Friday, June 16, 2017

Be Still My Soul

Dawn was just breaking when I decided to give up trying to sleep. The gravity of grief made getting out of bed too hard but simultaneously made rest impossible. The corners of my eyes were raw and crusty from the previous day’s tears, but that didn’t stop more from falling. More than anything I wanted it all to be a dream, I wanted a release from the invisible weighted blanket that was suffocating me.

Be still, my soul: when pain and grief are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Though slightly different from how they are actually written, these lyrics came to my mind as I lay in bed; a subconscious begging of peace to my soul, followed by a heaven-sent comfort. It would become a recurring experience over the next several days.

I reached for my phone from the bedside table in my mom’s guest room and opened Facebook. There I was concurrently comforted and traumatized by endless tributes to my exceptional brother. I still couldn’t accept that he was really gone. For 42 years, he had been a constant for me. Though I almost never post on Facebook, I shared the article about Chad’s death, then cried silently in bed for another 30 minutes until I forced myself to get out and face the day.

Amy and her twin brother, Stuart--who had gotten into town late the night before--arrived at Mom’s house soon thereafter. She and Stuart had walked the short half-a-block distance from her house to begin making arrangements. Amy was carrying a small notebook, ready to attack a checklist no wife as young and as utterly in love as she should ever have to face. An appointment with the funeral home was scheduled for 2:00 that afternoon and there was much to be determined and decided before then. Amy and Stuart had already begun the unbearable checklist. In fact, Amy had already called Chad’s employer to learn that he did not have any life insurance benefits. Amy maintained her trademark composure, assuring the rest of us that it would be okay. A brief moment of horror and panic was quickly replaced by a clear, direct impression to my mind that we set up a GoFundMe account. Amy humbly accepted and we decided to delegate the set-up to Erin, who was still in New York, feeling alone and helpless in her separation from the rest of us. She got it up and running within minutes. We watched donations pour in and cried at the generosity of those who knew and loved Chad as well as complete strangers. It didn’t take long to feel assured that Amy would not need to shoulder the additional burden of funding Chad’s final expenses.

At the top of the to-do list was an obituary, which Amy asked me to write. Though intimidated, I readily accepted the assignment, wanting to do anything and everything to assist her and honor my brother. Because obituaries need to be done in a very timely manner, I immediately grabbed my notebook to begin the daunting task of summarizing an extraordinary life in a few short paragraphs.

Be still, my soul: when pain and grief are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

We knew Chad would want a lot of music at his service. While discussing options, a close family friend texted Mom to offer a musical number. Another dear friend had already been asked and Amy quickly knew what she wanted for a third. Jon was asked to speak and Erin was assigned to give the life sketch. Prayer-givers, pall bearers, an organist and conductor were selected. Phone calls were made to see who could preside over the service and the building was reserved. Relief Society members came over to assess needs and make plans for the luncheon that would follow the service. Stuart worked diligently to design a program and Amy made calls to find a burial plot. Of one thing Amy was certain, she wanted Chad’s services to take place sooner than later. She expressed the desire to have Chad taken care of and placed in his final resting spot as soon as possible.

Friends stopped in to visit throughout the day offering condolences and sharing hugs that inevitably triggered tears. Most also brought food, lots and lots of food that we struggled to eat since grief had robbed us of our appetites. Still, when we grew weak and knew we needed to force sustenance into our bodies, it was a blessing not to have to wonder what to eat or where to find it.

At 2:00 that Friday afternoon, we met with the funeral director (whose name was Captain, by the way. As in, that is really the name his parents gave him.) We’d accomplished a great deal in the day so far, but the weight of our reality continually pressed upon us and tears were constantly spilling out. We learned that Chad’s autopsy was complete and he had been transported to the funeral home; the same building in which we were now sitting. Something about knowing that Chad was both there and not was very difficult for me.

Be still, my soul: when pain and grief are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

Did you know you can barter with funeral homes? You can. And we did. By the time we left, a casket had been selected at a discounted price, a hefty charge for programs dismissed (because Stuart had done it) and a charge for dressing removed since we planned to do that ourselves. Captain was quite surprised at all we’d already gotten done. We settled on a Monday evening viewing, Tuesday morning burial and Tuesday afternoon memorial service. It initially felt backwards to me, but the cemetery wouldn’t bury after 4:00 pm and we needed an afternoon service so Chad’s students and coworkers could attend. In the end, it worked perfectly.

