Exhausted For the Right Reasons

Everyone goes through loss. Some losses are harder than others. Here’s a little story about how I am trying to deal with the death of someone I loved very dearly. It even involves a cutting torch.

So just over a year ago, I lost my auntie angel. Cheryl was a wonderful, sweet, kind and loving young lady who had a developmental disability. She didn’t have visible signs as someone with Down Syndrome might, but it was obvious once a conversation was struck that Cheryl’s functioning was somewhere around that of a 10 year old. When I was a child, Cheryl taught me how to play Go Fish, Pick Up Sticks, Operation and even Monopoly. She taught me about unconditional love and what it means to hurt someone’s feelings. She taught me about kindness and how to never pass a stranger who might need a hand. She also taught me about work ethic- she worked part-time at the same company for over 25 years. She was proud of her job at the copy shop and took delivering newspapers in the building very seriously.

As we both got older, our roles reversed. I was more of the protective adult who helped her than the child on the receiving end. She came to visit me nearly every year regardless of where I lived in the U.S. I took her canoeing and hiking, kayaking and fishing (we threw everything back), and even camping in the Midwestern woods and in the desert Southwest. We cooked together, did crafts together and read together. She loved to join me when I took my 105 lb Great Dane-Weimareiner therapy dog to the local care center. She brought children’s books to read to the residents. She even went with me when I assisted my dive master with a Discover Scuba class in our local pool. Cheryl found the regulator very challenging at first but after a few gallons of water swallowed and a lot of laughter (and a few tears), she was breathing underwater. She was probably the bravest girl I know.

Later in life, I taught Cheryl how to oxy-acetylene cut 1/2″ steel. No lie. She even squeezed the trigger on a GMAW (MIG) gun and attached a couple of pieces of steel. She was so incredibly proud to show her brother (my cool uncle) the chunk of steel she cut. I was so proud of her for stepping out of her comfort zone and trying new things. Constantly.

Then, it happened. Cheryl was diagnosed with cancer. She fought the good fight for a few year and had a terrible time with two rounds of chemo. In the end, she went swiftly as you could only hope for someone so gentle and full of love. And suddenly, there was a giant, gaping hole in our hearts.

I didn’t know what to do. I mean, as a logical person I knew she wouldn’t live forever. But I wasn’t ready. I was looking at properties so that she could eventually come live with me. We talked about the kind of furniture we were going to get for her mother-in-law quarters at our new place. It made no sense that she was gone. Forever. And I was so devastated. My heart was so broken. No more adventures with zucchini noodles. No more sleeping under the Christmas tree on Christmas eve. No more hand-made Cheryl-original potholders sent in the mail. No more contagious Cheryl laugh.

As the months passed, I realized I had to do something to start to feel better. In lieu of flowers at her funeral, we asked for donations to Special Olympics. While she never participated formally in Special Olympics, Cheryl loved to ride her bike, exercise, hike and join in just about any activity offered by her local therapeutic recreation program. She told me she wanted to do Special Olympics but her dad (my grandfather) wasn’t able to take her. We made a deal years ago that she would do Special Olympics when she came to live with me. Well, that ship has sailed, of course. But in her honor, this weekend I ran the Iowa Law Enforcement Half Marathon for Special Olympics. Alongside of me were two people very close to my heart; another amazing person waited and cheered for us at the finish. A few hours later, two more members of my Family of Choice arrived to love and support me. I felt Cheryl and her love. And I am so very grateful.

I will share more about Cheryl at another time but for now know that I am pretty sure she was there when I crossed the finish line yelling, “Good job, hon!” I felt her love. And I think I made her proud. 🙂

-The Wellness Welder

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