Two grieving Gig Harbor boys passionately holler for Cougar football each weekend—not because they love the team, which they do, or because they were raised to be fanatical Washington State University fans, which they were. They cry out alongside their heroic papa, Keith, for a different reason – to honor their young mama. Summer passed away late last spring after a gritty, multi-year “throw-down” with cancer.
Though she suffered from omnipresent pain, she remained the brightest-smiling Coug fan you ever saw. Her grin overpowered anguished grimaces. I know all this because I counseled her amazing, elementary school-aged sons – dark-eyed Brodie and toe-headed Hudson – through the 19 months leading up to eternity.
With the family’s permission, here is that story.
Early on, her boys and I made “get well” posters for Summer and “I love you!” collages for Dad. The scent of markers and glue filled my office. At the boys’ insistence, we always copied and pasted online images from Pullman on these creations. Weeks and months slipped by.
Though Summer grew weaker, she joyfully endured drives to the Palouse and occasionally lofted a crimson and grey mini-football to her sons. When her body became too weak to stand, she read books to the boys on her bed. Thus began the final chapter of her life.
As she started to lose consciousness, I listened to her oldest boy’s questions about heaven on the dark shoreline of Horsehead Bay. Twenty hours before she departed, I lightly held her weak hand and whispered, “I’ll help watch over your boys.” I meant it with all my heart.
At Summer’s graveside service, I glimpsed her father, Jerry, tenderly kiss her casket while her mama, Barbe, wept. Keith’s lip trembled. His sunglasses hid his tears. Haven of Rest workers lowered that dark-stained wood into the earth. Tiny Hudson nodded as I breathed words of comfort. Brodie forced a weak grin.
Since that moment, I cannot think of WAZZU without remembering Summer. Sometimes I smile while recalling how she became half of the most quintessential Cougar couple that I’ve ever met.
Upon arriving for undergrad work in Pullman, Summer promptly joined “Coug Guys and Gals,” where she ultimately helped recruit quarterback Jason Gesser. An awesome, non-football man appeared soon after. Summer’s close college friend, Danielle, hearkens back to when Keith and Summer first dated. “She called him her ‘best friend,’ as she ran ahead, up the campus hill, to walk with him,” said Danielle.
Life became a blur of change – marriage, two playful boys and a home next to Gig Harbor.
The two constants? Love for one another and WAZZU football – including season tickets for the past four years.
Though Summer is gone now, Dad still tries to get the boys back to those rolling wheat hills.
After arriving on Friday afternoons, they often head to Cougar Cottage for lunch and either have dinner at Sella’s or Black Cypress (where Summer always had the carbonara). Hudson and Brodie stay up late to see the WSU marching band stop by, while Keith and Uncle Dane hang out at the nearby fire.
After Saturday breakfast at Old European, Dad and sons play at the Rec Center. The Brodester and Hud Man usually attend “Cougar Prowl,” trying to high-five all of the coaches and players as the team heads into the stadium.
Once inside, the family sits right where the old press box used to be – the place where Keith’s bride was at home socializing and keeping an eye on the game. Afterwards, they celebrate victories. Grief pangs are eased, if only for a while.
Sunday afternoons Dad and sons hit Cougar Country on the way out. Though those little fellas’ hearts may feel a wee bit empty, their tummies get filled with comfort food. Monday morning brings a return to Lighthouse School, where they are cherished.
This fall art teacher Tami Sullivan and another staff member collaborated to restore a child-sized Cougar helmet for Hudson. When I entered bubbly Rose Hove’s room to present it to him, he was leading “show and tell.”
Near the end of his spiel, he nonchalantly produced a laminated photo; in it, his ever-grinning mama stood cheek-to-cheek with her little boys. I gave silent thanks that I’d arrived at just the right time.
“Hudson,” I offered, “the school has a gift for you. Would you like it now, or would you rather receive it privately in the hallway?”
Hudson crinkled his nose – just like his mama used to — and whispered, “Now.”
I handed him the headgear, my voice catching in my throat. I turned away, embarrassed. Thankfully, his veteran teacher helped me to come up for air.
At the sound of Rose’s giggle, I looked back to see Hudson—now wearing the plastic shell (chinstrap buckled and all)—completing his presentation. And I realize – that kiddo and his brother are going to be just fine. Someday.
Sometimes I still glimpse the boys outside the glass doors near my office. Once or twice I could swear I saw them tossing that little crimson and grey football that Summer once held in her hands.
I imagine her smiling down.