A Message from my mother …

On November 7, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing

The post below is a message from my mother — as only she could write — in regard to what led up to and what happened immediately following the copper theft home explosion that claimed my stepfather’s life.

Two months after Earl’s death, Mom wrote this letter by hand and asked me to post it on my blog for her. I did take the liberty, however, of adding one of my favorite pictures of the two of them. They were still this much in love and so very happy right up until the day the copper thieves stole Earl’s life from him and from us.

Here is what my mom, Hope Thelander, wanted people to know.

Earl and Hope, the early years Earl Thelander and Hope Ewing before they married in 1982. A few months shy of their 25th wedding anniversary, Earl died from burns suffered in a house explosion after copper thieves stripped propane lines from a rural home the couple were renovating and let the home fill with propane gas. Earl and Hope had been working daily at the home  — which formerly belonged to Hope’s parents — and had reported the burglary and gas leak to local authorities earlier that morning. After all officials left the rural residence and Earl returned later that day to install a new water pump and tank, the home exploded when he plugged in a squirrel cage blower to help dry water from the basement floor due to water lines the copper thieves had also cut and stolen.

November 1, 2007

Two months ago today, my husband of nearly 25 years passed away at Clarkson Burn Center in Omaha of burns he suffered from an explosion at my parents’ old home in rural Onawa. Earl and I had purchased the home and had been finishing up work there after one of my daughters and her husband moved out.

Since the accident on August 28, and Earl’s subsequent death four days later, my family and friends have taken all interviews in order to protect my feelings at such a terrible time. There have been several newspaper accounts of that day, and though I am extremely grateful for the media’s help in keeping this investigation in the forefront, as Earl’s wife I feel I need to address some misinformation as to what actually took place.

Earl had turned off the propane at the tank when he first arrived at about 8:30 a.m. He then had me call the sheriff’s office to tell them of the break-in.

Between approximately 10-10:15 a.m., Sheriff Pratt and Officer Joe Farrens arrived to take a statement. At that time Sheriff Pratt, Joe Farrens, Earl and myself, my brother-in-law, Dave Anderson, and my daughter, Kysa Ewing, went through the house opening windows. (We later were told we didn’t have the explosion then because the oxygen level was too low.)

We all came back home to Onawa, having left open all windows and doors to ventilate the house.

At approximately 11:30 a.m., Earl went back to the farm to hook up a new water pump and tank in the basement. Ordinarily, I accompanied him when he was working at the farm, but he insisted it wouldn’t take long and that he would not be too late for lunch.

My nephew, Norman Johnson, arrived at our Onawa home shortly after that, bringing Earl and me some lunch.

Shortly after 12:00, Earl came in the door with his burned shirt hanging around him in shreds. He was badly burned and said the house “exploded” when he plugged in a squirrel cage blower to dry the water on the floor that had leaked after the water lines on the water heater had been cut. (Not to air any remaining propane fumes as has been mistakenly reported in the media.) Norman and I – not the ambulance – took Earl to the hospital where Dr. John Garred Jr. called for life flight to take Earl to the Clarkson Burn Center in Omaha. Dr. Garred explained to us the prognosis of someone Earl’s age surviving the vast scope of the third-degree burns was not good — despite Earl being otherwise quite healthy.

Four days later, after being kept in an induced coma to prevent pain, Earl passed away. At his side to say last goodbyes were his children, stepchildren, grandchildren, and myself.

We have been through anger, frustration, grief, loneliness and disbelief that he is gone, particularly because he was taken away so suddenly and there was so much more he wanted to do with his life. I miss him so much.

I miss the coffee breaks (every 15 minutes).

I miss him watching Bill O’Reilly’s “No Spin Zone” at 7 p.m.

I miss seeing him fill the bird feeders and calling me to see a cardinal whenever they would fly in.

I wanted so badly to have him see that his three puny tomato plants produced literally hundreds of tomatoes.

If there is anything to be thankful about over this, it is that he didn’t have to endure months of painful treatments for his burns. In addition:

I’m thankful he didn’t know I was diagnosed with breast cancer six days after his funeral.

I’m thankful he was able to get out of the basement and drive home to me.

I’m thankful that he woke me up at 4 a.m. August 28 to look at the eclipse of the moon with him in what we didn’t know then had just become our last morning together.

I’m thankful that instead of five children, I have 11 to help me with the things he’d always insisted on doing himself.

Yes, he was a good man, a good friend, and a wonderful husband and father.

We will all miss him, but we will work together to solve this senseless and needless crime.

In Earl’s memory

Respectfully yours,

Hope Thelander

The Tangled Roots of Hope

On October 30, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing
Earl Thelander getting ready to plant tomatoes

Earl Thelander outside his home preparing to plant his annual tomatoes.

In the film To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a scene where young Jem goes back to the Radley’s collard patch late at night to retrieve the britches he’d abandoned earlier after snagging them in a fence. Some days later, when his sister Scout catches him admiring the trinkets he found in a tree near the Radley home, Jem confesses to her the truth about the night he went back after his pants.

When I’d left ’em, they were all in a tangle and I couldn’t get ’em loose, he says. But when I went back for ’em, they were folded across the fence… sort of like they was expectin’ me.

