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Finding comfort in community in Haines

  • Author: Heather Lende
  • Updated: February 19, 2017
  • Published February 19, 2017

An estimated 150-170 people participated in the Women’s March in Haines on Jan. 21. (John Hagen)

HAINES — The old-timers say bad things happen in threes. I am not sure if this is true, because it depends on where you begin and what you count, and that hinges on whom you know and how well. I do believe that bad doings bring out the best in people. It's not that misery loves company, exactly, rather that suffering binds us together.

This week, a good man who liked to cook, especially for the women of our local Alaska Native Sisterhood camp, died suddenly of a heart attack. He was 70 and seemed fine. Retiree Bob Duis and his wife Carol moved to Haines a few years ago from the Midwest after falling in love with the town on a cruise. Bob liked to cook for lots of people, and the Alaska Native Sisterhood, a hundred-year-old civil rights organization, had a need when they hosted celebrations, fundraisers and funerals. Bob supported their anti-racist mission, and enjoyed making vats of moose stew for a crowd.

Since his death, Bob's wife Carol says she's been overwhelmed by the kindness of residents. The food. The cards. The phone calls. "It really helps," she told me.

Then my friend, a gardener and dog lover and a special education teacher, learned this week that her brain tumor is not benign for goodness' sake.

House fire

If that isn't enough woe, at the weekly choir practice we found out that another friend's house was on fire — on fire! It seemed impossible.

A neighbor came in the door crying, saying she saw it as she drove over and called 911. "There were already flames," she said, and opened up her phone to learn more. Others did too.

"They are OK."

"They were downtown when it happened."

"No, they don't have a dog anymore."

"They'll probably stay with her sister for now."

Our director spoke of her own house fire, which her young family survived two decades ago. She said she thought we should go ahead and sing tonight, as there wasn't anything better we could do.

"Let's begin with a moment of silence."

I prayed for my friends, that the volunteer firefighters would be safe (they were), and that the flames bursting through what had been a wall of windows wouldn't leap into the trees or to nearby homes, my daughter's included. (They didn't.) We sang the round we begin every rehearsal with, "Dona Nobis Pacem" (Grant us Peace). I needed those words, and this feeling, right now. It was good to be here with the choir.

A kind breeze

When we stepped out into the starry night, the air itself felt tender, and the breeze was kinder. It's been a harsh few months.

Perhaps the tone of Washington has filtered down to Haines, so our local meetings have been rougher than usual. The only two letters to the editor in the Chilkat Valley News this week were about refugees and fascism, not normally local topics.

My Bulgaria-born daughter is afraid to travel because of the president's comments about immigrants. "What if I can't come back?" she asked me.

"You are an Alaskan and an American citizen," I assured her. But what I can't bear to say into to her deep brown eyes is that she will be suspect now, in a way that her blonde, blue-eyed sisters won't ever be, and that breaks my heart.

What's a mother to do? Call up my senators and congressman, again. Who knew they'd be on auto-dial?

United in grief

Maybe it's the light returning, but instead of keening on Main Street, instead of yelling at each other and saying mean, hateful, and no doubt regrettable things, the bad news from near and far has made some in this community pause.

Seventy people attended a talk at the library recently by two local sisters who went to the Women's March in Washington and discussed local women's issues. They agreed to meet regularly to work toward resolving community concerns. The other national news too, has been put in perspective. A tweet is not a brain tumor.

After the man who loved to cook for the Alaska Native Sisterhood died, his wife and daughters hosted a small potluck. The mayor was there. We have been on the opposite side of just about every issue lately, but were united in grief, and because of that crack in our hearts, as Leonard Cohen sings, the light came in and we even joked a bit about our differences.

I've been lamenting my filthy windows. The February sun spotlights winter's grit, but when the thermometer rose to 40, I washed them, suddenly so thankful that I had a house with windows.

I saw Marilyn, a stalwart of the Alaska Native Sisterhood, at the pool and told her I was sorry about their benefactor and cook. She said she was so sad she couldn't swim for two days. "He will be missed by the community."

"You will be, too," I blurted. "Someday, I mean. You look well." Marilyn is older than my mother would be, but that's not why I want her to know that I adore her. Luckily she laughed, and said she felt the same way about me.

Haines author Heather Lende's third book is "Find the Good." Check her blog or Facebook page.

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