During her busy and too-brief life, my wife helped in many nonprofit organizations. I never did. As a working journalist, I kept my distance from good causes. Clear-thinking journalism (always of value, always in short supply) was my way of pitching in.
When I left full-time newspaper work, and agreed to start helping the Homer Foundation, it was not the memory of Sally’s good works that inspired me. Nor was it because I had exceptional amounts of money and time to give. It was because I remembered what it was like to receive.
Some time ago, when our two children were still young, we left our cabin in the woods out East Road for a year-long journalism fellowship at Stanford University. It was a good year, but just as it ended, Sally fell ill and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. Her disease was advanced and the treatment was awful. Paid vacation turned into homesick exile, as we spent six additional months in California.
We all were nervous on the flight back to Alaska, Sally especially. It was just before Christmas, the middle of winter, the dark season. Our cabin was a half-mile off the road, buried in snowdrifts. Skiing back and forth, as we did when the snow got deep, would be exhausting. We had to unpack and set up the house after a long absence, and I had to get back to work. Cabin life was rigorous enough when healthy.
But Sally was eager to get our kids back to their proper home, in time for the holiday. Her prognosis was not good, and this might be the last time she unpacked and hung the familiar ornaments.
We landed in Homer on a mid-morning flight — sun up, no wind, the first blue sky in weeks. A few friends were there to meet us. They brought our car and told us they’d stocked the refrigerator. We drove straight out east, just the four of us, and parked in our familiar snowbank. I loaded a sled with suitcases and we hiked the half-mile through deep snow, following a path that somebody trudged open for us. I missed the clue. We climbed the steps and opened the door.
The cabin had been cleaned spotlessly and buffed, the newly refinished pine floor gleaming in the low sunlight, white lights blinking around all the windows, flower arrangements of white daisies and red poppies, jars of Christmas cookies, meals in the freezer, and new blue tiles covering the wall behind the woodstove. The Monitor stove hummed complacently.
Hanging from a beam in the center of the house was a brightly colored throng of birds, strings of folded paper cranes in the shape of a Christmas tree. I set aside the accompanying card when I heard Emily and Ethan squealing from the back rooms.
I expected to encounter a skyline of stacked shipping boxes, but the boxes were gone, everything put away, the rooms decorated and cozy, their little beds made up. We walked around, kids exclaiming over each new discovery, Sally weeping softly.
We climbed the ladder to our room and there across the bed lay a friendship quilt with twenty patches, each hand-sewn by someone different.
That night, as I cleaned up after dinner, wood stove crackling, we heard voices out in the darkness. From the window we saw lanterns rising over the snowy hill. Soon there were maybe 30 carolers in the snow before our house. They carried a big golden star, made of waxed paper and wire and lit from within by a candle.
We put on heavy coats and went out on the porch while they sang. Ethan, 6 years old, bounced happily from one bare foot to the other, and Sally smiled at him helplessly. In the candlelight were faces of our McNeil Canyon neighbors, families from the kids’ schools, friends from town. They sang and welcomed us home and then left us at peace, trekking off through the snow into the night.
We carried the paper star into our warm, bright cabin and set it by the hanging paper cranes. I picked up the unopened card, from a Homer friend, and handed it to Sally. She opened it and read aloud:
“Dear Sally, The Japanese say, if you fold a thousand cranes, you get one wish. I give my wish to you.”
Homer author Tom Kizzia serves on the Homer Foundation board.