I am currently crammed into the backseat of my sister-in-law’s SUV, sandwiched between the door, front seat (where my much too tall brother-in-law is driving) and my two-year old nephew’s massive car seat. I feel like I have not showered in days, even though I know I did this morning. Everything hurts. I feel more muscle pain than I ever have after a hard workout or a half marathon. I suppose 1,486 miles in four days will do that.
My current situation – as in – my current location crammed in the backseat, has given me ample time to reflect on the past week, with no clear escape from the rush of emotions associated with the past few days. Twenty five hours in a car. Plenty of time to reflect.
Last Friday, a mere eight days ago, I was running on less than five hours of sleep and basically dead on my feet making my house “perfect” for my husband’s 30th birthday party. The party was a great success – we had loads of food and everyone left with a smile on their face. My husband easily convinced me to pack up the truck and boat, and head out to the river that night and stake our claim to the prime springer salmon fishing spot on a local island on the Columbia River. We got in around 1 AM and were up with the sun to get the rods in the water.
On his first return trip to the island, he brought his two cousins with him. Before he was off the boat, I heard the familiar sound of his dad’s ringtone. I expected it was for a fishing report, but even from my location twenty feet away, I knew this call was different. I managed to reach the boat just as he hung up the phone.
“Grandma died. She had a heart attack.”
Seven words. That’s all it took.
I’ve experienced loss. I’ve lost grandparents, friends, cousins – it all hurts. But there was something different about this loss. The loss of Helen hurt more because of the new life that is currently spitting his milk on me. My husband, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, mother-in-law, and father-in-law had spent the last few months planning a trip to Montana to visit Helen and Lloyd (grandma and grandpa) over the 4th of July weekend so that they could finally meet their great grandson in person. That realization that Helen would never get to meet him – that is what was different. It was like we lost Helen, then 20 people walked up to us and took turns punching us in the gut.
We all made arrangements with work, pet sitters, neighbors, and loaded up two cars and began our journey east at 6 AM on Wednesday. Four states in 9 hours was nothing new for us. My husband and I traveled to Montana each year to visit the grandparents and fish – well, at least he fished. I usually spent my time with Helen.
We hadn’t made it out of Oregon before my father-in-law got slapped with a speeding ticket. Part of me wanted to pull our car over and yell at the trooper for adding to his burden. For goodness sake, the man just lost his mother. But, I was not driving, and there’s really no good excuse for 85 in a 65, so I didn’t really have a leg to stand on.
The remainder of the trip east was fairly uneventful. My mother and sister-in-law were pretty desperate for Starbucks, but besides that, it went smoothly. We dropped off all our luggage, approximately three week’s worth, at the hotel, and headed to Victor, Montana, home of Helen and Lloyd. It was difficult to see some faces we had not seen in years. Helen had five children. Albert – the second oldest, had built the home Helen and Lloyd lived in on the same lot his home was on. He and his wife, Deb, have tirelessly taken care of Helen and Lloyd for years. Jeanie “Tinks” the second youngest, and someone we had not seen in years, was already there with her husband Skeeter, as was the oldest son, Billy, and his two boys, Chris and Cody. The evening was bittersweet, with plenty of tears and plenty of hugs. We learned that evening that the youngest son, Buzz, had gotten lost somewhere east of Yakima, and that we shouldn’t expect him until the next day.
The next day was another tough day. As you may have noticed in my last paragraph, Lloyd was not one of the faces we saw the night before. We learned the previous weekend that Lloyd had and infection that caused him to be admitted to a local assisted living facility. What we didn’t know at the time was that he had been there for three months and his condition was not improving.
The five “kids,” my husband and I, my sister and brother-in-law and nephew, were all sharing a hotel room. We slowly peeled ourselves out of bed and each got to work with our morning routines. First priority, feed the two year old. Second, exercise. My husband and I hauled 100 pounds of dumbbells with us and got to work punishing our already sore bodies. My brother-in-law, headed out on a run and my sister-in-law did this murderous plyometric workout video where she was doing jump squats while holding weights above her head. I think we all pushed extra hard that morning, knowing the rest of the day could be emotionally draining.
