Wisconsin 2020

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This travelog is written from Debbie's perspective, since Tom didn't join her for this trip. This is a personal travelog that involves a death, so move along, casual reader. Please do not read this.

Saturday, February 1, 2020: I rarely do the driving on road trips, and a solo road trip is especially rare. To stay alert, I stopped at every single rest area on the drive up to La Crosse. Here's my stop at the Willow Creek Rest Area in Illinois.

This Bucky Badger statue greeted me at the Wisconsin Welcome Center rest area. We had seen a bunch of Bucky statues two years earlier, so it was nice to add another to our collection.
Less than an hour later, I was rolling into Cottage Grove, ...
... where my excellent cousin, Stephanie, was hosting a taco buffet for me ...
... and a houseful of relatives. Left to right: Tim, Mark, Sara, Emmie, Stephanie, Adam, and Shirley.
Shirley took the camera so that I could be in a photo too.
I brought Charty Party along so we got it out and played a few hilarious rounds.
James joined us when he was done with work. Look at the refrigerator next to him, ...
... and zoom in on that artwork. It's a turkey turned into Darth Vader. Nice!
Cousins Larissa, Adalynn, Preston, and Parker were happily playing downstairs this whole time. Here's adorable Adalynn when she came upstairs for a minute.
Around 8:00 PM, I headed out and continued north to Quality Inn at Mauston. It should have taken an hour to get there, but an unnoticed wrong turn while I was talking to Tom added another 40 minutes to my drive. Oops!

Sunday, February 2, 2020: I was back on the road by 7:30 AM and got breakfast from McDonald's just down the street.
As always, I got a photo of Castle Rock near Camp Douglas. It's a rule.
I arrived at Gunderson Hospital in La Crosse shortly before 9:00 AM. My uncle had been diagnosed with terminal cancer so I was in La Crosse to help out by learning all about Ralph's finances so I could help my Aunt Bonnie to take over when he died.
However, Ralph's other medical issues had landed him back in the hospital two nights earlier, so I went to his hospital room instead of his home. Ralph was under heavy sedation so I didn't ask him for any information. However, he knew I was coming and was glad that I was there to help out. While at the hospital, I grabbed some lunch in the hospital cafeteria and spent time with his sons, Andy and David, to tell them what I planned to do so that they would be comfortable with it. I also got to meet their mom, Sharon.
In a push to get Ralph in better shape, he was moved to intensive care in the early afternoon, so I got keys from Bonnie and went to their home to start looking through his computer and filing cabinets.
I started out by looking through the study in the basement.
Being an accountant, Ralph kept lots of files, so I knew I would be able to find everything I needed to get things figured out.
My cousin Heather and her daughter Sarah joined me after a while, and helped me look for files. During our search, Heather found this family treasure from the 70s: a mint-condition Forever Living product pack of some sort. This gem will probably end up in a Schilling Reunion silent auction some day.
I snapped some photos of the furniture that David and Andy had told me about.
These are pieces from their family that are meaningful to them.
These beautiful items will go to them when Bonnie passes away.
I enjoyed seeing this framed portrait of my grandparents on the desk, along with a Schilling Reunion 2017 wristband. Honk! Honk! Honk!
This suitcase belonged to Ralph's mother, Vera, and still had an address label on it from long-defunct Northwest Orient, which was a cool blast from the past.
These portraits of Ralph were upstairs, ...
... along with Bonnie's high school yearbook. Sarah opened it to the page with Bonnie's senior portrait.
I found Ralph's laptop on the main floor desk near his most recent stash of paper and Borders purchases.
We headed back to the hospital around 3:00 PM and found that he was resting. He was still able to respond when spoken to.
Ralph's family gathered in the lounge outside of intensive care. Heather's daughter Megan had arrived with husband, Craig, and adorable daughter, Emma.
Here's Sarah with her niece, ...
... and here's little Emma.
Megan took some pictures of me playing with Emma.
I taught her to touch the tip of my finger with hers, and made a funny noise when she did.
By the end of my visit eight days later, she knew that I was the finger-pointing-game lady.
I took her on a little sightseeing walk down the hallway, ...
... where we looked at all of the pretty scenery toward the west.
I left the hospital around 6:00 because Heather and Ron had invited me over for a dinner of Ron's delicious lasagna.
The Superbowl was on and I was there just in time for Jennifer Lopez and Shakira's amazing half-time show.
Ron's son Jesse joined us but refused to pose for a picture, ...
... but then he relented. A shame that this turned out blurry!
I headed out and went to Carol's house to stay for the week. She was cat-sitting Sarah's cat, Eve, who isn't a fan of strangers. Eve watched me from the safety of the top of the refrigerator until she decided to trust me.

