A year ago, the coronavirus occupied the news waves, and the world was given instructions to wash our hands and not touch our face. A year ago, I packed up my computers and work and caught one of the last “normal” flights to Arizona to assist in caring for my mother.
I arrived at my sister Susan’s, right as she was returning from the hospital with our mother. She had been experiencing swelling in her feet and legs, which she was managing with drugs and diet, but then she had a fall. She would need to regain her strength before she could consider living independently, which she really wanted to get back to. Three years prior, she had been diagnosed with Pulmonary Fibrosis that had reduced her ability to maintain her vigorous walking regimen. Walking she could still do, but going any distance was in the rearview mirror - we were pretty sure independent living was too. She had just turned 84.
Together, we got her settled in. She was impassive of my presence and mentally something wasn’t right. Her mind, along with her beauty, were always her greatest gifts. Each day her mind deteriorated a bit more. Sometimes she spoke in letters, other times, not at all. Delusions and hallucinations occurred daily. Some were frightening. Some adorable. My sisters' and my strengths are those that involve food, drink, lovely settings, entertainment and overall great hospitality. We can make you feel great! And, if any of the above are a cure for ailments – we’re your girls.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, a Patagonia film crew had just arrived to shoot video for the launch of the “Wild Idea Work Boots”, which are made from our buffalo hides. The family was busy with filming, while keeping an eye on the Wild Idea crew as the news of the virus continued and sales started to rise.
The next week, Jilian implemented additional hand sanitizing stations throughout the plant and office areas. All staff were required to wear masks and our departments could no longer interact. Scanning thermometers were ordered and temperature logs were created. We locked our doors to local traffic and went to curbside pick-up only. Sales continued to increase, which we were grateful for, but so did the COVID tensions.
Back in Arizona, during one of the more “frightening” experiences, we took our mom to the ER. We were desperate for help. Due to restrictions, only one of us could go in. My sister reported that the doctor said that other than being old and confused there was nothing wrong with our mom. When did the brain not become part of the body? If you can fix a broken arm, why not a broken brain? We finally secured an appointment with a neurologist the following week. The doctor did a simple non-invasive Q&A test and had her write down some words. He couldn’t say for sure without more invasive testing, but he thought it was Steroidal Psychosis and prescribed her an anti-psychotic. In need of more support, we reached out to hospice. After making their evaluation, they agreed with the diagnosis. They also reviewed her many medications, reducing or removing some based on her needs. A nurse visited once a week to check on her and to give us updated medication instructions. Slowly, she came back to us. But even as she gained her strength and looked great, we felt an atmospheric energy shift.
My other sisters and family showed up to offer support too, so on one of those occasions, my sister Susan and I slipped off to her restaurant for our first lunch out together. It would also be our last before she closed her doors due to required restaurant shutdowns. She too had been dealing with a lot on the work front; closing a restaurant and not knowing when or if she would open again, all while guiding her staff on what to do next, is no easy task. We let go a bit at lunch that day and polished off a couple bottles of wine – it was a much-needed break. We continued to care for our mother in any way needed, and we made her fabulous food, accompanied with the beverage of her choice. Champagne with breakfast was always a popular request and she looked forward to our 5:00 pm cocktail hour, where she would ask for her usual, a Makers Mark, two ice cubes, with a squeeze of lemon and splash of soda. Salute!
As COVID raged on, now a full-blown pandemic, stay-in-place orders spread across the country. News of outbreaks in meat plants started to make all the headlines, prompting shutdowns of our accepted “fast food” meat supply. Our broken food system was now making its way into many American homes. Some seeing crowded feedlots and confined holding barns for the first time. They saw slaughter facilities and meat plants packed with workers trying to hustle through 30,000 to 60,000 animals per day! PER DAY! PER PLANT! With the plants closing, it cut off the flow from the farmers and ranchers, leaving them stuck with too many animals and no place for them to go. The orders for healthy, sustainable, humanely raised and harvested Wild Idea Buffalo meat continued to pour in.
