Bread, Sweat and Tears - Transcript
This is a transcript of a “Terrible, Thanks for Asking” episode entitled, “Bread, Sweat and Tears.” The text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future for accuracy.
Listen to the episode here.
I’m Nora McInerny, and this is “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.”
And this is Hannah Meacock Ross...
Hannah: Hi! I’m recording, because I wanted to get the walk-up sounds.
Unknown: Okay! Excellent.
Hannah: Hey everybody! I’m Hannah.
Unknown: Hi Hannah!
It’s March 2021, and Hannah has driven from her house on the east side of Minneapolis over to North Minneapolis, where there is a little free bread box … a simple little wooden box, on top of a wooden post, with a hinged door and a sign encouraging people to take some free bread. Around the bread box are neighbors ... stopping by to get a loaf of artisan, no-knead bread — a baguette, a couple bagels. Every Saturday, the bread box is refilled with free, homemade bread for the neighborhood. It’s an act of love from Ashley Groshek, who comes from a long line of bread-loving women.
Ashley: So bread has always been a really important thing for me. Growing up, my grandma baked bread, right? And when my grandma baked bread, oh, my. Like, she baked like, 15 loaves at a time, and she would send you home with one. And I was like, “Why don't you love me?” So I grew up baking bread with my grandma. But baking bread-adjacent. Like she would give me some dough and be like, “Here. Don't touch the rest of this.”
This free bread is an act of love, but it’s also an act of grief — a way for Ashley to physically work out the feelings of losing her wife, Corbett.
Corbett and Ashley met in college at the University of Wisconsin - Stout. They met in class — in a class called Interpersonal Effectiveness. And Ashley’s interpersonal effectiveness was STRONG.
Ashley: She said, “Hey, what's that boy's name in front of you?” And I said, “I don't know. What's your name?” And that was our meeting.
Nora: What drew you to Corbett?
Ashley: Oh, God. She had a personality that was bigger than life. Just bigger than life. I mean … her smile, and like, she just lit up a room. And she was cute as hell. So then we started talking and, you can't see me, but she came over to “borrow” — I’m air quoting — my notes and my dictionary a few times that class. So that was my freshman year. We stayed friends. But there was always a thing. There was always a thing between us, and all of our friends were like, “Oh, my God, will you two please just do something, because we can't handle you.” And I would come over, and I would pop into her room and I was like, “Hey, how are you?” She's like, “Hey. What's up?” “I haven't showered yet, but I thought I'd say hi. I'm gonna go take a shower.” And then I'd come back an hour later, still not showered, and still tell her I didn't shower or whatever. And so this dance went on for a year.
It’s a spark right away for Ashley. Corbett is funny and smart and clever and cute, and the two of them do this whole will-they-won't-they kind of dance that most good rom-coms do, where everyone can see these two people are going to end up together. Even the moms.
Ashley: My mom was on campus, so I was like, “Oh, that's Corbett, isn't she cute?” And my mom told me like five or six years later, she was like, “Damn. Shit. She's going to marry that one.” So my mom knew even before I did that there was a thing.
Ashley does have a girlfriend at the time, but the relationship is rocky, and one night, the two of them get in this huge fight, and Ashley walks home to her dorm, totally bummed out … and Corbett just happens to get back to the dorm at the same time.
Ashley: She happened to come home just … drunk as heck and came upstairs and called down to the front desk and was like, “I need Ashley.” So I went upstairs for drunken Corbett in the bathroom. She like, fell off the toilet and crawled across the floor and all sorts of shit.
Nora: College was just such an elegant time for so many of us.
Ashley: Oh, it was just beautiful. Like, we were just graceful. She fell off the toilet. Corbett had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair. So she fell off the toilet, and her bra got caught on her foot pedal, and she was just hanging there, and she was like, “Leave me here. I'll be fine.” [laughs] No. So we detach her and whatever. And we would have hooked up that night. But our friend Julie wouldn't leave us alone, because she was like, “You have a girlfriend and she's drunk.” And I was like, “Fair.”
But Corbett sobers up the next day, and Ashley and her girlfriend eventually break up. And then … the two of them are back on campus after summer break.
Ashley: I called Corbett, and I was like, “Hey, did you hear that Lindsay and I broke up?” And she was like, “No!” I was like, “Yeah. Um. So you know last year when we had that thing?” She's like, “Yeah.” I was like, “Are you still interested?” She was like, “No.” I was like, “Can I come over anyway?” She was like, “Sure.”
Corbett seems like she isn’t interested … but when Ashley shows up, she can tell Corbett has gotten ready for the visit.
