Love letters from an Ashland man to his beloved wife and cherished daughter asking them to "Live Huge" after he died are sparking a summer-long, cross-country adventure of healing and hope.
Troy Hemmerling's two-word mantra launched Ginny Auer into creating a lasting memory journal for their 8-year-old daughter, Tess Hemmerling, by sharing the people and places that meant so much to the man they both loved.
"I want us to share his passion for life," Auer says. "I want to take Tess to the places and visit the people that were important to him — to both of us. To help put the pieces back together."
Snuggled together on a wooden glider on their back deck, mother and daughter share several hugs and a few giggles as they discuss anticipated high points. These are some of the dream trips Troy and she would have wanted to take Tess on together, Auer says.
If all goes according to plan, the journey will take them to four corners of the continental United States and many points in between. Broadway shows in New York, a cooking class in New Orleans, an art class in Houston, sightseeing at the Grand Canyon, and visits with family and friends.
"What I'm realizing is that there is a story behind every place I'm taking her," Auer says.
The list is long. Their dreams are big. Because this duo has learned the hard way that life is precious, and time often is all too short.
In November 2008, Troy was diagnosed with a rare form of appendix cancer called mucinous adenocarcinoma. After a 16-month roller coaster, the disease claimed the life of this 48-year-old husband, father, Oregon Shakespeare Festival set designer and ultimate Frisbee guru.
"I have the joy of my lovely daughter to comfort me, but I miss the man who loved us both, held us close and cared beyond words for us both," Auer wrote in a blog the day of her husband's memorial service.
Troy loved life, laughed easily and was a lifelong athlete and outdoorsman. Troy's motto was "to be brave, joyful, foolish and generous every day," Auer says.
The director of Ashland's annual Cramp Up Ultimate Frisbee Tournament for 13 years, Troy was a fierce fighter. As he fought the cancer, dying was not on either of their agendas — especially not Troy's.
"It was a reality none of us wanted to face," she says.
But Auer remembers the exact moment she lost her life partner, and was left to face one of her greatest fears — raising their daughter, Tess, as a single parent.
"It was April 21, 2011, at 6:59 in the morning," she says.
Buoyed by the love of friends and family the day of his memorial, Auer would later write in her blog:
"Today I weep for the partner who took such good care of me. I weep for the man who I love. I weep for the time he will not have with our daughter. And I weep for the daughter who will not get to wrestle with Daddy anymore, or draw with him, or dance with him or ... ."
Auer's mother was just 4 years old when she lost her own mother. The emotional fallout her mother carried from that painful loss is a legacy she does not want for herself or for Tess, Auer says.
"A kid wants to fix things. I find that kids, generally, just want to make it better," she says. "I know I wanted to make it better for my mom."
That Auer is the sole parent to her daughter is a realization that is settling in by degrees, and can sometimes bring fresh waves of grief and fear. But Auer knows Tess' life will not lack for supportive male role models. She is incorporating the example left by a former boss and dear friend who also succumbed to cancer, leaving behind his young sons.
"He created something called 'funcles,' " Auer says, adding she, too, has assembled an assortment of father/uncle figures who are committed to sharing some part of Troy's life and character with Tess. Some are in Ashland, other "funcles" are strewn across the country and will soon be getting a visit from the peripatetic pair.
"And so I get to write this chapter differently," Auer says.
Troy found his own way to keep his spirit alive. Weeks after Troy's passing, Auer discovered letters and videos he had left to Tess tucked away in his home studio — including one to her that ended with the "Live Huge" urging.
"I knew he had written a couple letters to Tess," Auer says. "I had no idea he'd written anything to me. How much it would mean to me."
Tess dances into the room, sporting rainbow sparkles on the rubber toes of her silver tennies. Grief is a process that ebbs and flows. Small hearts are not ready for big hurts, and Tess has decided she's not yet ready to read her father's letters.
"She might not want to see it until she's in her 20s," Auer says. "Counselors indicate to me that's pretty normal."
Troy was the cook in their tight-knit family. Each night, while Troy prepared dinner, Auer and Tess would sit nearby for "a snack and a chat," Auer says. When Tess is ready, she will learn that Troy immortalized not only his love for her, but also the special father/daughter traditions they shared.
"They used to do 'French Toast Fridays.' He wrote down the recipe," Auer says, taking a deep breath.
The home video shows a younger Tess, dancing barefoot with her father and her Uncle Mike. The two brothers are taking turns twirling the giggling little girl to country music before a barbecue dinner.
"I want most to see my Uncle Mike," Tess says, adding she's also excited about "hunting for dinosaur eggs."
Little love notes Tess has written to her mother are sprinkled all over the house. And vice versa.
"I love you Mom, your daughter Tess," reads a note stuck on the wall above Troy's old studio desk.
Tess confides she goes down to her father's studio some afternoons.
"I take cookies and sit down in my little spot," Tess says.
First stop on their journey will be to Auer's parents' home in South Carolina, where Auer's mother has been battling a series of health issues. Recently, both her parents have been facing life-threatening illnesses, Auer says.
In addition to daily calls to her parents, Auer plans to take them along, and anyone else who cares to participate in a vicarious vacation, via weekly video blogs from her newly created website, LiveHuge.Org.
"My plan is to blog every week. Three times a week would be optimal," she says.
But no pressure, she insists. Living Huge is however you can do it. For some people, Living Huge is just getting out of bed in the morning, Auer knows.
"Some days I got up. I got dressed. And that was as far as I got," she says. "Whatever your truth is in that moment."
As she and Tess embark on their grand adventures, Auer confesses to some pre-trek jitters.
"I'm not a big traveler. I'm traveling with my daughter and I'm asking people to join me," she says. "But I keep reminding myself right now I'm OK. And if every step I'm taking is about love, when it's done with that in mind, the fear subsides."
Auer and Tess will travel by train so they can relax and enjoy the sights and share stories together. Troy and Auer met in New Orleans. The pair had always planned to take Tess there, and to New York and the Grand Canyon. Troy considered Montana his home, so that's tops on the list, too. As are places that are simply on Auer's wish list.
"I'm also taking her places like the San Diego Zoo and Sea World that Troy would have hated going," Auer says with a chuckle.
Wandering the backyard, Auer notes the new fence built by friends during Troy's illness. Those friends will watch over their home while they're gone. When they return, they will have a barbecue and share their adventures honoring the man whose courageous legacy continues to guide their lives.
"At any moment in your life, you have a choice in how you approach something," Auer says. "Living Huge is about changing fear to love."
Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email email@example.com.