Wednesday, June 26, 2019

The Different Sides of My Sister – Entry 10 in the story of my sister and me

Right now you’re probably ultra-confused. Well, people spend 60% of their life being confused. The rest of the time is spent asleep, stoned or making love. If it’s not one big confusion, it’s a thousand small ones.
How many decisions do you make in a single day? What should I wear? Should I have Wheaties or Rice Krispies? Should I shop then study, or study and then party? Do I go to the bathroom or read this paragraph? Will I write my sister a letter or hire a hitman?
 Pat Loehmer (during her college years no doubt)
My mom and Pat getting along in 1985. 
“I don’t care!” One door slammed.
            “We brought you up better than that!” Another door slammed.
            Dad and I remained frozen on the couch, pretending to watch TV as if nothing was going on in the house. I stole a glance at him. He shrugged and half-grinned. It wasn’t like my mom and my sister Pat didn’t get into an argument at least once a week.
            I was still in junior high, while Pat was a hot-headed, hormonal high schooler. She and I were still best friends. She and Mom? Not so much.  
            I don’t remember what many of their fights were about. In general, I believe, that Pat just wanted to always have her way. Mom would dig in her heels and my sister would dig hers in deeper. I think they were too much alike – strong-willed and bull-headed. But I’m sure that’s what got them through life.        
Pat and Val at Lake of the Clouds 
 1998 into 1999
            The last trip that I made up north with Pat was to the Porcupine Mountains in June of 1998. It was another one of those trips-on-a-whim. This time we took my then eight-year-old daughter Val along, Pat wearing the body brace she inherited following her last surgery, the one to get the cancer out of her back. We spent the night in a motel; camping was out of the question.
Both my kids loved their Aunt Patti. I can hear their little-kid voices ringing through the house whenever she drove into the yard. “Aunt Patti’s here,” they’d both sing out.
I think the last time she was at my house was for Christmas that year. Shortly after that, I started going to her house at least once a week, usually on my afternoon off. We would sit for hours, not saying too much, mostly just watching old movies.
            One day when I was there, she gave me two wooden carvings she had done years before, one of a horse head and one of a complete horse. I was touched and didn’t know what to say. Another day, as she lay on the couch with an assortment of stuffed penguins, she made a confession.
            “You know I don’t really like penguins that much.”
            “What?” I asked. “Then why do you have like twelve of them?”
            “I don’t remember where I got this,” she held up a six-inch fluffy tuxedoed bird. “But I liked him right away. When people found out about him, they thought I liked all penguins and they just started giving them to me. I wish they wouldn’t.”
            “Guilty,” was the only answer I had for her as perhaps three of the penguins had been gifts from me. And guilty also because I was able to go on with my life. What would happen to her life?
            “I don’t mean to be a crab about it. It’s just, what am I going to do with them?”
            Maybe she was just being practical. Her house was so tiny, a hunting shack actually that had been added onto. Or maybe she didn’t want them left behind.
            “Do you want me to take mine home with me? The ones I gave you?”
            She shrugged and looked out the window.
            Even though I visited that one day a week and saw her at the clinic or hospital when she was in for her frequent visits, we still called each other on the phone every night. Always right before or after our mom had checked in with both of us.
It was on one of those nights, that Mom called me in tears. I don’t know what they had argued about, probably Pat had spouted off to Mom about something. Mom hung up on her, then dialed my number. There wasn’t anything I could say, anything I could do. It wasn’t as if Mom and Pat never fought before. But what if this was their last fight ever?  
Pat with the nieces and nephews in 1996. Maybe at times, Pat just related better to kids than to grown-ups.

Sunday, June 23, 2019

A Tale of Two Campers – Entry 9 in the story of my sister and me

 Most people keep searching for life when it’s really right in front of them. You just have to go out and live it. Just reach out and pull it around you. Wrap yourself in a blanket of stars. Pat Loehmer
I can’t remember a time, as a kid, that we weren’t planning a family camping trip. Every June, as soon as school was out, Mom and Dad would pack up the pickup camper, along with my sister Pat, me and the dog, and we would go somewhere. The Black Hills, the Badlands, the Gulf of Mexico, the Blue Ridge Mountains, historic Virginia, or the peaceful Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
When Mom and Dad bought the pickup camper in 1967, the entire continental US seemed to suddenly be accessible. I have only vague memories of many of those earlier trips, and I think that some of those memories were fabricated in my head from the stories the family shared and the pictures I’ve studied.
What I do know is that Pat and I would lay on the bed in the camper above the cab of the truck and watch miles of highway pass before us. Our imaginations knew no limits. When there was nothing of interest outside that picture window, we played with our plastic horses, allowing them to run the imaginary pasture on the bed.
When we arrived at whatever campground where we were spending the night, our imaginations continued to make up adventures. Unless, of course, we were some place so fantastic that our minds could not top it. Lookout Mountain in Tennessee where we were certain we saw seven states. The deafening roar of Niagara Falls. Geysers spewing steam at Yellowstone. And nearly being left behind in Canada. I know why to this day I suffer from wanderlust. I can’t stay in one place for long. 

