September sunset

Last light

Jerry and I walked to Earl’s memorial: down Granger way and around the corner to Earl and Donna’s yard. The street in front of their house was blocked to through traffic; cars were being parked in the cow pasture next to the house. About 150 folding chairs were set up on the lawn in front of the house looking across the street, across the blue water of Hale Passage to the Indian Reservation and the mainland beyond. The weather was beautiful — sunny, breezy and warm. In the distant east the mountains were obscured by banks of dark and bright clouds.

As we arrived a military honor guard — a marching group of elderly men in uniform with flags, a bugler and drummer — had just begun their ceremony.  While we were finding seats the guards fired a salute which made me gasp and jump. The honor guard proceeded with parading colors and the flag folding. The flag was presented to Donna. Then the bugler played taps. When they fired their second salute I was prepared so I didn’t jump. There were speeches and hymns and psalms and prayers.

The preacher, a smiling, plump lady, told the story of Earl’s life. Earl was born almost 89 years ago on this small island, the youngest of 11 children. The island was his whole world until the first time he set foot on the mainland when he was 6 years old. He saw a lot of history in his life. At 16 he lied about his age and joined the military to fight in WW II. He fought first in the Pacific theater where he was wounded on Guadalcanal. He spent 18 months recovering in a military hospital and then was sent to Europe and was wounded once again in the Battle of the Bulge. When he came home to Lummi Island he met and married Donna and they had 4 children, 3 boys and a girl. Earl and his brother built roads on the island, developed property, raised cattle, farmed. Earl was chief engineer on the ferry, and was one of the first drivers of the Whatcom Chief, our sturdy little ferry of today. Donna drove the school bus. They worked together, laughed and loved for more than 50 years. They were famous for their warm hospitality and for being generous and charitable to their neighbors.

Some people on this island guard their beaches ferociously and threaten to call the sheriff if someone walks on their beach. Once I said to Donna, I guess I should find out exactly where my beach begins [I have a partial title to some tide lands] and yours ends so I won’t trespass on your beach. Oh, she replied, Earl and I love to see people on our beach.

John Granger, one of Earl and Donna’s sons and our neighbor on Granger Way, began speaking about Earl’s last days. Even at first his voice was choked, but suddenly he stopped and said, “Here comes the ferry.” Then he couldn’t speak for a moment. The ferry with its flags flying in the brisk wind, made a pass in front of Earl and Donna’s yard and gave a 3 toot salute of its horn. Everyone waved as it turned and chugged back to the dock. There were few dry eyes among the guests.

John spoke of his father’s last days. About how one morning Donna stood by the hospital bed set up in the living room so Earl could look out at “his mountain” — Mount Baker. He opened his eyes and looked up at Donna: “You’re a good looking woman,” he said. “You’re having delusions again, Earl,” she replied. Another day she asked how he was feeling. “Horney,” he replied.

Earl was a free spirit, and sometimes his island rules were different from mainland rules. Sometimes he was sought by the game wardens. (There are too many deer on the island anyhow.) When I first moved here Earl, with his backhoe, maintained the ditches along the road for the county. One day I was suddenly lacking phone service. I saw the truck from the telephone company outside installing a new green telephone utility pedestal and I asked what had happened. He said Earl’s backhoe had knocked it over. I said oh dear. The telephone man shrugged. He does it all the time, he said; once he took out 3 in one day.

Many stories were told at the memorial. It was well managed; most of the stories were short and funny, some were touching.

Once when Donna was driving the ancient school bus, fortunately without children in it, the bus lost its brakes just as it was approaching the docked ferry with Earl at the helm. The bus careened  down the ramp and came to a stop just about in the middle of the passenger cabin. Earl came down and said, “Donna, you know how to drive, and you know how to swim. If you’d steered that thing into the water we could have had a fine new bus!”

