October Passages: An endless voyage with Kelly and Sam

Sam

I had barely stepped off the porch before Sam Rohm enveloped me in one of his signature hugs. My mind immediately settled on “bear hug,” but that tired cliché didn’t do justice to an embrace from Sam.

He might have been built like a bear, but his touch contained a gentleness, a feeling of safety that came not only from his size but also his heart. And, despite not having seen Sam for more than a decade, the warmth of his hug made the years melt away.

Then came the voice—another one of Sam’s trademark characteristics. Deep and rich, it spoke of late-night disc-jockeys, recorded-book narrators, and opera soloists.* It was into that voice—that hug, that presence—I tumbled—we all tumbled—during Sam’s visit to my sister Kelly and her three daughters.

For several hours, Sam entertained us, telling stories, swapping recollections, and forging new memories. Kelly’s daughters sat at his feet, never seeming restless, never trying to escape the room like most typical teens. Together, we slid down Alice’s Rabbit Hole, a trapdoor into which we dove, a world, if even for a few hours, where Kelly’s long battle with cancer no longer existed.

Although Kelly and I hadn’t spoken to Sam often over the years, he had frequently permeated our conversations, remembering him as an unusually kind person. He had always, at least in our opinion, possessed an old soul: thoughtful beyond his years, consistently willing to listen to one’s problems and help out whenever needed, regardless of his own struggles.

Sam, Kelly, and their dear friend Shane.

And today, even though I haven’t heard Sam’s voice for more than a year—cancer having silenced both Sam and Kelly—I can still hear him in my mind. I can still feel that contradicting embrace, delivering power cushioned in tenderness.

But that is how it goes with the people we have loved and lost. Their constant, swirling shadows hover nearby, and, if one can be still long enough, you might feel a feathery touch brush against your hand or hear their laughter just around a corner, forever slightly out of reach.

When I published Quilting Cancer in 2017, I believed I had drained myself of all I needed to express about illness, love, and sisterhood. That was naïve. The bond we feel with the people we love transcends death, and to deny it, bury it within our souls, dishonors our beloveds.

My final acceptance of this need to document memories occurred on a wintry afternoon at the intersection of Idaho 75 and U.S. 20. The pull north held a magnetic attraction, tugging me toward Baldy, Dollar, and a Snowcreek condo, brimming with decades of memories.

Kelly and her three daughters at the top of Bald Mountain (clockwise from the middle: Sheridan, Shaelyn, Kelly, and Sierra).

Yet, I didn’t make the turn, continuing straight on U.S. 20, as my mind churned with bygone images: torchlight parades, slooow chairlifts, easy turns down College, and endless hot chocolates at Lookout Lodge with Kelly always by my side.

I realized then that the urgency to record and remember will never end—nor should it. For these memories are footprints embedded in our souls. Set in concrete, these tracks, particularly those made by people like Kelly and Sam, leave permanent impressions, influencing our actions and leaving traces of their impact wherever we go.

Recently, while visiting Kelly’s grave, a murmuration of starlings filled the sky over a nearby field. The birds darted and swooped, creating clouds within clouds, performing nature’s ballet. Kelly and I had witnessed this phenomenon before while feeding her horses. Caught off guard, we forgot our chores and watched, thrilled to have caught the show and happy to have experienced it together.

Kelly with her horse Indigo (behind her home in Parma).

Now, the starlings performed again, taking me down a path, leading all the way back to Kelly. I pictured her riding her horse Indy, galloping beneath the birds, past the farm fields, and out into the untouched Owyhee Desert, joining my Dad along cloudy ridges and celestial mountaintops. As they disappeared into the distance, they lassoed my heart, a memento of their constant, thrumming presence.

Sometimes reminders come in transitory moments, like the murmuration, while others are more permanent, like the blue bench at the Parma Pool. Made possible by Kristy Sterling, the Parma Swim Team, Mandy Pascale, and the COSSA welding class, it is a timeless, perfect memorial to my sister. I often imagine people sitting on that bench, thinking about Kelly and a life immersed in helping others and spreading compassion, particularly the love she felt for her three daughters.

