Open Letter to Kristi Noem

Dear Kristi,

I haven’t seen you for a while. Our last encounter was last September when the Madison area was dealing with what I believe was called a 500-year flood. I was in the Emergency Operations Center. Calling me by name, you asked how I had been affected. I told you my ice cream was melting because I was without power. You suggested we go eat it.

Of course, since you are now courting the national spotlight, it’s not surprising you no longer have time for the local media. My stories won’t launch your political career to new heights. Considering how you have mishandled the COVID pandemic in South Dakota, I personally hope you discover that in seeking national attention, you’ve made a tragic misstep and you soon find yourself floundering like a fish out of water, struggling for political life the way I struggle for breath as I write this.

Does that sound melodramatic? At least it’s honest. I don’t pull some less than credible study out of my hat and lie not only to the people of South Dakota, but to the whole nation. The science on masks is not mixed. The science on masks is clear. They make a difference. I know your political idol, a man who claims to be a business genius but actually managed to bankrupt a casino, has encouraged folks not to wear masks, but he has not studied infectious diseases and he has not listened to experts in the field.

While you have simply failed to act appropriately, have failed to promote masks and social distancing, he has sabotaged the nation’s response to the pandemic. But, of course, you already know this and don’t care. Standing with him has resulted in the kind of contacts and donations you covet — and need if you are going to launch your career onto the national stage. Jesus said, “Where your treasure is, there also will be your heart,” and it’s clear your heart is not with the people of South Dakota. Your heart is with the political operatives who promise to make your dreams come true.

If this sounds personal, Kristi, good! Because since we last talked, I’ve been battling Stage III cancer. It’s been a rough journey. I had a bad reaction to one of the drugs in the standard chemo cocktail, and had to take a fairly significant doses of dexamethasone to tolerate the alternative used. The side effects were grueling and I had to cope alone because of the pandemic. While we did not get a cure, the chemo knocked back the cancer and my oncologist was pleased. He said the results were better than he had expected when we started.

Now, I am on immunotherapy. Every three weeks, I get an infusion and every nine weeks, I get a CT scan. These days I shudder just thinking about the CT scans because the iodine in the two pints of water I must drink tastes metallic and leaves an aftertaste that lasts for hours, tainting the flavor of anything I eat or drink. But, it’s a necessary evil.

Because I am immunocompromised, I’ve been self-isolating since the first community spread in South Dakota. With two exceptions, I have worn a mask whenever I’ve been indoors with others present. Twice, since resuming in-person interviews, I have forgotten to grab my mask from my purse before entering a building where others were present — twice in six months. I have eaten in a restaurant once — and only because I had scheduled my car for routine maintenance after a CT scan, which means I hadn’t been able to eat for hours and was hungry. Had the outdoors tables not been full, I would have eaten outdoors. I’ve only entered one business on a regular basis — the local grocery store about every two weeks, always wearing a mask.

My point, Kristi, is this — I have been taking precautions. But the people around me have not. When I go to the grocery store, few people are wearing masks. When I cover a county commission meeting, only one or two others in the room is wearing a mask. When I do in-person interviews, few volunteer to wear a mask and some think it’s odd that I do until I explain I have cancer.

Unfortunately, my mask protects others. They are doing nothing to protect me, thanks to your poor leadership. You have managed a public health crisis as though it were a political issue, and failed to provide the kind of leadership we have needed. I’m not saying you should have closed businesses. I am saying you should have advocated wearing masks, limited gatherings, and worked to creatively address the economic ramifications rather than relying on an easy answer — increase tourism.

Because of your poor leadership, I’m sleeping in a recliner so that I can breathe, wearing my warmest pajamas and swaddling myself in blankets even though I have the thermostat set at 75 because I have the chills, and am suffering with a severe headache that OTC medications don’t break. I have a low-grade fever and runny nose. The possibility exists that I have a cold, but the bread I was baking earlier this week burned and I didn’t smell it — not the bread, not the burning.

I won’t know until next week whether I do have COVID. I was tested yesterday. The nurse, dressed as though she were dealing with a hazmat situation, was clearly unhappy with being asked to swab yet another nose. She dealt with it in a perfunctory manner, and my nasal passages are still sore from the experience. I don’t know if she was unnecessarily forceful or if that is the way the test is routinely conducted. I do know that in a year filled with blood draws and medical procedures, that test was memorable.

So, Kristi, the next time you see me, don’t try to pretend we’re friends. You have demonstrated with your callous disregard for human life that I am nothing to you. If I die, you won’t care one iota more than you have cared for the hundreds of families who have already lost loved ones to COVID or the thousands who suffer as I do.

