Personal Note: On this day four years ago, my dear friend, Chris Ann Nelson, slipped the bonds of this earthly life and joyfully began eternity in Heaven. I share this blog from a visit we had in January of that year, approximately two months before she passed. The life she led still serves to me as an example of Christianity. I solemnly try to be like her – and dismally fail. But I keep trying. Love you, Chris Ann – you are missed.
Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. Isaiah 40:30-31 NKJV
After writing – and deleting – at least a dozen opening sentences, there seems to be nothing for me to do but forget the technical aspects of writing and just speak from my heart.
The first question Chris Ann asked, after we hugged for a full minute and after we were seated in the Nelson’s cozy living area, was – “How did you make up your mind to come?”
I stammered a bit trying to explain, but finally what I said was this.
“I made a list of pros and cons. The list of cons was long – filled with dozens of excuses that ultimately just boiled down to “stepping outside my comfort zone”. The list of pros had only one entry: Spending special moments with a dear friend – one who has always inspired me to try and be a better person.
It was a no-brainer.
My trip began with Ted driving me into Albany to the airport. We left the house around 4 a.m. My plane to Atlanta left at 6:00, and 45 minutes later I was at Hartsfield-Jackson. With an almost 2-hour layover, I had time for a little breakfast and two cups of coffee, which I ate seated at a little counter looking over the Delta arrival gates. Leaving from Albany had spared me from the terror (my own) of going through Atlanta security.
I called Terry Conlon ( Terry and his wife Sue had invited me to stay with them on this visit) as I was boarding for Flint, MI and found him already on the road. It was a three-hour drive from Black Lake to the airport, and it was snowing. He assured me though he would be there ahead of my plane. In retrospect, if he had known he was going to be babysitting a forgetful, air-headed Southern belle senior citizen, he may have turned around and just driven back home. But that’s a story for another day.
The first face I saw after leaving the secured section in the airport at Flint was Jill’s. She had driven over from Lansing just to meet the plane, and she immediately told me my coat wasn’t heavy enough. We found Terry waiting at Baggage Claim, and when he snagged my super-big checked bag off the carousel, he accused me of packing Ted inside.
“How long did you say you were staying?” he asked, and I couldn’t tell whether he was kidding or not :).
Outside it was cold (20-something), snowing, very windy, and . . . my coat wasn’t heavy enough. We said our goodbyes to Jill (who would be coming up to Mackinaw City later in the week) and began the 3-hour trip north.
Determined not to fall asleep and snore in front of Terry, I proceeded to talk his ears off (I’m sure he wished I had gone to sleep). We stopped for lunch along the way, in Gaylord for some goodies, and arrived at Black Lake outside Cheboygan around 3 p.m.
It had snowed on us the whole way, and I know I exclaimed, “Terry, look at that!” a hundred times.
“What?” he’d say.
“That red barn against the snow.” “That white farmhouse against the snow.” “That tree against the snow.” “That cow against the snow.”
You get my drift (no pun intended).
The Conlon’s home-away-from-home is beautiful (looks great against the snow, doesn’t it)!
Black Lake is totally frozen over. It’s hard to tell where the yard becomes the beach, and the beach becomes ice. Everything is all white – as far as you can see.
Terry and Brinkley – walking on the beach. The wooden trough is where deer come every night to eat the corn Terry puts out. From the house at night – with the help of a strong spotlight – we watched two, three, and sometimes as many as five deer eating contentedly in the dark.
Sue – watching Terry and Brinkley on the beach.
Needless to say, I love Brinkley, who could be Bear’s twin sister.
Terry, Sue and Brinkley – the wonderful family who helped make my visit so special.
The Conlons made me feel immediately at home. I love visiting with folks who just say, “The cups and glasses are here, the cereal is there, there’s berries in the frig . . . . . make yourself at home.” So comfortable.
After a great night’s sleep, we left the next morning for Mackinaw City down county roads lined in snow and slush. It had snowed all night, and there were still flurries, which were forecast to last all day. Sue had made a big pot of soup to carry to Chris Ann and Burton – along with some fudge and fruit.
As long as Chris Ann and I have known each other, I had never visited her at home. I’d seen numerous photos of the Burton Cottage – inside and out – and was as familiar with their view of the Mackinac Bridge as I am with our view of Surrey Hill. Chris Ann posted a photo of the sunrise from their cottage every morning this summer on Facebook. The photos did not even begin to do real justice to their home and what they looked out on every day.
Looking through the big picture windows that flow around the front corner of their home out onto the snow-covered yard, the frozen beach, and several hundred yards of ice-packed Lake Michigan water nearly takes your breath away. The Mackinac Bridge in the distance completes the picture, and at night that bridge is aglow with colored lights from the Mackinaw City side all the way across the Straits of Mackinac to St. Ignace.
