During the spring of 1997, my niece Shaelyn and I stepped into a star-filled night bursting with a celestial glow. Incandescent light from streetlamps pooled nearby but never washed over the dark corner where three-month-old Shae and I stood. She rode in my arms as we left behind my grandfather’s house. Adult chatter and inactivity had stirred Shae into an inconsolable restlessness for which the only cure was movement.
Shae tilted her head back, seeming to forget the dull world we had escaped. The inky night and slivers of twinkling lights mesmerized her. Squirming, she flung tiny hands to the heavens, grasping at the solar system.
My wishes were more earthbound. I simply wanted to memorize the evening, carrying it with me forever. It was one of my earliest experiences as an aunt, the first time I fully understood the breadth of a child’s imagination and a hint at how inspiring my nieces and nephews would become.
As the years went on, Shae never lost her desire for motion. One afternoon, while watching her ride her quarter-horse Billy during a 4-H competition, she again appeared restless. It was easy to imagine Shae and Billy sprinting across the arena and leaping over the fence.
In my mind, she bolted along the sagebrush-dotted fields. Her brown braid bounced on her back. Turquoise eyes narrowed into slits as she surveyed her escape route. Then she vanished from sight, a tiny speck galloping toward the Owyhee Mountains.
That scene grew in my imagination. Taking pen to paper, I transported Shae back to the late 1800s, added a lariat to her saddle, and ended up with a novel, The All-True Adventures of Shaelyn Cheyenne.* Her wonderful name—a mixture of Celtic princess, Shaelyn (meaning “one whom is noble” or “from the fairy palace”, depending on the source)—and rodeo queen, Cheyenne—had always deserved to be part of a title or on a marquee.
But the real Shaelyn was, of course, my preferred companion over the fictional one. From bike rides to Barbie dolls to books like The Napping House and a love for Harry Potter recorded books, we shared hours of entertainment and companionship.
I was there on the first day she skied and later marveled at her ability to snowboard. The poetry she wrote for a high school project impressed me with its depth—yet she was completely unaware of her talent—while her ability to mimic always made me laugh.
And now the girl who wanted to capture that starry night almost 24 years ago has her own baby, Hayden Kelly.
She has opened her heart to not only a daughter but a family, including husband Joe and two-year-old Max. In Shae, I see her mother, my sister Kelly—both full of unconditional love and selflessness.
Shae continues to inspire, to be everything that I observed when she was a girl; however, her influence has strengthened beyond merely adventures and games. She has grown into a loving parent, niece, and sister.
In a sense our positions have reversed—when she was little, I tried to be her example. But now I follow her lead.
Happy birthday, Shae! Here’s to many more starry memories and a lifetime of inspiration!
* The plot involved a quest to rescue a kidnapped mythical horse—think the 1960s TV show The Wild Wild West.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
I don’t remember who first told me about the author Naomi Novik. Perhaps, like one of the heroines from her novels Uprootedand 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.
But to whoever gave me her name, I owe a debt of literary gratitude. Since I first opened Uprootedin 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, Uprootedand Spinning Silver particularly resonated with me, probably due to the strong female protagonists 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.
The 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)
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?
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.
So 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.
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.
My family and I have been overwhelmed by the response to Quilting Cancer—thank 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.
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.
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.