You, Kristi Noem, don’t care about South Dakota or South Dakotans. You, Kristi Noem, care about being in the spotlight and you will sacrifice all of us if that will give you a few more minutes of fame. Shame on you.

Sincerely,

Mary Gales Askren

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Routine and Flexibility

I confess, I’m a creature of habit. I like having a daily routine. I’m not exactly a slave to any routine I establish. It’s just that routine provides structure, a motif I can embellish.

And that is the challenge of living in limbo, in that place between jobs. Apart from sitting behind a computer for hours on end, wading through lists of job openings and completing on-line applications, what am I supposed to do with myself? How am I supposed to know when I get to the end of the day that it was a well-lived day.

That’s important to me, living each day well. Once upon a time, I was focused on the future, on getting an education and starting a professional career. Then, I ran smack dab up against a reality check. I had two children in elementary school, was working full-time and trying to complete a Master’s degree when my gynecologist used the “C” word during a consultation. My menstrual cycle had gone wacky, but I thought a few fancy pills would solve the problem. I wasn’t prepared for anything more serious; I was wrong.

I knew how quickly cancer could decimate not only the person whose body became the battleground between abnormal cell growth and modern medicine, but also that person’s whole family. My mother went into the hospital shortly after I started my senior year in high school and died less than three months later. The experience shattered our family and created in my life a void I tried to fill for nearly a decade with behaviors that were unintentionally self-destructive.

I wasn’t ready to revisit that kind of tragedy. I wasn’t ready to introduce my children to that kind of tragedy. I did not intend to leave my children motherless. Period. Non-negotiable.

For a year, I battled the condition my gynecologist warned was a precursor to cancer. He had recommended surgery, a hysterectomy, but I was a single parent with neither family nor friends to care for my children while I was hospitalized and recovering from surgery. I asked if I had any other options, and he outlined an experimental approach. I opted for that.

Medication intensified hormonal mood swings to the point that I was suicidal during the low points. My gynecologist brought in another specialist — a psychiatrist — to deal with that side effect. More medication was prescribed. Through it all, I had to continue supporting my family and provide my children with a modicum of stability at home. The medication and responsibity and uncertainty tied me in knots. I turned to the counselor who had supported and guided me when I had left an abusive marriage a decade earlier, and she helped me once again to traverse a difficult passage in life.

Eventually, the gynecologist was satisfied with the test results and treatment ceased, but during that long year, I had to decide what was important and focus on that. I didn’t have the energy to deal with more, but I also didn’t want to waste any of the time I had left. I knew that if the therapy I had chosen didn’t work, I could still have a hysterectomy, but I also knew that by the time we recognized the need, the cancer could have spread.

The Master’s degree fell by the wayside. If I died, I did not want my children to remember — if they remembered anything at all — a mother who was too busy to spend time with them.

The dreams of a professional career fell by the wayside, too. Growing up in an abusive home. Losing my mother when I was young. Being sexually violated on more than one occasion. Being so confused about relationships I couldn’t tell the difference between a good man and a jackass. Cancer. It was too much for one person to bear.

So, I shifted the measure of my life. Instead of striving for dreams, I was going too strive to live each day well. Instead of sacrificing the present in order to achieve a future goal, I was going to make choices that resulted in rich days. And while I can’t say I’ve been entirely successful in living within the paradigm I choose for myself — I’m by nature a workaholic — I think on the whole I’ve lived a good life.

I somehow managed not to botch parenting too badly; both of my daughters have grown into young women I can appreciate and admire. I have managed to develop a few skills — like painting and scrapbooking — that have provided me with enormous personal satisfaction. My spiritual life has deepened with each passing year so that now I can live authentically only by living the gospels. And, every so often, God has given me a glimpse of the way in which he has used me to help someone else on their journey, and that has been a special blessing, a gift of grace.

But, now I’m embarking on a new phase in my life. It’s so new, I’m a little disoriented. I have tried to bring some normalcy to it by establishing a few routines. In the morning, I shower, kiss my daughter and grandgirls good-bye, and then spend some time in prayer. After this, I paint for about an hour, sometimes an hour and a half, before sitting down behind the computer by 10 a.m. to find jobs in the area which interest me and for which I’m qualified. Late in the afternoon, after putting in several applications, I put it all away so I can enjoy a little family time with my daughter’s family.

But, sometimes I have to be flexible. Today, I edited an article for a friend before starting my search and my grandgirls arrived home early with my son-in-law. Oddly enough, this variation in the pattern of my life feels good.

Maybe that’s enough right now — that I have brought my penchant for organizing things to the uncertainty of the situation by establishing an arbitrary routine, but that, when necessary, I can let go and flow with the currents of life. Yes, maybe that’s enough. But, that being said, a job would be nice!