Shortly after we returned from the trip to Las Vegas in 1997, Pat spied a pop-up camper for sale in someone’s yard. She called me as soon as she got home.
“What do you think about getting a camper, a pop-up trailer? It would be so nice, don’t you think?”
I honestly don’t remember going to look at it; I think I may have said, “Go for it, and let me know what I owe you for my half.”
It didn’t take us long to try it.
Our first trip was to a rustic campground in the Nicolet National Forest just past Eagle River. Luna and White Deer are the names of the two lakes which border the campground, one on each side. The lakes are small, so small that they don’t allow motorboats, which is ideal for us. It meant peace and quiet.
We chose a site along White Deer Lake. This site was also right next to the outhouse, but neither of those were reasons why we picked it. We settled on that site because Pat felt she could best back the camper into it.
Almost right after we got the camper set up, it started to rain. We took cover inside and played cribbage. And said something like, “Ha, ha, ha! Let it rain, let it rain. No more getting wet in a tent. We are high and dry in a trailer. Ha, ha, ha!” We were pretty full of ourselves.
We also had a full schedule of camping trips that year.  

Friday, June 21, 2019

Viva Las Vegas – Entry 8 in the story of my sister and me

“Oh, well, never get yourself in a position where they can force your hand – unless you are holding all the aces, in which case, you should be calling the shots. That’s card-talk.” Pat Loehmer
The most uncharacteristic thing that my sister Pat ever proposed was that we go to Las Vegas. She hated big cities, hated commercialism, hated crowds, was not fond of shopping or gambling or watching people do stupid things. Where did she get the idea that we should go to Las Vegas? Because she had heard that Las Vegas has fantastic and inexpensive buffets, and her husband Jeff lived for a good cheap buffet.
So we booked flights for May 1997. My husband Himey had been to Vegas many times before I met him, and he would be our travel-guide. In addition to us two couples, Jeff’s daughter from his first marriage, Amy, came along.
We rented a car one day and drove to Hoover Dam, because, well, everyone goes to see the Dam their first time to Las Vegas. One night we all took the bus down to Fremont Street for the light display in the gigantic neon-light canopy. Another night, we went to King Arthur’s Tournament, which involved watching the joust while eating Cornish hen, at the Excalibur. The next day, Pat and I watched the World-Famous Lipizzaner Stallions in the same arena. I think while we were there, Himey took Amy on some death-defying ride that scared her silly.
We had a good time. We wandered from one end of The Strip to the other. We ate at as many buffets as we could. We laughed until we made ourselves sick.
Unfortunately, the good times were always overshadowed by the bad in Pat’s battle with cancer. That fall, more chemo, more radiation, and several more surgeries followed. Cancer cells wound their way into the bones of her back, causing excruciating pain. Back surgery didn’t offer much relief, and she would continue wearing a plastic body cast during her waking hours.
 As her body fought the onslaught, it was easy to wonder which was worse – the cancer or the treatment. Nausea dogged her days and nights. She got to the point where she couldn’t tolerate even Jello.
We didn’t talk about the future and what it might hold. She refused to give up so she refused to talk about the what-ifs. What if this chemo doesn’t work? What if the doctors down at the University can’t offer anything more than the oncologist back home? What if the experimental treatment makes you even sicker?
The only concession she would offer was that if nothing else, maybe someone else would benefit from what the doctors learned from her. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Beyond Cold – Entry 7 in the story of my sister and me

