notice. And if they do, I’ll just tell them that she was cuter than a Roomba.

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And there’s no turning back now. Because, oh I had to do it.

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In my other life, I had a pug. His name was Chug. My husband brought him home to me at a pretty low time in our infertility journey, and Chug lifted my spirits by incessantly licking my face and peeing in my husband’s boots.

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When we moved to the ranch, Chug, being the furthest creature from a ranch dog there is, tried his paw at it anyway. I once watched him fiercely chase a bull out of our yard at my husband’s command and retrieve a pheasant out of a field, so you could say he was confident.

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So confident he even took on a porcupine, which took out one of his eyes. I think that’s what convinced the rig worker that took him that he was homeless or pathetic enough to need rescuing the day he went missing. I guess most people don’t expect a one-eyed pug to be wandering around 30 miles from town, but Chug the pug always knew how to pull at the heartstrings.

Chug

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Almost three years after his mysterious disappearance, I heard through the grapevine that our one-eyed pug was living in Dickinson, 60 miles from the ranch. He’d found himself living with another couple trying to start a family.They called him Captain, made him wear a life jacket on their boat and kept him full of love, affection and plenty of treats.

I went to see him when I was pregnant with my first daughter and judging by his healthy waistline, it was clear he was just fine in his new home. By that time, I had processed his absence, and so I thought perhaps it was sweet serendipity that he found his way to a family that needed him the same way we needed him all those years ago.

But I couldn’t help but wonder if he ever peed in their boots…

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Anyway, that’s the saga of Chug the pug. And as for Millie Sunny Elizabeth Scofield? Well, you can tell by her name that her story with us is already quite a bit different in all the same ways our lives have changed since Chug came into our lives.

And so she’s fitting in just fine so far, in her bed under the Christmas tree and the seat of the doll stroller and in the arms of my children who will have her as a lesson in responsibility and tenderness, patience and poop-scooping and from now on I will never know if they ate all their supper of if it was the pug.

Now I’ve gotta run. The kids are stirring and the tiny pug is dragging a Christmas shoe that is three times her size across the floor.

Sending you love and a wish to keep the warm, snuggly feeling of Christmas on into the new year.