Tuesday, September 7, 2021

The Last Photo


The Last Photo…

Friday Reflections: 

Photo: The last moment in a photo observed with Jeff. I prefer not to refer to this photo as one “taken” but rather one that will always live as a real moment in my life. Door County, Peninsula State Park. November 2019. From left...  Rick Parduhn (BH), Mike Gatenbein (Gyro), Jeff Kjos (Roaster), and Robb Kloss (Dobber). I am proud and honoured to have such Top Shelf men as my friends. 

In the summer of 2018, I had returned home to Wisconsin after not being back since the fall of 2015 when I came back with my youngest son Charlie for a month. So, this trip Charlie and Tara came as well. Tara and I drove to Milwaukee where we spent a night with friends there. Tara was going to stay in Milwaukee for a few days and so I drove out to Madison to spend that time with Jeff and Sara. 

Jeff, of course, had organized a litany of activities, highlighted by a long tramp we did in Devil’s State Park culminating in the final walk through Parfrey’s Glen. A long day, with much of it off trail bashing about and I expected no less. The next day Tara took the bus to Madison and joined us, and other friends, for an evening at the La Fete de Marquette Summer Festival not far from Jeff and Sara’s home. It was a long hot day leading into evening where the headline act was Los Lobos. We had commandeered fine positions in front of the stage, and took turns doing beer runs. It was a fine evening and a lovely few days, as always, being hosted by Jeff and Sara. 

Normally another 2-3 years would pass until I would feel the need and pull to return to Wisconsin again. Although blessed here with 5 plus weeks annual holidays the cost of flights, insurances and arranging such things can be prohibitive. 

Yet sometime very early in 2019 something began quietly yet incessantly nagging at me. Being that my mother was turning 91 that June, and noticing her growing fragility and forgetfulness, I put it down to the need to see her as it might be the last opportunity I might get. Thankfully Tara agreed, and so arrangements were made. I would return home in late October and Tara would join me for a final two weeks.

I’m not quite sure how it all came about but I was contacted by another friend, Rick, to inform me that Jeff had arranged a three day fall camping trip up in Door County and I was told the dates and that Jeff had arranged all the tentage, sleeping bag, food and other essentials I would require so I was not to worry. All that was required was my attendance. 

I was picked up by Jeff and Rick at my brother in law’s cabin outside of Sturgeon Bay and we proceeded into the wilds of Door County where we met another friend, Mike and then drove to and arranged a campsite in the Peninsula State Park. It was virtually empty. 

The weather was cold but in due course we had erected our tents and a shelter in which to cook, store our food and drink, and retreat to in case of inclement weather. We had plenty of firewood and were soon gathered around it with hot home-made pea soup and big chunks of bread. And of course, cold beers and warmer spirits. We spent the evening talking, laughing and even a bit of sombre pondering, a perfect balance of old memories and where our lives had taken us. I kept reflecting that each one of these men, Jeff, Rick, and Mike, had visited New Zealand and each had also spent a week, respectively, with me tramping in the Ruahine. It made this campfire and camaraderie in Door County feel even more unique and special.

The next morning Jeff cooked up a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs, pancakes, and his always ultra-strong camp coffee. We then proceeded on a massive hike pretty much all around the park, on trail and off, along the lake shore, climbing up the cliffs overlooking the lake, and through the forest still with the burnt orange and brown leaves of fall clinging precariously to the trees. At the time my other hip was now bothering me - it was replaced in March of 2020, and once again my friends exhibited the grace of not making a big deal of it but slowing the pace and allowing for much stopping to observe and converse so I could gather myself. I was filled with silent gratitude.

We returned to our camp late in the afternoon, just in time to light the fire and tune in the battery powered radio to the late start Packer game in San Diego. With cold Pabst Blue Ribbon and other beers, salami, cheese, crackers, and chips. It was and felt like real old school stuff. The Packers got thrashed. Not that it mattered. And once again Jeff produced a wonderful meal and cooked up brats and provided potato salad for dinner. Then it began to drizzle so we rushed to tie down our tarpage to accommodate us near the fire. The drizzle turned to sleet; the sleet turned to snow. It was magical. Soon Jeff and I had out our harmonica’s and Rick and Mike found drums. We made up Blues tunes in honour of our tarpage and fire. It may have sounded like a pack of wolves gnawing on live chickens but on the night I thought we were pretty good. Another fantastic day and evening.

The next day we packed up in the morning and with a melancholic sadness broke our camp. Rick, heading back to Milwaukee, Mike taking me back to Green Bay, and Jeff driving along the lake to investigate kayaking a few rivers he had marked on his map. We all stopped together at a diner outside Sturgeon Bay for breakfast. It was crowded and once seated Jeff started explaining how perfect scrambled eggs are done, which he also explained to the waiter. I had to smile at Jeff’s pedantic and stubborn requirements and though sadly the eggs were not to his standard he ate them anyway. 

In the parking lot we said goodbye and I stood with Jeff for a few minutes by his car chatting and making plans for Tara and me to visit Madison for a night or two in a few weeks’ time after she arrived. I gave him a big hug as always and we drove away. 

Living in New Zealand for the last 28 years and only returning home to Wisconsin 6 times in those years, I have come to value and appreciate the moments we spend with the people we most love. Yet even in that awareness I could never have imagined that the prior evening around that fire in the snow of Door County would be the last evening I would ever spend with Jeff. . Or that it would be the last time I would smile watching him order scrambled  eggs. And mostly that the large hug in the parking lot of a diner outside of Sturgeon Bay would be our last. These are very difficult truths to write.

I came back to Wisconsin in 2019 out of what I thought was an urgent calling to visit my mom. Turns out the whole time that it was really to see my friend.

I love you Jeff.


KB said...

We never know until later. I'm glad that you heeded the call to go to Wisconsin. I can only imagine how hard losing Jeff has been for you.

Ruahines said...

Kia Ora KB…appreciate greatly your words. This seems like such an empty place these days. So I am so glad to read words from an old friend. Jeff was a special friend and person. I miss him. I have been moving a lot of memories of him over from FB and expanding on them a bit. Mainly as I am considering a long break from FB and wanted a place Jeff’s Whanau could access these thoughts and memories. I am so glad your amazing place has endured. The world of blogging was once so vibrant and alive. Met a lot of cool peeps. You are one. Thank you my friend. Kia Kaha even hoa!