I think I’m ready for a change. This is how I felt in college. There’s something I want, but I don’t know what it is yet. I just feel restless. I’m not unhappy, it’s just getting to be about that time
Pat Loehmer
            Knock. Knock. Knock.
            I rolled over in bed and knocked on my bedroom wall twice in return. I lay there awake for a few minutes, listening. The house remained quiet, Mom and Dad fast asleep.
            I eased out of my twin bed, slid my bedroom door open, crept through the living room and pushed open the first (and only) door on the right. I slipped into the room and noiselessly shut the door tight.
            I think I was maybe in fifth grade, when our brother moved out of the third and smallest bedroom in the house and into the room above the garage. I was finally going to get my own bedroom!
            When my sister Pat left for college, I thought about moving back into the larger bedroom, the one she and I had shared for years, but it just didn’t feel right. I couldn’t sleep there alone.
            But when Pat came home on the weekends and tapped on my wall with the code knocks we’d made up years before, I would end up back in the spare bed. We’d whisper – and giggle - half the night.
            She had wanted to be a veterinarian for as long as anyone could remember. She loved any and every animal she ever met, and graduating from high school with a 4.0, she could do anything she wanted to.
            After a few years at UW-River Falls, majoring in pre-vet, while working in the electrical shop at the paper mill during the summer, she decided to take a totally different career path. She transferred to UW-Stevens Point, which was closer to home, but also so she could change her major to paper science. I think she only stayed a semester there. The mill offered her a position in the electrical department and she would go on to take classes to become a licensed electrician.  
            Few women worked at the paper mill at the time, and few women anywhere were electricians. Pat would never let something like being female slow her down or prevent her from doing what she wanted. 
 February 1997
            “Think you can call in sick tomorrow?”
            “Of course.” I rarely called in sick because I was feeling ill. I would use some lame excuse, migraine seemed to usually work, but I think my manager realized what I was really doing those rare days I didn’t make it to work. “What’s up?”
            “I’m feeling pretty good tonight and I think it’s time we took a ride.”
            “It’s the middle of winter.”
            I picked her up early the next morning and we headed up north to some of our favorite waterfalls. What would they look like in the winter, would they be frozen or too buried in snow to be seen?
            Our first stop was the county park on the Turtle Flowage, where we had camped with Judy the summer before. The flowage was covered in snow and ice thick enough to hold not only the two of us, but four-wheel drives and ice shacks. We struggled through the snow, me leading the way, cutting what path I could to make it easier for Pat to get through. We thought we were getting close to the falls but stopped when we heard the sound of rushing water. The water of the meager falls still had enough power to force through the snow. Hmm? we thought as we stood panting a mere foot from the open water, and then we wisely tromped back to solid ground.
The falls at Black River Harbor were more of the same, except that our trek through the snow was much longer and followed a rabbit path instead of the boardwalk which led tourists to this spot in the summer. We were pretty much alone, not even any rabbits out that day.
We continued our drive and came out on Lake Superior. Up until that point the air outside felt like the chill of any other winter day. The sun was shining, and it felt warm when we turned our faces to it. But we had been raised on Wisconsin winters and as long as the thermometer stayed above zero Fahrenheit, we were comfortable.  
When we got to Lake Superior, however, it was as if all life had stopped. It wasn't just the cold and it wasn't even the wind because there was none. The air was still; there was no movement in the sky or the ground around us. No birds were flying and there was no noise whatsoever. It was like walking into a vacuum.
I thought that Gitche Gumee was powerful in the summer, when the waves crash on the shore, unrelenting in their actions. The power to just withdraw heat, movement, the very air above was a power I could barely fathom. The Lake was covered in snow, with drifts like waves upon the beach, and as far as you could see it was one solid whiteness, the sky blending into the horizon. It reminded me of a lunar landscape.
            "Wow," Pat said, "not quite what I expected."
            "I know. It’s like being on another planet. It’s beyond cold.” I wondered, though, if that was what the cancer felt like to her or the chemo running through her veins. Both sucking away at her life.
We took our pictures and fled back to the SUV. Then drove to a restaurant in Bessemer for hot chocolate.

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Another Waterfall – Entry 6 in the story of my sister and me

“Sometimes I wonder how come I turned out so weird, so different from everyone else. Maybe it’s because I’m left-handed and I think out of the other side of my brain. Or maybe I’m an alien and I think out of someone else’s brain. It’s probably from reading too many sci-fi books and eating ice cream and saltines for supper.” Pat Loehmer

I graduated from high school on June 1, 1980. As my party was winding down that afternoon, Pat and I started packing. She had been working summers at the paper mill while going to college at River Falls and had managed to save enough money to buy herself a baby-blue Ford Courier and a tent. We had decided that we would take a week off work – I would be clerking at Tomahawk Drug for one more summer before leaving for college myself in the fall – to go camping in the UP.
We were planning on camping in state parks at night, and even though the Upper Peninsula of Michigan wasn’t the final frontier, it was a big adventure. All we had was the truck, a dome tent, a cook stove, sleeping bags, and some maps. And of course, too much food and just barely enough cash.
We camped in Porcupine Mountains State Park on Lake Superior for a couple nights, then moved to McLain State Park. We had camped at McLain with our parents when we were kids. It’s a beautiful park with breathtaking views of Lake Superior. Sunrises and sunsets.  
Pat would look out over Lake Superior, and as close as we were, sometimes I still wondered where her mind was, what she thinking. Or was she just weird?
That camping trip still remains one of the high points of my life. That whole week everything was so simple. We did what we wanted, when we wanted and how we wanted. I dreamed of living the rest of my life like that, young and carefree, foolish and full of life, happy and only concerned with being at peace.
Clearly, not Lake Superior, but another body of water in the UP. 

