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my ode to Denise Koeth

Thousands of words later and I still can’t seem to write the perfect Ode. It’s been 3 months since she’s been gone and I just don’t believe it. I saw her, I was with her, I saw the body, we buried her, we said goodbyes, but why is it still so unbelievable? I suppose it’s because she still with us. She’s still guiding us on how to move forward and how to go through life.

I’m not sure where to start. I feel a bit lost. Alone, hurt, and in pain. I’ve tried to write this many many times. Losing someone is hard enough but when you lose them at a significant time in your life, it magnifies everything. I’m still in shock and still processing. I haven’t posted on my instagram since. I haven’t mindlessly scrolled or posted any happy moments. And that may seem odd to you to note that, but for me, that’s a big deal. I love sharing my life and odd thoughts with strangers… clearly. However, I’ve just been in a fog of reflection. But it feels like it’s time I said what I have to say. I grieve and express myself through my writing. It’s long, it’s written how I would speak, its probably not grammatically correct but it’s my soul’s method. I may be letting you all in a little too much but thats just who I am. 

This is my Ode to my mother-in-law Denise Marie Koeth.

I did not think I’d be writing this so soon. I thought I had time. I think we all think we have time, and thats the biggest lie we tell ourselves. The fact is we don’t. So what you do in the now is the ever most pressing. Whether that is to love, to learn, to enjoy, or even resent, or to get disgruntled, or to hold on to a feeling. Whatever we do in this moment is how we set up the next moment and the next moment after. But what if that moment after, you were gone? How do you want to leave this earth? Do you want to leave it feeling at peace with your affairs? Or do you want to leave it with hatred, fear, or troubles? I always think that I’ll make it until tomorrow but I’ve realized, who said that I’ll get to tomorrow?

It has been 3 months since Denise Marie Koeth has ascended into heaven on the morning of September 2nd, 2022. I’ve written this Ode almost every day since. I’ve written pages, then deleted, then written more pages, then deleted. I just can’t get it right. There was magic to this loss. Usually people think that if they are a few degrees away from the person that has passed, it doesn’t affect them as much, but I promise you that this tremendous loss affects a lot more than just little ol’ me, and the immediate family and friends. Even if you didn’t know her, just by reading this, Denise will have an influence on you.

Denise had a way of making you feel like you were the belle of the ball. No matter who you were. She welcomed you unconditionally, and she went all out. My mother in law, welcomed me with open arms the moment I met her 11 years ago. My husband, TJ, or Terry to his family and childhood friends, is a complete mama’s boy. He called his Mom every day and chatted about the latest going ons, and things. She loved her baby boy. Watching her hug him and then grab his head with her little hand and bring him in close for a kiss with her Longo red lips always made me smile. She just loved him so much. She still does. My whole being aches seeing my husband mourn his Mom. She was his everything. I just hope he truly knows how proud she was of him. I pray he never has any regrets and honors her memory with laughter, kindness, and love just as she would. You got this T!

tj white and his mom

My relationship with her was something out of the ordinary. It wasn’t just a daughter-in-law, it was like I was her daughter. And to honor her real daughter, Tanya, she loved her so much. A daughter and mother relationship is something so precious and unique. It’s unlike any bond and I feel extremely sorrowful that Tanya has lost her best friend and mother. I can’t imagine losing my Mom right now but I will lend her out to you Tanya whenever you need her. Mama Daisy is always there for you. And I thank you for sharing your Mom with me. I miss her every day.

The timing of all of this is simply divine intervention. That may seem odd considering the circumstances. But we didn’t see it at first but hindsight is 20/20. Let me set the stage. Many many months ago, maybe even last year, we all talked as a family about going to the Geauga County Fair in September of 2022 because it would be the 200th year of the fair. This fair takes place in Burton, Ohio which is near Middlefield where my husband Terry, TJ to all you LA folk, grew up. Now this is a small town. I think this area is the 5th largest Amish population in the states or world. I can’t remember exactly. And no no no, the family is not Amish, they just happen to live in this town. Side Note: I’m absolutely fascinated with the Amish and their complete lifestyle and every time I come, I look at them all slack jawed with fascination the same way they return the look at me wondering why a woman would wear wedge heels with a midriff and a pound of makeup on her face. Our fascination is equal, but I digress. So we plan on going to the fair. It will be almost like a mini family reunion. Lots of people are flying in and some family and friends still live there or nearby enough so this will be a grand celebration. Another side note: when I say this town is small, its smaaaaaaaall. Everyone knows everyone, and everyone keeps tabs on everyone so coming back to the fair is a big deal and there will be quite the catching up to do. Denise, the queen of planning, had the 4 days all planned out. We will all get cabins at Punderson State park, we’ll go to the fair, eat swiss cheese on a stick, drink Tex’s Lemonade, go to the demolition derby, and then visit some family in town. It will be wonderful. Lots of family is coming in from both Denise’s side and my father in law, Denny’s side. We get in town on Thursday 9/1 and Denise, Denny, Tanya, her son Ryan, Terry, myself and Denny’s nephew Aaron all have dinner together. We laugh, share memories, and look forward to the weekend ahead. It’s been a long travel day for all of us, so we all hug each other tight. Wish each other goodnight and go to our respective cabins. What a perfect first night. And then we wake up the next day and by 10am, our entire life gets flipped upside down. Everything has changed. EVERYTHING. 

