On Saturday, April 29, 2017, Rev. Marlene Whiterabbit Helgemo showed up into my life. I remember the moment clearly and with an immense amount of gratitude.
On Tuesday, April 25, 2017, my older son Christopher was lost in the Mississippi River. It had been in the news and Marlene watched the news–local, national, probably international, too. She paid attention to what was going on in her communities. She cared deeply.
On this Saturday, I had invited anyone who wanted to come to the River to Pray in vigil as we waited for Chris to be found. Marlene arrived, though we had never met, and brought Bishop Ann Svennungsen of the Minneapolis Area Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America with her. It’s hard to put into words the way in which Marlene showed up, but I will try. She walked into this space and, well, took over. She knew what I and those gathered needed in that moment, and she began to lead us, lead me. Marlene knew what it meant to pastor people. She had sage, an eagle’s feather, and a shell with her. She asked if those gathered knew what sage was and taught me and those of us gathered. She smudged Chris’s dad Tom, our younger son Austin, me, and all gathered. She sent the bishop around the circle to smudge us while she talked or was simply present. I don’t remember, exactly, the sounds, but I remember her and her presence and the smell of the sage and the comfort and healing of being smudged for the first time.
She soon introduced me to Water Walker and Anishinaabe leader Sharon Day who led some of us in a water ceremony in the next couple of days. Marlene checked in with me and became a part of my life.
Chris was found on Thursday, May 4th. Much of that time was a blur, but Marlene and Sharon offered to help me send my beloved Chris’s remains to continue his journey now as part of the Mississippi River on May 18, 2017, from Hidden Falls in St. Paul. Marlene was persistent and I knew when she called I needed to answer. She made a service folder titled “The Journey Continues…” and she helped me in my faith journey to know that this is, indeed true. Our time together in the sending was truly remarkable.
Marlene checked in with me often, especially in the first year after Chris walked on. She would call and ask me to pray for this person or a certain situation. She sent me messages and, I don’t know, was just there with me. She invited me to community gatherings around the fire circle at All Nations Indian Church, including a gathering of indigenous leaders from India. She invited me to a horse healing time which was amazing. She invited me to invite my community for a time of remembrance of Chris on the one-year Sadiversary of his death. Marlene invited me to walk part of the Missouri River with Sharon Day. She called me about current events. She called to offer food for our Tapestry families and asked for help distributing food during COVID. She invited me to lead weddings and preach, and she invited Tapestry to worship together with her community. Marlene helped me plan my bike trip from Minneapolis to the Gulf of Mexico in memory of my beloved Chris. She encouraged me as I biked and as I have been writing about that journey in grief and in love. I mean, she was there with me. She went from us not knowing each other at all to walking me from the depths of mourning death to actually living. She let me cry when I needed to cry and lifted me when I needed lifting and taught me with so much patience and love. She showed up for me over and over, just as I know she did for countless others.
I write this in memory of Marlene, beloved child of God, and I must say that Marlene’s husband Harvey was right there by her side. His quiet nature and soft words to me have been a balm to my soul. I mourn for him and for all of Marlene’s relatives.
I was blessed with Marlene and Harvey’s presence one last time on the Five-year Sadiversary, Part 2, of Chris’s death. Marlene and Harvey were among the first to arrive at our remembrance of Chris. We were having technical difficulties so unfortunately I was only able to capture the very last part of a lovely talk and prayer that Marlene shared with those gathered. You can listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mEoPGqhQuqk
I will hold to these words that Marlene spoke in her prayer, to memories of her friendship, and to the loving relationship Marlene and Harvey shared.
Marlene, you were truly one of a kind, a blessing to all who knew you. I give thanks for you life and witness. With joy, and with sorrow, I give thanks for the privilege of walking you home along with your beloved Harvey and all of your relatives.
Your sister in Christ, Melissa