Every sign of winter's end carries significance for Terry Strack and his wife, Cynthia Smith-Strack, because they know it will likely be their last spring together.
Last fall, Terry, 49, was diagnosed with a form of aggressive cancer, and Monday he began in-home hospice care. Doctors say he has four to nine months to live. The unseasonable warmth has given the couple and their two teen boys the most precious gift of all: time well spent.
"We're able to get out and do things together that we know we won't be able to do that much longer," says Cynthia. "It's just been wonderful."
On their hobby farm in south-central Minnesota, Cynthia, 46, and her husband of 15 years watch their nickering horses play. From their backyard deck, they listen to the babbling of a little waterfall they built together. On good days, when Terry feels strong enough, they take a stroll to a nearby creek.
"It's just nice to ... enjoy nature like we would have if we were on a weekend in our old life, right?" Cynthia asks.
"Yup," Terry replies.
"Now everything is just more urgent, so we try to create more time to enjoy the things we always loved," she says.
Terry usually spends the early spring fretting over whether the ice will go out in time for the fishing opener. Not this year. He already took the boat out to Lake Waconia for the first time last week.
"Saw some loons. That was nice," he says, forcing a smile. "It's good to see all the birds coming back. Even listening to the wind blowing the rain, hitting the roof — everything is special."
Terry, who worked for a company that makes roofing shingles, seemed healthy last August when he saw a doctor for what he thought was a sinus infection. The doctor found a dime-sized lump in Terry's salivary gland.
But the bad news came about a month later — a day after the couple celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary. A scan showed cancer had already spread to Terry's chest, liver and bones.
The couple spent much of the winter traveling to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester for brutal rounds of chemotherapy.
"The chemo has quit working, and there's really nothing more they can do for me," Terry says.
Cynthia, who grew up on a farm in central Minnesota, said the spring season represents rebirth — all the more poignant as her husband takes the "final walk home." Everyone in the family, including their 14-year-old twin sons, Aaron and Jacob, has accepted the journey they're on, she says.
"We are taking one last walk with Terry to whatever is next," she says. "We're walking a path that we didn't think we'd walk at this point in our lives. But to me, it's a kind of rebirth as well. It's the end of life as we know it, but it's the beginning of eternal life."
She turns to Terry with that promise: "We'll see each other again."
Her husband tears up. She rubs his shoulder.
"It's OK," she whispers. "We get to walk this path together. We know what's ahead of us."
She still teases Terry about his crabbiness, and laughs about his cunning. Some 18 years ago, she inquired about a dog for sale but was low on cash. He gave the pup to her for free — but made Cynthia agree to "visitation rights." A courtship began.
Cynthia says life is not about going to work, or about nagging each other over socks on the floor. It's about doing everything possible to make sure her partner has a good day.
"Warm weather surely helps," she observes.
"And going fishing," Terry says.