On the surface, Becky’s story is a fairly common one among women of the Boomer generation: she attended college, but never completed her degree. Instead, Becky got married, had two sons, divorced and later remarried. She was a thoughtful loving parent to John and Caleb; and a hard worker, devoted to the care of the Scottish Highlander cattle she raised on her 20-acre farm in Oak Harbor, Washington. She took an active role in local politics and, as the author of her obituary described her, Becky was “a voice for the environment”. This same person said Becky could be “fierce when asked, as well as smart and funny”; and acknowledged how her passing had dimmed “a bright light in our life.” Clearly, Becky was deeply loved by many, many people.
While there’s oh, so much more to Becky’s life, we’re here to look at what she decided to do after her death, and how it affected those left behind. Not just those who knew her personally; but people like Alex Clements and the other members of the Mesoloft team who were integral to making her end-of-life wish come true. (And people like me; a writer living hundreds of miles away.)
Here’s what I learned about Becky during a lengthy and emotional phone conversation with Gerry Spraitzar, Becky’s husband of 27 years.
Becky had always been quite clear: when the time came, her body was to be cremated. But she wasn’t comfortable with the idea of her ashes being kept at home, and she didn’t want them to be interred in a cemetery. For weeks she looked into options.
Her search was fueled by the recent diagnosis of lung cancer. Being a DES daughter, Becky was all-too-familiar with the disease. Now the doctors were advocating surgery and follow-up treatment. Time was even more precious.
It was then her oldest son John became quite ill. It wasn’t a surprise to anyone when Becky decided to postpone medical treatment and go to Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he had been hospitalized. Naturally, it broke her heart when John died, on March 11, 2015, at the age of 42. “She was never the same; it took all the fight out of her”, said Gerry.
Now her search was renewed in earnest, not just on her own behalf, but also for John.
It wasn’t until a few months later that she found out about Mesoloft online. "I remember Becky telling me about her conversations with Alex, and all about the program,” shared Gerry. “She was so excited about what was offered; it truly fulfilled what she wanted for her son.”
Becky made up her mind: John’s ashes were going to take a final journey with us. “Her enthusiasm remained–and even grew– as the time for the launch neared,” shared Gerry. Five months after his death–on August 23rd 2015–the Mesoloft team sent his ashes aloft. Unfortunately, because of physical frailty and pressing family concerns, Becky was unable to attend the event. But she did get to watch a real-time video. “Becky was so excited about the live feed; she informed many of her Facebook friends and family to watch it,” remembered Gerry. “I did, and it was a wonderful experience."
Even though John’s death had changed her in many ways; as her obituary noted, Becky was ‘fierce’ when she needed to be. As her illness progressed, she remained adamant about her desire to take the same journey after death as her son.
On March 28th, 2017–just 2 years and 17 days after John’s death, Becky passed away at home. It was now her son Caleb’s task, as executor, to make arrangement with us for the launch of her ashes into the mesosphere.
Arrangements were made, and a phone call was made. “Tomorrow morning they're going to launch Becky,” Caleb said to Gerry on the morning of July 31st.
“Where?” was Gerry’s natural question.
“Oregon”, was Caleb’s response.
It was at that moment Gerry knew what was ahead for him. “I had to be there: it was so important to me to witness her liberation from pain and suffering, from the sorrow she felt over John’ death; to experience for myself what it was she had so dearly wanted; to take part in realizing her wish. I had been so shattered by her death, I couldn't even speak at her memorial service. In truth I’m an introvert when it comes to expressing ‘big emotions’ like grief; there was no way I could do much more than just be there that day. That’s why I really needed this special time with her.”
Long story short: Gerry rented a car and drove about six hours–from just outside Seattle to the Eastern Oregon desert–to meet up with Alex Clements and other members of the Mesoloft launch team. “They had graciously postponed the launch for a day, so that I could be there; I’ll be forever grateful for that.”
His voice thickened with emotion.
“It was now August 2nd, a beautiful day with no clouds. We were in a wide-open area. For a time I was happy just being an observer, distracting myself with the technology. There was a big tarp on the ground for cleanliness; Alex and the team spent time getting the equipment set up, including the cameras around the launch point. I asked them so many questions–keeping my mind off why it was we were all gathered there.”
Equipment readied, questions asked (and answered); it now came time to actually perform the launch. That’s when Alex turned to Gerry and said just six words, which were to change the experience altogether–not just for Gerry, but for everyone there:
“Would you like to do it?”
It’s no surprise: Gerry said yes. “I just stood there, holding on to the release bar, acknowledging the moment. This was when I'd really say good-bye. I said a prayer for Becky and John’s reunion, and just let go.”
Then, something dramatic happened: instead of rising, the balloon returned to earth for just an instant. “It was as if Becky reached out–to say ‘good-bye’ and ‘I love you’–one last time.”
Then the balloon did as you’d expect: it began its ascent in earnest. “I watched it sail up and away, taking a large part of my heart with it. Still, despite the hurt (and maybe because of it), it was beautiful to see.”
All in all, what happened that day “was a phenomenal experience” for Gerry. “I’ve thought about it every day since. It changed me in ways I’ve yet to fully realize; but I do know this: I get a whole lot of comfort from knowing I followed-through with Becky’s wishes. And so does Caleb.” They both like the thought of Becky’s ashes circling the planet and coming to rest in far-flung regions. “It feels good knowing she’s all around me”, said Caleb in a recent phone chat.
Alex Clements had a similarly powerful experience that day. “Becky's launch was the first time a family member joined us and wow what an experience! Gerry’s presence opened ours eyes to an aspect of our service we've underestimated: the emotional release someone can have when they are given an opportunity to physically let go of their loved one.
“Allowing Gerry to release the balloon was probably the best experience I've had since we started Mesoloft. It was as if you could see the weight of Becky's passing be lifted off his shoulders as he let go of that balloon.”
“My Becky was never one to rest; she was always busy with one thing and another,” said Gerry. “So the idea of ‘resting in peace’ wasn’t how she wanted to spend eternity.” Instead, she chose an active, expansive ‘afterlife’. In doing so, she becomes part of all that is, and all that will be. Not just in one place, but everywhere.
And here’s something else: Becky’s ethereal presence not only comforts her son and husband, but me–a total stranger. In my mind Becky’s “bright light” hasn’t dimmed at all; rather, it’s grown, and now surrounds us. That is her gift, to loved ones and strangers alike.
Before I ended our conversation, I asked Gerry if he could tell me what one of Becky’s favorite songs was (I was looking for more insight into her character). He was quick to share that the British band Queen was “our favorite group”, and he felt their song, Breakthru, was the perfect answer to my request.
“It may not have been what you’d call her ‘favorite’, but it suits her. The idea of ‘breaking through’ was a theme throughout Becky’s life: from her personal relationships to her political activism,” he said. “The song is a perfect fit for my Becky: high energy, dynamic.”
I hate to admit it; but I'd never heard the song before. So I queued up the almost 30-year old music video on YouTube. Gerry’s right: it really is ‘high energy’. And after watching the video and reading the lyrics, I believe Becky’s story should end with these words, taken from a song that describes her approach to her life – and her death (source):
Breakthru, these barriers of pain,
Breakthru, to the sunshine from the rain,
Make my feelings known towards you
Turn my heart inside and out for you now
I have to make this final breakthru.