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Elsie-Ryan-buggy-ride.jpg Jeff Ryan
READY TO RIDE: As she aged Elsie Ryan clung to one thing, she would ride anywhere, and perhaps with anyone.

Columnist shares life-changing moment

Jeff Ryan, long-time FIN blogger, recently lost his mother and tells the unique story of her funeral, and an interesting buggy ride.

Editor's note: Guy No. 2 has been a long-time blogger at Farm Industry News. As we changed from print to digital and more, he went his own way. But he's back for one last hurrah, and provides another insightful read. Enjoy as we have.

It has been kind of a long week that flew by. After almost 91 full years of a great life, my mother passed away on May 15th. She has had multiple myeloma for several years, and dementia got a firm hold on her for a few years, too. Her 91st birthday was two days after she passed away. When we sent out postcards and posted an announcement about her 90th birthday last year, people came through in a big way with around 300 cards for her. She couldn’t get over why so many people responded “to someone like me.”

As her abilities started to decline, Mom was willing to let others do more for her. One of her favorite activities of life has been going for a ride. She was willing to hit the road and go almost anywhere, in almost any vehicle, as long as someone else did the driving. Watching the scenery go by, and commenting on it, was her favorite way to spend time. All I had to do was say that I was going somewhere, and she was already reaching for a door to go along. The end point didn't really matter. It was the ride to get there that she liked the best.

Dad and my two sisters wanted to go look at nursing homes for Mom last fall. They knew it would work best to go as a group, so they could ask questions and get a tour together, rather than individually and then have to report back to each other afterward. The solution was to send Mom with me somewhere and she wouldn't care where everyone else was.

As we drove through the scenic hills of Bluffton, a few miles northeast of of where we live, I decided to do a test of Mom's memory. She knew the names of a couple neighbors who lived nearby, and she also knew we were somewhere close to the farm where she and Dad lived after they were married in the 1950's, but I could tell she wasn't entirely clear on everything.

"Hey, what's my name?" I asked out of the blue as we drove along.

There was along pause. "Well, you know, I'm not sure, but I don't think it really matters," Mom replied.

"So do you just get in the car with strangers?" I wondered. "Who am I exactly?"

There was another, longer pause as she thought about her answer. "Well, you're a good neighbor who takes us a lot of places and does a lot of things for us," she confidently replied.

I had to give her credit. It wasn't an answer that would advance her another round on a game show, but it wasn't a lie that would land her in jail, either.

I smiled as I admired her salesmanship and kept on driving. The ride mattered, not the exact details of it.

A past service

When Dad's brother, Paul, died in in Illinois in 2011, we had a service for him here in Cresco. The short version of the story is that I had to dig the grave for him myself (with the help of relatively new staffer, but longtime friend, Woody.) I also had to actually drive back to the church to get his ashes once everyone was at the cemetery and we discovered the funeral director in that transaction wasn't really a director, so much as a disinterested third party. With me at the wheel and Sherill along as my calming influence / witness, we made a 26-mile round trip in 22 minutes instead of the 46 minutes Mapquest said it would take while the assembled mourners waited to for our return at the cemetery.

On our way out of town with the ashes that day, I really, really wanted to take a right instead of a left at the intersection and go home to get the GuyNo2Mobile. It seemed to me that Paul would love the constraints of time, distance, people and equipment to reach his final resting place all coming together with a flair for the unusual when he rolled into the cemetery in a subtle yellow dune buggy, sooner that people expected.

I told Mom later that day about my desire to switch to the buggy on the return trip, and the way I thought Paul would have enjoyed it.

"Oh, you should have! He would have loved that!" she said with a laugh and tremendous smile. Then, getting serious, she looked at me and asked, "When my time comes, can you do that for me?"

"Sure," I said, wondering where this idea had been resting inside her for so long that it came out so easily.

"Oh, good! I think that would be so much fun...but I hope you don't have to do it very soon!" 

That's when the farmer side of me kicked in to keep things practical. "It will depend on the weather, though. If it's nice like it was today for Paul, no problem. But if it's January and it's snowing like mad …" I said as my hedge to keep myself from making some kind of Arctic trek up and down that huge hill west of the cemetery.

Mom just laughed. We didn't really commit to my obligations in severe weather. If it was good weather, though, I knew what she wanted. She didn't want me leading a caravan of Harley's driven by inked-up Hell's Angels driving like a high-speed pursuit on our way to the cemetery to close the final chapter on her life. She wanted to keep it respectful, but still enjoyable; something that would make people smile and laugh.