The bench has also been the teacher of an important, yet difficult, lesson. Yes, Kelly and Sam left this earth too quickly. They were among the best people most of us have known, showering us all with kindness and empathy, intuitively understanding struggles. We mourn them, constantly, but buried in the sadness lies a truth, which is stronger than our mourning: we must celebrate their lives, for they made us better, stronger.

The Blue Bench, honoring Kelly, at the Parma Pool.

During one of my trips with Kelly to the National Institute of Health in Bethesda, while waiting for her test results from a clinical trial, we visited the National Air and Space Museum, specifically to see the 1903 Wright Flyer. Kelly immersed herself in the day, pushing aside anxiety, and placing herself in the moment, finding joy, in spite of the grim circumstances that had brought her to Washington D.C.

The same enthusiasm met me during my last visit with Sam during August of 2019. Sierra—Kelly’s middle daughter—had flown back to Idaho the day before I was scheduled to see Sam, so I invited her to join us. “Of course, I’ll go,” she said, without hesitation. “I would love to see Sam!”

Confined to a wheelchair, his prognosis poor, Sam, nonetheless, spoke with optimism about the future, wanted to hear all about Sierra’s life, and reminisced about college and high school, even pulling out old yearbooks. He discussed his condition, hopeful but practical, but never dwelled on it, shifting the conversation away from himself. As we left, both Sierra and I received one of his distinctive hugs, modified because of the wheelchair, but still conveying a sense of calm strength.

The three quilts that Kelly made for her daughters.

As we drove away, I thought how proud Kelly would have been of Sierra. Her desire to spend time with Sam reflected not only on Sierra’s kind, generous nature but also her mother’s guidance, as well as Sam himself. Sierra and I discussed Sam on the drive home, hoping he knew how wide his influence had been, how he had shown us the path to true friendship through his many visits to Kelly.

The last time I saw Sam at Kelly’s house, my husband Keith also happened to be there. Even though Keith is not prone to hugging, Sam gathered him into an embrace. Escape was impossible, and Keith was frozen in the moment, trapped by Sam’s uninhibited welcome. Keith, good-natured to the core, accepted it, laughing when he was released, setting the tone for an afternoon of jokes and stories and easy companionship.

And, although Sam has been gone now for one year and Kelly four, we can still choose to live in Sam’s and Kelly’s embrace, honoring their lessons while recognizing our sorrow but never allowing it to replace a celebration of their lives. They may have passed, but I choose to join them in the passage, making them lifelong companions in an endless voyage, where their company is the guiding light.

 

* No one who attended Caldwell High School in the early 1980s will forget Sam’s smooth, powerful cheer during football games: “Ziggy, Zaggy, Ziggy, Zaggy, Oi, Oi, Oi.”

The Flutist On Top of Idaho

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Shane at the top of Mt. Borah.

On August 22nd, Shane Harris stood on top of 12,662-foot Mt. Borah, Idaho’s tallest mountain, pulled a Drone Flute out of his backpack, and proceeded to play. A haunting tune greeted other climbers as they joined Shane on the peak.

The melody floated across Borah’s cliffs and boulders, as if specifically written for that ancient mountain, evoking the flute’s indigenous roots. “A flute?” the other climbers must have asked themselves. “Here on Mount Borah?”

But those of us who know Shane aren’t surprised—delighted, perhaps, but not surprised. For Shane possesses the soul of an artist, a whimsical touch, and an intuitive ability to add an element of magic to an event, sealing it into one’s memory forever.

So there he stood on the craggy rock, surrounded by mostly strangers, save for his climbing friends, Brent and Logan, and played his flute.

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Logan, Shane, and Brent.

Made by Joe, Shane’s long-time friend, dating back to when they were art students at Boise State University, the flute was crafted with skill and careful consideration: big leaf maple from Joe’s yard; American holly collected from the bottom of the Snoqualmie River, and even bowhead baleen from the Arctic.

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Shane and his flute.

