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It comes in threes?

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It comes in threes?

River Journal experiences the loss of three good friends in May

In May, a series of losses hit the River Journal and, even more so, the staff at Keokee Publishing, with the deaths of three of our good friends.

On Monday, May 4, Dennis Nicholls, who founded this publication you hold in your hands back in December of 1993, died in Noxon, Mont. After leaving the River Journal, Dennis wrote two popular hiking guides for Keokee—Trails of the Wild Cabinets, and Trails of the Wild Selkirks. Dennis died of an infection called coccidioidomycosis, or Valley Fever.

On Wednesday, May 20, just a few hours after I had promised to return the next week with organic, black bean soup, Carole Eldridge died. She was not just a wonderful friend, Carole was the pulse of Keokee, keeping all those creative types in line and on track through the years. Because Keokee steps in when the River Journal needs Sandpoint office functions, Carole was often the public face for this magazine. Carole died after a year-long battle with lung cancer.

On Friday, May 29, the big heart of Dick Wentz could take no more. Dick worked for Ducks Unlimited Magazine before moving to Sandpoint. Here, he edited Flyfisher Magazine, published by Keokee, and for a brief but amazingly memorable six-month stint in 2001, worked for the River Journal as well. A fellow Walter Payton fan, Dick actually got to spend a week with Payton doing an interview, an experience he shared with me over many a beer. Dick had struggled with heart problems for many years.

My mother would say that tragedy comes in threes, but May brought me face-to-face with loss in other ways as well. In the early morning hours of May 9, in a somewhat frantic phone call from my son, he related his experience witnessing a murder in Coeur d’Alene—and I knew that the innocence of a child raised in a small town had died. And on Friday, June 5, I will experience a different kind of loss when my youngest daughter and my last child at home, Amy Gannon, walks through the middle of the gymnasium at Clark Fork High School and, with many of her own good friends, will accept the diploma that signifies her graduation from high school and her embarkation on the next stage of her life—a stage that does not include living at home with Mom. Graduation is a year-long preparation, but May is its most frantic month.

I have therefore spent much of May contemplating the process of letting go, an action I am not very good at and never very comfortable with. I have cried, visited with friends, drank wine, read books and poems, cried some more, listened to music, cherished a thousand memories, and gone through hundreds of photographs as I remember all the wonderful people and events that I’ve been so blessed to experience thus far in my life. I can’t say that any of these things have made me able to cope with the losses May brought to me—truthfully, I’m not sure that I’m coping at all. It’s a struggle to get through every day, and I’ve cried more this month than I have in the last few years. I keep hearing Sheryl Crow singing “this isn’t how it’s really meant to be.” But each and every morning the sun rises anew and I get out of bed, drink that first cup of coffee, and face a new day in a new world where things have changed in ways I never expected.

Although many think it originated in the Bible, it was the Anglican church’s Book of Common Prayer that brought us the words, “in the midst of life, we are in death.” I don’t actually have a clue what that means, but I sense that it might be rather profound. It may simply be a reminder that here, too, we all will go, but somehow, in those words, I sense that life has purpose, even if I don’t always know what that purpose is supposed to be.

I know that Dennis, Carole and Dick changed my life in enormous ways. Their existence, and their friendship, made me a better person than I would have been otherwise. Likewise Dustin was changed by his friendship with Tim Wolfe, as short as that friendship turned out to be, and he will undoubtedly be changed by what he saw on the night that Tim’s life ended. Amy will change as she goes off to college and encounters a world so much bigger than this little town of Clark Fork, in the same way that her life was shaped by growing up here, where everyone knows her and most of those love her. These experiences we have, if we choose to let them, can help us become more than what we would have been.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe life has no real purpose at all, and if that’s the case, then I need to embrace what I’ve been given even closer than I do now, because this might just be all we’ve got.

Which brings me back to loss, surprisingly enough, because like everyone, life gives me loss; sometimes more loss than I think I can handle.

So my response to May has been—to become a non-smoker; to embrace yet another loss in my life. (If “losing” smoking sounds weird, then you’ve never been a smoker.)

Interestingly enough, this has nothing to do with death—if the health risks of smoking really made a difference to smokers, there wouldn’t be any smokers. Instead, it has to do with having power over my life, and as a smoker, I’m not the one in control. For any smokers out there still in denial about this, let me just remind you of how it feels when it’s late at night, the stores are closed, and you realize you’re out of cigarettes.

I don’t know how long I’ll live, but I do know that one day I’ll die. And I know it’s likely I will leave behind people who will mourn and who will think that I deserved more time, just as I think that Dennis, Carole, Dick and Dustin's friend Tim were taken much too soon. What I hope, however, is that even though they would want more for me, they will look at my life and believe that I lived it to the fullest extent I could—and that I didn’t live any more of it chained to a drug addiction that does me no good.

And of course, when I go, I hope that A.P. Carter was right after all, and that the circle will be unbroken—that Dennis, Carole, Dick, my brother Boyd, my sister Faye, my nephew Chuck and my father and grandmother and others will be there to welcome me home. My grandma will pour the whiskey that I’ll still refuse to drink; Tyler Pesce will put on some music I really won’t like even though he’ll insist I will;  Carole and I will kick back to enjoy the sunset, and Dennis will show up late to the party ‘cause he was out hiking some mountain range that he just couldn’t resist. If I’m really lucky, my cat Dumpster will come curl himself into my lap, and the next part of my journey will begin.

Until then... Go with God, my friends. We, and I, miss you very much.

As I finished the final edits on this story, I learned that Will Menghini has died. He was an awesome young (middle-aged) man. So Will... you too, go with God.

A memorial service for Dennis Nicholls will be held on July 26, the day after his birthday. Friends are encouraged before then to enjoy the mountain trails created by “Straight-Up Joe” (as Dennis and Sandy called him) that Dennis enjoyed so much himself.

The service in remembrance of Carole will take place on June 14 at 2 pm at the lovely Oden Bay Hall. In the Hawaiian tradition, guests are asked to wear ‘aloha’ clothes—bright colors and flowers (definitely no black). If you want to write a “Carole story” ahead of time please do so, as we will be gathering stories together for her grandsons.

And in honor of his service to it, look for a remembrance of Will Menghini during this year’s Festival at Sandpoint.

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Author info

Landon Otis

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Dennis Nicholls, Carole Eldridge, Dick Wentz

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