That evening, I sent the finalized obituary to the funeral home and within minutes it was ready to share on Facebook. We looked through photo albums to select pictures that would be used to fill the 4 large photo boards the funeral home had given us to display at Chad’s services. Each photo a tender memory, a small beat in a beautiful life. We also found his testimony that he’d written in 2005 for a gift I’d put together for my dad. This line was particularly meaningful, “I look forward to the day when we sit as a family at the feet of our Savior Jesus Christ and testify that it can and will be a reality if we all do all that we can to obey God’s commandments.” We knew we wanted to enlarge his testimony to also display and we also needed to print a poster-size photo for his memorial service.

The beautiful, professional headshot that was taken when Chad directed his first show was perfect. Getting it enlarged and framed was first on Saturday’s to-do list. Costco was efficient and affordable in getting the photo printed, but going to Costco on a Saturday morning means running into at least 4 family friends and running into friends means hugs and condolences and lots of tears that are both heart-warming and comforting, yet painful.

Next, we wandered Hobby Lobby trying to figure out framing. Grief makes everything harder; making decisions and finding what is needed in chock-full aisles of a large store becomes a daunting task. Seeing Chad’s face sprawled across the counter of the framing department was nearly unbearable. Mom walked down one aisle while I turned in the opposite direction, both of us unable to control our tears.

Be still, my soul: when pain and grief are past
All safe and blessed we shall meet at last.

After a few minutes of confusion, I finally rang the framing department’s bell and an associate named Emily came to help us. I was frank in my explanation of what we were trying to accomplish but that making decisions and thinking clearly were unusually challenging given our current circumstances. Emily was kind, compassionate and helpful. She took over the project; selected a frame and mat, assembled the two and made sure we got discounts on both. Days later, I would find that she had also taken the time to find Chad’s obituary online and leave the following on his guestbook:

It was late afternoon on Saturday when Jon and I were finally ready to return to Auburn. We would have less than 24 hours to accomplish a rather long list of tasks; print a poster-size copy of Chad’s testimony, complete four picture boards, go into school to write 3 days of sub plans, pack and unpack and then return to Yakima.

Caleb’s life-long best friends, Mason and Landon had planned a trip from Utah to Washington for that weekend, in large part to say goodbye to Caleb before leaving on two-year church missions. Spending time with them was exceptionally important to Caleb, but it was just one more thing to arrange. We ended up purchasing him a flight to Yakima on Monday so he could arrive in time for the viewing but would allow him to stay back and spend Sunday and part of Monday with his dear friends.

It was such a long list to do in such a short time all while being shrouded in unrelenting, indescribable pain. Late Saturday, while I was working on the photo boards, I snapped. Jon decided to put some of Chad’s photos to music to make a slide show. “Bring Him Home” from Les Mis and Wicked’s “For Good” kept starting and stopping in my background. I begged Jon to turn it down or better yet, turn it off and work on it later. After about 30 minutes of looking into Chad’s face as I attached his photos to a memory board while hearing words like “he is young,” “let him live,” and “because I knew you, I have been changed for good” I yelled, “Turn it off! Turn it off!”

Pressing my hands tightly against my face, I sobbed, “I can’t do it! I can’t listen to it anymore! I can’t!” I stood still in the middle of a mess of Chad’s pictures, crying uncontrollably--likely frightening my family--so Jon mercifully took a break. I was eventually able to compose myself, get back to work and finish two of the boards that night.

Sunday morning, I finished another photo board (the fourth was completed in Yakima that night) and later wept through most of Sacrament meeting. Immediately afterward, we got back in the car to return to Yakima. There was still more to check off the list, but what had already been done in so short a time was miraculous. There’s no denying we had divine help.