Below Shane stretched the 5 miles and 5,000-foot-elevation-gain he had just conquered, including the infamous Chicken-Out Ridge. Yet, as I pictured it, Shane wasn’t looking down but upward, his heart open, reaching to the heavens, full of love and bittersweet memories.

And, despite the hazy skies—filled with evidence of the West’s ubiquitous forest fires—I’m sure Shane’s melody drifted up and up, finding a direct path to those-–Kelly Fanning and Sam Rohm—for whom the performance was intended. Although I wasn’t there, I could see Shane, his genuineness apparent to everyone, carrying Kelly, Sam, and all the people he has loved on his shoulders, sharing his accomplishment by commemorating their memory.

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Shane coming down Chicken-Out Ridge on his way to the summit.

That evening, my husband Keith—who had also climbed Borah that day—and I joined Shane at the Mackay Tourist Park, where he was camping for the weekend. Stories were swapped. Shane’s sweetheart Bobbie told me that, while waiting at the bottom of Borah to pick up Shane, she showed his picture to another climber, who lit up, saying, “He definitely made it to the top. When we got there, we heard this beautiful, ethereal music and it made the climb extra special.”

Later, we all gathered around the campfire as Bobbie on guitar, Brent on mandolin—both members of the Blue Road Ramblers—and Shane on upright bass sang tunes from Lyle Lovett to Nancy Sinatra. CCR’s Down in the Corner was sung in memory of Sam; Don McLean’s American Pie for Kelly (friends Roger and Cathy helped us remember the lyrics to that lengthy song).

The campground grew quiet; lights flickered on in trailers and motorhomes. Another campfire flamed to life, and I sensed an audience beyond our small group. A sliver of moon brightened the sky, highlighting a silhouette of mountains, finally visible as the smoky haze cleared.

The concert continued around me; yet, I couldn’t get a solo flutist out of my mind. Playing on top of Idaho, playing from his heart, playing not only for Kelly and Sam, but for all who love him and know that, even though we don’t share his genes, Shane has been a brother to us all.Resized_20200822_201932(1)

Happy birthday, Shane! Thank you for organizing the Borah trip, but, most of all, thank you for your friendship and for never failing to delight me with your inventiveness and thoughtfulness!

Winter’s Gifts: Naomi Novik Spins Tales of Gold

us-spinningsilverI don’t remember who first told me about the author Naomi Novik. Perhaps, like one of the heroines from her novels Uprooted and Spinning Silver, her name came to me to on a breath of magic, a summer whisper during a paddle or hike in northern Michigan’s endless rivers and forests with trees hanging over me, edging ever closer.

Kingly white pines or witchy cedar, stubby and plentiful, stretching into swamp, would have surrounded me. Maybe mud sucked at my boots, choking the boardwalks meant to ease a rambler’s journey, or the river overflowed from winter’s runoff, making it impossible to tell where the water ended and woods began.

During those times, it would have been easy to picture a hovel waiting at the end of a brambly, hidden pathway and a voice muttering Naomi Novik’s name like an incantation. Then a portal would have appeared, tumbling into one of Ms. Novik’s enchanting stories, some as close to perfection as I have ever read.

us-uprooted1But to whoever gave me her name, I owe a debt of literary gratitude. Since I first opened Uprooted in July and fell into the deceptively simple tale of a girl. a wizard, and an ancient evil lurking in the forest, I have devoured five of Ms. Novik’s books.

Three were about the dragon Temeraire and his Captain Lawrence and their adventures during the Napoleonic War. And now, just this morning, I have finished Spinning Silver, drawing out each word, repeating passages, simply because I didn’t want it to end, hoping that a drop of its magic would somehow drip around me, saturating a portion of my world so that the story would go on and on.

Because, like all exceptional storytellers, Ms. Novik creates a world in which the reader lives and breathes. And, although I have enjoyed everything she has written, Uprooted and Spinning Silver particularly resonated with me, probably due to the strong female us-serviceprotagonists and an old-world, fairy-tale aura, influenced by Ms. Novik’s Polish heritage. It is a background that my husband shares and thus has touched my life, making me recognize the Polish words in Ms. Novik’s writing, such as chrusciki or angel wings, a pastry light as air.