Monday, February 3, 2020: I awoke at 7:00 AM. Here's the view of the Mississippi River bluffs from Carol's guest room. I grabbed breakfast at Burger King in Holmen, then headed to the hospital in La Crosse to see how things were going there. Ralph had a restless night, but his sister had arrived after driving two days straight from Montana, so she was visiting with him.
With everything under control at the hospital, I left around 10:45 AM ...
... and headed back to Carol's house ...
... in Trempealeau. This giant catfish statue marks the point at which every cell call to Tom would drop out. I picked up Carol and we headed north to the Twin Cities.
We stopped at the cemetery in Buffalo City to visit the grave of my Aunt Mary and Uncle Bob.
Mary had passed away less than a year earlier so I wanted to see her updated headstone.
We drove through Alma ...
... which celebrates its Swiss heritage.
In Alma, we stopped at Lock & Dam No. 4. We climbed the stairs to the bridge that goes over the train tracks, ...
... hoping for a closer look at the locks, but we were thwarted by a locked door, ...
... and had to turn back.
There's lovely Lake Pepin, which I'm much more used to seeing from the Minnesota side. I'm still baffled by how a river suddenly turns into a lake and then back again.
There's Maiden Rock.
By 2:30 PM, we were in Shoreview, Minnesota, to visit my stepmother, Becky. She had been living in this independent/assisted-living senior center since the previous fall after my father died. In January, she had decided to forego any additional treatment for her MDS and she invited me to visit her, so I was using this opportunity to do it. We had to wait in the lobby for 45 minutes or so until she was done with an appointment.
Then we spent about 20 minutes with her and her daughter, Sarah. It was the last time I saw Becky, because she died 2 1/2 months later.
Carol and I headed to Taste of Scandinavia Bakery and Cafe next, ...
... where we stopped for a snack and to kill some time before our next meeting.
I ordered a slice of princess torte. It was so delicious but so filling that I was able to bring some leftovers back with us.
A couple of hours later, we met my cousins Laura and Melissa at Carbone's in White Bear Lake. The only picture I took of this fun time was of my beloved Carbone's Special. It's not quite as delicious here as it is at the One True Carbone's (on Randolph) but it is a very, very close second.
Our route back to Trempealeau took us through some small towns after dark, and this little downtown had one stoplight, blinking on and off. It reminded me of an old Sweethearts of the Rodeo song.
We got back to Carol's at 9:45 PM and Eve was waiting for us.
That's when I noticed that Carol was in need of an updated Schilling Electric Company magnet, so I made a note to send her another one when I got home.
We had precious leftover Carbone's and stored it in the fridge for future meals.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020: I slept in a bit and arrived at the hospital a little after 10:00 AM. As I pulled into the parking lot, I heard from Heather that Ralph had had a stroke around 8:30 AM. Ninety minutes later, a stroke specialist from Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, performed a stroke assessment using this camera. The doctor's face filled the screen and the camera focused on Ralph as she asked him questions and scored his responses.
Bonnie had to leave for her own medical appointment, so his sister and I stayed with him on and off and spoke to doctors until Bonnie could return. The doctors told us that we could expect for Ralph to be very tired after the trauma of his stroke, and he rested most of the time, occasionally opening his eyes briefly.
When Bonnie returned at 1:30 PM, Ralph opened his eyes and locked onto hers.
Ralph's son Andy arrived after having returned to his home in Minnesota the day before. Son David lives locally so it was easier for him to visit.
At 3:30 PM, a palliative care nurse met with the family, including his wife, sister, and sons. I sat at the foot of Ralph's bed, taking notes. As the nurse and Bonnie took turns discussing Ralph's wishes for his care, I noticed that even though Ralph's eyes were closed, he would raise his hand slightly each time they made a point that Ralph would prefer to forego life-prolonging treatment. To anyone else, it may have looked like restlessness, but having a non-verbal child, I am used to looking for non-verbal forms of communication. I blurted out, "He understands you! Look at his hand! He is agreeing with you!" Ralph opened his eyes, looked directly at me for at least five seconds, and lifted his hand in agreement. It was a magic moment to make that connection with him.
Having Ralph confirm his agreement made it easier for his family to remove him from his monitors and meds. For the first time in days, he was able to sleep without wires and tubes attached.
Carol and Heather had been out of town for most of the day, because Heather had a home showing. Carol came back with Heather to the hospital, so we planned for me to drive her home. Around 5:30, Carol and I left the hospital, ran an errand for Bonnie at Verizon, then headed to Features Sports Bar.
I ordered soup and the chicken dinner and it was delicious.
Back at Carol's house, we watched old episodes of "Downton Abbey" and played Matchington Mansion on our devices. Carol played her 2,000th puzzle, which was commemorated with the puzzle containing both "2000" and "MM" in the design.