Nora: So she wasn't interested in you, but she still got ready to see you.
Ashley: Absolutely she was still interested in me. But she liked to pretend that she wasn't. So I show up and three hours later, one of us is naked. [laughs] And we were together ever since. So I stayed until I think 3 a.m. and went back to my place. And then the next morning, I came back with breakfast, and I knocked on her door and I was like, “Hey, I brought breakfast.” And she said, “I'm not ready!” And I was like, “All right, cool.” And I ate her breakfast sandwich and my breakfast sandwich, and I came back later with lunch. Yeah. And then the rest is history.
I mean we just fell stupid in love right away and were just inseparable from the beginning. From the moment we, like, decided we were a thing, we were a thing. And so I was just 20. Like I had just turned 20. And so this is like August 30th or so. And then like around September 6th, I was like, “Hey, we want to make this official.” Like, we're doing this thing, we're hooking up. We're really enjoying our time together. We've been flirting for a year. Like I would, boy flirt with her. I would like, pull her hair and, like, put highlighters in her boobs. Like, I had no game. I once ate seasoned French fries with ketchup. And she told me I had ketchup breath. And I brushed my teeth, I'm not even kidding, like 15 times. She's like, “You still have ketchup breath.” And to this day, almost 20 years later, I still don't eat ketchup with seasoned fries.
They’re in love, and 10 years after graduating from college they do what a lot of people in love end up doing. They get married. Sort of. They have a big, huge wedding celebration without filing any paperwork. One, because same-sex marriage wasn’t legally recognized at the time. And two, because a part of being in this interabled relationship is navigating the benefits system in the U.S., which is … precarious.
Ashley: So Corbett had cerebral palsy, and because of that, she qualified for medical assistance under 1619(b), if we really want to get into the technicalities of it. Which means you're disabled before the age of 21, I think. Which meant that she qualified for MA up until she made a certain amount of money. And so if we had gotten legally married, she would have lost her MA benefits, and then she would have had to rely on, like, regular insurance benefits through work. And wheelchairs are expensive.
So, no marriage for now. But they did have one helluva wedding.
Ashley: I was like, bridezilla. Oh, my. I was like, “What do we want to do?” She's like, “I don't care. I just want a pretty dress that's pink, and I don't care about anything else.” And I was like, “We need to do this and we need to do this and we need to do this.” I grew up Catholic. And so, like, I wanted a big, old Polish wedding. So I was like, “We have to have this and that,” and like, just all of this stuff. And she could have cared less. And I was just demanding, and she just didn't care. [laughs] I made my own … I hand made all 200 invitations, and the boutonnieres, and the table flower things. [laughs]
Nora: Wow, wow, wow, wow. Yes, I would never do that. I was more of a Corbett, so both times I was like, “Oh my God, who cares?”
Ashley cares, and even though Corbett mostly just cared about having a pink, puffy dress, she cares, too. About having their partnership recognized and celebrated. Because a lot of times, that relationship feels invisible.
Ashley: I was rarely read as a partner. I was always read as, “Oh, are you guys sisters? Is this your care worker?” We would go to restaurants and people would be like, “And what does she want?” And I’d hold up the menu and was like, “I don't know. Why don't you ask her? She does have a master's degree.” So, yeah, it really impacted a lot of things. Also, I did more things as a couple than I think other relationships have. Like, I’d put on her shoes every morning, and I hooked her bra. When we would travel, like, I would have to help her a lot more because not a lot of places are accessible. So I would help her transfer and all sorts of things. We had this running joke. If she needed help with something, she was like, “I need you not to be Ashley right now.” And I would go, “Who do you want me to be?” [laughs] And that was her way of making it OK to ask for help.
Nora: I don't know, like being being a partner to somebody is not just like, being able to have sex with them and like, I don't know, like, split household duties. But it is, you know, eventually for everyone, by the way, you're snapping someone's bra, you're wiping someone's butt. You're helping each other.
Ashley: Absolutely. And if you're not comfortable knowing that you can wipe somebody’s butt someday, then maybe you should think about who you're with.
We’ll be right back, while you think about that sentence.
We’re back. It’s February 2020, and it’s been about nine years since Corbett and Ashley’s wedding ceremony. And they’re planning to get married LEGALLY in a month. Corbett has insurance through her work now, same-sex marraige is legal. They can do whatever they want! And what they want is a legal marriage.
Ashley: So Valentine's Day, we got a marriage license, went out to dinner and saw Brandi Carlile.
Nora: Okay, let's slow down. Brandi Carlile is the greatest Valentine's date of all time.
