In some ways, this has been one of the most difficult weekends of my life, and in other ways, it has been an experience I wouldn't trade for anything.
I am the type of person you want to have around in a bad situation. I respond well in emergencies because I can control my emotions and keep a level head. This very much comes from my father who is a former volunteer firefighter and hospital chaplain. From him I learned how to recognize needs and see a way to fulfill them. But I also have equal parts of my mom in me. My mother is the most soft-hearted person I know. Every action she takes is motivated by compassion, so I have learned to emulate that by example.
Being with the (Walquist) Winn family this weekend afforded me the opportunity to put both of these traits into action. Ashley has three little brothers and eight cousins along with five aunts and four uncles on her mom's side, which made for a very full house at grandma's. I spent much of my time cooking, cleaning and wrangling kids, all tasks that made me feel useful in a situation I felt so helpless about.
I come from a rather large family, so I'm used to cooking and cleaning for a small army. The food basically took care of itself as Paul, Idaho, a town of 998 people, rallied around the family and filled the house to the rafters with meals and snakes for the kids. All I had to do was make sure the kids ate more than just fruit roll-ups and that the appropriate food was heated and on the counter before people got too hungry. I've also had a lot of practice making lists and then making sure everything gets done on those lists, which came in handy Monday morning when kids needed baths, last-minute items needed to be picked up at the store and everyone needed to be on time for the funeral.
Being with the kids so much also meant I had a pretty much constant supply of hugs and kisses as long as I didn't mind being run into the ground by adolescent boys, answering endless questions about death and dealing with a wide array of extremely strong emotions coming from children who didn't know what to do with their grief. But they were as much a comfort to me as I hope I was to them. We spent a lot of time together both talking about Ashley and trying to keep our minds off what was going on around us.
So from fingers stuck in an elevator door to 30 helium balloons attempting to escape before the appropriate time to a very lonely puppy licking my feet at 5 a.m., I managed to keep pretty busy this weekend. And while the thought of giving the service invocation made me sick to my stomach, I got through it with minimal mascara-runnage while still being able to take comfort in the words that were spoken by the people who loved Ashley best.
Now that I've had a chance to sit still and be alone with my thoughts for a few moments, I can't believe Ashley is really gone. I already miss her smile and laugh and complete love for life. She was my dear little friend who taught me more than she could possibly know. I feel so blessed to have had the opportunity to love Ashley and be loved by her in return.
The next few weeks and months (and possibly years) will be extremely difficult for her family, but knowing them like I do, they will come away from this a stronger family. Her three little brothers will learn that Ashley wasn't just a gift to them, but they were also a gift to her. They have so much love and joy yet to give this world, and I know I will enjoy watching them grow into the amazing young men I know they will become. Connie and Jason are also two of the most incredible people I have even had the pleasure of knowing. The love that binds that family is a rare gift that was not given to them by chance.
As I make my 2,000-mile return trip today, my heart breaks a little knowing I am leaving so many people I love so much behind. I wish I could stay to cook and clean and tend them back to happiness. If only life were that simple. A little piece of me will always be buried in the Paul, Idaho, cemetery, but the next time I am there, I will be able to place a little bouquet of flowers tied in a purple ribbon on Ashley's grave, knowing that she is in a better place without the pain and suffering she felt on this earth. I will see Ashley again. I will hear her laugh once more. I will be greeted by that great, big smile of hers and know that she is happy to see me again, too.
Until then, I have faith in the Lord's promise: "I will be on your right hand and on your left, and my Spirit shall be in your hearts, and mine angels round about you to bear you up" (D&C 84:88). That little angel is still with us. Our hearts might be failing in this moment, but I truly believe that joy comes in the morning (Psalms 30:5).