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Night Swimming with "Gwen the Fish."

April 15, 2017

On another of our trips to a Camping Location in Northern California...

One evening at Dinner, after a day when we'd been in the water so long that we had Wrinkly, "Prune Fingers"...Gwen asked me a question.  "Uncle Chris?  After Dinner, would you like to go swimming again?"  I looked at her excited face, and said, "Heck, long as it isn't too dark to see outside."  I got a few looks that suggested that I didn't need to do that, that we'd been in the water long enough already.  But how could I say No?  That's what Uncles are for!

We left soon after, risking the age-old wisdom of Not Swimming After Eating, and arrived at the lake as the Sun was setting. 

Standing on the edge of the dock...the air was still and the sky was Purple-Blue as the Stars came into were rising to the surface for small bugs, leaving small circles at the top...and bats were flying quickly over the surface, scooping up bugs...while frogs croaked their gossip over the water's surface, not knowing who was talking and who was listening.

We dipped our toes in the cool water, and Gwen said, "Ooh...I think we'd better jump in!"  We backed up on the dock for some running room...and then launched, full-tilt, hitting the water in splayed-out-style...a large wave spreading across the lake, causing birds to take flight and the frogs went silent. 

It was a shock, but we quickly adjusted to the water temperature, and spent the next half hour or so, jumping off the rocks into the water below...pillaging the serenity of the tranquil setting with our: Laughs, Cannon Balls, Can-Openers, and Preacher Seat water entries...all carefully selected for Maximum Splash Effect...until it was too dark to see the water's surface from the rocks above, much less the path up the rocks to go we called it a night.

On our swim back to the dock in the darkness, we paused to look at the Stars in the Sky while treading water...and then we decided to try and float on our backs, looking up into the Milky Way...unimaginably vivid due to our remote location and virtually no moonlight, or light pollution from nearby towns...with thousands upon thousands of stars on display.

We held hands and couldn't hear a thing with our ears underwater...staring up at the depths of the Milky Way...and I recall thinking, "I wonder what else is out there, that we just have no idea about because we can't see it?" 

And, "Why the heck haven't I been Night Swimming more often?!?!" 

But we soon got cold from just floating, and the moon was coming up, so we swam back to shore.

Once there, we both wrapped up in a super-large towel together, hugging each other to warm up and just...because.  Gwen said, "Thank you, Chris...that was SO MUCH FUN!"  I hugged her more tightly and said, "Thank You, Gwen!  I think you're a FISH, just like Me."

Now...whenever I hear the song "Night Swimming" by R.E.M., or when looking up into a Star-Filled, Night Sky...I always think of Night Swimming with "Gwen the Fish."

Graduating 8th grade

April 11, 2017

They called her "Gwendolynn Denise" to summon her onto the stage, and her face was just like "You know what man--I don't know about that man."

Christmas concert

April 11, 2017

We spent the Christmas of 2016 in Green Valley, Arizona with Grandma Lynn and Grandpa George.  As a surprise for Gwen, dad had asked them to rent an electronic piano to have at their house when we arrived.  They sweetly obliged.  Gwen's face when she walked in the door was absolutely radiant!  For the week that we were there, when she wasn't baking in the kitchen with Grandma and mom or antagonizing the players of a Catan game, she was on that piano.  Gwen was often self concious, even around people that knew her well, but the music seemed to transform her.  Her voice carried throughout the house, clear and lovely, occasionally joined by the shrieks of roughhousing cousins/siblings, the barking of dogs, and the yodeling of Grandpa George.

Geocaching with Gwen

April 2, 2017

In 2010, the oldest McDowell siblings (Chris, Dan, and Peggy) and their whole families went to the Lakes Basin for a great camping trip.  We spent a week exploring all of the different mountain lakes in the area.  When others were hanging around the lake's edge fishing and/or enjoying the view, I wanted to go off and explore and find some geocaches.  Most others didn't seem interested, but I could always count on Gwen to join me with excitement.  The two most memorable ones were the peak above Smith Lake and the Upper Sardine Lake, which included beautiful views, fun treasures, and short hikes with just the two of us.  We even traded for a cool glass beaded bracelet for Gwen in one of the caches. Upper Sardine Lake was especially magical because it was just before sunset.  I don't remember exactly what we chatted about, I do remember that we had a great time going off on our own finding geocaches, chatting, and enjoying the beautiful scenery. 