Ashley: Absolutely. Yeah. I've seen her probably about 20 times. I watched her livestream concert last night at the Ryman and I sobbed the entire time.
Nora: I have goosebumps. What is the song of hers that does that to you?
Ashley: “Turpentine” will make me just melt. And I just hear Corbett singing off-pitch and off-tone and off-tempo, trying to yodel with Brandi. Yeah.
They have the marriage license. They have Brandi Carlile. They have each other.
Ashley: February 2020, the world ended for me. It started with a cold. We both got sick. She didn't have a fever, but she was hot, very warm. She ran hot anyway. And went through and like, couldn't breathe, couldn't catch her breath. Like, her lungs were always just like really, really rough. And she used an entire albuterol inhaler in one week. A brand new inhaler. Two hundred puffs. One week. I had a headache that wouldn't go away, and I was prone to migraines. I thought maybe it was just a migraine.
It’s a stressful week for Corbett in a lot of ways. She’s not feeling great, and she is also really busy with work and family stuff.
Ashley: That Wednesday, she wasn't feeling well. And that Thursday she calls me in the middle of the day and she's like, “I think I'm having a heart attack.” And I was like, “Fuck, if you're having a heart attack!” Like, “I'm the one with high blood pressure, you're fine. Like what? No.” So I pick her up, and we drive home. And we call the nurse line, and we kind of go through the symptoms, and we pull into the driveway, and the nurse is like, “Nope, pretty sure she's having a heart attack. You need to get to the hospital.”
The hospital is in-network, well-regarded … and they tell Ashley and Corbett that Corbett has had a stress-induced heart attack.
Ashley: They didn't run all of the tests that they could have run for her, because she was wiggly. And in order for her to have an MRI, they had to sedate her. And we were there Thursday, Friday, Saturday. They were supposed to run the MRI Friday, and we waited all day for them, and they kept making up all these excuses why they couldn't. So when Saturday morning came around, and they said, “You need to stay till Monday, because we're going to do the MRI Monday.” She was like, “What am I going to do today and tomorrow?” They’re like, “You're just going to sit here.” And she was like, “Why can't we run the MRI today?”
Ashley just wants to get Corbett home, where she can be comfortable.
Ashley: And she was under more stress in the hospital than she would have been at home because the bed wasn't right, she couldn’t pee. You know, whatever.
Nora: I would assume a hospital is more accessible than the average place, so tell me about some of the things that people who have not had to think about that would not realize is inaccessible.
Ashley: Well, first off, those beds are not comfortable. And so, like, she couldn't get into a position that was comfortable. There was no way for her to transfer independently from bed to her chair. She was allowed to be in her wheelchair, which was nice. You know, when you have a disability, right, and you set up your bathroom for yourself, like, you set it up in a way that's going to be the most effective for you and your independence, so that you don't have to burn energy trying to pee. Right? So the bathroom was backwards. The bars were in positions that were illogical, and there wasn't enough room for her to turn around to put her chair where she needed to do. And then like there's no way she can wipe her own ass in the hospital. So there I am, you know, wiping her ass, as one would do for your partner in that sort of situation. It's accessible in the fact that bars exist, that you can use them if you're ambulatory, because they're simple. But like … if you are in a wheelchair and you need assistance, like, there's just not enough space.
So they leave the hospital that Saturday, without the MRI. They go back home to their dog. They’re told to come back in two weeks for follow-up tests, but no MRI is ever scheduled. And it feels like things are going to be okay … okay in a very Corbett kinda way.
Ashley: My wife could get herself and her dog in so much trouble all the time. Like, she'll come home from a walk, “Jerry and I got wrapped around a tree, and I had to wait for 45 minutes for someone to come, like, untangle us.” So I'm at work, and it's like the Tuesday after the heart attack. So it's the first day I leave them home alone. And she texts me, and she goes, “You're going to hate me.” And I was like, why? She's like, “Well, Jerry and I went to the river.” So it's February 25th, so it's mud season in Minnesota. And they went down to the Mississippi, and she let him go through whatever puddle he wanted. And my golden retriever was so covered in mud that the two of them had to stay in the kitchen for three hours until I got home. And not only did I have to bathe my dog, but I had to hose off her wheels and mop the kitchen. And they were in their happy place. Like, they could have cared less. She was so proud of that mud pile that she made in my kitchen. Our friend brought her baby over, because Corbett loved babies, just loved them. And so she got to hold the baby, she got to take her dog to the river and covered in mud. She had a great final week of life. Just a great one. Yeah. That … that brings me peace then and still now.
