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.”
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.