It was sometime last winter that I heard Earl had metastasized cancer. Nevertheless Jerry and I still saw him, month after month, out on his backhoe, or sawing firewood with his chain saw, or mowing the grass on his riding mower. But his last days were filled with pain. John Granger told us that three weeks before he died he was starting a piece of equipment when pulling the starter cord caused one of his vertebrae to crumble. After that he was confined to bed with morphine to control the pain.

Donna and Earl were a striking couple, even in old age — Donna, almost 6 feet tall and Earl a bit taller. A theme of the stories at the memorial was their lifelong devotion.  They  sustained each other through the worst of life’s troubles — the death of one son in his prime and the paralyzing accident of another in his youth. They lived together, loved and laughed together into their old age and in that they were lucky. Many people find they must live those difficult years alone.

Jerry and I didn’t have the good fortune to spend our whole life together as Earl and  Donna did, but we are lucky to have each other now. When one of us wakes in the night with a scary pain — chest (heart attack?) or headache (stroke?) or begins to notice the failure of a body part– arthritis, a touch of incontinence, a need to get up in the night to pee too frequently, digestive malfunction — it’s comforting to be together, to love and be loved, to understand how the other feels because we’re both in these last years. Even at 80 It’s good to go to bed at night with another person whose body I love to touch. When I get undressed for bed at night and my husband looks at my naked 80 year old body and says softly, “You look nice,” I know what a fortunate woman I am. I am sad for my friends who are alone in their last years.

Of course, one of us will die before the other. One of us will spend some time alone, as Donna now must do. My friend Tammy, who takes care of many of the old people on the island, was helping care for Earl and Donna through his last illness. Tammy told me a story she didn’t tell at the memorial. One day last spring Earl went outside and picked a big bunch of flowers — Tammy thinks perhaps peonies since it was that time of year. He brought them in and gave them to Donna.

“Sorry,” he said.

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13 Responses to September sunset

  1. I’m sorry for everyone who lost Earl. I’m so glad you shared a little about his life with us. You’re such a great, descriptive, writer and I was so touched by your post!

  2. Martha McLemore says:

    To be loved like this is all I ever wanted from life. I’m not dead yet, so there is still hope. I want to be as lucky as you are, Anne.

  3. Such a glorious post. Warm and loving. The emotions this post has stirred in me are a tribute to your writing, and the wonderful man you brought to life for us here. Thank you.

  4. Lucy says:

    A moving story of lives well-lived, I’m sure he’ll be much missed.

  5. Friko says:

    Do they still make Earls and Donnas?
    People who truly are ‘the salt of the earth’ are few and there are fewer every year.

  6. Brigid says:

    Love your stories…so full of life, love, and the human condition.
    Out of the night that covers me,
    Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
    I thank whatever gods may be
    For my unconquerable soul.

    In the fell clutch of circumstance
    I have not winced nor cried aloud.
    Under the bludgeonings of chance
    My head is bloody, but unbowed.

    Beyond this place of wrath and tears
    Looms but the Horror of the shade,
    And yet the menace of the years
    Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

    It matters not how strait the gate,
    How charged with punishments the scroll.
    I am the master of my fate:
    I am the captain of my soul.

    William Ernest Henley

  7. Ernestine says:

    As always
    your sharing touches my heart.
    I am fine most of the time
    and better off alone
    as a Jerry never came along.
    With your sharing
    you almost made me feel as though I should not be alone…

  8. Randy says:

    Been waiting for this one as noticed you two in the back of the crowd. Nicely done. You captured the moment.

  9. Much appreciation for your beautiful capture of the rural northwest and people thriving in it–unknown to me– and another, so familiar, long term coupledom. We are the fortunate few, Anne.

  10. Freda says:

    What a beautiful tale, and such wise words of comfort for those of us getting older. We all need to value the partners and friends we have who share this journey of life with us. Thank you.

  11. Hattie says:

    You really have the gift, Anne. I envy you.

  12. pauline says:

    Such a beautiful way to make someone come alive again if only for a moment and only in the mind and heart.

  13. wisewebwoman says:

    Lovely evocative prose, Anne.

    A moment captured forever.


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