At the end of my fourth week, my sisters and I gathered at my mother’s apartment and cleaned it out. Although she was so much better, she would not be returning. The next week, I rented a car and headed for home. The drive was beautiful and as I moved over the vacant highways and through the now like ghost towns, I slowly unraveled the bizarreness and beauty of my past four weeks and started preparing for what was ahead. I missed everyone so much. My family, my dog, the Wild Idea crew and the open prairie - where I could recenter and breathe again.
Jilian did an excellent job in leading the way forward and had the support of the whole Wild Idea team, who pulled together and kept things going. The work that needed to get done was getting done – the other work could wait. They were establishing a new normal rhythm, under new normal conditions. They hadn’t shared with me some of the challenges they had experienced as they didn’t want to worry me, but now I could see the COVID stress on their faces.
The stress wasn’t just COVID work related, it was COVID life. In addition to underlined fears of being an essential worker and getting COVID, there was also the closing of schools, online learning or homeschooling had begun and some had no alternative day care available. So, children came to work with parents and had their own designated work and play areas. Schedules were shifted and we accepted it all; everyone helped one another. We would get through this, following all the guidelines – but we would only get through it together.
My mother, still at my sister’s home in Arizona was having good days and then a bad, but for the most part, all was going well. I had made a plan to be back in Arizona for Mother’s Day and stay a bit for another shift of care. The Monday prior, I had just gotten home and my phone rang. When I answered, my sister’s voice cracked. “What, what is it?”, I asked. “Mom’s not doing so well, I just called the nurse to see if she would come.” She put the phone to my mom’s ear, and I tried a little humor, then told her I was on my way. I called Dan and Jilian straightaway and within minutes they were at my side. They helped me load up my car, with the unknowingness of how long I would be. I was on the road within the hour. I planned on driving straight through, with maybe a cat nap at Raton Pass. If all went well, I’d be there by 5:00 pm the next day.
Somewhere on a remote, dark county road in Wyoming, flashing lights appeared. I departed the little roadside soiree with a $100.00 speeding ticket and the echo of the highway patrolmen’s voice, “Rules are rules, regardless.” I pushed on, only slower. Even though the middle of the night traffic was light, driving through Denver with all their endless road construction, leaves one white knuckled. An hour later, I started to relax and as my fingers started to loosen from around the wheel, my phone rang. It was around 2:30 am - I answered without looking. It was my sister Teresa, who also lives in South Dakota, “Mom’s gone,” she said. In that moment, I was concerned for her - she was crying hard and I tried to offer comfort. Once a bit calmed, she asked if I was going to press on, I said I would, followed by, “You should still come too.”
I was disoriented and in shock. I made many driving mistakes as I looked for a place to pull off the road. Now parked, I let the tears fall freely. I made my calls, stating “I didn’t make it,” to those that would then offer me comfort. I walked around a bit, wiped my tears and continued south. I arrived at 5:00 pm to warm embraces. My nephew asked me if I’d like a drink – “Yes!”, I replied. I’ll have a Makers Mark, two ice cubes, with a squeeze of lemon and a splash of soda. On Sunday, Mother’s Day, we celebrated my mother’s life with family. It was lovely, complete with tributes, music, great food and champagne.
I was back home by Tuesday. Things had started to relax a bit at Wild Idea Buffalo Company (WIBC). The country was starting to open back up and groceries were being replenished with “fast food”. Consumers got back into old habits - putting meat in their carts that had disgusted them only a month prior. How quickly we forget. And how can we judge the Wuhan wet markets, while turning a blind eye to our inhumane incarceration of animals here at home? A petri dish waiting to explode.
