The second half of January arrived in blizzard fashion. Winter storm warnings, heavy snow, strong wind gusts and whiteout conditions blanketed the state on Jan. 17 and 18.
On Tuesday of that week I had received the heartbreaking news that my 44-year-old niece, Heather McLaughlin, had unexpectedly passed away. She had battled diabetes for 20 years. It’s an insidious disease that just keeps taking. She had gone through heart surgery five years ago and recovered well from that. She was on dialysis and she doctored—with her husband at her side—to address a variety of healthcare issues resulting from the diabetes. “Heather was on a journey to a multiple organ transplant when an apparent heart event ended her journey,” her obituary read.
Her funeral service/celebration of life was scheduled for Saturday, Jan. 18, in Burnsville where she and Dave lived.
(On Jan. 27, 1996, my dad passed away at age 65 on a cold winter day in Chisholm. His funeral, a few days later, was held with temperatures of 30 below. On Jan. 24, 2014, my younger sister passed away at age 52. Three different generations of my immediate family, all passing in January. We plan to skip the entire month of January next year.)
The weather caused concern for Heather’s funeral. There would be family and friends traveling to Burnsville from many parts of the state. The weather predictions were disconcerting.
What does any of this have to do with love, kindness or pets? It is Valentine’s Day. Monday is Random Acts of Kindness Day. Thursday is Love Your Pet Day. Actually, this story is about love. It is about kindness and it is about pets.
I don’t know that you can call them “random” acts of kindness, but when you attend a funeral event during a January blizzard in Minnesota and the funeral home is filled to capacity with people who have arrived there from a multitude of locations far and wide, you are talking kindness. And you’re talking love.
Even though so many caring people made it to the funeral, there were others who tried to get there or wanted to be there, but were hampered by the weather to an extreme. Their efforts to be there were acts of love and kindness too.
At Heather’s funeral service/celebration of life, people were offered the opportunity to share memories with those assembled. Heather’s husband spoke eloquently and shared much about their almost 20 years together. Other memories came from very disparate parts of Heather’s life. She was much admired for her work ethic, as well as her varied interests from sports to kids to pets to family to music to road trips to roller coasters and the Renaissance Festival. Where her interests ran, so did her time and attention.
I was not prepared to speak at the service, but was drawn nonetheless to remember her intelligence. She was smart in so many ways and that high intelligence became evident at a very early age. She started her education in Chisholm and at that young age her family came to learn about gifted education. I no longer remember the specifics, but I know my sister spent time seeking harder assignments for a five-year-old who was not being challenged by the norm in her classroom.
Heather later attended and excelled at Marshall School in Duluth and followed her high school education with a B.S. degree in Math Education from UMD. Later, she earned her Master of Education degree in 2018 from St. Mary’s University, a graduate program at the University of Minnesota. She earned that degree with a 4.0 GPA while working fulltime and battling diabetes.
A memory I have from Heather’s high school graduation is being annoyed when her name wasn’t called as an honor graduate. How could they forget to call her name? But then they called the names of those graduating with highest honors (and all was right with my world again).
I never forgot that first encounter or later encounters with the need for gifted education, and when I was attending Mesabi Range College about 10 years ago, I wrote an argument paper on that topic—Educating Our Gifted and Talented Students. Among the 3,400 words arguing in favor of the need for gifted education, I wrote:
“Our country needs to resolve its ‘profoundly ambivalent’ feelings about the academically gifted and how to educate them.
Sitting on the fence unable to decide between wanting excellence and wanting equality will result in us achieving neither. But deciding to strengthen the education of the gifted and talented will go a long way to achieving excellence for all of us.”
In the days following Heather’s death, there was much discussion about how to honor her memory. Her family knew she wouldn’t want an excess of flowers at her funeral. She was too practical and caring for that; it would seem wasteful to her. More to her liking would be the ability to help animals in need. She was a pet lover, cats especially.
People’s generosity in remembering Heather will go to help many shelter animals. Donations were made in the cities to pay for cat adoption fees. A memorial fund in Heather’s honor started by her graduating class at Marshall School raised over $1,200 for a non-profit cat refuge run by a classmate and Marshall School.
“Heather loved animals and education, so any and all funds raised will be evenly split between her passions,” was an initial thought on that fundraiser (a Facebook post read), but Heather’s husband opted for all of the funds to go to the cat refuge.
A classmate working on the fundraiser wrote: “While my heart breaks for Heather’s family and loved ones, my heart grows with compassion and appreciation for those who give to her legacy. Death is hard, whether you have loved ones who pass at age 13, 44 or
Going back to where Heather’s life started, her family suggested the option of memorial donations being made in Heather’s honor to Precious Paws Humane Society of Chisholm. We are very grateful for all of the donations made to Precious Paws in remembrance.
Relatives, friends, I.R.M.C. and others have all generously donated to Precious Paws.
“A memorial leaf has been created and added to our ‘wall’ tree inside the shelter,” Precious Paws’ staff wrote to my sister. “We are very sorry for your loss and are SO appreciative of your family’s kindness in thinking of our shelter at this difficult time in your lives.”
REMEMBER to share your love on Valentine’s Day and every day. You never know when opportunities to do so will be gone.
REMEMBER that Monday, Feb. 17 is Random Acts of Kindness Day. Kindness is a virtue; practice kindness often.
REMEMBER, Love Your Pet Day is Thursday, Feb. 20. Pet owners love their pets every day. Be kind and love a shelter pet too.