Planning the service

Elsies-last-ride.jpg

Jeff Ryan, long-time Farm Industry News columnist, says good-bye to his mother by carrying her ashes in the dune buggy he drives. Another great memory for a classy lady.

We met with the funeral home last Saturday. Covered the usual stuff as we got details figured out for how we wanted things to go. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we were limited to no more than 40 people at the service. It would be at the funeral home instead of the church. The 40-person limit was cast in stone. Chairs would be spaced six feet apart. A soloist would be chosen (Dad took maybe 1.5 seconds for that one.) and the accompanist would be at the soloist's choosing. We also expressed Mom's desire to be cremated. ("I don't want people showing up just to get one last look at me, dead in a box!" she always told me.)

Then we moved to the other details of the day once the service was over. That involved the cemetery. Keep in mind, we did all of this inside the funeral home with all of us wearing masks, thanks to the pandemic.

The assistant funeral director mentioned the gentleman who would dig the grave at Plymouth Rock, and his fee. That's when I decided to lighten the mood and bring up Uncle Paul's experience, and how I had to dig the grave, and how I had to fly back to Cresco to bring the ashes that the other outfit did not.

The mask could barely contain the assistant director's smile, or hold back his laughter as he listened to the story. He was most concerned with my ability to negotiate one particular corner in that race. It was the corner where the funeral home's founder (the father of one of my classmates), Del Lindstrom, went off the road and died while going between Cresco and another funeral in nearby Harmony, Minnesota. Ironically, that other funeral was for his former partner in that funeral home in Harmony.

I made sure he knew that I slowed down for that corner. Del would have been proud of me for my restraint. Del is the reason I slowed down for that one. He was posted at the front door of the church in Riceville in July 1998 for the funeral of my very first brain surgery patient. That man died on the table during his surgery.

It was a beautiful, sunny day as I walked to the door. Del looked at me and said with a wink and a smile, "It's a beautiful day for making hay today, Mr Ryan. I'm glad you're here instead," as he handed me a program, shook my hand and patted me on the back. It wasn't a lot, but Del knew exactly what to say.

It appeared that I didn't have to dig the grave this time, for this funeral home. Once I got home and thought about it, I thought it would be better for me to dig this one, too. I got in touch with the funeral home and asked about that possibility. They gave me the name of the guy who was in charge of the grave digging at Plymouth Rock. He had passed his duties on to his son. Once I got in touch with him, he had just walked in the house after finishing up the digging at the cemetery. I was now off the hook for that part.

The right ride

Next, I moved to the drive. I talked to Dad and my older sister, Roxann, and reminded them on how things went with Paul, and how Mom wished I had turned right instead of left east of Cresco and rolled into the cemetery with Paul in the buggy with me instead of in the car.

They didn't get onboard with my idea enthusiastically. There was mild skepticism, but they realized that Mom loved to go for a ride all the time, and we couldn't do that anymore. It wasn't really an endorsement they gave me. It was more of a non-objection, like a jury coming back with a verdict of "Well, yeah, I guess."

I brought the idea up to the assistant funeral director. He was skeptical, to put it mildly. His main concern was speed. How fast does the buggy go, and will it hold up the normal flow of the procession?

This wouldn't be an Amish funeral with that kind of buggy. I suggested it is street legal and has no problem hitting the speed limit. I didn't have it cleaned up after being stored all winter, so I couldn't offer a test ride for him. He was okay with the buggy as the carrier.

My next call went to someone who details cars and does hair. She was booked solid in the salon, thanks to pandemic restrictions being lifted on salons, so she was out. The other place never returned my text, so I was down to one other option in Decorah. This was Wednesday morning before a Thursday funeral at 1:00. I didn't want to be that guy who calls at the last minute and wants exceptional service. It would also require two more trips to and from Decorah to deliver it and pick it up. May is not the month I normally have a ton for free time on my hands.

I had to clean the buggy myself. I got that done just before dark Wednesday night. There was just enough wind forecast all night that I decided to leave it outside. No matter where I park it in the machine shed, I'd be cleaning bird evidence off it the next morning. Worst case scenario, I could wipe some dew off it Thursday morning if I left it outside.

Thursday morning arrived with mist. That figures. We had a forecast of 72 and sunny two days before, down from 76 and sunny a couple days before that.