In June of 1996, Pat was feeling well enough that she decided it was time we went on another camping trip and that we should take our older sister Judy along.
The first night we stayed just outside of Mercer at Lake of Falls, a small county park along the Turtle Flambeau Flowage. Pat and Judy went up in the middle of the afternoon to set up camp, and I joined them after work. They had found a site on a small peninsula, almost like being on an island. It was a gorgeous spot.
The next day we packed up camp and set off to find more waterfalls. Our first goal was Spring Camp Falls. The Wisconsin Gazetteer showed a little red line, Camp 7 Road, heading west off of Highway 51. It connected to East Branch Road, which led right to Spring Camp Falls. 
Camp 7 Road began as any other gravel road through the woods. But it quickly deteriorated. The track went straight through a swamp, so when the road was first laid it was a corduroy road, a road made by laying logs across the roadway, especially over wet, lowland terrain. The idea was that the road was dry, but it was also incredibly rough, and the roughness only got worse over time.
In 1996, this particular road was simply heinous. By the time the logs were coming up under Pat’s Blazer, the lane had become a path, barely wide enough to fit through, branches hanging in front of us and tree trunks encroaching on both sides.
Judy and I got out and started walking the track in order to help Pat drive through. We continually stopped to access the situation, but since it was obvious we couldn’t turn around and backing up was out of the question, we kept slowing crawling forward.
We checked the cell phones. Surprisingly we still had coverage.
“And if we called for someone to get us out of here, how exactly do you think they would do that?” Pat asked logically. She had a point. And we were at a point of no return.
Finally the road, not even an ATV trail by this time, approached a slight incline, at the top of which was dry land and a grassy opening big enough to turn around. Now the question was, do we turn around?
We knew what we had just slogged through, but was it better or worse up ahead? As tired and frustrated as we were, I thought we should leave the Blazer and at least walk the road for a little ways to see if it improved. Pat hated to be pessimistic, but she feared that the trail would get worse, or even suddenly dead end and then we couldn’t even turn around. Judy simply shrugged.
We turned around and worked our way out of the swamp.
Years later, I would find that waterfalls via another route. But someday, as God is my witness, I will get there along Camp 7 Road.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Waterfalls and Waysides – Entry 5 in the story of my sister and me

 The surprises in life make it interesting. Could you imagine being able to see the future? And knowing what was going to happen? You’d have no purpose for living. Ordinary, everyday happenings make life feel comfortable, but you live to be surprised. Never lose the capacity for being surprised. Never let life become ordinary. Learn to enjoy the littlest things. That’s why little kids and puppies are so neat. They think everything is new and exciting. 
Such enthusiasm. Pat Loehmer
1994 -When Autumn Turned into Fall
After her second surgery late in the summer of 1994, my sister Pat endured rounds of radiation, followed by rounds of chemotherapy. One October Saturday, she asked if I’d take her for a ride up north. Just a day trip, eight hours which are burned into my memory. Visions that haunt me still.
Pat had been the one who always had the long hair. Even when it hung just above her shoulders, it was longer than mine ever was. For one year in high school, Pat had it cut in some kind of style of the time, but it didn’t take long before her tresses ran down her back again, often in a single thick braid.
When she had started chemo, in an attempt to accept the reality that her hair would fall out, she had her long locks cut.
When I picked her up that Saturday morning, she wore a bandana. It had only been a couple days since I had seen her, but her skin had turned sallow and thin.
“Everything ok?” I asked.
“Yup.” Her jaw was set; the same stubbornness would get her through a lot in the coming years. “I’m not eating much, yucky stomach, but other than that, I’m ok.”
“All right.” I was skeptical. I didn’t ask if she was sure she was up to the ride.
We headed to Lake Superior. We saw some waterfalls, and we had some laughs. I took the usual ton of pictures (looking them up now, I must have taken a whole roll just that day, hard to fathom life before digital cameras).