Wednesday, February 5, 2020: It was an overcast morning when I arrived in La Crosse around 10:00 AM. By now, I had figured out that if I got Burger King for breakfast, I could save part of my Croinssanwich for lunch. After checking in at the hospital, I headed to Bonnie's house to work on Ralph's computer and files. Bonnie called me at 12:30 PM to tell me that Ralph was now in a coma and that he would die within a matter of days or hours.
Around 5:00 PM, Heather asked me to come back to the hospital and bring any cards that Ralph had received so Bonnie could read them to him. When I returned to the hospital, I spent a few quiet moments with Ralph. I held his hand and told him that we would make sure that Bonnie is fine.
At this point, the stated medical goal on his whiteboard was "to peacefully transition to the home prepared for him in heaven." Heather and I got dinner at Subway then I headed back to Carol's house for more Abbey/Mansion time.

Thursday, February 6, 2020: I spent another day at Bonnie's alone, fortified with a Burger King breakfast/lunch, documenting everything I could find about her finances, since it was now clear that Ralph could no longer help. It was long, lonely work but in the late afternoon, the sun shone through a window, landing perfectly on my dad's obituary picture which Bonnie had propped up on a table, giving me encouragement to continue.
I headed back over to the hospital around 5:00 PM. Ralph's entire family took turns being with him during his last hours, including his wife, sister, two sons, three stepdaughters, stepson-in-law, step-granddaughter, and a family friend, Bonice. At 6:23 PM, Ralph died peacefully.
Bonnie was exhausted and devastated, but she stayed strong through it all. An hour after Ralph's passing, she took a moment to play with her granddaughter, Emma.
Emma's sweet face lit up the waiting area and lifted our spirits. While Bonnie was busy, Sarah, Bonice, and I worked on the list of people to contact. I also start getting details from Ralph's sister Jan so I could write the first draft of Ralph's obituary when I returned to Carol's later that evening. I treated myself to some well-deserved McDonald's when I left the hospital at 8:00 PM.

Friday, February 7, 2020: With Ralph's sister staying with Bonnie, I expected to stay at Carol's all day. We went out to River Cafe for a tasty breakfast.
After breakfast, we took a slight detour to the edge of town so I could get a better picture of the Trempealeau catfish. Back at Carol's, I got a call from Bonnie that she wanted me to join her and Heather for their meeting with the funeral home representative, so I rushed back to La Crosse at 12:30 PM.
After the meeting, Heather and I dropped off Bonnie at a 2:00 PM medical appointment. Heather and I got some lunch at People's Food Co-op and worked on Ralph's obituary, working from a draft I had created the evening before.
We returned to Bonnie's home and worked with her to complete Ralph's obituary, while Heather worked out details of the food for the memorial service, which would be held three days later.
After I sent the obituary, we opened the large safe in the basement, looking for Ralph's military papers ...
... and for keepsakes to share with Jan, Andy, and David. Jan was spending the day with her daughter and son-in-law who had arrived in town the day before.
I found some of my grandpa's diplomas. This is his high school diploma, ...
... and this is one of his college diplomas. Bonnie was kind enough to let me take them, and I later gave them to cousins Shirley and Sharlot.
It was 7:30 PM by the time that Ron, Heather, and I met at Features Sports Bar for drinks and then dinner. I have no idea what I ordered. A burger maybe? If I don't photograph it, I can't remember it. Getting old sucks.

Saturday, February 8, 2020: I spent the morning gathering photos from my collection and from the ones found on Ralph's computer so they could be sent to the church for Ralph's memorial service. Then Carol and I went out to run errands and do some shopping. We started at Target so I could buy a frame for Ralph's portrait (which I had gotten from a friend of his), plus some nicer clothes for me to wear since I hadn't packed for a funeral. We got lunch at Perkins then headed to Aldi (where I stocked up on Danish kringle) and Festival Foods.
A blizzard was heading our way, so we picked out some entrees to heat up the next day for dinner.
This entire section of the store was devoted to chili, including beans and chili mixes. Wisconsinites sure do love their chili.
On our way out, I spotted this Caroline's Cart, a shopping cart designed for shopping with people with disabilities, designed by a mother of a daughter with Rett Syndrome.

Sunday, February 9, 2020: As forecasted, we got a lot of snow overnight.
Even after a week of staying at her home, Carol remained a great host. Here she is using her snowblower to clear the snow from her driveway and my car.
The snow continued to come down lightly all day, but didn't get too much deeper.
In the mid-afternoon, I went out to brush off my car.
The short form of Ralph's obituary appeared in the Sunday paper.
In the afternoon, Bonnie asked me to come by to tell her as much as I could about Ralph's finances, so Carol drove me to Bonnie's then headed to the hotel where my Uncle Benny was staying. Benny was able to fly in from Texas so when I was done with Bonnie, they picked me up and we headed out to dinner at Outback Steakhouse in La Crosse. I was sneaky enough to beat him to the check.
Back at Carol's, the full moon was looking very cool in the calm of the post-blizzard sky.

