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  Wednesday January 28th, 2015    

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Wilderness of the heart (03/22/2009)
By Janet Lewis Burns
How exactly does one describe wilderness? Is it a region with specific properties, of certain dimensions? Is wilderness a romanticized uninhabited landscape? Can we get there from here?

Something is tugging at the hem of my thoughts. No one can replenish the void of emptiness left by a departed loved one. My mind meanders back to relatives I had been with as they passed from one life to the next. During the first experience I was not yet acquainted with death’s permanence.

Grandma Lewis, a lanky, smiley, white-headed lady, slumped over the picnic table, where she had spread a tablecloth during a family picnic by a lake. I was haunted for months by the image of Gramma laid on the ground wrapped in an Indian blanket and her fingers turning blue. We kids were ushered to Uncle Donnie’s black sedan, our inexperienced emotions floundering to comprehend.

Years later, my mother Meta Lewis would spend her final week on earth in a Rochester hospital room. On our way to the car, she turned to face the home where she and Dad, gone nine years before her, had nurtured and raised four kids. It wrenched my heart as she uttered, “Good-bye house.” Mother had courageously lived several productive years with pancreatic cancer. Her willpower and character overflowed with grace and valor to the end.

That last night, I sat alone at her side and prayed for mercy and relief from her suffering. Noting her frail and helpless form engulfed me with an epiphany: Mother was the one to give me life; I saw her to her death 34 years later. It was only fitting that her firstborn would be there in her final moment.

Uncle Donnie Lewis’ vacant eyes repelled my anxious stare, his gaping mouth gasping for farewell breaths…no affectionate greeting or waning sparks of recognition remained. Aunt Dorothy and I went to the hospital cafeteria to be comforted by hot coffee and mindless conversation. I arrived too late to speak the words that had driven me there.

In October of 2006, my loving, warm-hearted, and charmingly comical Aunt Ellen Wollin left behind many friends and family at the ripe and rollicking age of 79. We had all kept vigil during her declining health throughout the time she spent at Winona Manor. One afternoon I bent down to meet her frightened and bewildered face to assure her that I would always be there for her. Then I ran an errand. Upon my return, Pastor Sobek and my son Mike met me with sad affirmation of the expected. How long could I beat myself up for not being there?

Nearly deaf and mentally challenged, Ellen lived in a wilderness of her own. Those of us who had been welcomed into her world, beyond “no trespassing” warnings, continue to realize how very soulful Aunt Ellen had been, through her journey off the beaten path.

Uncle Hilbert had been ailing for several years before his passing last June at the age of 94. Living on our street in Lewiston, at Speltz Homes, gave us a wonderful opportunity to visit him often, and to be enthralled by his quick wit and pranks, and enlightened by his clear-headed stories of old. Those close to him had drifted in and out of his weakening and deteriorating presence during his last nights and days at the home. Hib shared final words with each one of us before he met his peace.

My dear uncle’s wilderness had held him captive in excessive, self-imposed anxiety to take care of everything, to be the one depended on. In the season of death, destiny carries the weary soul to a promised land, free of burdens and distress.

Wilderness places echo with the spirit of life and death. They whisper, “Let go and let God.” Trust in His guidance…Follow your heart.

Janet Burns has lived in the heart of Winona County all her life. She can be reached at



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