Deep pre-dawn darkness wraps tightly around my little house on this first early morning after returning from my cross-continent flight. Dan and I just returned from a sudden trip east to grieve with my extended family and hold them all very tight, all of us devastated by the loss of my beautiful sister Dale Nikkanen one week ago today as she succumbed to her long and painful battle with cancer.
Life–and death– is confusing. And terribly unfair. Of the five sisters in our family, Dale was the best of us all. She really was. Every brother-in-law (including my husband) claims they married “the best Rybka girl” and yet in truth, every last one of them would have married Dale in a snap if she hadn’t already been spoken for. One of the most impacting people on this planet, Dale loved God, loved her family, and loved people– in that order, and all with very great passion.
Our brother Don is the oldest sibling, followed by a succession of us girls- Carol, Connie, me, Dale, and Marilyn. Dale was two years younger than I, but was always, always a step ahead. She married before I did, had children before I did, became a grandmother before I did, and in every sense of the word, I learned from her. Always funny, outgoing, optimistic, Dale lived life as fully as any human possibly could. More than once, she told me that she wants to arrive in heaven with her shirt tail sticking out, her glasses crooked and hair messy saying, “Man!!! That ride was AMAZING!”
I can hardly think of Dale without her radiating happiness. Her grandson Alex said it was like she had a “happiness virus,” constantly infecting people with it. Every one of my earliest memories of living on our childhood farm and walking the mile every day to the one-room schoolhouse we attended, has Dale in it. Playing outside on summer days; being tucked into bed on Christmas Eve while our two older sisters got to stay up and help Mom prepare for the celebration. Marilyn, Dale and I always received duplicate gifts… except for the year when Mom deviated and got me the beloved “Lucky Green Doll” I wanted so badly and consequently Dale got a stuffed hobo dog called “Tramp” that she was absolutely thrilled with– only because for the first time ever, it was a gift that was uniquely “hers.”
Together, we went to the same schools, summer camps, vacation trips. At summer camp one year, one of the boys had a crush on me, but I showed no interest at all in the goofy looking almost-teenager. He returned to camp the next year, significantly grown up and surprisingly good looking… and totally snubbed me because of his wild crush on Dale, who had been kind and friendly to him all along.
Dad and Mom took our family on some great vacations, the most infamous of which was the time our whole family drove through intense summer heat all the way from Toronto to West Monroe, Louisiana to visit our uncle, aunt and cousins. Don sat in the front with Dad and Mom while all five girls squeezed, sweltering, into the back seat of our wing-backed sedan long before cars were equipped with air conditioning. What were we thinking!?…But believe it or not, the memories of that trip are all good ones.
As the older siblings grew and married, the three younger of us girls traveled out west with Dad and Mom across the continent to attend family camp at Warm Beach in Washington State, camping along the way. Crossing the rugged mountains back then was hair-raising when Highway 2 was far more primitive with severe drop offs on each side of the road. At one point, with her arm out the open window, Dale held tight to the passenger side of the car, pretending to pull the car closer to the middle of the road to prevent it from falling off the narrow highway, joking, “I don’t know if this will help, but…” Silly girl…
And of course every childhood memory of our family included church. Dale met Reijo early on, at our church. Her head was turned by this serious, blond Finnish young man who was newly saved through the influence of his uncle who attended our church. Much of their courtship was spent within the context of a small group of us young people who went everywhere together and always ended up at our house for dinner after church. Our little group went on camping trips together, to events, to the farmers’ market on Saturdays, on fishing trips and excursions…
Dale was only 18 when she married Reijo, who was quite a few years older. I was blessed to be her maid-of-honor, and she was a beautiful bride, stunning with a wreath of flowers in her thick, beautiful hair that has always been her crowning glory.
I am embarrassed to confess that very soon after they were married, I went to live with Dale and Reijo. It was supposed to be very temporary, of course, when I got a new job in the city. As soon as possible, I rented my own apartment with an old girlfriend I reconnected with, only to move back out within a week’s time when the girl brought home a guy she’d just met on the subway and they spent the night together in her bedroom. She couldn’t promise it wouldn’t happen again, so Dale and Reijo compassionately helped this devastated, blubbering, upset basket case move back in with them… only soon after, we rented a larger house where I had my own room instead of sleeping on the living room couch, and Eli, the adorable blond-haired baby she and Reijo had by the time we moved again, also had his own room.
I lived with Dale and Reijo for three years, which was one of the most spiritually significant chapters of my life. Reijo, who was a new Christian when he met Dale, was growing significantly in his faith, and so was I. Hugely!! My faith took huge leaps during that time as God began the slow process of chiseling away at forming my character into what He wanted me to be. Those years were not only happy, but foundational for me. I also became very, very close to their little boy, Eli.