Monday, February 10, 2020: The sun was peeking through the morning mist on my last day at Carol's.
It had been a great place to stay, even if I hadn't been around very much. There's Eve in her spot on the floor near the chair where I often sat. Of course, Carol sent me home with a bottle of Elmaro wine, plus a few other goodies from the Elmaro gift shop including fancy caramels and a chocolate bar.
I got a terrifying photo of the Trempealeau catfish's gigantic mouth on my drive out of town.
While I was driving, I got a call from my Uncle Mark, inviting me to join him and my Uncle Herb for lunch at Coney Island at the mall.
I immediately scrapped my drive-through lunch plans and met them at Starbuck's in Barnes and Noble, then we walked through the mall to Coney Island, where we were joined by my Aunt Emmie (the photographer for this shot).
After lunch, we went to Olivet Lutheran Church in La Crosse for Ralph's memorial service. I was relieved to see that the black-and-gold frame I had picked out ended up matching his urn very nicely, and really complimented the black-and-white portrait his friend Dave had taken. Flowers from Bonnie and Ralph's military flag rounded out the display in the front of the sanctuary.
Flowers flanked the center display on the left ...
... and the right.
Of course, the floral display from Paul and Judi was the largest. Paul felt terrible that he couldn't attend, but the blizzard and the extremely short notice made it impossible to get a flight that could arrive on time.
Ralph's sons David (left) and Andy (right) were wearing their dad's bolo ties for the occasion.
Here they are with their stepsister, Heather.
Here's Ralph's sister taking a photo.
This lovely display welcomed guests.
Ralph was an active member of the Gideons, so it was appropriate that one of his fellow Gideons brought Bibles and literature to share.
Below the welcome table were these two photos of Ralph - one on his first bicycle as a child, and one on one of the recumbent bicycles he so enjoyed riding in adulthood.
The photos that Megan, Sarah, and I had gathered were displayed on monitors.
An hour before the service, I met with Ralph's longtime friend, Sheryl, to go over everything I had learned and documented about Ralph's finances, so that she could take over and help transition all of it to Bonnie.
With a half hour to go before the service, lots of family had arrived. Here is sweet Emma, one moment after trying Aunt Sarah's latte. She hated it ...
... and made sure to push that nasty beverage as far away from herself as possible.
Here's Uncle Benny with cousins Melissa, Terry, and Laura, plus Laura's kiddos, Lisa and Gavin. Laura gave me a CD of children's songs to pass on to Jill when I got home.
This trio of gentlemen are my stepcousins, Jesse, Jeremy, and Chris.
These two are my uncles Mark and Herb.
Here are Heather's daughters: Megan, Rachel, and Sarah.
Emma sought safety from the crowd in Daddy's legs.
I took a seat in the sanctuary off to the side. It was a lovely service, with eulogies given by Heather and several of Ralph's friends.
After the service, the immediate family stepped outside for military honors, as the rest of us slowly filed out. Little cousin Parker was taking a nap on mom Stephanie.
My dad's cousins Paul (left) and Gary (right) attended with their wives Louise (left) and Gerry Ann (right).
Their cousins Mark and Herb joined them for a portrait along with me.
Dinner was served after the service.
Borgen's Cafe in Westby catered the dinner, ...
... with the exception of tray after tray of Ron's homemade lefse, the finest lefse on the planet.
Dinner included meatballs, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, coleslaw, and rolls.
The church provided all the tableware, beverages, and this amazing spread of assorted desserts. Members of the congregation served lunch and cleaned up afterward.
Our family gathered at some tables and had a nice time being together, not that you can tell it from the stone faces they put on as soon as I pointed my phone at them.
I'm pretty sure that's a death stare I'm getting from Carol. Cousin Sharlot (left) had caught a ride up with her sister, so she drove back to Indianapolis with me.
We stopped for the night at Sleep Inn in Rockford.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020: We got a very early start, so we were passing Bloomington, Illinois, by 8:00 AM.
After dropping off Sharlot at her home in Brownsburg, I got home in the early afternoon. First order of business: opening up those Kringle packages and cutting them into smaller portions for the freezer. Gotta make these last!
Ditto for the many bags of lefse that Heather and Ron generously gave me as thanks for my help this week, ...
... and thanks in advance for scanning all of the family photos Heather sent home with me.


But of course, I left some out for my little lefse lover to enjoy after I picked her up from her day program.

** THE END **

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