Jack’s Celebration, USA

We did it. After 777 days (2 years, 1 month, and 15 days), we returned to the USA for a visit, one that had been tugging at our heartstrings for a long time, a gathering to celebrate my dad, Jack. He died on May 14, 2020. As many know or can likely understand, it’s been nearly impossible to plan anything or gather safely to celebrate the ones we’ve lost during the pandemic. It’s been crushing, to say the least.

One thought that’s gotten me through is that I know my dad wouldn’t want us or anyone else to travel if it were risky, which is ironic because he did some risky things.

There’s a reason we gather as humans soon after a loss. It’s serves a healing purpose to connect broken hearts, face to face, but my family is spread across 3 countries, 5 states, and 5 time zones. Add a big scary pandemic on top of that, and it’s one big painful jumble of disjointedness. My family (and so many others) couldn’t go through this grief process on a similar timeline and physically be together. It sucks. Nobody knows anyone else’s grief, but I do think when we grieve together, it does help.

As covid cases came down and summer and fall approached, Wendy was considering ideas for a Livingston, Montana gathering because she and the community needed one after waiting so very long. To be honest, we all needed to gather, but you do what you can in these times, and focusing on the Montana friend bubble made sense. It’s no surprise to anyone that Jack and Wendy have acquired many friends in this community over the past 25 years. We were comforted by the fact that this love-filled community has been and continues to be a steady and supportive network for Wendy. We are deeply grateful, particularly since international travel has been complicated by covid.

The summer appeared to be a safe time to gather, but Tatiana and Joe didn’t have their second vaccine shot yet and Taiwan was tightening borders due to Delta which complicated our travels. Planning wise, nothing felt easy and waiting much longer would mean the weather would be too cold to gather in fresh air. A September date was eventually set.

It may seem like an obvious decision to go to our father’s memorial celebration, but it wasn’t. I think any reasonable parent would feel conflicted asking their kids (or anyone, really) to fly during a pandemic. We sensed that from Wendy, and it was complicated by the fact that we would now have a 2-week hotel quarantine on the return to Taiwan.

We were grateful that a gathering was happening and of course we wanted to be there, but …. covid! Our pull to go only increased when we learned that Jack’s three brothers also felt a pull and ultimately decided that they were going to attend, driving from Pennsylvania and Maryland (to avoid domestic flights, due to covid). While the family parts weren’t coordinated, things snowballed when Tati received her second vaccine shot. We felt we could safely travel and gather. Rather quickly, Tatiana, Joe, Scott, and I decided to buy tickets. We would land in Montana 4 days later.

This post has been difficult to write because photos of my dad bring me to tears, but I think that’s why I want to capture it, face it, process it. There’s something cathartic in the process and with sharing the experience of grief (and celebration) with friends and family. I think we’ve been deprived of it for too long.

Sister Reunion

After being apart for 22 months, I can’t explain the joy of seeing Tatiana (she landed a day after us). Just surreal. Same goes for Wendy but I don’t have a photo of our airport hug reunion. It was equally heart-filling.

Masked up because we needed to test negative to fly back to Asia. Stakes were high with Delta and SO MANY unvaccinated people here! Eeks.
It had been over 3 years since I’d seen my 3 uncles, (Jack’s brothers) L to R: Tom, Jim, & Paul. This was a happy day.
A Place To Be With Jack

One of the first places I wanted to visit was my dad’s memorial bench, which was put in last year by the Livingston community. It’s a couple blocks from our house, placed next to a beautiful lagoon along the Yellowstone River with incredible views to get lost in. It’s a peaceful setting and, like Wendy, I found myself gravitating toward it over the week to be with Jack and have some good cries.

The 9/12 Celebration

The gathering took place on a Sunday, three days after we landed. Surprisingly we had kicked jet lag pretty well this time with good old-fashioned sleep and sunlight to help reset. The happy-hour-storytelling-thank-you-to-the community style gathering took place in the afternoon, on the second story of Rob’s barn, which is where my dad played ping pong every Friday night with his buddies. It was a meaningful setting for sentimental reasons and also for a pandemic because the barn provided lots of fresh air. Thank you for sharing your space with us, for Jack, Rob. It means a lot.