The "All-Terrain-Spencers"

April 1, 2017

Over the years, when we've been camping or hiking or swimming with The Spencer Family and their children...we've marveled at the Spencer Children's enthusiasm for the outdoors - for going on hikes, or to the beach, or swimming in Rivers, Lakes, the Ocean, Swimming Pools or doing almost anything outside.  

We eventually started referring to Peggy & Bart and their Children as the "All-Terrain-Spencers" ...a name that I think Karen gave them, after our "Fearless Trip to Silver Falls" in Oregon during the Winter.  Peggy was nursing Owen, while a toddler Hannah mostly kept up with Bart the entire trip behind the spectacular water falls and along the beautiful hiking trail...quite an accomplishment for Parents & Kids.

The "All Terrain Spencers" name might have also have been coined during a visit to Northern California when we went Camping and Abalone Diving with the Spencers and headed to the rocky shoreline with tidepools 20-30 feet below the cliff side...and I specifically recall Bart barely catching onto Owen's shirt he went Head-First, down the Cliff...saying, "Owen, what did I TELL you?!?!  Three Points of Contact, at ALL times."

'Wow,' I thought.  'I LOVE it.  No Scolding...just teaching and reminding them of technique.  Hanging out with Peggy & Bart and their "All-Terrain-Spencers" - No Whiners in this bunch.'  

One year in Oregon, we met at House Rock Campground where Karen had spotted a place in the River where a Tributary Stream entered through a channel worn into the rocks, and there was a deep pool and some very large, fallen trees in the River below, perfect for climbing and jumping into the pool. 

Soon after, we began getting the kids excited to visit, "Karen's Secret Swimming Hole" and there was a fevered pitch of enthusiasm building at the find this Mythical discover what unknown mysteries could be at this "Secret" place.

Once there, we all had to leap over the Tributary Stream that flowed through the rock about two feet below the rock surface, as it tumbled all the way into the river.  We swam in "Karen's Secret Swimming Hole" until our fingers turned wrinkly and we were shivering...and then headed back, smiles on all the kids faces...even the big kid's faces.

On the return path the unthinkable happened - Gwen jumped across the Tributary Cut in the Rock, but fell in and was headed downstream in the rapids, making high-pitched noises.  Without a word, all four of us spread out along the Stream, so if one person missed her, the others would have a chance...but Bart caught her, and pulled her out with one arm. 

Gwen looked pretty frightened and a bit wide-eyed, but she didn't cry, or fall apart...just another of Life's Lessons it seemed.

Bart made light of it all, hugging her and saying something like, "So I guess you really want to keep swimming, huh?"  Peggy was a cool cucumber, too, grabbing a towel and saying, "Gwennie...I just DRIED you off a few minutes ago!"

We all laughed and asked her, "Was it fun, Going Down the Rapids?!"  She smiled and said it was a little first. 

Just another day in the life of an "All-Terrain Spencer."

March 19, 2017

Gwen arrived at my appartment last semester with her ukelele and a five pound bag of gummie bears and she spent the weekend hanging out with me and Owen.  That Saturday was a Clemson home football game, so we did what any rational pair of Spencer sisters would do--hid in a practice room in the music building.  Gwen alternated between the piano and the ukelele, playing Twenty-one Pilots, Panic! at the Disco, and some other pieces I can't name.  She taught me a few simple bars on the piano and so we did a duet--I think it was "Screen" by Twenty-one Pilots.  I remember cracking her up when I tried to both sing and provide precussion accompaniment by slapping the side of the piano; it was funny because I can't keep a beat while singing.  She had fun pantomiming my efforts to me later!  She, on the other hand, could probably play twelve instruments at once, while singing and spiking a volleyball, if only she had a few more arms.  Later we watched one of our favorite movies together: "Barbie: Princess and the Pauper".  It may suprise you to know that Gwen had such distiguished taste in film, but in fact this movie has been dear to her heart for a long time.  During the summer when she was probably 9 or 10, she and her friend Oona Lawson watched this movie over and over (along with the "Bratz" live action movie).  When I watched it with her last semester, we could still remember all of the words to the songs!  The next day, Sunday, we went to lunch with Owen at Pancho's Mexican Restaurant in Central (where I live).  She and Owen talked about the ukelele songs they were learning, since Owen also has one, and we all complained about school.  It was extremely cathartic.  She drove back to Fort Mill that afternoon, but before she left we got Antonio to take a few pictures of us by the scenic cinderblock wall in my apartment's parking lot.  This is my favorite of those portraits.

