(Photo by Donna Kallner)

It was 23 degrees below zero when I got up the other day. These temperatures are hard on houses, hard on vehicles, hard on morale. This cold makes us feel our age, and question choices we have made in life. For example, why did we get a puppy in January of 2014 so we had to potty train in minus-20 temps? Why didn’t we build a garage so our vehicles are easier to start in extreme cold? Why is my recliner the one by the drafty window?

This cold snap came after the glass broke in our bathroom window — probably due to the house settling, since the storm window was intact. We blocked the cold with two layers of foamboard while we waited on glass repair. But for the duration of that wait, the bathroom (a.k.a. the Reading Room) was dark and gloomy.

(Photo by Donna Kallner)

That’s when our local newspaper ran a piece about a marked increase in the number of county residents who die alone in their own homes from various causes and whose deaths go unnoticed for extended periods of time. It began:

No one should die alone, passing from this world unnoticed without at least an inkling of sentiment from another person, or without the implementation of appropriate and official after-death processes. 

The coroner’s report on “unnoticed deaths” sparked discussion by the county board that “stressed the importance for all Langlade County residents to maintain a compassionate etiquette for their neighbors when it comes to keeping the community safe.”

I love that phrase — compassionate etiquette. In a one-bathroom house with two aging residents who multitask, we are guided by a compassionate etiquette that helps govern the interface between the needs of different users. The need of the commode, of course, outweighs the need to read or ponder, which can (theoretically) be done in other parts of the house.

But in the gloom of our foam-plugged Reading Room window, I pondered some other Big Questions: Why did we build this house too far from the road for neighbors to notice if our windows shades aren’t raised or lowered for several days? Why haven’t we put shades on our windows? Why do we live so far from nieces, nephews and cousins who might look in on us occasionally to see if we’re still upright and taking nourishment? Why didn’t we have kids? 

Having children doesn’t necessarily guarantee they will someday notice that one is no longer upright and taking nourishment. Or that someone who thinks you shouldn’t be climbing ladders will come to shovel snow off your roof and replace your smoke alarm batteries. But they might be inclined to suggest alternatives to “we can manage this ourselves” when a household appliance must be replaced during a cold snap.

That’s right — my 20-year-old washing machine decided to die on a night cold enough to jack cider (a northern way of saying “below zero”). Now, I don’t mind carrying wet laundry as far as the clothesline on the porch and can generally delay doing wash until temperatures are on the plus side. But my husband started a load that cold evening. Or he tried to. We decided to just be grateful that when the motor burned out it didn’t require a fire department response in such miserable conditions. 

Replacing the washer turned out to be almost as vexing as trying to replace Bill’s 1994 Chevy S-10 pick-up truck. Last fall, when it seemed like a repair would cost more than the truck was worth, we drove to the city to test drive what he thought might be a suitable replacement. Turns out, I would have needed a step stool to get in and out of any of the options in our price range built since 2015. So we fixed the old truck and are hoping it lasts until supply chain challenges get sorted out and the cost of used vehicles becomes less exorbitant.

In other words, we have a truck, which is handy when you live where people who sell appliances say, “Yeah, that’s out of our delivery area.” For most of our rural lives, we would just head off in the truck, pick up the purchase, get it home, then “wrassle” it into place ourselves. And we could probably do that still, with the help of an appliance dolly and the dual ramps that fit our utility trailer. The trailer is inconveniently parked beyond a snow berm as solid as concrete. But the ramps are accessible. And it’s not too icy (probably) to back the truck close enough to the porch to bridge the gap over the steps with the ramps and roll the washer straight off. What could possibly go wrong?

If we had adult children they might ask, “What if you hurt yourselves?” In lieu of adult children and in light of the recent coroner’s report I suppose we should be asking ourselves other questions. What if we both strain something so badly that we crawl into bed, can’t get up again, and die? Would it be a couple of weeks before anyone came looking for us? Longer?

We’re still at the awkward age where we think of ourselves as the one who should be checking on the neighbors. It’s not as if we don’t know we’re aging: That’s pretty obvious. In our 30s, we still went canoeing if there was open water and the temperature was above 20 degrees. We cross-country skied unless it was colder than 10 below. We downhill skied no matter how cold it was if we spent more than $40 on a lift ticket. We don’t do those things anymore. We don’t even go pick up a new appliance until it warms up a bit.

To be honest, when our time comes either of us would welcome a quick exit, or better yet just not waking up some morning. In the meantime, I expect we’ll continue to act stubbornly independent for our ages and hope we don’t inadvertently become a statistic for the coroner to have to report to the county board.

Because having been part of the volunteer first-responder community for 30+ years, neither of us wants our friends to be called to our address for a “possible 10-79.” In emergency responder code that means dispatch is calling the coroner. It’s hard enough on rural responders to deal with the other emotions that come with the death of someone they know. We certainly wouldn’t want them to feel guilty that we died alone. 

That’s the reality of rural life: A person can be stubbornly independent, but their choices have consequences for other people. What’s the compassionate etiquette for someone who doesn’t think the worst thing in the world is dying alone? It’s not like we all know exactly when our time is up so we can ask a neighbor to drop in after the window of resuscitation has closed but before decomposition sets in. 

I certainly don’t have the answers to these questions. But the bathroom window is fixed now, and the sun is shining in on our meditations again. It’s not at all gloomy now to think of our eventual deaths, since everyone dies some time. 

Still, I hope it’s not soon. Because dirty laundry has piled up since the washer broke. I wouldn’t mind being thought of as a stubborn old cuss, but I’d prefer to be found after catching up on laundry and emptying the garbage.

Donna Kallner writes from rural northern Wisconsin, where “it’s a dry cold.”

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