Side Note: This post, as the previous 2, are my words and feelings about the tragedy on Mt Hood two years ago when 3 climbers were lost. Kelly James, the climber they found in the snow cave, was my husband's oldest and dearest friend. I share these memories with you as a tribute to the James family as well as my husband, Rick who tirelessly spent a week in Oregon supporting his friend Kelly and Kelly's family in any way he could. The effects of Kelly's death linger on, but the memories and love surpass the pain that being separated from him in this world hold.
If you are interested in receiving a copy of Karen James' Book Holding Fast: The Untold Story of the Mount Hood Tragedy" please say so in your comment. The drawing will be held on Sunday and the winner announced Monday the 16th.
I awoke to an empty bed with three hours of restless sleep. My husband was 2000 miles away in the middle of what had become the biggest news story of the time.
It was our third anniversary.
I vividly remember Karen and Kelly at our wedding. Each was indescribably gorgeous. Together they were breathtaking. I had gotten to know them over our year long engagement and loved them dearly. They were so classically charming and made you feel like you were the most important person in the world when they spoke to you. I knew they genuinely loved Rick and we all had a mutual admiration for our new roles as Rick and I became a couple.
The calls continued to come from concerned family members and friends and I went through the motions of daily life with the television never off of CNN. That morning Rick hadn't slept, but instead had gotten food again and taken it to the men who were the rescue team for that day. This was the day they would find them. I just felt it. I told my children over breakfast, "Pray that the rescuers are safe today. I really feel like today is the day they will find them."
They planned to use small model-sized radio controlled planes that were heat seeking to go above where the rescuers could not go. Everyone's hopes were high in Dallas and reports on every local and national news station were optomistic.
I went to my room after dinner to watch and pray uninterrupted. My prayers were beginning to sound redundent and I decided to talk aloud to God to keep my thoughts straight. I decided not to end it with 'Amen' but leave it open in case I wanted to add anything. I fell asleep dreaming how Kelly would look in the hospital, sitting up in bed with some scratches and bruises but with a smile on his face. He would be telling Karen the story and she would smile and lay her head down on the bed next to his arm and go to sleep. The ringing of my phone woke me up.
"Any news?" I asked.
"They found the letters they left at the lodge and in their rental with detailed insructions of where they were going and what they were taking."
"Did the little planes find anything?"
"No. the winds are gusting like crazy and windchills are 30 below."
I looked at my alarm clock and it read 3:13am. It was now December 14th and our anniversary had come and gone. I hadn't gotten what we both wanted more than anything. Kelly was still up on that mountain.
"Happy anniversary, honey."
"Oh, shit, honey. I am so sorry. I totally have lost track of time."
"Really, baby, I sorta knew that. I just want them to be found and when you come home we can celebrate."
"Tonight something really weird happened."
"Tonight while Barry and I were downtown, out of nowhere a huge blast of wind swept thru and all the electricity in the town went out. We were just standing on the street talking and the next thing we knew it was pitch black and quiet."
"That IS weird." Later he would confess that he felt like that is when Kelly died.
"It doesn't look good, baby. They can't get Kelly's ping anymore from his cell phone and we are running out of time. I am really scared they aren't going to find them in time."
"Yes they will honey. They have to."
He talked about meeting a guy with National Geographic and how they wanted to interview him. Any other time being on CNN and having NG wanting an interview would have been so exciting. Only now it brought sadness and despair. Rick humbly denied his offer but remained close to this photojournalist who had become his friend.
Thursday and Friday came and went and the phone calls became more frequent yet more quiet. Rick who is normally very talkative had nothing to say. The news station were only covering bits and peices, unlike the full coverage they had been doing since the news broke. The family was beginning to feel the strain and Rick was right in the middle of it.
"Karen will be in the next press conference. I know her. I know she is panicking that the rescuers and the media will give up and we cannot have that. Not now."
Thankfully Karen had had experience in news reporting and had wonderful contacts that allowed her access to many resources. She was so savvy and even under this tremendous pressure, she was able to see what would happen if everyone gave up and left. So the rally began.
Plans were made for the moms of all three men and the sister of Brian to speak. People from all avenues of communication were available and the lull quickly turned around. The boys were again the Top Story in the news.
Sunday about 4pm. the family gets word that not one, but two snow caves have been found and there is a body in one. I am in Target at the time with my daughter and my neice getting last minute Christmas gifts when my phone rings.
"Oh, God, NO!" I can no longer stand and I go down to my knees and begin sobbing right in the middle of the accessory aisle. People turn as they hear me cry and begin to offer help.
"They just found my parent's best friend dead in a snow cave,' my 11 year old daughter tells them.
I vaguely remember nodding my head when people were asking me about Kelly and if I was okay to drive. I was able to drive 5 minutes to my mother-in-law's house where I called Rick back and asked him to come home.
He made sure that karen and kids made it to the airport and he booked his flight to come home.
I went to the airport to pick up Rick even though he had his truck. I just needed to be with him. I saw him thru the glass coming towards the revolving door and as he entered the Baggage Claim I grabbed him and we fell into a giant heap of sobs and kisses. The love I had for him was spilling out and from that moment on, my heart has never forgotten how much I loved and needed him. We never quit holding hands the entire trip home.
The funeral was after Christmas and we went early knowing there would be a full house. We hadn't had the opportunity to hud Karen or even see her without the entourage of people that were there there to help her. I had resigned myself that we would see her soon and that she needed that support at the time. I decided to get a cup of coffee at the coffee shop inside the church. I stood in line and was looking up at the menu when the woman in front of me turned around. It was Karen. We just stood there looking at one another and without words our pain and sympathy was entwined as we just hugged and cried. As she pulled away, words were still unable to come and as her hand slipped from mine I knew all had been said that needed to be said. She knew how much we loved her. She knew how much we loved Kelly. And she knew we were hurting for her and were here for her. That's all that she needed to know.
As time went on and the healing began, we were constantly reminded of Kelly and his love for adventure and life. His life testimony taught all of us the importance of living life to the fullest. To be passionate about all things that you love. And to cling to those you love. Kelly always told his family and friends he loved them. I now do the same thing. I want my friends and my family to never doubt the importance of our relationship, just as Kelly so perfectly modeled. One thing we all went away with was that we were all Kelly's best friends. He always made us feel we were his favorite. That is a legacy I want to leave.
As all Kelly's best friends sat together at Brian's memorial months later, there was a pause in conversation. Then someone, during the course of talking about Kelly, asked, "How are we going to know what's cool now?" The women laughed and the men were suddenly hit with the reality that Kelly had been the "cool" one, giving his opinion of your clothes, your house, your hobby, etc. These men that had known him, respected him, and loved him were now on their own. It was a revolution for these guys to fully understand the impact Kelly had had on them.
The holidays are very difficult for us as a family. We lost Kelly in December 2006, Rick's father in June 2007, then my father in Jan 2008. In June 2008 one of our nephews was shot and miraculously survived. So every six months we have had a major circumstance that reminds us how fragile life is. Needless to say, we are holding breaths during this exact time. But I have faith in God that just as He did in the other times, He will pull us through. Even though I am far from the poster child of Christianity, I have my placed my faith in something mightier than myself. I cannot imagine going through life without something to believe in. God has allowed all these things in my life for a reason. And one day I will see why. I am still looking but have a peace that I can't explain. All I can do is share with those who want to know.
This peek into our life during Dec 2006 was told because during this time is when you should hold your family closer and tell them how much you love them and how important they are to you. Don't wait until tragedy strikes.
I love you.
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