I got my other work done, got showered up and dressed appropriately and headed for the funeral home in the mist at 12:40 for a 1:00 funeral service. Thinking ahead, I had slipped several dish towels under the seat covers, so that I could wipe down the seat before climbing in for a long, soggy drive to Plymouth Rock.

Buggy-view-for-funeral.jpg

The view from the buggy for the funeral procession before leaving the funeral home. Jeff Ryan carried his mother, Elsie's, ashes.

We had been instructed that this was a prayer service, and NOT a visitation. No one would be allowed in before 12:45. It was 12:51 as I pulled up to the front door, behind one of my sisters. I hopped out and walked inside. Unfortunately, right as I got out, I realized that I had forgotten my phone at home when I got changed after wiping down the buggy one last time. I also forgot to wear a pandemic face mask.

The phone would normally be no big deal for any other occasion. I really wanted photos from the buggy as we made our way to and from the cemetery, so my phone would be handy. The other thing is a recent medical advancement. I had very unacceptable results with the latest and greatest insulin pump from Medtronic that I had started in April 2018.

That's putting it mildly. I hated that pump. Hated it. I went the high-tech retro route and hacked an old pump I still had from ten years ago. A little device the size of a pump would communicate between my pump, my Continuous Glucose Monitor and my phone to regulate my blood glucose much closer to what an actual pancreas would. They key part of that equation is my phone. No phone, no automation.

My other sister was just pulling in behind me when I walked up and explained my situation. She let me take her car for a quick trip back to my house for my phone. I met Guy No. 1 a few blocks from the funeral home, so I wouldn't have gained anything by calling him for help.

The state of Iowa revised Highway 9 in the early-to-mid-1970's to make it wider. They also increased the radius of the curves in it in anticipation of handling higher vehicle speeds. The curves were set up for normal vehicle speeds of 70 mph. I'm no engineer, but I can attest to the fact that they did their homework. I'm a bit of a scientist, so I did some quick research. My findings were that the number is bigger than 70. A lot bigger. The straightaways are bigger yet.

I got back to the funeral home at 1:02. Just like with Uncle Paul years before, the assembled mourners and the show waited for me.

When the service was finished, the crowd was dismissed to their cars for the procession. I would be following the funeral home van. A few people were surprised as I climbed in the buggy with Mom's ashes in my hands. Many were not.

Many?

Most?

Whatever.

The police car turned its lights on to give us an escort out of town. I would like a police escort in the GuyNo2Mobile everywhere I go from now on. It's so much better than having them behind me with their lights on like usual.

We made our way to Plymouth Rock via the winding, hilly roads. There is a really big, steep hill on the blacktop about a quarter mile from the church. Years ago, before the road was paved, my Grandpa Ryan was in a car with a guy who couldn’t make it up the hill. He made a couple attempts and kept coming up short on power. When they reached their stopping point, Grandpa Ryan hopped out and told the guy, “Try it one more time and I’ll push you the rest of the way when you get this far again. Be sure to give it hell!”

This time, we were going down the hill rather than up. I knew that would be a great photo looking from the east toward the procession. The mist and road dust hadn't done me any favors on my trip that morning, but I did manage to reach over and wipe off my side mirror with my hand. It wasn't perfect, but it was better than the hazy smear it had before.

buggy-mirror-view.jpg

The number of people who could attend the funeral was limited but still made for a long procession.

I did my best to snag a photo as I drove without going off the road and having it turn into some weird, ironic variation of "Weekend At Bernie's" where a guy is killed on his way to a cemetery with a dead person riding shotgun in a bright yellow dune buggy.

"Oh, that's just Jeff on a Thursday. No big deal."

It was windy and cool by the time we got to Plymouth Rock. We had a small crowd of family and friends assembled to pay our last respects to a woman who touched so many lives in so many wonderful ways. The trip there wasn't exactly like the quote, "Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming "Wow! What a Ride!” 

Elsie Ryan was not like that. She was a bit subdued. "Classy" is the term I heard a lot this past week when people described her.

A friend and I had a discussion recently about another friend of mine who had died suddenly, and also one who struggled with mental health. Both of them enjoyed the stories I have shared over the years.

We lead a life while we are here. The memories we leave behind for others are what matter after that.

Elsie Ryan did exactly that. Thank you taking me along for the ride, Mom. I was glad to do the same for you.

Guy No. 2 

Co-pilot No. 1

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