The traveling minstrel

March 19, 2017

Not pictured here is the seventh member of our thanksgiving hiking expedition: Gwen's ukelele, "March".  The day before Thanksgiving, we drove to Grandfather Mountain, which is a place the family has hiked before and loved.  It was a chilly day.  Mom and Dad had cooked a turkey the day before and then packed turkey sandwich fixins into the backpacks to serve as our main source of food for the next two days.  After a near-disaster at the trail head wherein we briefly lost and then found the entire turkey, we hiked about 1.5 miles from our car to the campsite.  Along with her pack, Gwen carried March and serenaded us the entire way.  Not only had she become a very skilled ukelelist (ukelelian? ukeleleer?), but her voice was absolutely angelic.  Throughout the weekend the ukelele was never far from her hands: around the campfire, in the tent, in the hammock, on the trail, the melodies pursued us through the woods, and we were so grateful!

Gwen's 17th birthday

March 19, 2017

Gwen's birthday kicks off the October celebrations at our house (followed by Dad's birthday on the 25th and mine on the 31st).  Gwen always asks for Dad's signature Weinerschnizel (he might need to spell check me on that!) for her birthday dinner, and this year mom made a special chocolate ganache cake.  She spent the day before making candied orange and lemon peel from scratch to decorate with.  This picture is one of about twelve that I took while Gwen blew out the candles on the top of her cake, and it is the closest to a "normal" smile that I was able to capture!  The rest of the photos are filled with "gang signs" as dad would say (it's just a peace sign, really) and cheezy grins, closed eyes and lolling tongues.  She never missed an opportunity to photo bomb.  The scarf she is wearing is one I knitted.  She was a good sister and didn't comment on the multiple holes or that the length was absolutely wrong in every way!  Mom and dad gave her a guitar that night, too.  Dad built a fire in the back yard that evening and Gwen sat there picking on the strings with tears in her eyes, the fire dancing on her face.  

Beth's Description of Memorial

March 7, 2017

Hello everyone,   Chris asked me to share my thoughts about Gwen's service yesterday. Chris is a word guy who likes details, and the only way I know to do that is stream of consciousness which means it will be a chore to read.  Perhaps you can skim for highlights and ask other people who were there to give a more concise, well-constructed vision of the day.  For Chris, I want to do what I can to make him feel like he was there.  
Auntie Beth  
Thursday morning 6am  
I am going to play for the service which isn't a big deal, but I don't know what any of the music will be, so I need to get up pretty early.  It's a 3 hour drive and I want to to go to Peggy and Bart's house first then to the church to meet with the staff before the 1pm service.  It's a beautiful day, fairly chilly, and the drive is easy.  Highway most of the way, light traffic until Charlotte where I pick up I-77, I cringe when I think of that highway.  At 9am Charlotte traffic is heavy but when I exit to go to Ft. Mill it's much better.  Beautiful countryside, lots of trees, peaceful.  I follow the gps to get to Peggy and Bart's house and notice they live in a nice neighborhood.  Pretty houses, well kept, walking trails.. I'd like to live here.  I pull up to their house and see there are lots of cars in front.  I am happy and then sad because no one should be at home since it's a Thursday morning at 9:30am.    

I ring the bell and almost immediately it opens and I see one person I recognize right away and one who takes a moment to register.  Hannah looks beautiful and is wearing a black and white dress with some very bright purple, green and black, peacock knee socks.  I don't mean peacock colors, I mean they have peacocks on them and she looks great.  The other person looks like the cover of a romance novel that is based in the 1800s.  He has longish hair, a devilish grin, is very tall and handsome and reminds me of a little boy I used to know named Owen.  Except I've seen Owen in the last couple of years and this can't be him.  But it is.   We hug and they thank me for coming and welcome me.  I don't know what to say.  Almost automatically I start to ask "how are you?" and stop myself since... well, how can they be?   Then a striking, young man whom I know is Antonio (Hannah's fiance) comes over and hugs me.  They all look sad, but OK, and as hard as it is, I feel they are drawing strength from one another.    
On to the next room.  I look for Peggy.. there she is.  She is beautiful and has no idea.  She isn't wearing any makeup and still looks like a model.  She is in pain, deep, deep pain, but she is pushing through it to be a gracious hostess.  We hug for a while and I notice how thin she feels through her lovely blue sweater and wonder if she's been able to eat.  Probably not much.  I ask if she's been sleeping and she says she's been sleeping pretty well, although when she wakes up it's tough to go back to sleep.     Wait... OMG, that's Dotty!!!  I didn't know she was going to come,but she did and does she never change?  She looks exactly the same as she did 10 years ago, I think she' s struck a deal with a devil, she looks great, gives a semi-wicked smile and gestures to Seth, who has made the same deal (maybe a bogo?) and looks like he hasn't aged a day in the entire time I've known him.  He does have a beard now, and hasn't always. so I guess he likes more variety than .E does.  I love the way the house feels.    