She had a great final week of life. Because this is the last week of Corbett’s life, and neither of them know it yet.
Ashley: It's Saturday, and her mom comes over for lunch. Her mom loved to cut onions on my wood cutting board. And this is kind of relevant. So I'm just going to put that out there: that I came home from work, and there was Nancy, cutting onions on my wood cutting board. And I was like, don't be an asshole today, Ashley. Just let it go. Just let it go. So I took a deep breath and let it go. And we hung out, and we had a great day. It was pretty chill. And then she was sitting on the sofa at 10:00 at night, and my sister-in-law calls, who’s a nurse. [vibrating phone sounds] And Corey was really upset that Corbett never had the tests run and was just really worried about, like, what was going to happen next. And she's like, “I'm just really worried, like, what happens if it happens again?” And I was like, “It's not going to happen again. Like, they said, it was a freak accident. She had been under some stress with work. Like, it was just a stress thing, like she's chill now. Everything's cool.” And I look, and I watch her start to collapse. And she's sitting on the sofa, and she's just like, starting to collapse. And she said, “I think it's happening again.” And I was like, “Fuck, it's not happening again. You're just anxious because we're talking about it.”
And, you know, she's like, “Oh, my God, I'm going to be sick.” So she like, throws up, and I went into asshole mode. And it was not my finest moment at all. And when I get scared, I kind of turn into a dick. And while I was packing a go bag, I was like, “Are you sure this is what it is? Are you sure it's not anxiety? What the fuck?” And I was like, “You need to tell me if we need to go now.” And was swearing and yelling and packing a bag as she's puking and shitting and dying on the toilet. Not my finest moment.
Managed to get her off the toilet and back in her chair and get her dressed. And I drop her off at the emergency room, and like a fucking rock star, like the first heart attack, she took herself in and checked herself in while I parked the car.
And so I parked the car. She gets herself in, and I come running in, and we get to the room. And at that point, she can't even explain to them how to get out of her own chair. Her body was shutting down at that point. Her heart was giving out. And so I have her put her arms around me, and we're just going to do a standing pivot transfer, and her whole body gives out. And I almost throw her across the room and like, barely get her on the bed and the orderlies catch her, and I go flying and I'm like, “What the fuck is all of this?” Right? We get her in bed. And, you know, I somehow managed to take out her earrings and take off her bracelets and take off her necklace. And they're like, “We need to cut off her pants.” I was like, “Cut off her pants!” She's unresponsive. They can't get any sort of like, readable EKG. They've given her a million meds. They don't know what her heart is doing because it's not acting like a normal heart attack. Right? Every EKG was different. She wasn't responding to any meds. She couldn't breathe. At one point, she was on like, an oxygen thing, like a Bane mask over her face.
And they said, “Well, we're going to take her back to the cath lab,” and, you know, I ... I kissed her on the forehead and I tell her I love her, you know? And I say, “Come back to me.” And her last words are, “I'm dying, I'm dying. Don't let me die.”
They wheel her away. And here I am left with a backpack, a unicorn pillow and a fucking power wheelchair. Like, what do I do? Well, they sent me to the wrong waiting room, and so I wait there for a little while and try and find out where she is and got yelled at by a nurse for being somewhere I shouldn't and started sobbing. And so this is probably around midnight on Leap Day. Of course, the last day she's alive on Leap Day, because this woman has to go out with style. And they finally figure out where she is, and the dude at the front desk informed me that they're having a hard time getting her stable and that they've had to shock her over 20 times and that they had to do aggressive CPR. And so this is probably 4:00 in the morning at this point. And they said, “She's stable, but we can't move her from the cath lab,” and we might have to put her on total life support. One of her legs was really tight, because the joy of CP. Right? Your muscles are all jacked up. And they couldn't get blood flow to her tight leg, and they couldn't get her stable.
And at that point, I start calling people. Her mom got there, her brother got there probably around 5:00 a.m., and that's when we found out that she had had a catastrophic heart attack and was going to be on total life support and had a one in four chance of survival. And I ran out of the room and sobbed.
And then I was finally able to see her at about 9:30 in the morning, and she had three tubes in her that were like, oh my God, the size of quarters, I would say. So she was on a heart and lung bypass machine, so they were circulating her blood, and on two lung machines. And every time the doctor came back, it was like, “We don't know what happened.” They were trying to be optimistically hopeful, you know. They’re like, “One in four she could pull through.”
Nora: Someone’s got to be the one. It could be her.