Tatiana, me, Rob ❤️, and Wendy

We asked guests to turn off their phones and be present at the gathering so I didn’t take any pics of the interior set up, but imagine this …

A very large open airy space on the second story, all the side doors and windows thrown open for air flow and beautiful light, a colorful and eclectic collection of guest’s BYO lawn chairs, twinkly glass lights, two large tables draped in Wendy’s pretty floral tablecloths, brightly colored yellow and white flower arrangements next to large bowls of my dad’s favorite happy hour snacks; unshelled peanuts and Pennsylvania Extra Dark “Splits” pretzels. Since no happy would be complete for Jack without good beer, locally brewed Neptune’s Brewery Pine Creek Pale Ale was on tap.

(Kindly be considerate of our family’s wishes and do not share any photos from the gathering including this blog post on social media. This is a personal blog for family and close friends only. Thank you.)

There was live music by very dear and talented family friends …

Lisa Barrett, Sam, Mary, and AB played Snow Day Waltz, a favorite of Jack’s when he was learning to play the fiddle.

There was a beautiful slide show of photos that Wendy put together to If Not For You by Bob Dylan and I Will by the Beatles, followed by open storytelling by anyone who had one to share, which were many.

Shelly Bessler closed by singing and playing Don’t Forget About Me by Nancy Griffith.

It was perfectly Jack. Comfortable and easy-going.

Five humans with Jack DNA. How lucky are we?

To those that were able to come, thank you! And thank you for being vaccinated, wearing a mask inside, and sharing a memory you had of my dad.

As his daughter, all your storytelling memories match the spirit of mine. Jack was authentic, humble, sweet, witty, fearless, and he loved to scramble atop any cliff he could, particularly when the stars were aligned, so he could moon the moon.

Which is how my sister and I honored him on his birthday, four days later on 9/17, hiking Suce Creek…

The skinny dip was mentally uplifting! Permission to laugh and have a good time while grieving is essential.
After the dip and hike, we had a picnic and toasted Jack on his birthday.
We made a fitting shrine.

In total, we spent 10 days in Livingston and because covid cases were exploding by the day (and continue to) among the unvaccinated we didn’t step foot in one restaurant or grocery store. We also maintained a very small hugging network, which requires a certain restraint at a memorial gathering. Tatiana tackled this gracefully with a sharpie marker on her white face mask, “No hugs for me. I love you!”

The one place we did poke our masked nose in is where Wendy gets her therapy. She volunteers baking delicious breads and goodies for the Livingston Community Bakery, part of the Livingston Food Resource Center. It’s an essential not-for-profit org that Jack fully supported by taste testing all “fat pills” that crossed his breakfast plate. It’s an exciting addition to the Livingston community which didn’t exisit last time we were home. Check them out and support them if you can.

Free front porch cat therapy sessions.
Yellowstone River Float

Gunner, our neighbor friend, was kind enough to take our family on a gorgeous river float. This is something we always try to do when we’re home, but we’re usually paddling our own vessels. It was a relaxing treat with Gunner providing all the muscles this time. Thanks, Gunner! You’re a super fun sweetheart!

Many S.O.J. (Spirits of Jack) on this float as we spotted several raptors along the banks. Uncle Jim didn’t catch any fish off the back, but looked good trying, and we enjoyed a delicious riverside picnic and lots of cold beverages together.

Me, Scott, Wendy, Gunner, Uncle Jim, Uncle Paul
Tatiana & Joe went side-saddle in kayaks.
Cathartic Hike

One thing I had been hoping to do when I eventually got home was hike on Rob’s property, with Rob (he hosted the gathering in his barn). He was kind enough to take my family out one afternoon. His property is close to our home and to the site where my dad died. I wasn’t ready to visit the actual site where Jack fell, the eagles’ nest, but this area has a similar beauty to it, and it’s a place my dad and I hiked when I was home last in 2019.

