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'Live Huge' pair spur memories and gratitude

The sight of Ginny Auer and her daughter, Tess Hemmerling, snuggled together on their wooden porch glider Wednesday afternoon brought a tumult of bittersweet emotions. Excitement for their pending "Live Huge" experience. Sorrow for their loss. And a deep sense of gratitude for work that lets me tell stories like theirs.

Ginny and Tess are off on a cross-country trek to visit family and friends, and to experience exciting locales: New Orleans, Broadway, the Grand Canyon, to name just a few.

Listening to the duo's list of wants and wishes related to their summer-long tour is exhilarating. I'm tempted to chuck it all and throw in with this dynamic pair.

But this grand adventure also is a deeply personal spiritual quest in honor of Ginny's husband and Tess' father, Troy Hemmerling. A man whose motto was "We must be brave, foolish, joyful and generous. Every day."

On April 21, 2011, Troy lost his battle with a rare form of cancer after a valiant 16-month struggle. But if Ginny has anything to say about it, Troy's legacy will loom large in the lives of many.

I first spoke with Ginny shortly after Troy had been diagnosed. She was considering organizing a children's therapy group for kids whose parents were fighting life-threatening illnesses.

That day's deadlines kept us from delving too deep. But she'd captured my attention. And, unbeknownst to her, plucked hard at my heart.

After we hung up, I'd prayed that Ginny wouldn't join me in the Widow's Walk Club. But I also know cancer is all too often a deadly foe. It claimed my husband on July 19, 1999, after a two-year battle.

When Ginny and I next spoke, Troy's cancer had taken a turn for the worse. The therapy group was on hold. All of Ginny's energy was needed to keep her husband's body, mind and spirit intact. And to care for Tess.

How do you explain the cruel realities of cancer to a 6-year-old? Ginny took to her blog after an especially hard day.

"Ded?" (dead) read the magic marker words on her left arm this morning," Ginny wrote, after being surprised in the bathroom by Tess' three-letter tattoo.

"What is that Tess?" Ginny asked.

"Oh, nothing. Just a question I have," answered her elfin daughter.

"It says 'dead.' I know nobody really knows if Daddy will die from cancer, but it is a question I have. I mean, maybe God knows, I guess. Anyway, I don't want to talk about it."

"OK, but if you do, we can," Ginny replied. "Are you worried that Daddy will die?"

"Yes," Tess said.

Ginny responded honestly. "Me, too."

Tess, Ginny and Troy went on to have pancakes that morning. Later that day, Ginny allowed herself a cry — with Troy. That night she poured it all out on the blog.

"All in all, we each wonder about death, don't we?" Ginny said. "Regardless of whether cancer is rubbing our noses in it like a dog who just peed on the floor or not. When will it come for any of us. None of us knows, but living life in fear of its inevitable approach does a disservice to us, our dreams and most importantly those we love and who love us."

Troy did some writing of his own: "I see this whole experience as a real crucible for me, a really daily test of my physical, mental and emotional strength.

"But on other days I see it as a sort of chrysalis. I'm in this interesting process of incubation and evolution where, when I emerge, I will be ... something ... more evolved, stronger, positive."

Troy concluded by stating, "I certainly feel like I'm experiencing some changes but I'm still in the thick of it, not a butterfly just yet."

When I heard that Troy had died, I cursed cancer. Again. Then smiled when I read that Tess is determined to find a cure for cancer by rounding up its ringleader, and all its nasty followers. It's her "journey," Tess said.

This kid is really something. So is Ginny.

Nobody wants to end up flying solo when they finally find their perfect mate. But the amazing truth is you never really lose the love, even when you lose the person.

Ginny and Troy had nearly 24 years to enjoy "a life of love, laughter and all of the frustrations that come with being lovers, friends, parents and partners in life."

Amen, Sistah. Bill and I had 17 years. Ginny knows I "get it" when she talks about the grieving path she and Tess must walk as they head out on their adventure.

I've told Ginny love will lead their way. I'm pretty sure she believes that, too. It probably helps that Troy left behind a huge directional sign.

In his blog, Troy expressed his post-cancer desires were to "get out and experience the world more ... to get involved in something bigger than myself, probably in the cancer realm."

Troy was at heart a traveler. But he was learning that "in the big picture, it's your connections to people — to friends and family — that will sustain you," he wrote.

Finally, in a love letter left behind to his bride, Troy closed by urging her to "Live Huge!"

Ginny responded by planning this trip, and creating livehuge.org. The site will chronicle their journey — and more. How much more? That remains to be seen. But it went live Friday evening. Saturday, at precisely 9:06 a.m., my iPhone received a message tone. "The Live Huge tour begins!"

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or email sspecht@mailtribune.com.