For the past two months, every time I pulled into my mother’s driveway and saw Earl’s tomato plants spread out further and thicker than they were the day before, I could hear echoes of those words … sort of like they was expectin’ him

Like a loyal dog sitting faithfully by the door — an ear tilted sideways, awaiting familiar footsteps and sounds of the master’s return — the tomato vines kept listening, leaning, yawning, spreading out their arms to sleep and curling themselves around the empty lawn chair’s legs where he once sat and then waking to another day to nudge against the bright yellow Tonka truck toy he’d parked in their bed … almost as if they still were expecting him to come back home and play and pluck an annoying weed from their loom like an unsightly burr from a retriever’s golden coat.

He had waited for them first, using his index finger and one good eye to sight the one he’d chosen as his favorite.

“Right there. It’s already turning red. See it?” he’d said, hunching over and pointing into the sparse vines. And I’d followed his gaze to where the small but plump orb blushed amidst its less developed sister fruit. “That’s the one I’m waiting for,” he’d said proudly. “That one’s mine.”

On his knees, he’d planted these seeds and gently blanketed them with soil and cared for and tended to them with the same kind of commitment he bestowed upon all things he molded and created with his own two hands. But some time in the night’s dark hours, the Boo Radley of Jem and Scout’s deepest fears came to rob this man of his life and loves and the pleasures he derived from taking simple moments like these and turning them into something spectacular.

Still, his tomato plants waited.

They waited while … six days after his funeral … my mother passed by them on her way to the hospital for the breast lumpectomy and returned with her breast cancer diagnosis.

They waited and spread out toward the east while … one week later … Mom’s doctor told her she needed to make a decision.

Earl Thelander's tomato plants

Earl's few tomato plants produced hundreds of tomatoes.

They waited and spread toward the west and wrapped around the heart-shaped sign reading “Grandpa and Grandma – Kids Spoiled Here While You Wait,” while … two and one-half weeks later … another car took her away for the mastectomy and returned with all these other vehicles and so many lively children.

They waited while … amidst all the muffled voices and words like metastasized and chemo and numerous close calls with small running feet and shrill laughter and surprising phrases like bad-year-for-tomatoes-everywhere and questions like he-did-what-with-his … new buds spurted forth and heavier vines swept down and around them like mother hens pulling rowdy chicks back and away from the busy traffic in Earl’s driveway.

They waited and snaked around the legs of his white chair and climbed up higher for breathing room and a view of dozens more green offspring below while … careening near the chair’s arm where he used to lay his elbow … they sucked in the late October sun as new words like collapsed lung and it’ll be freezing soon drifted over the rail near the door and filtered down between the effervescent green foliage.

And so, as the month drew to a close and I returned my mother to her home after the morning’s hospital visit where they made her blood radioactive to prepare for chemo treatments and she said we need to get the tomatoes out by nightfall lest they freeze, I looked down at the tangling vines and thought about how their roots of hope had somehow spawned hundreds of tomatoes, and, against all odds, continued to multiply and produce as if their very life — or, perhaps, ours — depended upon it.

“But some of them are still so … small,” I said. “They haven’t even had a chance to ripen.”

Yet, I knew.

Like Jem and Scout and Dill mourning summer’s end, Earl’s tomato plants hadn’t yet realized their season had come and gone. Their life cycle, like Earl’s, left so much still ripening on the vine.

Still, I could not bring myself to pick them. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to summer. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to the interlocking green stems that still drew energy from the sun and soil. Perhaps I wasn’t yet ready to say goodbye to Dad Earl. Cutting down his tomato plants — even in the face of a freeze that surely threatened to kill them all — was too much like severing all hope he’d return once again to gather his offspring in his arms … if only for one final moment.

In Flannery O’Connor’s A Good Man is Hard to Find, she, like Harper Lee, recognized that which separates good and evil and redemption from sin.

In Earl, we found a good man. In Earl, we found our own Atticus Finch.

And his spirit, I know, will be there with us when we go to sleep at night and it will be there when we wake up in the morning.

Sounds of Silence

On October 8, 2007, in Crime, Family, by Jody Ewing

It’s a strange sort of silence that’s settled over all our lives.

It’s not just the absence of “Dad” Earl. Or the soft tone of his voice. Or even the echo of Mom and Earl’s combined laughter that reverberated through a room in such a finely tuned harmony it sounded more like a symphony.

It’s something akin to a world sitting slightly off its axis, frozen in time, waiting to move once again but wary of doing so lest one squeaky turn unleash a thousand vociferous cries and the chokehold they’ve had around our hearts.

It’s a strange sort of silence that’s settled in tonight, despite today’s laughter as my siblings and I gathered ’round our mother at the hospital as nurses inserted IV lines for Mom’s 9 o’clock mastectomy and others arrived to wish her the very best and said the front desk told them just-follow-the-noise-and-you’ll-find-her-room and Mom kept telling us to hush because after all, this is a hospital and you know how your voices carry and we laughed and told more stories while carefully steering clear of one of the last jokes Earl had made in the very same hospital only one month earlier when Mom brought him in with those third-degree burns and he’d joked about everyone thinking he was “trying to steal the attention away from Mom” since her breast surgery for the biopsy was scheduled for the very next day.

It’s a strange sort of silence that follows fear but has deep roots in hope.

Tonight, I’m listening close to Andy DuFresne … trying to remember, perhaps not perfectly, the words he spoke to ‘Red’ in “The Shawshank Redemption” ….

Remember … hope is a good thing. And no good thing ever dies.