The Fourth of July is a big weekend in Belle Fourche, S.D., the small town on the edge of the Black Hills where I grew up. It is the time when people return and see their classmates from years past. A carnival comes to town, there is a parade, a rodeo, and fireworks out at the reservoir dam. My older sister Deb once told me that the Fourth is her favorite holiday.
My Dad’s older brother gave him a half-acre of land from his farm, where Dad built the house that he and Mom lived in for the rest of his life. After Dad died, Mom lived there a year and then moved into a duplex in town, to be closer to other people. She never recovered from my father’s death. She never came alive again. And on the Fourth of July weekend only a year or two after she moved to the duplex, my family gathered to dismantle the house as my older sister flew Mom to Nebraska where she would be placed in an assisted living facility close to two of her children. My focus that day was on getting everything sorted and moved—what would go to Mom and what would go other places. We worked hard and by the evening we had it all decided. The year we closed up Mom’s house, none of us went to any of the Fourth of July festivities in Belle Fourche, and I haven’t been back for a Fourth of July celebration since.
That weekend when we left town, I was full of worries about my Mom. A woman who was used to moving quickly and organizing all the teachers and students in the middle and junior high school was now unable to follow a simple recipe or make responsible decisions about putting on a coat because it was cold outside. The assisted living and the new location in Nebraska were not her idea at all. We knew she wanted to stay in her town, to be close to what was familiar, but none of us lived close enough for that to work.
Long before I was born, Determans lived in Belle Fourche. It had always felt like our place. Mom’s relatives lived in the surrounding towns, but Determans lived in Belle Fourche. The night we finished packing up Mom’s house, I remember thinking, “Now there are no Determans here.” It sounds so silly, but I felt as though I had lost something quite precious—my home, my town, my place in the world where I had always belonged.
The next two years were busy for all of us, dealing with Mom’s long illness. There wasn’t time to think of home! We returned to Belle Fourche for her funeral, to place her next to Dad under the big tree at the cemetery. I noticed none us stayed in town—we all by silent consent stayed in hotels in other towns in the Black Hills. I visit my parents’ graves whenever I’m in the area, but I don’t ever seem to have time to go into town. I don’t think of the 4th of July celebrations the same way now. I have no desire to go to the parade, the reunion, or the fireworks. The only way I can manage to even think of them is from a distance.
This year they will be celebrating my 25th reunion from high school. I was class president junior and senior years. School was important to me, but I won’t be at the reunion. We’ve just returned from France, and only with a huge effort could I be in Belle Fourche for the Fourth… Instead, we’ll be in Denver. Maybe I’ll call my sister and reminisce about lighting fireworks in the driveway with Dad. It seems easiest to remember the good times from a distance. At this point, if I went back to Belle Fourche, I feel sure that memory of the sad times would overwhelm memories of the good.
As I write this at Twin Gables, Len’s cousins Gail and Bruce are setting up their mother’s room at an assisted living home. It’s been a long journey getting to a decision on what is best for their mother, whose condition has similarities to my Mom’s but is also different. It seems so strange that they are moving her on the same Fourth of July holiday that we moved Mom to Nebraska.
I want to say to Gail and Bruce, Be gentle with yourselves, with each other, and with your Mom. The regrets you will have later will be connected to how you treat each other now. This is so difficult, and yet there is great satisfaction in knowing that you did the best you could, and that even though it didn’t seem nearly enough at the time, it was just right.
I’m happy to be at the beach. It feels calm and uncomplicated. I’m happy to be with Will and Lois, Len’s parents. Over time we’ve learned to appreciate each other. Being around them feels familiar, especially at the beach. I just want to watch them and take in their presence, impressions to be filed away and brought out like favorite treasures at times when I need to remember.
Maybe loss is a gift. It makes me look at today. I am here, and it is good. Life is fragile—that is what seems to make it so important.