I was thinking about what it would have been like on a typical evening if they were together watching tv when I notice someone who reminds me of my brother David.  I do a double take and realize it's Dan.  Dan came!!!  I am so happy he was able to do that and wonder how he made it work on such short notice.  I also wonder when he began to look like David because I've never noticed it before.  It's the eyes.. Anyway, I was looking for limping, wailing, hearing loss, other parts of his body having been torn off or broken since that's kind of his thing, but instead he looked like a handsome, distinguished financial executive.   

Then I notice the swing set in the backyard and the beautiful lawn.  I notice the rich royal blue wall and the sequoia wall near it, the tile floor, the wood, the placement of the furniture and how happy and warm it feels in there.  I think about how Gwen lived in a great house, and was a lucky girl.  Her whole life was spent in a happy home with a loving family.    

Then I noticed on the porch there were 2 men, Bart and Bart's brother and I thought... how is Bart handling this, it must be so hard.  How are any of them handling this?  I see pain everywhere and strength and taking turns passing it around.  Graham is sad and quiet, I worry, then I see him singing something to himself and think he'll be OK.  Hannah looks so pensive, then she's furiously coloring socks for the girls on Gwen's soccer team to wear at the funeral.  Gwen's funeral.  It can't be, that can't be right.  How are they doing it?  So I watch some more and see them pass the strength around.  Hannah puts her hand on Bart's hand and squeezes it.  Then Graham leans into her and she rubs his back.  Hannah gets teary and Antonio puts his arm around her.  Peggy leans into Bart's shoulder, Peggy hugs Owen. Dan is there, Dotty is there, the sense of family is there, and it seems (to me) like everyone is there.  Steel Magnolias.   I tell them Jamie and Margaret are flying in and will be at the service, but they already know.  McDowells from Colorado are coming.  It feels like Grandma, Grandpa, all their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are there wrapping their love around Peggy, Bart, Hannah, Owen and Graham, and it feels like Gwen is there, wishing they didn't have to hurt so much, but knowing they do.    

Bart has changed clothes for the service and comes out looking fabulous in a black and gray outfit and I wonder, do you say "you look great" to someone in these circumstances?  But they do, they all look great and they all radiate strength and integrity and love and I wonder if they are able to feel much of anything.  

I realize I have to get to the church and rush away.  I meet with the staff and being to play at 12:30pm.  Unlike most memorial services I've been to, Peggy and Bart came into the sanctuary at 12:30pm and sat down.  I wonder what to play first and remember Peggy saying on the phone that she really likes the song "Hosea" and that what she wanted more than anything was to be comforted.  "Hosea" isn't in their hymnal so we couldn't sing it, so I thought-- I can play it for her and try to make it sound comforting.  I start and hope that (in musical terms) I can get out of the way, allow myself to be a conduit and hope she will hear something comforting in the notes.  After playing for about 30 seconds I see her get up, walk across the floor over to me and think she's going to ask a question like "Aren't we going to sing that?"  Instead she says "That's perfect, that's what I wanted." and she hugged me.  I hugged her back and continued to play with one hand.   

I continue to play until the service starts and am able to watch all these steel magnolias walk in.  Dozens of them.  I am sad to say that I have played for a number of funeral services for young people and there is usually a lot of angst and drama.  90% of their young friends and family members handle the service OK, but I've never played for one where someone didn't pass out during the service.  Those services are usually very crowded, they can get very hot, the kids might not have been eating, drinking or sleeping well, they are shocked and grief stricken and by the end of the service someone has to have help leaving or be carried out.   This was different.  This was like the scene at Peggy and Bart's house.  Dozens of girls who remind me of Gwen.  Tall, athletic, poised, polite, well dressed, joking, but only appropriately so.  respectful.  kind.  First two rows must have been her volleyball team.  Beautiful girls, tall and gorgeous in black dresses, all wearing wild knee socks.  Holding hands on and off.  Tearing up, smiling.  Squeezing each other's hands.  Listening attentively.  More and more girls like that come in, they can't all be on the volleyball team can they? but the same... poised, polite, well-mannered, good-natured, mostly in black dresses with wild knee socks. The church filled up, it was time for the service to start, the rest of the family members came in and joined Peggy and Bart and we went through the mass.  

