Downtown Dubuque

It changes superficially but it’s essence remains unaltered by time. Solid working class semi-ultra Christian river town that forms a Bermuda Triangle of modern culture with its stunted twin city across the Mississippi in Illinois and the small town countryside of Wisconsin to the near northeast.

Technically I’ve spent more of my life living away from the north corner of Iowa than I did being incubated there. I left for college right after high school and moved to Des Moines directly from college. It left its mark nevertheless in the way that everyone’s childhood home does.

Our Lady of Angels, Dubuque. Today is home to a site of perpetual adoration but was a convent and a the home for unwed mothers that both DNOS and my birth mother stayed in the mid-1960's

When I was growing up, there was no minority population and personally knowing someone outside the Catholic faith wasn’t a common experience. There was one family in our neighborhood who wasn’t Catholic. When their seven-year old daughter was run down by a teen who took his parents car without permission one afternoon shortly before school let out for the summer in 1973, they buried her in Linwood Cemetery which is on the north side overlooking the river. I’d never been inside the gates. It’s where non-Catholics were buried. Not exactly unconsecrated ground but when I afterward pondered the idea of burial there myself (I was always a morbid child), my mother about had a cow.

“We don’t bury our people there,” she said.

Our people. Those people. That’s my hometown.

Tuesday was dubious.

N2 and the neighbor boys were having trouble incorporating Dee into their play. She was so looking forward to seeing her cousin, N2, but at eight, and being a boy, there is just enough difference between them now that it takes time for them to adjust to each other when we visit. It would be late Wednesday before they were on mostly the same page, so by supper time, Dee was in tears and lamenting the fact that she has no girl cousins and that Grandma’s neighbors are all boys. Auntie saved the day by sitting on the driveway with her and drawing with chalk while the boys played football the yard over.

As I watched, I could see why Dee was put off. The smallest of them was still an inch or more taller than she is and they outweighed her by anywhere from 12 to 60 pounds. She’d have been a stain on the greening grass.

N2 and Rob during our visit to the Mines of Spain State Park which is south of the city along the Mississippi River

The weather was stellar before I forget. Freak warm spell with sun and temps approaching 30C. Green of varying hues all around topped with budding flora. First time ever that we’ve traveled in the spring and it’s been beautiful.

And then there were family “issues”.

Lawnmower Man called around the time we were cleaning up from supper. Grilled a smorgasbord. Tasty. Baby had collapsed. Should he take her to the hospital?

“I don’t want her dying here in my house,” he told Mom.

Baby is forty-one. She’s been with Lawnmower Man for the last six years. He’s the father of the first child she had out-of-wedlock when she was a junior in high school. That girl would be twenty-four today and the last photo I saw of her as a six or seven-year old showed a verging on too chubby cherub who looked exactly like her mother.

Mom told Lawnmower Man to take Baby to the ER at the new hospital in the nearest town, but he called back within the half hour to inform us that Baby didn’t want to go despite the fact that she couldn’t move her arms and her hands were numb.

“Put her on the phone,” I told him.

“I can’t afford to go to the hospital,” she wailed.

And she can’t. She works in the laundry at a home in Dubuque that’s run by the state. After seven years and a compressed disc, she earns a whopping $11.86 per hour, works in excess of 35 hours a week but is classified as part-time so they don’t have to give her benefits. No health care for the working poor is the American way.

“Well, you might have nothing serious or you could be dying,” I said. “So, you can stay home and chance it or go to the hospital and find out for sure. You will definitely avoid the dying thing more easily by going to the hospital though.”

I am that helpful.

And I am always fairly heartless. Baby is a drama queen. The last time we’d gotten a call (and I was home visiting then too – Baby ALWAYS has some crisis or other when I am home or for some reason the focus is on me) it was Lawnmower Man. He had collapsed in their kitchen and couldn’t get up.

“I think he’s having a stroke,” Baby said at the time.

It was sciatica.

An hour goes by and Mom is teetering. In situations like this, she can’t decide whether to worry or fume, so she alternates. Meanwhile I’d brought Rob up to speed.

“This is why I don’t like wasting vacation on family,” was all he said.

Okay, that wasn’t all. To quickly paraphrase, he reminded me that my youngest sibling never missed an opportunity to steal my thunder whether I was just visiting, getting married (both times), having a baby or being widowed. Baby has to be the center of attention. No one puts her in a corner, I believe is how it goes.

Phone rings and no one makes a move. I have become the official go to once again.

“Well,” Lawnmower Man says, “She might have had a stroke.”

