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The snow falls quietly as Norman Salo watches through the window from his bed. For the moment he is alone. The nursing home staff are busy making their morning rounds. He hasn’t eaten anything since the day before. He just lies quietly and waits, staring at the snow falling on Ontonagon, the small town in the northwest Upper Peninsula where he has spent most of his life.
Deidre walks in the room and approaches Norman, taking his hand and gently caressing the knotty knuckles. Rather than wearing scrubs, she’s wearing the classic white dress uniform. Her straight, brunette hair is pulled back into a ponytail. “Norman, I’m sorry about about your wife,” she says. “She was a lovely lady and we will miss her.”
“It’s alright,” he replies, continuing to look outside. “I’ll be with her soon.”
Virginia and Norman Salo had been married for 52 years. They attended Ontonagon High together and were sweethearts. They both went to Suomi College in Hancock, got married after Norman returned from WWII and had three children. Norman was a supervisor at the paper mill for 30 years. His wife stayed at home with the three children until they went off to college, then she took a job as a secretary at their church. When Norman came down with Parkinson’s a year ago, Virginia visited him in the Ontonagon Home for the Aged every day, leaving their house in the village at 9 a.m. and staying until the afternoon. Yesterday, for the first time, she didn’t visit. She had died at home in her sleep.
Deidre has been Norman’s nurse since he first moved in. She brings his meals to him on a rolling tray five days a week, and if there’s time they watch Wheel of Fortune at 4 o’clock. She tolerates his constant pestering for her to join his congregation, St. Paul Lutheran Church. Norman is a man of faith and is never afraid to say so. He often asks Deidre to read the bible to him. She knows his motive. He’s trying to reel her in. But she never takes the bait. Deidre told him she gave up on God a long time ago, after John died.
It was a snowmobile accident. The wedding was set for June, still six months away. The snow was perfect for riding. Deidre hadn’t wanted John to go, but he was adamant. He and his buddies downed a six pack, geared up and hit the trail by the old copper mine. By 3 a.m. they still had not returned. By 6 a.m. John’s mom was knocking on her door. The police said that John had driven his snowmobile onto the Ontonagon River and had fallen through the ice. It wasn’t until spring, when the river had thawed, that authorities found his body five miles downstream. After that, Deidre hadn’t quite yet given up on life, but she had given up on God. No matter how hard Norman had tried over the past year to convince her of God’s mercy, Deidre was broken and didn’t think faith could fix her.
At the moment, Deidre is studying Norman and thinking about his comment: “It’s alright,” he had said, “I’ll be with her soon.” What did he mean? Was he just acknowledging the fact that he was old and wouldn’t live that much longer? Or was it something more worrisome? Perhaps the sleeping pills they gave him were making him confused. He probably just meant that someday when he died he would be with her in heaven. That sounded like Norman. Still, she wants clarification.
“Norman, what do you mean by ‘you’ll be with her soon,’” she says, looking over the top of her glasses. Norman turns his face toward her. “What do you think it means?” She hates it when he answers a question by asking a question. Deidre replies, “Norman. You do realize Virginia is dead, right?”
“Deidre, I may be old but I’m not stupid.”
She sighs. “Then what do you mean?” she says again.
“I mean,” he says, “my wife is coming to get me. She’s taking me with her. I can’t exactly explain it. It’s just something I know. I feel it. It’s faith, Deidre.”
She crosses her arms. “Norman, how many of those little pills did you take?”
He looks at her and rolls his pale eyes, and Deidre knew better than to argue with him. Instead, she drops the subject and asks if he had started to make arrangements with the funeral home. It is a hard question to ask but it needed to be done. Norman simply replies, “It won’t be necessary.” Again, she doesn’t know what to make of the comment. At this point, she decides to take a different approach. “Norman, have you called your children yet? When are they coming?”
He says that they were all notified and would be there by tomorrow or the day after that. Deidre was satisfied with his answer. It had to do for now because she needed to get home to eat and rest since it was her turn to take the night shift. She doesn’t feel right about leaving Norman but she has to. She tells him goodbye and that she would be back later that night.
“Norman,” she says, taking a moment to touch his creased forehead. “Let me know if you need anything.”
✽ ✽ ✽
It’s 9 p.m. at the Ontonagon Home for the Aged and Deidre trudges through the front glass doors in off-brand snow boots, stomping her feet on the mat. The snowfall has reached a foot, but all of the county plows are out and she has no trouble getting to work. In the nurse’s lounge she takes off her coat and puts a frozen dinner in the mini fridge. The hallways are dim and quiet. Most of the 25 or so residents are already tucked into bed. She slips on a pair of clogs and heads over to the nurse’s desk to get her clipboard. The first name on the sheet is Mrs. Karlsson, and Deidre heads down hallway B to check in on her. That’s when she sees it.
Something barely visible is seeping from beneath the closed door on room 112. That’s Norman’s room. She walks over and slowly opens the door. The room is hazy. It looks like fog, the kind that forms in early summer mornings over Lake Superior. It starts from the floor and rises all the way to the ceiling. There is no smell and seemingly no source for it. Every room has a carbon monoxide detector and a fire alarm but the room is silent. Deidre puts her hand on the bathroom door, which is closed, and it isn’t hot. She opens it and there is nothing there. She walks over to the bed. “Norman, do you see this? Did you do something? Did you plug in the humidifier? You know you’re not suppose to do that.” Norman says nothing. He just looks up at her with a faint smile on his lips.
“What is this in the air?” She demands.
Norman replies in a calm voice, “My wife is coming to get me.” The mist now completely envelopes the room. It circulates, and almost seems to breathe.
Deidre turns and leaves, running down the hall to find someone. Because it is the night shift, staff is scarce. It takes five minutes before she finally sees Earl, the custodian, and waves him down. “Come here, and hurry,” she instructs. Earl follows her into Norman’s room. But now, the room has begun to clear. “Sorry, Earl. False alarm,” she says. Deidre walks over to Norman and looks into his face. He is sleeping now. She wonders if she imagined the whole thing.
The rest of the night is uneventful. Deidre checks in on all of the residents and reads a book in the nurse’s lounge after she finishes all of her duties. Around 6 a.m. she begins her early morning rounds before heading home. She decides to check in on Norman first. She opens the door and quietly walks over to his bed. Norman’s eyes are closed and he looks peaceful. He’s usually awake by now, watching the news. She puts a hand on his cheek, and it is cold to the touch. Norman is dead.
Three Days Later
The pews at St. Paul’s are filled with family, neighbors and friends of Virginia and Norman Salo. After the service ends, Mrs. Makki plays Amazing Grace on the organ as the attendees slowly make their way out into the cold sunshine. There would be no burial today; that will take place after the spring thaw when the ground is no longer frozen. Until then, the Salos will stay at the Forest Lawn Cemetery vault in Ontonagon until they can be buried side by side. There is one person left sitting in the back pew. She makes her way to the front and sits back down, gazing at the two caskets. Rev. Luke, pastor of St. Paul’s, is putting on his wool coat. He sits down beside her. “Hi, I’m Rev. Luke. Were you a friend or a relative?”
“Hello, I’m Deidre. I work at the nursing home where Mr. Salo, well, Norman, lived. You could say they were friends of mine.” She puts on her gloves, preparing to leave. Then she folds her hands in her lap. “I was pretty close to Norman. You know, he was always trying to get me to go to church.”
“Have you not been going?”
“No,” Deidre says, drawing in a deep breath. She takes a last look at the two caskets, draped with white roses, and smiles just a little. “But I think that will no longer be the case.”