The Conlons and I found Chris Ann and Burton waiting for us with open arms – literally. I hugged Burton tightly and squeezed Chris Ann as tightly as I could. Chris Ann’s wonderful friend, Mary Saul, had been there several days and nights, sleeping on the sofa next to Chris Ann. She left us to have lunch with another friend, but returned later that afternoon and spent Thursday night again at their cottage.
When I walked into Chris Ann’s home with a camera in my hand, I felt like an idiot. Months before, Chris Ann had given me permission to tell her story, but now I didn’t feel comfortable invading her privacy. I was there to see her and talk to her, not to write a story. I planned to take a few snapshots of the bridge from their window and that was all. But after I’d been there about an hour, she asked me if I wanted to take photos. I looked embarrassed, and said, “I will do whatever you want, Chris Ann.”
Her answer was, “Your readers know the story up to now. Don’t you think you should tell them the ending?”
From that point on for that day and the next, I had my camera nearby.
Burton and Hank, their little Terrier. Burton made the beautiful stained-glass wreath hanging in the window.
Hank’s favorite nap spot.
Thursday was not really a good day for Chris Ann. Every hour or so she would glance at Burton, and he would rise and measure out liquid morphine for her to swallow. She told me she was also on morphine in pill form and had a morphine patch. Although she tried to hide it, she was obviously still hurting, even with all the meds. As long as she was interacting and talking, she seemed to be able to force her way through it, and she postponed medicating several times I felt she really needed to.
We ate the soup Sue had brought for lunch, and I later looked through photo albums filled with family pictures. She shared a book with me that a neighbor from their home in Florida had just published and dedicated to her. The amazing photographs in the book of herons and other birds were taken in Chris Ann and Burton’s backyard.
Sue and Terry came to pick me up around 3 p.m.
Mary called me early on Friday morning. The Burton’s daughter and son-in-law, Cheryl and Kevin, were coming in Friday night, and Mary was going home. She had an appointment that morning and asked if I could stay with Chris Ann and Burton until another friend arrived later in the afternoon. I planned to be there most of the day anyway, so all was good.
When Sue and I arrived at the cottage around 10:30, we all chatted for a few moments, then walked outside with the dogs.
While Sue threw Kong toys for Lily and Hank to chase, Chris Ann walked around the yard. We kept saying we’d get her coat, but she said she was fine. “For the first time in my life, I’m hot-natured,” she said, smiling.
Checking the bird feeder.
Looking across the Straits.
Back inside, glowing from the light coming in off the snow .. . . and from within.
Sue left to run errands and eat lunch with her son, Patrick. Not long after that, the Hospice nurses arrived, and while they visited with Chris Ann and Burton, I sat in the dining room and tried to find a few pieces to fit into the jigsaw puzzle set up on a table there. It wasn’t long after the nurses left that Jill arrived, bringing Chris Ann some cookies and a Wendy’s Frosty . . .
. . . which Hank helped himself to.
People have been bringing food in since Chris Ann and Burton arrived back in Michigan, so lunch was easily prepared. Cathy Klea, a special friend of Chris Ann’s, arrived to visit for a few minutes, and Jill and I volunteered to take Hank and Lily for a long walk.
And then the most amazing thing happened. Chris Ann said, “I want to go with you!” Burton and Cathy both looked on amazed as Chris Ann walked to the hall closet, pulled aside several hangers of clothing and pulled out a stunning, full-length mink coat. While Chris Ann donned the coat, a matching hat, and her boots, Burton told us the funny story of how he had purchased the coat decades ago. He kept looking at Chris Ann in amazement (we found out later she had not walked more than a few feet in a couple of weeks, and that was inside). I grabbed my camera, and what happened next was 30 minutes of sheer magic.
Dignity and grace . . . .
. . . and everlasting love.
Some serious posing . . .
. . . with a little fun thrown in.
All ready to go outside – that’s Cathy on the right.
Cathy and Chris Ann.
These next photos need no captions . . . .
After these glamor shots, Jill and I anchored Chris Ann between us, and she walked about 25 yards up the lane in front of the house. Then we returned her to the warmth inside and took the dogs for a good run.
The rest of the afternoon was spent inside.
Sharing with Jill the book of birds that were photographed at their Florida home.
Ellen joined us later in the afternoon.
Two friends – just being silly.
We stopped in one more time on Saturday morning, before we left for the Island. Chris Ann and I hugged for a moment, and I whispered in her ear, “We’ll be back in May. If I don’t see you then, I’ll see you in the sky, my sweet friend.”
As I finish writing this around midnight on Monday, I’ve just received word that Chris Ann is having a really bad night, and Hospice was called in earlier this evening. Her Michigan family is on the way back, and her daughter in Oregon flies home on Tuesday. Please join me in praying for Chris Ann – for her pain to ease, for her family to surround her, and for her passage into Heaven to be a peaceful one.
What a celebration there’s going to be when this Angel arrives.
I love you, Chris Ann. I love you.