South Dakota never shut down, except of course for our schools. Go figure. We were even advertised as “open for business”. In addition, we would host the two largest attended events in the country that summer; the presidential fireworks display at Mount Rushmore and the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally, where around 500,000 people from all over the country and world would attend. We held staff meetings in the parking lot, encouraging team members to stay safe and practice CDC guidelines and WIBC policies that we had put in place. At the end of August, South Dakota had 2,644 active cases and 167 deaths. This would quickly change in the following months and we would soon take our place as #1 per capita for COVID.
Before things got too crazy at WIBC, with school closures, online learning and homeschooling, I decided to take a road trip to Yellowstone National Park. I had never been and so wanted to see wolves! I toured around and settled into an area close to the Lamar Valley, which had established wolf packs. A friend met me for a couple of days and in the evening, we ventured out to a restaurant for dinner. This would be my first time in a restaurant since my lunch with my sister. The restaurant was partially open air and we had a table (the only table) between the entrance and the bar. We could see everything. The tables were spread far apart, and with the exception of the local crowd that gathered at the end of the bar, most patrons wore masks. There were two servers, who were also the bartenders and they were really moving; we graciously thanked them for everything they brought to us. The busier the place got, the faster they moved. They were now running. A mask-less man at the door waiting for a table, expressed his feelings of discontent to another guest waiting, “This is bullshit, he said, why can’t we be seated!” How quickly we forget, I thought, as my mouth opened uncontrollably and I set the man straight. Our food and drinks continued to magically appear and disappear. What a treat it was to be served! We left a thank you note along with a very generous tip.
At the end of October, COVID had found its way to WIBC, with four plant workers testing positive within two days. Three of which run in the same social circle. The remaining plant team members were tested and given the choice to work through the next day to wrap things up or to stay in place. They all showed up to finish. We shut down for four days, did a deep clean, and all the buildings were professionally sprayed with a germicide.
We regained our footing in the plant and remained COVID free for one month, before two team members in other departments had family members with the virus. These staff members would be required to quarantine, which meant they would be out for two to three weeks. We had two other team members get the virus before the year was over. Once again, we worked through it, testing those in need and quarantining those exposed. Once again other team members stepped it up and filled in, working even harder. And, once again, we regained our footing.
News of the vaccination lifted spirits, but we encouraged all to not let their guard down. At the end of January, COVID had found its way to our family with Jilian & Colton both testing positive for the virus. They, along with other team members who had the virus, luckily recovered back to 100%.
Back in Arizona, my sister has reopened her restaurant "The Gilbert House". Her first customer story she shared with me was of a man who stated that he would never come back because he didn't get a free birthday dessert. My sister told the man she was sorry to hear that and explained that they were just getting back on their feet and operating at half capacity and they simply couldn't afford to give away free food. Go figure.
And currently on the home front and at WIBC, Dan and Gervase have received their vaccinations and many of our Native American team members have also received their first shot. The rest of us are registered and await our turn as essential workers, which is currently scheduled for some time in April. Go figure that too.
This past year - I've learned a lot; but there are three stand outs, 1) - I can’t stop touching my face, 2) - if you want a free birthday dessert don't go to The Gilbert House, and, 3) – my increased awareness of GRATITUDE.
Gratitude for family, their touch, their support, their love. Gratitude for the brave Wild Idea essential workers that show up every day, to help provide healthy food to Americans across the country! You are so awesome WIBC team, and I am so very proud to know you! Gratitude for the magic of dining out and the joy and pleasure it brings! Gratitude to our courier services who are working hard to maintain to-your-door deliveries. Gratitude for the voice of a friend at the end of a line, that listens with care. Gratitude for the animals that comfort us and provide for us! Gratitude to Patagonia, for doing more good and turning our hides into super cool boots! Gratitude for you, our customers, who trust us and care where their food comes from and how it is raised! (I promise we won’t let you down.) Gratitude for the rivers that flow and remind me that we (all of us) are much like a river itself; always finding a way to move forward - even through the obstacles of pain, stress, loss, homeschooling… And, even though the journey can test us along the way, we can find beauty and appreciation in it.