I should have known once the word “stroke” was uttered that I was about to lose a precious chunk of holiday, but I wasn’t so callous as to think that yet.

“She’s having more tests,” he continued. “I’ll call when we know more.”

“Do you want someone to come up?” I asked, not eagerly but I thought the gesture was necessary.

“Nope,” he slurred. “I’ll call.”

“What did he say?” Mom pounced.

I told her and she got on the phone, calling him and informing him that DNOS and I would be coming up.

“He’s drunk,” she said, disgusted.

“Was that ever a question?” I asked.

DNOS and I left for the hospital. It’s about 40 minutes from Mom’s house in Dubuque to the tiny college town in Wisconsin that is nearby Baby’s home. I left my silent and resigned but eternally patient husband with two kids to watch and my borderline hysterical mother to deal with.

“Next time I get married, I am screening the in-laws ahead of time,” he said.

On the way to the hospital DNOS, who is an oncology med tech at one of the Dubuque clinics, made a few calls, scouting the situation and seeing where she might pull strings. If Baby had had a stroke, Mom wanted her moved to the city.

“Yeah,” she informed her boss as we drove, “my little sister might have had a stroke and we’re heading up to P-ville to see. Can we move her to Mercy? Do they take indigent? Okay, good. No, I was watching Dancing with the Stars tonight. It’s first round. Are you watching Lost? I wanted my aunt to watch it for me, but she’s never seen it and wouldn’t know what is going on. Really? No, that Kate-bitch will probably stay because Buzz Aldrin was just terrible.”

Baby was alone in the ER. Lawnmower Man had left when he learned we were on our way. One of us alone is enough to make the man shit himself, no way he could face us both down as he recently gave Baby a blackened face from upper cheek bone to jaw. Not that we would hurt him – physically.

“You know,” I told DNOS on the drive, “if Dad had just told CB ‘yes’ all those years ago, it would have saved us a trip tonight.”

Lawnmower Man is my age which makes him five years older than Baby. She was sixteen when he knocked her up. We should have known he was bad news when our lovable dog nearly took his left leg off with one swipe the first time he came by the house to pick Baby up.

Naturally he took off for pregnant underage girlfriendless parts once the news of his impending fatherhood was revealed. About a year after Sarah was born, CB ran across Lawnmower Man out in the Bay area of California. CB and a few Mexicans he’d met during a month long incarceration were hanging out in a bar when he spotted Lawnmower Man, who had spotted CB too and was rightly concerned for his well-being.

CB explained the situation to his amigos who offered, as prison buddies are wont to do, to correct Lawnmower Man – kinda permanently and with no small amount of prejudice. CB called Dad. Dad asked CB to let it alone. Dad was a good Catholic.

And many years later, we are still paying for letting a good opportunity slide by.

It took about 15 minutes or less for DNOS and I to ascertain that whatever had happened, Baby was not stroking out. She was having a panic attack and thank god for Ativan is all I can say.

All told, we languished for another hour plus waiting for the doctor to finish expending valuable time and resources on a non-issue before Baby was released to our care with a lecture on healthy living and script for Vicodin that we had no intention of filling for her.

At one point a nurse approached DNOS and said,

“Your sister,” she began and hesitated. DNOS, knowing exactly where she was going waited patiently. “She’s slow, isn’t she?”


And there is the inescapable bottom line where our little sister is concerned and why none of us can just write her off as a dumb-ass with issues.

It was nearly midnight when we got Baby back to Mom’s and put her whiny ass to bed with ice packs and otc migraine meds. Our shopping trip for the next day was scrubbed. Baby would have to be coerced out of bed and somehow carted home – I got stuck with that and it’s another long story for another day. Short version, Baby tried like hell to pick a fight with me to the point where she even said,

“Your husband hasn’t said a word to me. He doesn’t even care that I am sick!!”

Which I couldn’t have argued with if I wanted to, so I changed the subject.

Mom worried that Rob would never want to visit again, but I pointed out this wasn’t even the biggest blow-up he’d witnessed and that I didn’t have anything to do with his sisters either.

“Besides,” I said, “he’s taking me to a family reunion this summer that will be more than payback.”

Not that it’s a quid pro quo. Rob’s in-laws are nice people. The only thing is that where my family adores Rob, his late wife’s family is only nice to me, which is neither good nor bad. I am a constant reminder of a reality they prefer not to deal with and have the luxury of not dealing with most of the time.

That evening Rob, DNOS, BIL and I sat around on their deck while Mom babysat the kids at her house and we swapped dysfunctional family tales. It’s all good in the end, but Baby and Lawnmower Man have had their stroke apiece now and I, for one, am not running to their aid again.