Ashley: And I was like, “Fuck that. Oh, my God. If she pulls through and is more disabled than she was before, this woman is going to be so murdery that like, we should just unplug her now, because I don't want to deal with whatever wakes up.” [laughs] Because she told me, she always said, “If I am more disabled than I am now, or if my brain is not my brain, I don't want to do this.” Bless those nurses. I looked at the nurse and I said, “I need you to be honest with me.” And I said, “Have you ever seen anyone recover who has been this bad? Like, have you ever seen anyone make it out of this who has been on this much life support?” And she was like, “People are gonna …” I was like, “Don't fuck with me.” And she was like, “No, I've never seen anyone come out of this.” And I was like, “Thank you. That's what I needed to hear.” Because I knew. I knew that she wasn't coming back.
And then I went home for a couple hours and slept, and while I was gone ... I'm an exaggerator, but I'm not even kidding, there were about 40 people that showed up to see her. Like, all of our friends, all of her work friends, family. They just kept trickling through. And the cardiac ICU people got so annoyed with us that they banned it to only family, immediate family that could go see her. And so even in that moment, I was able to have peace that she wasn't alone while I went to go take care of myself and to try and get some sleep.
So the 29th was the heart attack. So around 11 pm on the 1st, I overhear the nurse saying that one of her pupils wasn't responding. And my sister-in-law, who's the nurse, was in there, and I was like, “Corey…” and she was like, “Ashley…” I was like, “Corey…” She's like, “That's not good.” I was like, “That's not good.” And I look at the nurse and I was like, “What does that mean?” And she's like, “Oh, we'll wait for neurology in the morning.” And I went, “No you won’t. Again, if her brain is not her brain, right? We're not doing this. I made her a promise that if anything happened that she wouldn't be herself, we weren't going to do this.” So I demanded a CT scan. And so at 11 pm ... I have never seen people pack a person up so quickly in my life. And they pack her up, and they send her off to the CT. And it's about an hour and a half later, and they bring her back, and I was like, can I see her? And the doctor looks at me and turns on the light to the conference room.
And I went, “It's bad, isn't it?” She said, “It's bad.”
And so I call her brother, because her mom and brother left when I left at like 2:00 in the afternoon and didn't come back. And the nurse says that she has had a catastrophic stroke on the left side of her brain, and the right side of her brain has had several mini strokes, and essentially at this point she was just brain stem functioning.
And, you know, when I came back at like 4:00 in the afternoon, I knew. When I kissed her and touched her, I knew that she wasn't coming back to me.
I knew that she was gone. Even at 4:00, and it wasn't until 11:00 that we had, like, we had that confirmation. So it's the 2nd. It's like 1:30 in the morning. We find out about the strokes. I tell her brother, “You get your mom out here,” so I had a good hour and a half to say goodbye to her. At one point I was like, “All right, can we turn the machines off?” And my dad told me I had to wait for her family. And I was like fine, cuz like, I made that promise. Right? Like, “I would never leave you in this situation.” So I said my goodbyes. I was ridiculous. At one point my dad told me that she was with God now, and I told him to fuck his God. My mom lost her twin sister when she was 18, and I asked my mom how she survived. And she said, “Well, it made me the person I am today.” And I said, “Great, I'm fucked.” [laughs] And then I looked at Corbett and I said, “I wish that we had had sex one more time because, God damn it, you deserved a 10.” And the nurse started laughing and said, “I've never heard anyone say that to their partner,” and I was like, well, you know, we had a good sex life.
And her family came, and I gave them their space. And then at 3 a.m. we decided that we were going to turn off the machines And so we gathered everyone around, and it was my brother and his wife, my dad and his girlfriend, my mom, my best friend Jenny, Corbett’s mom and brother, and then my random friend Whit, who showed up, who had no idea what was going on but just like ... felt the calling and was there. So Whit shows up, and we're all sitting there, and … back to Brandi Carlile, right? She loved The High Women, which was the country supergroup that Brandi formed. And I don't know if you've heard the song “Crowded Table,” but that's how we lived our life, right? Like we have this big house in North Minneapolis and a big old table. And our whole purpose was to have people around. Like, we've had … people lived with us for months at a time. We threw lavish, big parties for all of our friends. Like, we had a house for everyone. So I start giving this speech about how amazing of a human she was. And I'm about to play the “Crowded Table” song. And instead, I play the “I Will Be Your Lucky Penny” do da doo da doo song.