Be still, my soul…
The most difficult moments of my life were still to come.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Chad's Headline

It was the sort of news headline you see every day on Facebook. The type of story that piques the curiosity and evokes sympathy for suffering fellowmen. I’ve clicked on many headlines similar to this one. But when the face smiling through the headline's photo is my beloved brother and life-long ally, the sight of it becomes unbearable. Those six words are a cruel reminder that this isn’t just a nightmare to wake from; it’s a new reality.

Highland School District teacher collapes, dies

The last word elicits uncontrollable sobs and renders me incapable of reading the article’s contents. Not yet, anyway. Instead I let the tears consume me, tears that would seem endless in the hours and days that would follow that awful headline.

Thursday, June 8, 2017 started like any other weekday. I’d been for a morning run, seen the girls off to school and was in the bathroom applying my make-up. Jon was also about his daily routine; playing Candy Crush on the downstairs computer while awaiting his ride to the bus stop that I typically give him on my way to work. At 7:45 am, I got a text from my mom:

“Family prayers needed. They found your brother outside his classroom. Doing CPR transporting by ambulance now.”

The shock of her words stole my breath while a tension gripped my heart. Silent prayers were instantly sent heavenward, but they felt insufficient. So I ran to my bedside, fell to my knees and prayed fervently in a breathless panic for a peace that would not come. I suspect my spirit already knew what my heart and mind couldn’t accept.

“Jon!” I yelled, the distress in my voice immediately alerting him to the urgency of the moment. We met at the bottom of the stairs, where I handed him my phone, unable to speak. Not knowing what he was looking for, he started swiping. “What is it?” he pressed. “It’s Chad!” I hollered in grief, panic and exasperation (why did he swipe?) When Jon finally found the text my mom had sent, he suggested we kneel to pray.

“Please bring Chad back to his sweet wife, Amy” are the words I remember most. Bring him back? Was he already gone? The situation was serious, regardless. Jon decided he should work from home “just in case.” He asked if I could call the school and stay home as well, but unfortunately, I don’t have that kind of job. I had students needing to be taught and no plans for a sub. Besides, I continued to tell myself that Chad might be facing a hospital stay or maybe even a heart surgery, but he’s my 45-year-old brother, he wasn’t going to die. That was simply unfathomable! So I composed myself and went to work, though I was present only physically.

After arriving at the school, I texted my mom for an update. She and my dad had arrived at the hospital, but Chad was not yet there. Knowing my parents had beaten Chad to the ER amplified my panic and made feelings of peace all the more elusive, but I was minutes from greeting kindergarteners so I went about setting up my classroom in a zombie-like state, avoiding all other people whenever possible.

“Call me when you get a chance” were Mom’s words that scrolled across my Apple watch at 8:34. I rushed back to my office to hear the words I’d never be able to prepare myself to hear. Words that play again and again in a relentless, haunting obsession: “Tara, he didn’t make it.”

“What?!” I yelled, doubled over by those gut-punching words. The volume, pitch and emotion in my voice made all subsequent questions unintelligible.

“Honey, I can’t understand you. Do you have someone to be with you?” Mom asked calmly, though the sadness and seriousness of her voice reached through the phone and melted me.

“Sudden cardiac arrest” are the only other words I recall from that horrible, brief conversation. I hung up quickly so I could tell my principal that I needed to go home. I no longer cared that I’d be leaving my students without a teacher or adding an extra burden on my fellow teachers. I couldn’t stay at school. No way.

Within minutes, my school’s counselor and principal were driving me home. From the passenger seat of my own car, simply giving directions to my house a ½ mile away proved challenging. So was breathing or eating or knowing what to do next. Calls and texts were made and received while I paced the floor. We took the girls out of school and watched them crumple under the devastating news. Not Uncle Chad. How could this be? We felt an urgency to get to Yakima as soon as possible.

News spread instantly and condolences and tributes to my remarkable brother covered Facebook. Friends multiple states away began messaging me. And that’s when I saw that headline, the headline that reduced me to mush and reminded me that my life would never be the same.

Due to work, semester finals and other end-of-year testing, our kids felt like they needed to stay home for now. Making arrangements with friends to help with the girls, emailing teachers, coworkers, covering church callings and handling glitches in missionary papers would delay the departure for Jon and me. It was late evening when we finally arrived in Yakima and could wrap our arms around my parents and Chad’s dear wife.

