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.”