At one point, we stood at a wayside on a hill overlooking the orange and red leafed trees, she asked, “Do you mind if I take off the bandana? My head itches.”
“Well, sure, why would I care?” It was only a head of hair, wasn’t it?
If I would’ve wanted to, I probably could have counted the golden hairs left on her scalp. As she ran her hand over her head, more precious strands came out, and she released them to the wind. I wanted to catch them and save them; maybe somehow we could figure out a way to attach them to her head again. She couldn’t just let them go.
But there they went, one foot-long strand after another, into the meadow, onto the dry stalks of straw that littered the field where we stood.
“You should see what the shower drain looks like in the morning.” She laughed and described the wad of hair she took out of the drain every day.  
Weeks later, having lost all of the hair on her head and her entire body, she found it hard to stay warm. Her eyes also dried out from the lack of eyelashes. She would jokingly say, who knew that we actually need our hair?
Things had definitely changed; we had changed. And nothing was ever going to be the same again. 

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Minnesota – Entry 4 in the story of my sister and me

“I think babies are great. Okay, maybe babies aren’t great – they’re messy, but little kids are tons of fun. I love little kids and it seems they all have to go through the messy stage first. But they’re just so fun when they say embarrassing things to distant relatives. And they can draw really modern art pictures and you can hang them on your fridge with little penguin-magnet-things.” Pat Loehmer
(At the 2011 Minnesota Renaissance Festival, kids being messy.)
1994 – Adventures in Minnesota
For a full year after my sister was diagnosed with cancer, she and her doctors played the waiting game. She had CAT scans, lab work, and regular office visits. Since she had a hysterectomy, the specialists were counting on the surgery having gotten all of the cancer cells. They felt that only time would tell. The family turned it over to God. Prayer would spare Pat and her life would continue unimpeded.
That however was not God’s plan.
Pat and I had always talked about going to the Minnesota Renaissance Festival in Shakopee. Exactly one year after her initial diagnosis, Pat, I and a friend of hers, Angie, packed up her SUV and drove to Minnesota. Another friend of hers, Phyllis from college, lived just down the road from the Festival and she invited us for the weekend.
Pat had started getting abdominal pain again that week, pain that doubled her over and took away her breath. Her doctor gave her a prescription for Vicodin and made an appointment for the next week. We didn’t change our plans.
I don’t know how other people function on Vicodin, but it quickly became obvious that my sister could not. Luckily, Angie and I were able to find Belle Plaine, Minnesota, without Pat’s help. But when we tried to find Phyllis’s, we were useless and turns out so was Pat.
We hadn’t even brought along the address because Pat kept swearing she knew exactly where she lived, right across from the school. With my sister in her own little narcotic world in the back seat, we thought, it would still be ok, Belle Plaine was a small town and we should be able to find the school.
Wrong. And remember, this was 1994, before cell phones and before GPS.
In the dark, we must have driven up and down every one of the twelve or so streets in town without success. About the time we pulled into a convenience store to ask for directions, Pat’s head popped up in the back seat. As Angie went inside to ask where the school was, Pat, watching through the window, began to heckle the gas station attendant as his arms swung to and fro pointing out the streets we had to take.
“He isn’t even pointing to where the school is.”
“Pat,” I answered as best I could through my giggles. “You don’t know where we are.”
“Oh, you silly, I know we are in Minnesota.”
“Are you sure?” I had to tease.
“Umm, I think so. Unless you guys got us lost.”
“We didn’t get us lost, you didn’t bring the directions. Right now, you don’t know anything.”
“Isn’t it great?” Pat answered and went into a fit of giggles.
Angie returned to the SUV and immediately joined our laughter, without even asking what was so funny. Somehow we found the school, and the house where Phyllis lived. We were still in hysterics as we stumbled down the stairs to her basement apartment.  Pat slept off her narcotics in the spare bedroom, while I stretched out on the couch and Angie curled up on the living room floor. We made it to the Renaissance Festival the next day and were able to have a good time, at least for the first couple hours.
By early afternoon, however, the Vicodin was no longer cutting the pain and was instead causing waves of nausea. Pat wasn’t able to eat anything and started wishing she could just throw up. We drove back to Phil’s, packed up and started the five-hour drive home. Pat spent most of the trip writhing in pain in the backseat.
We debated about taking her straight to the ER when we got back to town, but she only wanted to get home and go to bed. Her husband took her to the ER first thing in the morning.
Her second surgery removed another large tumor. Chemotherapy and radiation followed. At this point, the statistics were grim. Less than 20 percent of women with her type of cancer lived past 18 months.
Pat at Phyllis's wedding in Belle Plaine in 1996