I’ll start with this. A few days after, we had Calling Hours. For those of you that don’t know what this is, it’s when you have set hours throughout the day that you announce for people to come by the funeral hall and view their beloved and/or pay their respects to the family. This particular “calling” was unique. I’m not sure what I expected. I knew I was going to be in a funeral home which is the last place anyone wants to be. I knew I was going to have an 8 hour day of talking and reliving things I don’t want to relive. My idea of being at a funeral home for 8 hours is like being at the DMV with no phone charger, no sweater, and then finally getting called at the 8th hour and they ask for a piece of paper you don’t have. But today was different. Today was NOT the DMV. Today was divine. 

The funeral home became an oasis of people who loved and cherished Denise. It was the most wildest experience. I stood at the front of the room with my father in law Denny, my sister in law Tanya and her husband Kevin, and Terry. I sunk my heels in ready for the long day ahead. But it wasn’t dread, I just wanted to be able to give my best face for all these mourning souls. This vigil was as much for us as it was for them. Hug after tearful hug, stories shared, laugher rejoiced, new bonds made, old friends reunited, all because of her. I look around the room and I see that the line is deep, and long. Its trailing out the door. I’m meeting high school friends, colleagues, old neighbors, family members, friends of her friends, friends of her kids friends, and everyone in between. People told grand stories of how Denise always made them feel good, or always had a smile, or how she made them or their parents or children feel special. And after each tearful hug and story, another one came. We greeted what felt like over 100 people that first hour, and we still had 5 more hours to go. One could only hope you have as many people as this in your life that think greatly of you and have nice things to say. 

At one moment I looked up and saw the line wrap around the room. I looked down at my watch, not out of wearisome, but just curious how much longer I had to keep a decent enough face before it got to super ugly crying. The clock said it was only 2:47pm!! And we had to make it until 7pm. It felt like I had been there for hours already. I mentioned to a cousin nearby, “Wow, there are a lot of people here” and she said, “There is a line out the door to outside” Wait, What?!?

This was a woman that meant so much to so many. I’ve read most of the Facebook posts that have been written but its been hard to process. I’ve mostly been avoiding it as I don’t know how to deal with it all. So thank you to the friends that checked in, apologies if I haven’t responded yet. It’s been a bit tough. I’ve seen Denise’s reach go far beyond any city lines of a small town in Ohio. The outpouring love online has been insanely heavy. Maaaaan, was this woman loved. Set apart how amazing social media is, and how it reaches people you normally wouldn’t reach, but the in-person vigil was mind blowing. I didn’t expect the Middlefield Sly Funeral Hall to be busier than a Thursday night in LA. Father Jay of St. Helens Catholic Church led an amazing prayer that night and he described it best. He said “For a woman that didn’t live in this town for 15 years, she was sure loved” He said he drove into the parking lot and couldn’t find parking. 

I knew she affected a lot of us, but I just simply didn’t know the magnitude. We knew the impact Denise had because no matter where you went someone knew her or knew of her. We called her the mayor. She knew people in her small town even decades after living there and then even in North Carolina, where she lived now, we couldn’t go shopping or to a restaurant without someone knowing her. To have an impact like that is pretty powerful.

Back to the divine part of this all. What are the chances that all of these people would have been available to be here to celebrate Denise? People drove hours and flew in for this. It was like everything that she wanted to happen, happened. Even the father that gave her last rites in the hospital was the same father that had done her brother Al’s funeral and her fathers. What are the chances? But none of this is by chance, it’s just God doing his magic. 