Of all the things I don’t especially care for when we venture Stateside, one of the top five is cemeteries.

We haven’t been to Will’s grave since July of ’08. It wasn’t the highlight of that depressingly horrendous trip, but it will do as a touchstone.

Dad, from where I was standing, was clearly dying that summer. Death hangs about people, telegraphs its intentions and smothers soul and reason. The air was so thick with it that I should have known better, watched my words and actions with more care. Hindsight must be an invention of the Catholic church because it’s such an effective guilt inducing tool.

Burying Will is a regret. I knew that I wasn’t staying in Des Moines. Knew it from the moment I was told he was dying that the reason that brought me to Central Iowa in the first place would soon be gone.

There have been many moments in my life where something outside me has guided me on my path. In the spring of 1987, Jerry Wadden, the English Supervisor for the Des Moines Public Schools, interviewed me for a job that he knew didn’t exist – yet. He told me plainly that he had no job for me, but he thought he would by August. Could I wait that long? Not commit to another district before I talked with him again?

’87 was an abysmal year for new teachers. The only jobs were down south and only for those who were graduating in the upper reaches of their class. I turned down two offers waiting on Des Moines. Houston, where I most certainly would have met people my age and probably have been far less lonely than I was during the first ten years I was in Des Moines, and a border straddling town in Arizona.

I waited, not because Jerry was so persuasive or that I was moved by his conviction that I was the teacher he wanted to hire that summer – he actually ended up forcing the district to hire me without having a job for me. I waited because something was telling me I needed to be in Des Moines. There were tasks awaiting me. And this impulse? would not leave me alone.

I don’t pretend to be spiritual. I am uncertain anymore about what directs the universe, but I do know enough to listen – mostly. So I waited and ended up staying in Des Moines – teaching, marrying eventually, having a child, burying a husband – before unseen forces guided me to where I am now.

Burying Will was something I did because he wanted me to do it. There was so little I could do for him, I felt guilty not giving him this one final thing. Even though it cost money I barely had established an anchor to a place I felt in the deepest part of my gut I wasn’t meant to be much longer.

On our last trip down, there wasn’t time enough to make the trek to the little country cemetery where his urn rests. Do urns rest? Really?

This time, Dee needs to be made aware that we will be coming within about 45 minutes of it and given the option to visit. I really want to break her of the notion that Will’s grave is a symbol of him. It’s a big rock in front of a shallow hole that contains a metal box with ash and bone in it. He, according to her, is the guardian angel of a baby born last summer. Before that, again according to her, he dropped in on us often. Now he can only come in when he has time off. It’s an interesting concept for a seven-year old to have come up with on her own, but since we haven’t schooled her much in the afterlife, I shouldn’t be surprised. After all, she thinks everyone goes to heaven.

She and I watched a movie called Oliver and Company. Cheesy bad animations from forever ago that twists the Dickens tale into a bizarre cautionary quasi-friendship themed fare for wee ones. The bad guys die.

“That was a good movie,” she told Rob. “And the bad guys died and went to heaven.”

Of course they died. We haven’t mentioned hell to her. She has no idea it “exists” in the whole death mythology. Everyone goes to heaven. Punishment is death itself and then there is heaven.

I dread the cemetery. My earliest memories of cemeteries are pleasant. Strolling with Dad’s mother as she introduced me to relatives and told wonderful tales that I was too young to know I should have been memorizing.

When cemeteries became somber, I had forty years of wonderful memories to overcome and have found that difficult. Hence the other part of my conflict. I want Dee to think of cemeteries as place where history and family are and not as sad obligations.

I have already told her that she doesn’t have to visit her grandfather’s grave. She knew him so much better than she did Will that her sadness is often more profound over Dad’s death than it is for Will.

It’s not helping me gear up for the journey knowing that life is in flux in the States right now either. No one seems quite as grounded or sane as I remember. Crossing the border, never pleasant, menaces. I fear something awful is about to happen and I would rather be here, in Canada, when it does.

And I am allergic. Oh, I am always allergic, but this week has seen a resurgence of vicious, sudden attacks. Eyes swelling to almost shut. Sinuses burn as if I have inhaled acid. It’s something in industrial strength cleaning solvents that causes it. That’s what happened to me when we took our trip to Victoria last fall and I encountered something at Dee’s dance school the other night which has set me off for most of this week. It tires me and is a little bit scary.