Owen does the first reading.  I should remember it but I don't.  (I"m sorry, I should.. it's important.)  I noticed what a beautiful speaking voice he has and that he reads it confidently, without pausing and with good emotion.   Hannah goes up for the psalm and response, which I have to play.  She has a lovely speaking voice as well, and I was really impressed by something she did automatically.  

This wasn't my church and I wasn't sure about anything I was doing.  

Hannah read each verse, paused appropriately, then looked over at me to indicate when it was time to do the musical response.    

In my experience, very few seasoned readers know to do that and for her it was automatic.    

I am confused again and don't remember precisely what was read, but I believe Antonio did the second reading and Dotty read the "Lord, hear our prayer..." segments.  I guess I'm more aware of the readers than the readings, shame on me, but they both have wonderful, warm, soothing voices.  I don't know if that's why they were asked, but every single person who read had a great voice for it, clear and soothing.  

The sermon was focused on pain and dealing with pain.  I think the priest did a great job, it was clear he wanted to give the family hope that although they will never get over this loss, they will come to terms with it and learn how to handle the pain.  It was almost time for me to play the last hymn when I had a passing thought filled with regret...  

I know funerals and memorials are not for the person who died, but for the people left behind.  it is my belief that the person who died isn't suffering, it's the people left here who are.  But all day, all service.. I missed Gwen and wondered if the young people there had gotten enough closure.. there hadn't been a great deal said about Gwen's personal life...  

And then a wonderful, perfect thing happened.  I've never seen this in a mass before, but the priest stopped right before the closing hymn and said, "now some of Gwen's family members would like to say a few things."  

YES!!!  I am so happy and relieved!!!!!!!  

Hannah talked about how Gwen was smart and funny and goofy and would want us to be happy, and that she believes we will all see Gwen again.  How Gwen loved her ukulele and took it everywhere.  How she'd play and sing for anyone who'd listen despite being shy in other ways.  That one of the girls on the volleyball team had shown her something Gwen had posted that said something like "if your socks are more stylish than you are, then you're doing good".  

Dan went up and read a text Gwen has sent to Peggy and Bart.  He did a phenomenal job and his timing was impeccable.  I hesitate to paraphrase because I think you should read it, it shows what a smart, funny, creative, wise-cracking girl Gwen was and how much she loved and trusted her parents.  It was sent while Gwen was upstairs in her bedroom, to Peggy and Bart, who were downstairs just below her, as she was filling out college applications.  It goes on for quite a while and I loved it.  

Then 2 of Gwen's friends went up and talked about how much Gwen loved her ukulele and singing and shared that they had played together many times.  They did sang and played Gwen's favorite 21 PIlot's song which they said was her favorite.  They were wonderful and perfect.  Which means it wasn't perfect the first time, so they started over and then did it perfectly.  And they didn't get embarrassed or cringe or apologize.  More Steel Magnolias.  

The line to speak to the family is very long and takes at least an hour, but there doesn't seem to be a rush.  Some people are eating, there's lots of wonderful food.  Some are talking.  There are flowers everywhere and posters of Gwen, remembrances from friends and familes, a ukulele.  Gwen's ashes in a beautiful urn.  Again the flash of this can't be right... Focus.  Peggy and Bart, Hannah, Antonio, Antonio's mother and brother, Owen, Graham, Bart's brother who never strays too far from Bart's side.  Dan, Dotty, Seth, Margaret, Jamie, McDowells from Colorado.  Friends, teachers, teammates, coaches, church members.. a crowded room of people who seem in no hurry to leave, and whom I sense will be there long term for the family.  

Funerals are misleading... they are very sad and very happy.  We cry, we are sad.  Those grieving are supported by people who rush to help  The family is bombarded with food, offers of support, flowers, cards, kind words...  After about a month, the family and close friends are still reeling and raw from the pain, but the initial phase of overwhelming compassion begins to subside and there can be a real sense of emptiness.  I think this group will remember that and try to reach out to them over the long term.  I hope so and remind myself not to make that mistake.  I get to drive back to Durham and resume my routine.  This family will never be the same, a year from now it will still be fresh to them, and I need to make sure they know that I haven't forgotten about their pain or precious daughter.

Love to all of you,  Auntie Beth

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