My friend and I sat at a picnic table at Dakota Nature Park in late August, reflecting on the drastic changes in our lives the past few years. Widowed almost two years ago, she had been overwhelmed by the responsibilities of trying to carry on normally (whatever that is) while caring for her adult son with disabilities, and while still pursuing her own work.
I felt some of that crushing responsibility when I returned to South Dakota four years ago while going through a divorce. For those of us who have lost a partner, whether through a physical death or through the death of a relationship, it is as though half of the team carries twice the burden, and we wonder how we will cope. We want to return to days when it seems life was easier.
I think most of America wants happier days just now.
If we measure in dog years, we have aged by three and a half years since the pandemic hit. Indeed, March feels like 42 months ago. No wonder we are tired.
But we are resilient.
My friend says that in the months since her husband’s illness and death, when she faced a task she didn’t know how to tackle, she stepped back and asked herself: “If a friend had this problem, what would you say to him or her? What plan would you lay out for that friend?” Usually, she was able to follow her own sage advice.
I have a similar strategy. When overwhelmed, I give myself pep talks: “Remember when this or that obstacle popped up? Remember how you learned something new, approached the problem from a different angle, found the right help? You can do it this time, too.”
My friend was among a network of people who were my lifeline when I returned to South Dakota. Leaving Virginia – where I had lived for 20 years, raised a family, made friends, set down roots – was hard. So was arriving in South Dakota on a day when the wind chill was negative 9, starting a new job, spending Christmas in an ice storm, missing my children and my friends. It did not get better overnight. It did not get better in a year.
But it is better now, thanks in large part to family, friends and co-workers who listened, prayed, and encouraged without lecturing or condemning.
It is also thanks in part to the memory of where I come from. Or, rather, the knowledge of who I come from.
I would like to remind you, dear neighbors, in tough times, to repeat your family stories. Because, you see, we are all born of tenacity.
My great-grandfather Lorenze survived a shipwreck on the North Sea and later struggled to care for his children as a widower in Clark County, South Dakota.
Lorenze’s son, my grandfather George, contracted the 1918 flu while serving in the U.S. Army during World War I and was pronounced dead. But someone passing through the mortuary noticed the sheet moving with George’s breath. The girl he would marry, my grandmother Paula, nearly died as a toddler. She fell over the rail on the ship carrying her immigrant family from Hamburg to America, but a sailor rescued her.
My great-grandfather Torger walked from Watertown to Webster with a bag of flour on his back because he had no other transportation. He dug a sod house out of the side of a hill on the edge of Waubay Lake, and my great-grandmother Sigrid gave birth to their first three babies in that cave.
I recite their tales, and I think: Who am I to think I should be immune from hardship? The family stories remind me that we who live on this prairie – Native Americans and immigrants from Europe, Central America, Africa, Asia – come from intrepid stock.
My friend and I have sometimes felt like giving up. But as she said to me, “What choice do we have other than to be resilient?”
When actor Chadwick Boseman died late last month, the TV news broadcast some of his memorable quotes.
“Remember the struggles along the way are only meant to shape you for your purpose,” Boseman said.
I wish I could say I have found my purpose, but I am not that astute. Maybe we will never fully know our purpose until the next life, but I am inspired by Boseman’s words.
If I had not experienced difficult days, I would not be able to appreciate nearly as much the man who came into my life and who, this summer, asked me to marry him. Experiencing bitter times indeed makes the good times that much sweeter.
Early this summer, my friend and her son assembled a cookbook with recipes and ingredients for a month’s worth of meals, should they be quarantined. Knowing that there are 30 days of familiar menus, already planned, is comforting in this time of uncertainty.
When the seven dog years of 2020 are behind us, their pandemic cookbook will be a family keepsake, another story of prairie perseverance.