My kindly old Chinese doctor didn’t help when I saw him either. I needed refills on allergy meds, and he cheerfully recounted how two of his patients died trying to inject themselves with their epi pens. Sigh. Socialized medicine does not improve bedside manner.

Must pack and begin girding my loins.

I’ve mentioned before that there was a possibility we’d be heading overseas to live for a while. Rob was pursuing a position on a project that would have taken us to the UK and then Saudi Arabia. It would have been a 4 or 5 year gig that would have allowed us to move on to the retirement/second career thing in the mountains a bit sooner than later.

But the job is off. I am not at liberty to go into details, but it had nothing to do with Rob’s suitability. He is, despite his ambivalence, a sought after commodity in his line of work. This was an employment case of “it’s not you, it’s us”. Literally.

So now that we know for sure we are staying put, things that have been on hold or plans that we discussed in only the vaguest of terms are suddenly wide open dreamscapes.

One of the most pressing issues is our home. Rob has been steadily renovating the house we live in for … ever. Or least as long as he’s lived here and that’s a decade plus of years.

And the house is not done. Not even close.

One might wonder that this has been a non-issue for me since moving here going on three years ago now. And it’s not that I am oblivious to my surroundings, though I come quite close to that sort of space blindness, it’s just that I am not a Better Homes and Gardens type. I have a serviceable kitchen, a comfy bed and a place to write. What else does a person need?

Rob thinks we need an addition. One that will attach a garage to the house, add a new master bedroom with en suite and provide us with a large kitchen area. This is not a small project that upends the house a room or so at a time. This is gutting the back yard, tearing out half of the back-end of the house and ripping up a deck that consumed the summer of 2008 and the cement sidewalks that consumed last summer.

On the plus side, an attached garage. I never had one until the last house I bought with Will. I’d lived in Des Moines for 15 years, parking vehicles on the street or driveway and dealing with the weather. The whole first year of Dee’s life was coping with baby carriers and rain or snow or bitter cold or blistering heat or whatever other plagues of Egypt came our way in terms of weather. I loved the attached garage. Somedays, especially after Will was nearly blind and precariously balanced, not having to load the two of them up after somehow getting them outside was the only thing I had to be thankful for all day.

A new master bedroom would give us three bedrooms upstairs and mean that Dee could have our old room, which is twice the size of her current room. We could ditch the playroom downstairs and contain all things child in her larger bedroom space. And she would have a walk-in closet. She would be in heaven although she would have serious en suite envy. She totally believes that she should have a bathroom of her own – attached to her room. Where does she get such ideas?

Aside from hearth and home, there is also employment to consider. Staying means looking for part-time work. I put working on hold for a variety of reasons, but one of them was not being sure we’d be around long enough for me to find and settle into a place before we’d pack up and be gone. Since I didn’t need a paycheck for our survival, it seemed unfair for me to take a job knowing I wasn’t going to be in it long.

My mother’s first words upon hearing we were staying was “Well, now you’ll be able to get a job.”

I start my yoga teacher training this weekend. My current instructor indicated that she would be agreeable to my teaching at her studio, once I am trained and that would be this summer, so yoga is a real possibility as part-time work. It is not a living by any means, but it’s somewhere to start. I want to someday have a studio, somewhere. Be a business owner. I think that is my upbringing. I love to write and blog, but they don’t feed my need for tangible employment. Probably seems silly to some, but I like the idea of going into work. Actually leaving the house kind of work.

We’ve talked about trading in the tent trailer for a holiday trailer, and using it for vacations. Rob wanted to travel the SouthWest U.S., but with the border as it is, I am less keen. And though Americans don’t seem to have any sense of impending doom, the news we get looks more and more dicey. In fact, this coming summer it seems it has never been a better time to stay out of the States.

I am only a tiny bit disappointed about not moving overseas. It could have been fun and interesting in a way that most people’s lives never get to be. But it would have been work and Dee would not have been as happy about it as we would have been. Our mothers were distraught, and the older girls, though they’ve put on brave faces, would have felt abandoned to varying degrees. It is not great for Rob. He gets to continue on as a workhorse and he deserves more. Everyone takes for granted that he will be there to fix things, give advice, loan money and generally make sure the trains run. I doubt that anyone but me really worries about his needs, or wants for him, when it comes to that. Having been in that thankless position, I know how long it can make a day seem.

Although Rob doesn’t think much of the place, there are far worse little towns than The Fort to call home. It will not be home forever, I don’t think, but it is good enough for now.

Funny, I just read a blog piece about “good enough” and how that kind of settling is a bad thing. I didn’t really agree.