Toasting life for a friend named Rhonda

I write quite a lot about the importance of mining the jaw-dropping life out of every day we’re granted. It’s the philosophy that drives my daily existence, though I occasionally stray from its fragile path. Leave it to God to deliver a much-needed kick in the pants.

A couple months ago I introduced you to my friend, Rhonda, who graduated with me from a small-town Iowa high school in 1979. As kids we rode the bus together, rattling down the dusty miles on the way to and from school. Rhonda was a sit-down comedian, pantomiming Easter candy commercials with fabulous flair.

“Thanks, Easter bunny!” she’d chirp, while sticking her hands in her armpits to form wings, and flapping with exaggerated gusto like the kid on the M&Ms commercial. I’d snort-laugh like it was the finest show on the planet.

Rhonda and I lost track of each other after graduation, and built lives in different states. She and her husband farmed in our native Iowa. I married Hunka Burnin’ Hubby and landed in Nebraska. But a couple years ago, Rhonda and I reconnected on Facebook, and rekindled our friendship — she the consummate comedian, and me her eager audience.

Then, all of a sudden, Rhonda was diagnosed with cancer last spring, and the comedy show came to a screeching halt.

I was training for my first full marathon when I heard the news, so I dedicated the race to Rhonda. Hundreds of family, friends and strangers formed a prayer group, vowing to pray daily on her behalf in the weeks leading up to my race day in October, and beyond. We begged God for healing, solace and a break from the pain. While I knocked down the miles, Rhonda was in and out of the hospital, and her prayer warriors fell to their knees in battle. Please

God, a little less pain. Please God, one more day for Rhonda.

There were mini miracles in the process; days when she felt well enough to leave the hospital for time at home with her husband and kids. Rhonda celebrated her daughter’s 8th birthday, and enjoyed the baby shower for her grandchild that is due in January.

Then, all of a sudden, Rhonda flapped her wings and flew off to farm with the Lord, leaving the rest of us wanting to arm wrestle God.

I attended Rhonda’s funeral in a lovely church at the top of a hill in our little hometown. It was packed with the people she’d touched throughout her life — all of whom were as angry and mystified as I was about cancer and life in general. And I pondered my own place in the world as I headed back home.

Rhonda’s experience with life and death dealt a powerful wakeup call about the cruelty of a clock that waits for no one. Each day is a complete blessing to be savored like the finest wine, for we never know when the last drop will fall. People and experiences are plunked in our paths for a reason, so we’d best keep our antennae tuned for the lessons we’re meant to learn. And we must be prepared to meet both the breathtaking vistas and dark, scary valleys we’ll encounter along the way.

This year’s Schlueterville Thanksgiving was dedicated in goofy-fine style to my friend, Rhonda. We dressed in long johns and parkas, and feasted in the backyard in 40-degree temps. The table was decked out in candles and vintage linens, under a canopy of white lights. A fire pit blazed nearby. I wanted to give Rhonda a good view from her heavenly perch, as we raised our glasses in toast about her short but richly full life. I wanted her to hear us discuss the lesson of living our own to the fullest.

After dinner we bundled in blankets and sleeping bags, and snort-laughed to a movie via a projector and giant screen we hung on the side of the house. I looked at my company of incredibly good sports, and thought Rhonda would approve of the absurdity of it all; of our grasping each available moment, and giving it a good shake before letting it go.

Before I turned out the light that night, I thanked God for my friend Rhonda, and asked Him to watch over her family. I admitted that I knew zip about the world, but that her life had indeed made it a better place.

Tamera Schlueter

Tam Schlueter adopts a "strike-fast-and-keep-them-laughing" approach to writing. Her column appears every Thursday in the Hastings Tribune, and showcases the wonder of family, dogs, muscle cars, and folks with blue collars and no-nonsense attitudes.

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