So now I wait for Ms. Novik to spin her magic once again. In the meantime, I have six more Temeraire novels waiting to fill my winter with the beating of dragon wings and transport me back in time to when Napoleon pushed at borders, insatiable in his desire for land, just as my desire for a good book will never end. I will always be listening for that whispered name with promises of a new author to discover and a fresh world to explore.

 

Sheridan’s Compass

sweet-3406860_640The following essay was written almost seven years ago; yet, all of the characteristics that made my niece Sheridan exceptional then still hold true today as she turns fourteen. And I’m sure those  traits will only strengthen over the years, making her a constant joy to everyone who knows her! Happy birthday, Sheridan!


Sheridan’s Compass (written during the fall of 2011)

“Turn right, Aunt Erin,” seven-year-old Sheridan said.

She wore a black leotard, matching leggings, a filmy ballet skirt, and cowboy boots—or “cowgirl boots” as she called them. Ballet slippers dangled from her fingers; her hair escaped from a messy ponytail. She was on her way—Sheridan style—to ballet class.

“I mean,” Sheridan clarified, “turn my right.”

I hesitated. We sat side by side—she in the passenger seat, me in the driver’s seat. Her right was my right. What was I missing? ballet-shoes-2326987_640.jpg

She turned to me, blinked once–blue eyes, black lashes, a flutter of day and night. I didn’t question her directions, her misunderstanding of the term “my right.” I simply turned the truck, following Sheridan’s GPS, her way of seeing the road.

I’ve learned from experience that Sheridan’s internal compass often leads to a better place—even if you’ve been there before—and sometimes it’s best to just let her take you there.

A simple game of tag evolves into Cartwheel Tag. We never quite decided whether the tagger or tagee should be cartwheeling, but both ways ended in confusion and plenty of laughs, particularly at my attempts to cartwheel.

Or a bike ride to town transforms into an outing for root-beer floats with Sheridan, on her single-speed bicycle, always ready to tackle hills and singing B-I-N-G-O with Uncle Keith as she peddles along.

One Christmas, using her new tablet as a camera, Sheridan filmed the Snowman Video. A stuffed snowman took the starring role with Sheridan as interviewer.

“How’s it going?” she asked Mr. Snowman.

“Pretty good,” Mr. Snowman said in a deep, gravelly voice.

She used the same tablet to document The Many Faces of Sheridan, a tableau of close-up photographs, which grew into an autobiographical mini-documentary of Sheridan through several days of late December and into early January. All the photos shared two things: a hint of mischief and a literal twinkle in Sheridan’s eye, the look of someone planning fun, thinking of the next activity.

watercolour-2159970_640So I don’t question Sheridan when she says, “turn right, my right.” Even if it appears that our rights are the same, hers is bound to have a twist, a way of approaching life that is more original, more energetic… just more of everything. I simply turn the wheel and follow her lead, knowing the experience will be better for letting her take me there.

Quilting Cancer Update

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Kelly with the quilt she made for her daughter Sheridan.

This morning, I made the first contribution from the royalties Quilting Cancer has earned–$250–to the St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland Respite House. From the St. Luke’s website: “Many of our patients and their caregivers travel long distances for cancer treatment… The Respite House will provide a safe and comfortable home away from home, helping ease some of the burdens of travel and allowing families to stay together.” Thank you all for purchasing the book and spreading the word! Also, Quilting Cancer will be featured in the April issue of Idaho Magazine. I was honored when the editor contacted me, and I’m so glad that Kelly’s inspirational message will reach a wider audience.

 

Gratitude and Reviews: Quilting Cancer Touches Many

My family and I have been overwhelmed by the response to Quilting Cancerthank you for the kind words, support, and enthusiasm. Kelly’s optimism, courage, and perseverance continues to thread people together and will have an impact for years to come. QuiltingCancer

But now I have a favor to ask… Everyone who has been touched by Quilting Cancer, the blog or the book, please take a few minutes to write a review–it only needs to be a sentence or two–on Amazon or Goodreads. Reviews will help Quilting Cancer reach a wider audience and make it available to a variety of promotional websites.