Another ‘What are the chances’ type stories is this. First off, Denise was not sick. This was absolutely a sudden shock to everyone, except for our creator. He knew. What happened next is wild. I don’t know about you, but I have no clue what to do at all when someone dies, let alone when you’re out of state on vacation, and top that off with it’s your Mom. We are all out of our element. We are far away from home. We have no idea what to do. But Aaron, Denny’s nephew I mentioned earlier that was with us, is also staying at Punderson. Aaaaaaaand he happens to be a funeral director along with a lot of other cool titles. So him being the cool as a cucumber person that he is, walks us through everything. He arranges EVERYTHING!! We meet with the funeral director in town, Donny Sly (what a sweet soul), he helps us with what arrangements the cemetery needs, and what other questions are going to come at us. He takes all the burden off our shoulders. How perfect is it that he ‘happens’ to be here. Then, come to find out, Denise always wanted to be buried at the cemetery that is close to town where the rest of her family is buried. Well good thing we ‘happen’ to be in town because if this type of event would have happened in North Carolina, it would have been a lot more leg work for us. Oh and that’s the other thing, her daughter and son ‘happen’ to be in town as well when this all happens? Again, if this would have happened in North Carolina or anywhere else, we wouldn’t have been there at her passing, we would have had to fly in at some inopportune time, we would have missed the moments before, during and after. We would have not been together. So for us to all be together at the same time, was incredible. There’s some other amazing signs and divinity but I’ll keep those special moments close to our hearts. But there are way too many things that ‘happened’ to work out.

The timing also worked in our favor because most of her family was already here. When we alerted her brothers and sisters, and nieces and nephews, many were already there and a few had to fly in, but what are the chances that everyone is able to make it on a holiday weekend? Even more so, Denny’s family was in town. What are the chances that both sides of your family make it on a holiday weekend to a small town in Ohio to memorialize their loved one?

Reliving this is cathartic but also feels like being stuck in freshly poured concrete. So to brighten the mood, here are some of my favorite memories.

One of my favorite times of the year is the 4th of July. That used to be a huge holiday in my family but as you combine your significant others holidays you tend to have to compromise and the 4th was one of mine. When I first came out to visit Denise and her family, it was 11 years ago. Of course you’re nervous, you have a whole new ecosystem you have to convince that you’re not a psycho and that you’re going to treat their loved one to the most exhausting degree of a King. It’s a big family and I was nervous. But Denise made me feel like I was already one of hers. She welcomed me whole heartedly. She did this thing that I’m sure many of you that knew her can attest to. She asked about you, genuinely. She didn’t just ask, how you were, how your day was, and all the bland normal social scripts that we ask each other. She wanted to know, what were you up to, what were your passions, who was your mother, how was your father, do you have siblings, what’s your hobbies. And then, she didn’t end there, what was special about her is she actually remembered what you said and she always followed up on those things in your life. She kept a dossier on everyone. We call her the mayor because she seemed to know everyone in town and what they were up to. She remembered everything.

During Christmas, we had a tradition of watching Hallmark or Lifetime movies together on the couch. It would be Terry, her, and me on the couch watching a movie that she picked out. She had already seen it but she would re-watch it with us again like she was seeing it for the first time. Sometimes we’d have hot chocolate, sometimes wine, and I remember one time we had some filthy martinis. And the best part was hugging her goodnight under the lights of the Christmas tree in our cozy mozy pajamas, receiving our big Longo red lip kiss on our cheek and her saying Goodnight as we all went to bed and waited to do it all again the next day. 

Recently, or shall I say a year ago, we invited Denise to our book club. The Wild Hearts Book Club which consists of me, my mom, my auntie Celia, cousin Heather, cousin Kristin, and our family friend Cassie. We’ve enjoyed her being a part of us nutballs ever since. We read about a book a month and we zoom ever couple weeks. Everyone takes turns on choosing a book, and Denise’s last book choice was “The Stranger in the Lifeboat” by Mitch Albom, many of you may be familiar with his other book “Tuesdays with Morrie.” What’s interesting about this choice is normally people are choosing thrillers, murder mysteries, sappy romances, we have had a couple of biographies, but nothing too spiritual. Not because we aren’t interested, we just never got around to it. So during Denise’s turn she said she heard about this book and lets give it a go. So we read the book and even had Denise’s daughter, Tanya, join the book club for this reading. When we all finished it, we zoomed and had one of the most intense, deeply spiritual, incredible talks ever. I highly recommend reading it. I bring this up because there is a passage in the book that resonated with a lot of us. And it keeps coming up for me during this time of mourning. 

To give you some context, a ship sinks and there is one lifeboat left with survivors. Extraordinary things happen while on this lifeboat. In this passage, a man’s wife falls off the lifeboat and dies. The man is speaking to God, unknowingly, and this is what is said:

“When someone passes, Benjamin, people always ask, ‘Why did God take them?’ A better question would be ‘Why did God give them to us?’ What did we do to deserve their love, their joy, the sweet moments we shared? Didn’t you have such moments with Annabelle?” 

“Every day,” Benjamin rasped. 