Okay I don’t know if we can play this song, but it’s the opposite of the song that Ashley wanted to play. It’s a breakup song. A breakup anthem! A breakup anthem! The kind of song you belt out in the car. I mean, the lyrics are ... and I want to sing it, but I can’t sing. I can’t sing. The lyrics are, “LOOSE CHAAAANGE! I don’t mean a thing to you! Loose change! You don't see my value! I’m gonna be somebody’s lucky penny someday, ‘stead of rolling round in your pocket like loose change.” NOT the song Ashley wants to play.
But Ashley gets the right song playing, and then she says goodbye to Corbett.
Ashley: And we tell stories of who she was as a person and just talk about how she has impacted our lives and, you know, we say goodbye. I just couldn't let go of her hand.
And then finally we left. Her brother pushed her empty wheelchair out of the hospital, you know? And the guy at the intake for the ER was like, “How is she doing?” And I was like, “Well, she's fucking dead.” I kept going, and he was like, “Oh shit.” And we pack her chair in the car, and I'm sitting in the back seat and my dad's driving. And I'm just like, he's not going home the way I want him to go home, right? And I just get pissed. I tell him to pull over, and I kick him out of the front seat of the car, and I drive home. And I'm driving out of Minneapolis past the Twins stadium just to get onto 94. And all I could think about was, “Who is going to go to the State Fair with me now?” Because I am obsessed with the State Fair. Like, I would drag that woman at least five times. And I'm in need of a double knee replacement and have incredible arthritis in my knees. And so for the fair, I rent a scooter, and I just visualized myself at the top of the hill by the Haunted House, looking down at the crowd of people, and it's just me by myself in a scooter, you know, alone at the State Fair. And I was like, of all the things to think about moving forward, it's this. What the hell?
We get home and I walk in the house, and I see that goddamn cutting board. And I was like, I can't believe I made such a big deal about onions on a cutting board.
And I went to bed. And that was my day.
We’ll be right back.
We’re back. Ashley is now a widow.
Ashley: My army was amazing. I was not left alone for two weeks. At one point I was like, “I need to try and be alone for a little while.” And I made it an hour. [laughs] And then I called somebody. It was also the week of the primaries, and my dad really was like, trying to figure out when to leave, because he was annoying me. He tried to be helpful by cleaning, and he took everything— we had separate bathrooms, because we had a three-bathroom house. Like, why share a bathroom? Her bathroom, by the way, was hot pink with glitter, full of mermaids and seashells and unicorns. And I look, and my dad has taken everything off the counter from her bathroom and put it on the floor to clean the bathroom. And I almost murdered him.
And so I was like, “You need to go home. I just, I need some space.” And I said, “I'm going to go vote. You can be gone when I get back,” because it's the primaries. And so I walk to vote, and the woman is super chipper. So this is like, three days after she dies. Right? So the primaries. And the woman goes, “And how are you?!” And in my brain, I'm going, “Don't be weird. Don't be weird. Don't be weird. Don't be weird.” I go, “It's complicated.” She was like, “OK, go vote.” [laughs] Then I came back, and he was gone and just, you know, I just continued to be surrounded by love. And then two weeks later, the world ended, and we were all on a lockdown for COVID, and I was alone.
Alone. Not just lonely but alone. March 2020 in Minnesota was cold and gray and miserable, even without the recent loss of a wife. Even without a pandemic, spring just didn’t want to show up.
And around this time — this is early quarantine — shelves were being wiped out. The laziest of Americans were all of the sudden trying to become survivalists, or maybe just trying to occupy our time. And people got REALLY into baking bread.
Ashley: I got like, a wild hair up my ass and called my mom. And I was like, “So I got Betty Crocker circa 1974. Which bread recipe is Grandma's?” And so I read the two recipes and she was like, “I think it's this one,” which by the way was the wrong recipe. So I'm like, OK. I'm going to make bread. So I make a loaf of bread, and it turns out like a brick. It was terrible. It was so dense. I don't even know what I did wrong.
So I tried it again, and the act of hand-kneading bread was so grounding to me, and so I was like, “OK, let's try this again.” And so, like, I would make bread like on a Monday, and I would eat the bread all week. And then I would run out of bread, and I would make it again. And every time I would make it, I would feel a sense of peace.
And so, I'm a marriage and family therapist by trade. Right? And so I took a month off and went back to work in April. And I was just having a really hard time staying focused in session. And I found that the days that I would make bread in the morning before I started therapy, like, the more I cared. The easier it was to do my job. And so it was like, all right, let's do this.
