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  • Antigo Daily Journal

    One last smile: local woman’s granddaughter surprises her with unique performance



    ANTIGO — Joan Eldridge had known her mother Barbara Alsteen’s health was declining for years, but only last week did the fact that she would soon be gone really sink in.

    “Her kidneys are shutting down pretty quick — she had diabetes for a long time. The hospice woman and the doctor actually came into the room and said, ‘If it was my mom, I’d be calling my family.’ It hit home when the doctor said, ‘A weekish,’” Eldridge said. “I thought it would be quite a bit longer, but when he said ‘a weekish,’ I thought, ‘Whoa, that’s not long at all.’ And then you start thinking about all the things you could do before she does go.”

    She wasn’t sure what to do. Her daughter, Trenna Eldridge, though, had an idea, one she felt sure would put a smile on her grandmother’s face.

    Dance outside her window at the Eastview Health and Rehabilitation Center. Wearing a blowup unicorn costume. As a song called “The Kooky Little Coconut” played in the background.

    The idea, Trenna was well aware, was kooky itself. She knew staff at Eastview would have to give her permission before she did it, and half of her felt embarrassed to even ask.

    But something in the back of her mind kept pestering her: somehow she knew it was actually a good idea, something she had to do, even.

    She knew that her grandmother — even at 92, even losing her hearing, her sight, her connection to this world — would love it.

    “She was 81 when she went skydiving in Arizona. She was 80 when she went parasailing. She wanted to do a zipline but we couldn’t find one that was exciting enough for her,” Joan laughed. “We took her to one in Minocqua and she said, ‘Nah, that’s too wimpy.’”

    To listen to Joan and Trenna describe her, this is exactly the type of woman Barbara Alsteen was: adventurous, about as unafraid of life — with all its pain, its beautiful messiness — as she could be.

    She lived in Antigo for most of her days, working at a fly tying shop, a grocery store, a bakery. For five years, out of nowhere, she moved to Arizona, where she worked at a greenhouse. Her first husband, Darrell Frink, died of a massive heart attack at 48.

    To her daughter, though, no individual moment sums her up more than this one.

    “I remember she was tying off flies once,” Joan said. “Trenna was a baby, maybe a few weeks old, and I was holding her. She threw up, and the throwup was coming out of her nose too, and I was panicking. I ran with her screaming, ‘Mom!’ And here’s mom tying flies with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth. She grabs her and starts patting her — oh, and she was on the phone too — but she takes care of her while she’s tying flies, on the phone, smoking a cigarette, and I’m just like, ‘I hope I’m like you when I’m older.’”

    Trenna remembers her eccentricities, like the talking parrot named Beaky she owned, and how, one Easter, an idea that it’s fair to say was of the Trenna variety popped into her head, and she knitted and dressed Beaky up in an Easter bunny outfit and took him down to the Antigo Journal for a picture.

    But of course, there are warmer memories as well, like the times she snuck her many grandkids small change — Trenna saved and saved hers for a teal, heart-patched sweater which she still remembers vividly. She was just what a grandma should be, a woman who made her house her grandkids’ second home, literally.

    “When I was little, all of us cousins would go there to her house,” Trenna said. “There were probably eight of us, and she had this big long dinner table, her and my grandpa, and she would throw blankets over it and make a tent, and we would all sleep under that tent. It was just the best memory.”

    With so little time left with this woman she loved so much, Trenna, now living in the Sheboygan area, decided to drive up Friday to enact her plan to dance outside her grandma’s window, an idea she came up with in part because she happened to be sick.

    “I knew she only had one week left, but I didn’t want to come here sick and put everybody else in that,” she said. “So I was trying to think of how I could come see her, but then not get too close. But then when I talked to the girl from Eastview, she said, ‘Are you on antibiotics?’ I said, ‘Yeah, for about four days now.’ She goes, ‘Do you have a fever?’ I said, ‘No.’ She said, ‘Well, you’re not contagious anymore.’ I was just like, ‘Ok, well, then I’ll still do the unicorn.’”

    Maggie Hupf, a human resources and business office manager at the nursing home, said she and all the staff at Eastview thought it was a great idea.

    “I said, ‘I don’t see why not,’” Hupf said. “The granddaughter was afraid that coming inside would be disruptive for other residents, but the director of nursing said, ‘No, it would be perfect. She can even come inside and visit with everybody.’ I think it was very special and heartwarming in such a sad situation.”

    Trenna wasn’t initially sure about visiting with everybody, but then she arrived and received the request again.

    “The staff member was like, ‘I know you can’t breathe in there, but could you please just go in the dining room.’ I’m like, ‘Sure,’” Trenna laughed.

    Some of the elderly residents who saw the fairytale creature gallop by Friday just stared. Others lit up.

    Walking down the hallway afterwards, zipping down her suit along the way, Trenna was panting, but grinning too. She’d knew she’d made at least a few people’s days.

    But then the hard part came again: seeing her grandma, more than likely for the last time.

    “I’m sad,” she said, and she started crying as she spoke. “Every time I picture her…when her grandkids or kids come in, her eyes just light up when she sees all of us, no matter who we are. She’s something else. I’m definitely sad. I’m going to miss her.”

    But before all those tears, Trenna and her grandmother had their moment.

    If you came past Eastview a little after noon on Friday, you would have seen it too. There was a unicorn prancing around the front lawn. Passersby, one would have to imagine, might have seen it and raised their eyebrows, just as Barbara’s neighbor in the next room over might have as well when Trenna mistakenly began busting moves in front of his window instead. But their understanding of this spectacle was limited, from the outside looking in — for who can fathom what the ending of family members’ lives means to those left behind? Who can understand the things we do for each other at the end?

    A moment later, Trenna found her grandma’s room.

    “Do you know who that is, mom?” Joan asked, as the unicorn danced like it was 1999.

    “Trenna,” answered Barbara, so quickly that it seemed foolish to ever think she wouldn’t have known.

    She was already smiling.

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