After three years, I left my job to move to New York state and attend Elim Bible Institute. It was a huge adjustment as I struggled through intense homesickness for Eli, but almost immediately I met my husband Dan and started a life of my own. All through the years of raising our families, Dale, Reijo and their children Eli, Josh, and Leesha were part of the life and fabric of who we are. I am quite serious when I say that I constantly learned from Dale who, though younger, was always a step ahead of me. She raised her family in Godly faith and passion. Her daughter Leesha recalled that when Dale would wash the hands of her little children, she would pray over them, “Lord, bless these hands. Keep them from evil; let these hands serve You…”
Dale and Reijo’s family visited every home we ever lived at, as we did theirs. We learned how to stay in touch long-distance, just as Dale herself learned to release, yet stay closely connected with Eli when he married and started his own family with a long distance between them. I learned the art of how to be a “long distance grandmother” from Dale. From her, I also learned the art of being a Godly wife. In their 44 years of marriage, Dale was a true model of a wife who respected and loved her husband. They did everything together, holding hands and being each other’s best friend. Their marriage is truly one of the best pictures I have ever witnessed of Christ and His love for His Bride, the Church.
As her children grew, Dale pursued a career as a dental assistant where she worked for 25 years. During a very intense period of time when her office was subjected to serious and horrific circumstances in the management resulting in some girls having nervous breakdowns from the pressure, I– along with others of my sisters– begged Dale to just quit. Yet she persisted, for the sake of the other girls she was working with, encouraging them, praying for them, reciting scripture to them, and even handing them all little bracelets engraved with “PUSH”- reminding them to “Pray Until Something Happens.” Unbelievably, something eventually did happen. Miraculously, the serious mismanagement was found out and God intervened in a truly amazing way.
On my 60th birthday, my husband Dan and my grown kids surprised me with an amazing beach party. Stunned as I walked down the steps leading to a beach on Puget Sound (the Pacific), I froze when I thought I saw Dale among the crowd. Literally shocked, I will never forget that moment… Dale had indeed flown in from Toronto to Seattle to surprise me. In the next few days, we made amazing memories sailing on the sound, shopping through Pike Place Market, talking and laughing through a ball game at the stadium, floating in inner tubes along the quiet river back in our town, going for a train ride together with one of my grandsons…
Soon after that, Dan and I joined Dale and Reijo, my older sister Connie and her granddaughter Amy in Paris, France, and together we made incredible memories sailing the Mediterranean and exploring the amazing sites and sounds of places like Athens, Istanbul, Cairo, Dubrovnik, and Venice. Dale and Reijo loved to travel and had already been to China twice to visit their daughter Leesha when she was an English teacher there. Life, travel, adventure, Jesus… loves we all shared.
A gifted cake decorator, Dale baked and decorated the wedding cakes for two of our three kids’ weddings. For years, Dale and I wrote each other at least once a week, and talked for lengthy phone calls periodically in between. One of the best things ever was sitting at her dining room table with coffee, talking. We shared books, ideas, family, favorite movies, things we loved…Her shortest and most impacting email came after she learned the diagnosis of the annoying choking sensation she’d been struggling with in her throat. “I have lymphoma.” And I think our world stopped.
Dale went through two separate rounds of chemotherapy to treat her lymphoma. She almost died after that first hit. It seemed miraculous that she recovered… only to have it come back again, have her go into remission yet again, then have it return with a vengence, along with a very rare and horrific onslaught of Stevens Johnson Syndrome. Any one of her family, her many, many friends, or her colleagues would willingly have suffered for her– but it seems that the call of God on Dale’s life was to suffer and die far too young, and the loss is crushing. One of the very brightest lights in my life, and the lives of many, many others, has gone out.
Looking ahead from this point is as dark as the blackness surrounding my little house in these early morning hours. My heart is shattered for Reijo, for Eli, Josh, Leesha and their families, for her grandchildren, for her friends and coworkers who loved her so dearly, for family members who will feel the emptiness so acutely… and absolutely, for myself. And yet I believe, as Dale would, that somewhere further ahead, all of us will look back over this dark time and see the absolute evidences of God’s amazing grace at every point as we move forward– taking only one step at a time.
I was so afraid that Dale had left too soon, that there were still too many loose ends, people who couldn’t go on without her… But after listening to Leesha, Eli, Josh, and Reijo speak at her memorial, I came back home with the full assurance that Dale had, indeed, completed her mission, “tied up all the loose ends,” and it was time for her to go home.
I don’t expect we will ever “get over it,” nor do I ever want to. I think that just like someone who has lost a leg, we all will have to figure out how to go on with life adjusting to living with this huge amputation. She will always, always be a missing part of us. But we’ll do it, by the amazing grace of God.
When Dale entered heaven, her shirt tail was not hanging out, her hair was not messy, her glasses were not crooked, and I don’t believe she said, “Man! That ride was amazing!” Instead, I truly believe that when her spirit left her body, she ran…. no, jumped into the arms of Jesus as Reijo had just told her to do when she saw Him. I believe with all my heart that in those moments when Reijo released her saying, “Lord, give Dale abundant entrance into Your Kingdom…” that Jesus Himself welcomed her into His arms, held her tight in His great, comforting embrace after such suffering, as He gently wiped away every tear from her eyes.
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