So I started making bread a little bit more often and was just like, finding it really, really ... peaceful. And I was good at it! Like, I made good bread. And so I would give it away, I’m like this is great. And so then I was like, “Oh, what other breads can I make besides white bread?” And so I tried a baguette. And then I bought a cookbook and tried some other breads. I tried challah bread. That was OK. I tried ciabatta like, three times and messed it up every time. So we're done with ciabatta. Just finding this peace and being able to have this full-body sensory experience with making bread really made it so that I could continue to move on — like, move forward, not move on. We don't move on. We just continue moving in a direction of, “I hope.” And and so I started doing this a couple of times a week, like, “Oh, the neighbors haven't had bread in a while.” Right? And so, I turned 39 at the end of August, right? The State Fair’s cancelled. My summer is ruined. Whatever.
Nora: You don’t have to go to the State Fair alone. No one's going to the State Fair.
Ashley: Right. So I didn't have to deal with that. It was great. My friend Sarah came up from Austin. She didn't want to spend her 40th birthday alone, and she didn't want me to be alone for my birthday. I’m still making the wrong bread recipe by the way, at this point. Still making the wrong crusty bread. But you know, whatever, we're experimenting and it's fun. And Sarah's like, “This stuff is amazing.” It's like, cool. This is fun. So we're making bread. For my birthday, we went to bring down the river in Hastings, and we took with us a six-pack of beer, some sparkling water, and a loaf of bread [laughing]. That’s what we went tubing down the river with. My friend Cara stuck it in her boob, and it was great. And we were just like, tubing down the river, drinking beer and eating bread. And it was like, the most normal I had felt since becoming a widow, you know?
Nora: Why do the daily bread?
Ashley: Because I realized how much it helped me focus, and how much it grounded me. And like, it became a meditation. Like, I would turn on music, and I would hand-knead for 10 minutes. When you make bread, you can let your Kitchen Aid do the work for you, and you can just, like, plug it in, turn it on and forget it for like eight minutes. Right? But I got in it. Like, my hands were in it, and I would notice how it would just calm me down. And on the days I didn't make bread, I was less focused, I was less engaged, I had less bandwidth. You know? My widow brain got real foggy on the days I didn't bake. And on the days I did, I was more present in my body and more present in my work and more present with my friends. So I said, “Let's just do it. Let's just see what happens every day.”
What happens is she has more bread than her friends and family can eat, and the little bread box is born. It’s not a crowded table — it’s not safe to gather like that yet — but it’s a way of creating that community and connection that were such a big part of Ashley and Corbett’s relationship.
Ashley: And so now, I bake bread every day. And I have a little box in front of my house, and I fill it on Saturdays, and people come and get bread. It's baguettes. It's this overnight bread that has like, this pink Himalayan sea salt on top. Apparently I make an incredible bagel. I've done cheddar bread. I tried bialys like, four times, and again, they … we’re done with bialys. They didn't work. Don't ask me to make them. I won’t. [laughs] Pretzel bites. I make a mean, mean cheddar bay biscuit. And in all of this, my grandma dies in September, and I get her actual bread recipe. And that just ups my white bread game to like, nobody's business. And I find out that my grandma only used Dakota Maid flour, and she only used Fleischmann's yeast. And so I evolved then to Dakota Maid flour and Fleischmann's yeast. And I'm telling you, it makes a difference. Quality flour and quality yeast. I sound like an infomercial.
Nora: “Let me tell you the secret to perfect bread. It lies in these two products.” So how far into this experiment are you when you meet your new person?
Ashley: Yeah. So I start doing it in August. And in September, you know, we got the widow group, right? We got our widow friends. And all my widows, all my COVID widows, are getting lonely. And they're like, they're doing the dating thing. They're doing the Tinder. And I was like, “I'm fucking horny as hell and I want to at least make out with somebody.” So I download Her, the lesbian dating app, and I started chatting with Lauren, and I was like, “Hey, I have dogs and I make bread. What's up?” [laughs] You know, because, like, how do you have game after 19 years of being with somebody? I don't know how to date. And I didn't have game at the beginning. And so I was like, I will use bread.
So it was just a lot of chatting around bread. And Lauren and I connected instantly on this really deep level. And so we chatted for like a month or so, and I freaked the fuck out in, like mid-October and was like, OK, I haven't met her, but like, I want to text her in the morning, and I want to text her all day. Like, no, Ashley, you can't text during therapy sessions. You're working. Put your phone away. And then I find out that her dad has cancer. And I was like, “Whoa. Hmmm. Hi, yeah no. Fresh widow. Like, not going down that adventure again. Not going to deal with another death in my life.” I told Lauren in October that I wasn't ready. I wasn't emotionally available, and I didn't want to hurt her. Because we had formed this amazing connection. And so she was like, “OK, well, can I still text you? Can we still be friends?” So I was like, “Yeah, sure, totally.”
