By Tim Whyte
I’m not often at a loss for words. But that’s where I was a couple of weeks ago, when my mom texted me at work and said, “Please call me at home if you can.”
My mom doesn’t do that. I knew right away, something was up.
I called immediately, and that’s when she told me: My cousin Cheryl, just about to turn 47 years old, had died.
I was dumbstruck.
My sister Lori — who was especially close to Cheryl — and I have eight cousins on my mom’s side of the family. My mom is one of five siblings who each had two kids. Symmetrical. Five siblings, 10 kids total.
There are six of us in Southern California, two in Arizona. Cheryl and her sister Shawnee have lived in Utah for the past several decades, along with my uncle Neil and aunt Linda.
On May 10, Cheryl became the first of the 10 cousins to move on to What’s Next.
It was wholly unexpected. Cheryl was a vibrant soul, and the quintessential smartass. She was a brand new grandma, as her daughter Ally has just recently brought the most adorable baby girl into the family.
The days since Cheryl’s death have been difficult for the whole family, but most difficult on Neil and Linda. No one should have to bury their kid.
I’m not really a “heart on my sleeve” kind of guy. But over these past couple of weeks, I’ve learned a lot about life and love. It’s been a roller coaster.
As timing would have it, the celebration of life for my cousin Cheryl was scheduled for last Friday in Salt Lake City.
And, as timing would have it, my 23-year-old son and I had made a previous commitment, for the day before, at the beach in El Segundo. My boss had kindly agreed to let me be away from the office, on a Thursday, to hang out at the beach.
A day at the beach, you say? Tough duty, I know.
But there was a special purpose to this trip to the beach. A friend of our family is connected to a charity that helps kids and their families who are affected by osteosarcoma, a deadly form of bone cancer.
The nonprofit organization, called MIB Agents (“Making It Better”), was working to help the family of a 17-year-old girl from Iowa. Kenzy is in the late stages of the cancer, and she’d never seen the ocean.
So, a la Make A Wish, the organization sought to bring Kenzy and her family — including her six siblings — to the Southland so she could get the full Hollywood Experience, and attend a real beach party in her honor.
That’s where we came in. They were looking for someone with a motor home to park at Dockweiler Beach in case Kenzy needed a place to rest during the beach party.
We’d already committed to be there for Kenzy’s beach party, and really didn’t want to bail out on that. But, I wanted to get to Salt Lake City on Friday, too.
So it was decided: After the beach party ended on Thursday night, we would break camp, drive the RV home and hop in a car and then drive overnight to Salt Lake City to be with my family and honor Cheryl.
The road trip would have sounded like a grand adventure under happier circumstances.
We took the RV down to Dockweiler on Wednesday night, and on Thursday helped get things set up for the beach party, complete with a campfire right on the sand. MIB rented a sand wheelchair for Kenzy, so she could join her family and approximately 30 guests out on the beach. She’s had one leg amputated due to the cancer and isn’t able to get around without assistance.
Once Kenzy and her family arrived, I was struck by how happy they were. And that kid — she’s got a million-dollar smile.
Luc and I helped out a bit — he manned the gas grill and I manned the charcoal grill, but it should have been the other way around because I burned the hot dogs over the charcoal.
For the most part we stayed on the periphery of things. This was a moment for Kenzy and her family and we didn’t need to inject ourselves into that.
There was a point where she did, indeed, need to rest, and she took refuge in the RV with a few family members and her hospice nurse. We cleared out, and let them have the space to themselves. That rest gave her the energy she needed to be taken to the water’s edge, where she watched with joy as her younger siblings splashed around.
By the time Kenzy’s family packed into the passenger van/limo that had been rented for them, Kenzy had that smile of someone who’s just had the experience of a lifetime.
Damn, I learned a lot from Kenzy and her family. On that day, they were living. And living well, no matter what challenges they are facing together.
After it was over, Luc and I packed up the RV and made our way home. We did a quick unload of the RV at our house in Saugus, loaded the car, and headed out for Salt Lake City.
We drove through the night and got to Salt Lake with a few hours to spare before the celebration of Cheryl’s life.
It was one of those events where you see family you haven’t seen in a long time and you immediately regret that it took such awful circumstances to bring you back together.
First time I really lost it? When I saw my uncle Neil. For the first time I saw him not only as my uncle, but also as a fellow Dad. And he was a Dad with a broken heart.
God bless him and Linda, they held it together really well that day.
There were somber moments, lighthearted moments, tears, and a few laughs, too, as memories of Cheryl were shared.
Not long after her death, one of Cheryl’s friends posted a joke on Facebook, saying she could totally imagine Cheryl saying this:
“At my funeral, grab the bouquet off my casket and toss it into the crowd to see who’s next.”
Yep. That’s perfect. It’s something Cheryl definitely would have said, in all her irreverent glory. And thankfully, at her celebration of life, no one actually tried it.
Afterward, a bunch of us out-of-towners who had made the trip convened at the hotel. We had come prepared with adult beverages and we loaded up on pizza while reminiscing and blowing off steam.
We all agreed, it shouldn’t take a death in the family to bring us all together and take a break from our invariably busy lives.
As we started the drive back home the next morning, I reflected a lot, and I felt drained from the emotional roller coaster of the past couple of days.
Witnessing Kenzy as she joyfully watched her siblings play while the sun set over the Pacific. The hurry and scurry of an overnight road trip to Salt Lake City. The look on my uncle Neil’s face when I first saw him at Cheryl’s celebration of life.
And one more moment.
Toward the end of the event held in Cheryl’s memory, uncle Neil pushed his new great-granddaughter, Maddie, in her stroller, outside for a walk. I think he just needed a break from… all of it.
He was gone for a while, and when he came back inside, he brought news:
“There’s a double rainbow outside,” he said, choking up a bit, and pointing toward the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains. “It’s Cheryl.”
I believe it was.
Tim Whyte is editor of The Signal. His column appears Sundays. On Twitter: @TimWhyte.