And, for those of you who purchased the Kindle edition, a new version is available on Amazon, with a Kindle table-of-contents, as well as other updates. If you sync your device, the updated version should automatically download.

Quilting Cancer: Sharing a courageous voice

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(The quilts on the cover were made by Kelly for her daughters Shaelyn, Sierra, and Sheridan.)

Sometimes in life we become witnesses to incredible acts of bravery, only partially aware at the time, but later able to appreciate the full magnitude of what we experienced. During the aftermath, there is a sense, almost an obligation, of wanting to share these everyday stories of inspiration.

I know I’m not alone. Many of us brush shoulders with unforgettable acts of courage, people who possess an unlimited well of resilience. They will themselves forward, accepting their circumstances yet never giving up.

Their stories are often quiet, unfolding without fanfare, but they encompass the backbone of humanity. A silent strength that weaves us all together, and, the more we know about these people, the stronger we become as a society.

So I decided to record my sister Kelly’s journey with adversity, her eight-year battle with cancer, by publishing her blog, Quilting Cancer (available on Amazon in both paperback and Kindle), along with essays reflecting on Kelly’s bravery and the lessons she taught me.

My intention is not to turn Kelly into a saint or deify her. Like all of us, Kelly had faults, yet at the end of her life, she revealed a core strength and selflessness. She learned how to fully live while also preparing to die.

Her message transcends time and location. It is the universal call to embrace life despite one’s circumstances. It speaks of selflessness—Kelly was constantly concerned with others, always thankful for even the smallest assistance—and finding joy in the simplest everyday occurrences.

To borrow from Proverbs 3:3—a verse I return to again and again—Kelly’s lessons will never leave me. They are bound around my neck, written on the tablet of my heart.

(All profit from the book will be donated to St. Luke’s MSTI-Fruitland.)

Copper Harbor Lullaby

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Intersection of Dancing Bear and Red Trails

My bike’s brakes, sounding like an out-of-tune violin, announced my arrival long before I bounced into sight. With tires bumping along Copper Harbor’s Dancing Bear Trail, I clambered over rocks and roots, up and down hills in a relentless waltz, melding trees to sky and fallen leaves with mud in a muted autumn symphony.

A few seconds later, my husband Keith came into view, waiting where Dancing Bear merged into Red Trail. He nodded toward a sign, warning riders of a mother bear with cubs, just ahead on the trail. We smiled–no words necessary–and turned around to climb back up Dancing Bear.

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Point Trail

Shifting into the granny gear, my bike and I crawled up a hill, no longer waltzing but performing a slow ballet without any grace. Keith vanished around a bend in the trail, riding with strength and balance. He hopped over roots and spun up rocky outcroppings, remaining calm despite the obstacles—his riding a reflection of his personality.

And even though sweat dripped in my eyes and I wished my bike had an even lower gear, I noticed the sun lingering in the cloudless sky, promising a few more hours of daylight. My favorite trail waited a short pedal away.

“Point Trail?” I asked Keith after I’d caught up with him “I think we have ti—.”

Keith was off again, no convincing needed. Because in a place like Copper Harbor, there’s always time for another trail. The village might not have cellular service or espresso but it has more of what matters—trails snaking into deep woods, along with an even deeper sense of tranquility.

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Lake Fanny Hooe, Fort Wilkins, and Lake Superior

We dashed along Point Trail’s rocky spine, rolling through woods and hesitating here and there to enjoy views of Lake Superior, Fort Wilkins State Park, and Lake Fanny Hooe. Toward the end of the trail, sunlight, filtering through trees, brushed golden fingertips across a long boardwalk.

Later, after dinner, as the afternoon sashayed into evening, leaving the forest bathed in shadows and the horizon washed in fuchsia, we walked from our campground a short distance to the Gas Lite, the only convenience store in town, for a soda. An early moon hung in the sky, while waves from Lake Superior murmured, whispering a contented tune, a Copper Harbor lullaby.

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High Rock Point during our first mountain bike trip to Copper Harbor, almost 20 years ago