And they are friends. They text. They keep in touch. And like with Corbett, underneath that friendship, there’s a spark of something more.
Ashley: Lauren texts and says, “I'm having a really bad day. My dad's in the hospital. I can't see him because it's COVID, and I'm just sad.” And I was like, “I have bread and puppies. You want to hang out?” She's like, “Yeah.” I grab some loaves of bread out of the freezer — or some fresh one, probably — and throw my dogs in the van and drive up to St. Paul, and I hang out with Lauren. And that's the first time we met in person, right? But we're both masked, right? I've only ever seen her in pictures. And you can look cute in a picture, right?
Nora: And you can look cute with the mask on, too. It's like, really? Yeah.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. So this dance goes on for like a month, where I would bring her bread like two or three times a week and we would just talk. And she would make me quiche. And so we do this through much of November — end of October, through much of November. And it starts to get cold. No one wants to sit outside in the cold anymore. And my friend Mary has a kiln, and Lauren's an artist, and I have this big thing of clay, and I'm like, “Hey, I really want to play with this clay, but I'm incredibly overwhelmed about how to do this.” And Lauren's like, “I'll help you.” And I was like, “OK!”
So she comes over. We're still masked, right? Because it's still a pandemic. And we play with the clay, and we watch a movie. And at this point, like, I am catching feels, right? We're texting all day. I'm hanging out outside her house. Right? But we're still I'm quoting, air-quoting, “friends.” Right. And we watch the movie, and we decide to eat some leftovers because I was like, “I made tortillas. Shall we have tacos?” And she takes her mask off, and I was like, “Damn it, she's cute!” Like without the mask and not in a photo. And she goes home, and we text. And two days later she was like, “Hey. I don't think we can just be friends.” And I was like, “I don't think we can just be friends either.”
They can’t be friends. So what can they be? One day, after a workout, Ashley stops by Lauren’s house.
Ashley: So I show up at her house, and I get out of the car, and I just grab her and we like, make out. And my whole body explodes with like, [exploding sound] “What the fuck?” And I go home, and I call my friends, and I call my widows. I was like, “Oh my God, you guys, I just made out with Lauren!” The next morning we text and we’re like, “What the fuck was that?” And I was like, “I don't know, what is this? Could I see you tonight?” And I go over to our house and we, like, literally make out for three hours. And then she comes over that Friday, and we go on our first pandemic date, which was to Hyvee, because she loves to grocery shop and I love a good errand. [laughs]
Nora: And that's a good grocery store! It's a good grocery store!
Ashley: It is! It is. So we go to Hyvee and make dinner and make out until the wee hours of the night. And I was like, “I don't want you to go home.” And she was like, “I don't want to go home either.” So we had an impromptu sleepover. And, you know, I think she went home for about three or four days after that, and then came back over with a suitcase and her office. [laughs] And like good lesbians, we've been together ever since. [laughs] So it is so incredibly similar to how hard I fell in love with Corbett.
There’s something about falling in love after loss that helps a person realize the enormity of what was lost when their person died.
Ashley: I mean, Lauren, my current human, and I were walking through the grocery store and someone said, “You're the cutest couple.” And I started sobbing, and Lauren looked at me and she was like, “Why are you crying?” And I was like, “I never got seen as a partner. And this is so amazing, to be seen as a partner.”
It’s amazing to be seen as a partner, and it’s amazing to have a partner. It’s amazing to be struck by the same good kind of lightning twice. To be somebody’s lucky penny again.
Ashley: Oh, my God, she's a unicorn. Like ... I can hold her trauma, and she can hold my grief like nobody ever. And I sent her the pictures of Corbett on life support. I have this photo that I think is the most saddest, beautiful photo you've ever seen. And it’s Corbett on total life support. And you can see all of the tubes. Right? And it's me standing over her, and I'm just like, looking at her with, like, the most love. Like, you can see the love and the tragedy of what's about to happen in that photo. And I sent her that photo. And nobody wants to see that photo. It's too hard for them. And she saw it, and she just like, said like, “I see how much you loved this person.” And she just saw it. And saw us. And isn't scared about the fact that, like ... I now love two people, right? And I talk about Corbett all the time, and I tell stories, and it doesn't scare her, and she's not weird about it, you know? And it's ... I don't know where she came from, and I'm never letting her go.
This has been “Terrible, Thanks for Asking.” I’m Nora McInerny. Our producer is Marcel Malekebu. Our project manager is Hannah Meacock Ross. Our digital producer is Jordan Turgeon. We are a production of APM, American Public Media.