“Those moments are a gift. But their end is not a punishment. I am never cruel, Benjamin. I know you before you are born. I know you after you die. My plans for you are not defined by this world. Beginnings and endings are earthly ideas. I go on. And because I go on, you go on with me. Feeling loss is part of why you are on Earth. Through it, you appreciate the brief gift of human existence, and you learn to cherish the world I created for you. But the human form is not permanent. It was never meant to be. That gift belongs to the soul. I know the tears you shed, Benjamin. When people leave this Earth, their loved ones always weep. But I promise you, those who leave do not.”

― Mitch Albom, The Stranger in the Lifeboat

Now let that all sink in. I have asked God why has he taken her so soon? Why now? Why not after I’ve hugged her tight too many times, or kissed her goodnight after watching Hallmark movies, or held her hand while walking to dinner, or after we got our nails done, or maybe even after she visited me and my mom in San Diego, or after a family trip to Italy, or maybe after we ring in the New Years in Paris, or even just after watching the sunset on Lake Norman. Why Now? But then I keep coming to this passage. And the question of why did God give her to us? And then I feel a sense of peace. She was so much to all of us. She was a gift. And she was a gift that we must learn to cherish and appreciate. And I did. I can honestly say I was at peace with her. Of course I’lI always wish I had one more private chat with her, or one more call or hug or “Hey Honey”. But my last hug to her was tight and heart felt. My last conversation with her was perfect. So I can’t say that I wish I would have mended something. And that in of itself is a gift. Too many of us hold grudges or resentment or reasons behind what someone said to us. But none of this was the story for me and Denise. We had it good. I loved her so much. She was an incredible Mom to me, and mother in law, and let me tell you, if she saw her baby boy acting out, ooooooooooooooh, she would bring the hammer down. I miss having my warrior with me. 

There is no doubt that I will weep many a late night but I have faith knowing she is always with me and guiding me. I will do her the honors in fulfilling my dreams that I set out to do. That’s another thing that Denise was great at, she always encouraged myself and others in their pursuits. She never naysayed that you couldn’t do something or said how hard it would be, or that it couldn’t be done, she would just encourage you to go for it. Sometimes you would second guess yourself if you were going big enough. And if your mom isn’t deterring you from doing something big and enormous, then are you even dreaming big enough? Let’s dream bigger. I just loved it. I’d tell her things I didn’t even tell my own husband, and she would encouragingly say, “Honey I know you can.” I only wish I could hear her say “atta girl” a few more times but I know she is rooting me on. I shall carry no doubt in anything that I pursue. 

One thing that is hard for me to grasp is the timing it all. Because she was only 70. That’s WAY TOO YOUNG to be flying on the marigold bridge. But perhaps God saved her from a more tragic passing. Maybe down the road, she would have suffered something worse where we would have had to watch her suffer, and perhaps God knew we couldn’t have handled that. But maybe also, he saw that with this passing, it would breathe new life into our own. Perhaps it encourages us to reflect on our lives and live each day as if it were our last, tie those broken ties, and truly don’t sweat the small stuff, and just be grateful to be alive and for everything that we have. With every death in my life, I get deeper into faith. I learn a little bit more about myself and about life. I shed a little bit more of things that don’t matter. I never want to live a life of regret, so I don’t, or at least I try not to. I am quick to apologize, correct my wrongs, and forgive. I’m not perfect but I am conscious of it all. We all make mistakes but if we challenge ourselves to do better, isn’t that what this journey is all about?

I’ve been listening and observing a lot lately and life is a trip. The words of the wise ring truer, and clearer every life event; Live each day as if it was your last, Don’t hold on to grudges, forgive often, love hard, never go to sleep angry. With each death in my life, these stick a little more. We all know them, we have seen the bumper stickers, the memes, the instagram girls with the coffee mugs that say “Carpe Diem,” or the guy with the tattoo, “No regrets.” The wisdom of time has been capitalized by corporations and influencers alike, but the words and sayings are the cold hard truth.

As I finally wrap this Ode to Denise, I would like to finish with a few thoughts. It’s never too late to start fresh or again. Whether that be in business, a relationship, with family, your health, with your kids, whatever it is. It’s never too late. You only have Now. And while that all may sound trite, all of these sayings are true. We are just sometimes too stubborn, or close minded to pay attention. So be kind to one another, Live like Denise. Care for your neighbor, always smile, hug hard, leave a lipstick mark on a cheek, and end each day grateful. Don’t wait and sit on your “I’ll do it tomorrow” dreams, romances, career, travels, family memories. I wish you all health and happiness. 

Cheers to you Denise! I’m missing you like crazy but I’m holding the torch. XO

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