The next morning we would begin in earnest the excruciating process of planning memorial services for one of the greatest human beings I have ever known.

Until then, we just cried.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

21 Years!

Most people take expensive, exotic trips when their marriage reaches that 20 year mark. That would've been nice. Instead, we spent our 20th in a sweltering high school gym for Caleb's senior awards night.

There was no trip for this year's 21st anniversary, either. It's not that we don't love each other enough, I suppose it's just a matter of time and monetary restraints. Our kids are growing up, so we like to include them in the few trips we take.

This year, however, we did enjoy a rather indulgent celebratory dinner on water.

My marriage is the greatest blessing of my life.  We just jive, you know. We simply work well together and enjoy one another. Thankfully, our ability to take selfies is not representative of our relationship. I mean, we're really bad at selfies.

Once Jon noticed that the steak came from Helmville, Montana, his dinner decision was made. His grandfather once ran a cattle ranch in Helmville.

I opted for salmon. Delicious doesn't begin to describe our decadent food.

We tried--and failed again--another selfie as we were leaving.

Great night with a great guy, bad selfies notwithstanding. Happy 21st Anniversary to us!

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Ansel's Graduation

We arrived in Tri-Cities just in time for Ansel's graduation. Owen and Caleb happened to be dressed just alike. (And Caleb was sporting a sunburn he got at the Mariner's game the day before.)

It was exciting to watch Ansel march in to Pomp and Circumstance and we cheered when his name was read. He sure is a great kid and it was fun to witness this big event in his life.

Good golly, Caleb sure loves his cousins!

I made Ansel so-good cookies in his school colors (and one for his future school!) and we gave him 1 twenty dollar bill, 1 ten dollar bill and seven ones to represent his 2017 graduating year, all packaged in a cute graduation cap-wearing jar.

We enjoyed spending much of Saturday with the Childers family, before heading off to Yakima to have dinner and spend the evening with Grandma and Grandpa Seely, Chad and Amy.

It was a great family-filled weekend!

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Natalie's Wide World of Sports

I've been to countless sporting events for my kids over the years, but Natalie was the first to get involved in middle school sports. Since quitting gymnastics, she has tried all sorts of new things. It was sure fun cheering her on.

Last fall, she tried basketball for the first time. Everything about it was new to her but she had a lot of fun.

In January, she started weightlifting at Alpha Strength and Conditioning. She's been going at least three times a week with the hopes of perhaps trying it competitively in the future.

Though gymnastics isn't new to her, she did have to brush off some cob webs to join the middle school gymnastics team. She competed on beam and vault.

And finally, this spring, she tried track. Turns out she's a pretty decent little runner. She did well at shot put, too.

Way to go, Nat! So fun to watch you do sports!

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Evolution of Dance

When you work at Domino's, you never really know what time your shift will end. If they're busy at time you're scheduled to get off, you stay as long as needed.

Caleb was scheduled to work on the night of the ward talent show, but if he got off on time, he could make it in time to perform with his sisters. They'd rehearsed plenty and Jon had spliced all the music. It was going to be a really fun act.

But Domino's was busy that night.

We were all so sad when Caleb had to work two extra hours, causing him to arrive at the church just as tables and chairs were being packed up.

He was extremely upset, he'd been looking forward to this act and he was frustrated that his manager had kept him so long. It took a great deal of coercion to convince him to perform it anyway for the very few remaining people. And then Natalie developed a sudden stage fright and decided not to perform.

It's a shame it didn't work out, because I'm pretty sure this act would've brought down the house. But here it is, the act that the ward missed at the talent show:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Mother's Day 2017

This Mother's Day will be memorable for me because it is the first time I got a gift from one of my kids that they shopped for, picked out and paid for all on their own. 

Caleb stopped at the store after work one night and carefully selected a very humorous card, a gift card he knew I would enjoy and my favorite candy bar. 

I'm quite sure he inherited his father's gift-wrapping skills. (Or lack thereof!)

The wrapping made me smile. So did that fact that he didn't know that cards come with envelopes that are found behind the cards in the store's display.

But nothing made me smile more than his thoughtfulness. What a great kid! I'm so lucky that I got three of them.