A Blessed Life

The U.P. is full of trees and rock and long stretches of road, dotted with small towns. Towns with names like Norway, Felch, and Negaunee. Towns shaped by hands like Glenn Bjork’s and his father before him, and his father before that. Hands that for 200 years carried ore up from the hard hills surrounding these towns. Hands that quietly went about earning a living for their families. Families living in modest homes like this one, built by hand for Glenn’s bride Millie back in 1951.

These are towns full of amazing lives. The kind of lives that Hospice eases, honors and celebrates. The kind of lives that even after loss go on in the voices of Glenn, and his children – Edward and Carl, Linda and Carrie.

“My honey was an incredible woman…” Glenn begins. In his voice is the pride you hear in the voices of long-married men who love their wives more than they could have ever imagined on their wedding days, fifty or sixty years before.

“She was a great baker, a great cook – just like her mom, who raised a family on her own back in the Depression. Ma Hill’s – that was her restaurant, right down by the old Star Theater. Millie loved to ski, she loved to bowl – she was active, kind of ahead of her time. And she wanted to fly, more than anything. During the early ‘40s, she wrote to Jacqueline Cochran, the director of the WAFS training unit, but that was toward the end of the War when they needed people who already had some flying experience. So Millie took up her cause with Mr. Stanley Long, the manager of the county airport and later base commander out at Sawyer. She went to work for her brother, Wilfred, to save up the money for flying lessons and bartered some babysitting with the Longs. And there she was – the first licensed female pilot around this area. Her name’s on the Wall of Honor out at the airport.” On Glenn’s living room table there’s a photo of Millie in her flight gear. Glenn points to it: “Her friends didn’t even know she’d done all that until just after her funeral, when they came back here and saw the pictures. That was my honey. She was never one to toot her own horn. She was unique. One of a kind.”

“And we kids never knew all that either,” Carrie chimes in. “To us, Mom was…just Mom. She took care of us, made sure we did our homework and chores, took us to Sunday school and chased the spiders from the outhouse when we all went out to camp. She wasn’t the kind of mom who knew where her kids were every minute of the day. She knew where we were every second. And she was an incredible cook. She liked to sing and spent a lot of time up at the church. She liked people – all kinds – and I don’t’ think I ever heard her say anything bad about anyone. She didn’t see the bad. She was maybe a little naïve, if that’s the right word. I remember one Halloween when my friend and I snuck up to church and t.p.-ed her car while she was in at choir. She came home just giggling, she was so tickled that someone would think to play a trick on her. I don’t think she ever knew it was me behind it.”

The shared memories bring smiles to the faces gathered in Glenn’s living room. And a moment to wipe away tears. And then a silence, followed by Glenn’s quiet comment: “We were blessed. So blessed. She had such a beautiful life.”

As she got older, Millie’s health began to fail. “She had arthritis really bad, and diabetes. Her feet used to ache, and it got to the point where part of her leg had to be amputated – that was right after her induction up at the airport. She moved over to Eastwood for rehab. She wasn’t ever supposed to stay there, but she really couldn’t manage at home anymore, and so many of her friends were also living there. She just blossomed.”

Glenn made his way the few short blocks up the road to be with his Millie every day – sometimes twice – for the next five years. She was always smiling, always well turned out, even after her health took its last turn for the worse, when she grew confused. Even on the days when she didn’t always know he was there. “She wasn’t herself then.” Glenn’s voice grows quiet again.

“We called U.P. Hospice when the nurses at Eastwood suggested it. They were all so good, so kind. Jane, our nurse, always explained everything we could expect, every symptom, every stage – especially at the end when Millie slipped into a coma.”

“Hospice gave us time to call all the kids and grandkids so we could gather together for the end,” Carrie explains. “And it was so peaceful when it came, so gentle. It may sound kind of strange, but her passing was beautiful. Peaceful. No tubes, no needles, just Mom. And she was ready… ready to go home.

“There was a calm urgency that day,” Carrie recalls. “We all kind of knew she was going to go. Amy, the hospice social worker, was hurrying behind the scenes, making sure Pastor Marcia and Mom’s choir friends were there. And we each had our own private moments with her that day. We all told her it was okay to go. It was a very spiritual end, all of us gathered around singing the hymns she loved. And her eyes opened right at the end,” Carrie says with a sense of wonder. “I’m sure she was seeing the Lord.” Glenn nods in agreement.

Hospice celebrates lives like Millie Bjork’s. Lives that are measured by wide skies and dreams of flying over the lakes, big and small, the vast forests, and the small towns. Lives counted out in the beats of familiar hymns and the laughter of friends. Lives worth remembering. Lives beautifully lived.