My husband’s uncle Albert picked us up and took us, along with his son and my in-laws to the facility to visit Lloyd. He seemed in fairly good spirits. He was in a wheelchair and had all sorts of tubes coming from all over, but overall, he looked no less tired that he had last November when I saw him. He had always seemed less lively than Helen, but his orneriness always kept him young. He was still just as ornery when he recounted how if the facility had done any of that “preaching stuff” he would have packed his bags a long time ago and left on his own. Without missing a beat, he moved on to how he was hoping to go home soon.
“But there’s nothing to go home to.”
Another seven words. Shit. I could feel the water in my eyes and see it in everyone elses.
That was about the time someone suggested we go outside. My nephew was getting a bit crabby being in the small, white-walled visitor’s room, so we all packed up to sit in the gazebo in the center of the facility. It was a nice visit, and it was great to see Lloyd watch my nephew run around. Everyone is always impressed by the amount of energy my nephew has. Explosive is a good way to describe it.
Albert began to tell Lloyd about all the plans for the next day for Helen’s memorial. Helen was not a flashy woman, and wanted nothing to do with a funeral. Her wishes were pretty simple. So was the plan, which included a family barbecue in the yard Albert and his parents shared. As I sat listening to him explain it all to Lloyd, I just felt like I needed to contribute somehow. After saying our goodbyes, I asked Albert if there were any plans for dessert, and if I could make something. By the time I got to the car, I had offered to make four pies, cookies, and had already made my shopping list. I had to do something.
Our group split up at this point. It was time for my husband’s conference call and my nephew (and brother-in-law) needed a nap. I headed to Helen’s to start making pies. Both my mother-in-law and Tinks offered to help, which reminded me of the last time I baked in the kitchen. It was last November, and I was making Helen and Lloyd an apple pie on our last night together before the men returned from their fishing trip. She wanted to help too, but I had shooed her out of the kitchen because I wanted to do something for her. I am really glad I did.
I stuck my mother-in-law and Tinks with the job I disliked the most – peeling apples. They made quite a team and by the time I had four crusts made and chilling, they had my apples sliced. I was just pulling the third pie crust out of the oven and pouring the lemon filling into it when my husband called to say his conference call was over and he was coming over to help. I hadn’t even realized it had been three hours. I had one pie left to bake and all the cookie dough had been rolled into balls and was ready to bake. By the time my husband arrived, I was putting the last pie in and hiding the cookies from him. I was completely exhausted, my feet hurt, and I had a headache, but I finally felt like I had contributed something and could rest now. I turned off the oven and again felt the familiar heat of tears. It was in that moment that I realized I would never be baking in that kitchen again.
Friday began much the same was Thursday did. Get up. Get the nephew fed. Bury your feelings in power squats. My sister-in-law interrupted me to have me join her and my bother-in-law at the pool to watch my nephew jump in. He had just that morning decided jumping in was not as scary as he had thought in the past, and it was awesome to see.
I headed back to the gym, and my husband volunteered to watch our nephew in the hotel room while his parents went for a run. Ten minutes later my husband walked in carrying my nephew. I figured he had realized watching a rowdy two-year-old was not as easy as he thought. Boy was I wrong.
“Albert called. He wants you to speak today – do the eulogy.”
I wonder what my face looked like at that moment. I loved Helen and I was so completely honored that he felt like out of the entire family, I was the one who could best speak on her life. But – the memorial was three hours away. How could I possibly have anything meaningful to say in three hours? Suddenly the thought of all of her children and most of her grandchildren and great grandchildren looking at me popped into my head. It was absolutely terrifying. I had been doing public speaking since high school, even competing on one occasion, and even that didn’t compare to how I currently felt.
So, I did what any well-educated, smart, organized woman would do. I put it off. I can’t stand procrastination, and suddenly, I was doing it myself. I don’t know what I expected. Maybe I would have some great idea pop into my head during the 15 minute drive from the hotel to the house? Unlikely.
Once we arrived, I sat alone on the deck of Helen and Lloyd’s house. I watched all the people hurrying around, setting up, and bringing more food than we could ever eat. There were probably 30 people there. Thirty people that would not be there if it weren’t for one person.
I wrote “Helen” at the top of a sheet of scratch paper. It was pretty easy after that. Like my husband had suggested, I wrote down my memories of Helen. I added a few stories she had told me. Then I wrapped up my thoughts the same way the had stated – none of us would be here without her.
I think it is amazing how many lives one person can touch just by being born and making a few decisions. Getting married. Having kids. Moving to Montana. All just normal parts of life, yet the impact each decision has is immeasurable.
Rest in peace, Helen.