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Lighting up the night in small-town Alaska

Heather Lende
Heather Lende photo

The first annual Hospice of Haines "Light the Night" gathering was Friday, with luminarias set all along the dark school track on a breezy and cold October evening, when the souls of the departed felt very close. It was harder on my heart than I expected. The luminarias were basically fancy white paper bags with a kind of window pane cardboard grid inside to hold their shape, a bag of sand to keep them from blowing away, and an L.E.D. electric candle with Nancy's beautiful handwriting inscribing the name of a loved one who had passed away on it. Some had just first names, some had first and last and a middle initial. 

I got mine labeled Mom, and then marched off down the crunchy dirt track following the lights from the few other luminarias already there -- a dozen flickering patio torches and the distant street lights and library parking lot lights -- to place it on the quarter mile track.

But soon I slowed down. Reading the names on the other bags -- the ones all alone and the ones with someone kneeling to set it just so, or standing beside it: Bobbi, Madeleine, Norman, Victor, Dennis, Andrew, Tom, Russ, Pete, Lib, Kevery -- made me pause. It was a Who's Who of people I knew and loved, and had written the obituaries for. On top of that, the living people I passed in the dark were silent, holding hands, or hugging, or crying and setting down more and more bags. Some names I didn't know, but they were the mothers, fathers, siblings, children, spouses, lovers, friends and neighbors of people I do know, and that somehow made it harder, knowing how sad they must be.

So there I was, carrying my bag marked "Mom," thinking: who would she want to be near? No doubt the library end of the field would appeal to her, she donated to the new library building fund back when we were raising money for it. She was a reader and a teacher. But I passed that back corner and kept walking. She might like Dennis's sense of humor and his Steve Martin mannerisms and looks. She would also get a kick out of Kevery's capable yet crazy ways. She had admired the stool he made of split alder and teak scraps for my daughter JJ when she was too small to ring the cash register at our lumberyard, where he was a regular. She and Madeleine could talk gardening. But Lib was so interesting, being a historian, and a piano player like my mother, she may like to stop by her. I finished my lap and still had Mom in my hand.

So I did another.

By now I was kind of crumbling and couldn't see well. I could hear everyone laughing and chatting at the refreshment tent, so I cut it really wide on my third pass.

Not only was I having trouble with where to set Mom, with each luminaria I read, I thought of someone else who I should add one for. The list was so long that I'd be walking a marathon at this rate. Luckily, the motion helped. After a mile and a half, I started to smile. My mother would have thought this was pretty funny. It was almost like I heard her saying, "Please, no wailing or gnashing of teeth." She was an East Coast Episcopalian. The definition of "stiff upper lip." Which is why I put her down next to the friendly and irreverent furniture salesman, snow machine racer, and all around fun guy Dennis. They would not have (and never did) rub shoulders in life.

Feeling better, I picked up another luminaria for my father-in-law. I made two loops with my bag marked Phil, and then set him down next to Mom, and Dennis. Phil and Dennis would have hit it off instantly, and Phil could bridge the gap between Dennis and Mom. Still, it was not easy putting down my lovable father-in-law and walking away from him. I knew I couldn't keep adding all the missing bags I was listing in my head. My heart was sore and so were my knees.

So after a few more laps to compose myself, I asked Nancy if she would write two names on one bag for my neighbor Betty, who wasn't there -- it was cold and dark and she's almost 80 -- since I knew she'd like to include her husband and son. Plus, I thought the no-nonsense Alaskan fishermen would be interesting company for Phil, Mom, and of course Dennis, in my little island of light.

Around nine, as we packed up the tent and luminaria fixings, the other Hospice board members and staff agreeing that it had been a much more popular event than we had anticipated. There were a lot of luminarias out on that track and field. "We should have made it clearer that they could take the bags home," Nancy said. Some people did. But honestly, I feel better knowing someone else had to figure out where to put Mom, Phil, Don, Jonathan and Dennis.

When I said that I thought it was all really sad, the grief counselor said, "You do? I don't." She was comforted by this affirmation of lives well lived. Lives that clearly mattered and aren't forgotten.

"This is life," she said, looking out at the lights. "There's more of us out there than there are here." She likes knowing that. The same way, I suppose, that I liked the way the stars were twinkling in the heavens over my roof when I got home. 

Heather Lende writes from Haines. Her new book is "Take Good Care of the Garden and the Dogs." This post originally appeared on her blog. It has been reprinted with permission.