Mountain sage – a sniffy memory of home and my dad
Grizzly Happy Hour

One of our last nights together, we drove to Tom Minor Basin to observe grizzly bears at a great distance. It was a beautiful evening, and we saw some grizzly bears munching on grasses and roots.

So happy to be with this woman!

Family! Paul, Tom, Scott, Tatiana, me, Jim, and Wendy (Joe was in Wyoming with his family).
A hard trip, but a good one

I anticipated this trip for so long. It was often a swirl of complicated emotions ranging between fear and happiness. It was good to get back, but it was emotional. We’re all still grieving, and in different phases of our grief. For Tatiana and myself, we had 10 days to absorb the physical loss of Jack not being with us, not picking us up at the airport with his big hug and peck of a kiss, him simply not being in any of the spaces and places he’s always been when we come home. It’s not enough time to desensitize. It left us feeling shell-shocked. Many days it felt like we were in our own grief bubbles, lacking adequate tools to comfort others, sometimes even ourselves. Grief is like that.

The good news is we’ve started to re-connect again (thanks to vaccines and boosters) and that’s a good thing. Let’s toast that our futures permit more of these types of reunions so we can gather with more family and friends and continue storytelling in honor of Jack.

One of my dad’s favorite, worthy of many toasts!

Pickles & Passionfruit


The P.S. Part

Aside from being in the great outdoors, I feel my dad in his workshop. I feel him when I pick up his woodworking tools, read notes he jotted down while listening to the radio, sniff wood dust and chips, see his collections of pencils, feathers, rocks, and mementos tacked to the walls… like my NW Airlines luggage tag receipt from Boston, January 2004. My dad made me feel loved and looking through his things I felt it 1,000 times over.

I’ll leave you with something lightehearted and very Jack. It’s a note he left my sister, Tatiana, when she lived in the ‘hood, in a house owned by Wendy and my dad (the Landlord).

Stopped by 4 biweekly inspection (heard complaints of animal abuse) but everything “seems” to be in order. Keep up good work. Your Landlord
We miss you, Jack.

10 thoughts on “Jack’s Celebration, USA

  1. Absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful Sarah. So happy you were all able to come together to celebrate Jack’s life.

    1. Oh Sarah, I am so glad that you were all able to get together to celebrate Jack’s life. I feel that I have been able to learn so much more about him from your beautiful words. I know he is very proud of you.

  2. My eyes are still wet from reading your beautiful retelling. It’s easy to see why I love you so much-you come from an incredible group of curious people who enjoy life fully. One of the reasons memorials are so important to me is the stories we hear when we all gather together, which could only be sparked by hearing others. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. Safe travels. Xoxo

  3. Beautifully, movingly expressed; thank you, Sarah. And the photos are great too. Everything came together like the elements of a fine piece of carpentry to honor and remember your dad and I’m so glad we were able to host the remembrance here.

  4. Wow, your words, photos and all these comments are so perfect, bringing me to tears. It’s a wonderful feeling to be so loved by our father’s, but also makes it that much harder when we lose them. I can’t wait to hang out with y’all more and Jack will always have a strong presence in our hearts. Thanks for sharing this beautiful piece. Love & hugs across the miles to you and all of Jack’s beautiful family.

  5. Beautiful details shared to honor a great man and process his absence, thank you. I’m so glad you were able to make it back for the gathering. And your PS section – same same. It doesn’t make it any easier but the visceral memories remind us that they were here and lived well. Love you!

  6. Your words captured this beautifully. I could feel all the feels. Beyond grateful you were able to go to this and celebrate your Dad. Love, love love this post. ❤️

  7. Oh, Sarah, you write so beautifully about this time of being together at last to remember your father. All the pictures bring your words to life. I am sorry not to have known this extraordinary man, but so grateful that we know you through my mother.

  8. I shed some tears while reading your beautiful heart & soul-filled words along with the meaningful pictures about your trip home. I’m so glad that you and Tati were able to be with your family to commemorate and celebrate your dad’s life…an amazing man, an awesome dad, husband, brother and clearly a good friend to many! I am thankful for the pleasure of sharing a meal with him and Wendy when they visited Portland. I am beyond grateful for YOU, dear friend!

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