Slide survivor Tim Ward reflects on a year accomplished

ARLINGTON — Tim Ward keeps thinking about the meaning of time.

He’s still working it out in his mind, what the hours, days and weeks are supposed to measure.

Today, a year has passed since he survived the mudslide that took his bride, Brandy, and their life together on Steelhead Drive. The year since March 22, 2014, didn’t determine where he’ll go. It didn’t define what he’ll do. Maybe a year isn’t the best yardstick.

Tim turned 59 last month. He could have many more years, and that time has meaning, too. He thinks about it, whenever his phone rings, and as he gets into bed for another sleep-troubled night.

His life keeps ticking past, day after day, with Blue, his German shorthaired pointer, at his side.

He finds comfort in Brandy’s pictures on the wall of his rental house in Arlington.

Their marriage of nearly 38 years wasn’t perfect, but the commitment mattered. Arguments ended in a hug and a kiss.

At night in bed, they would talk about the ups and downs of the day. It’s Blue now on the pillow on Brandy’s side of the mattress, the dog who lost a hind leg after being pinned by a cedar in the mud. Every night without fail, three-legged Blue creeps and kicks his way onto Tim’s side of the bed.

Tim’s faith tells him that Brandy is beyond time. One day she’ll turn around in Heaven and he’ll be there.

He’s grown closer to his daughters, Tiffany and Brittany. The girls are tighter, too. It feels selfish to want Brandy back, he said, when because of her, “we respect life so much more.”

Tim and Blue go out to the slide sometimes, to the turnout where their driveway used to be, where neighbor Seth Jefferds always planted daffodils under the mailboxes. It feels right to be there. It smells like home and Blue loves to run.

Gone, too, are neighbors Kris and John Regelbrugge, who had loved to share their front porch and backyard.

Once, Brandy got caught in a log jam while inner tubing the North Fork Stillaguamish River. It was John, the Navy commander, who barked out orders and organized her rescue.

These days, the Regelbrugge family is having a single headstone made with the names of both parents. Kris was found four months after the slide, and after her husband’s memorial. She and John are being reunited in a cemetery in California.

In a year, Tim hasn’t settled on a new home. His old property is tied up in legal wrangling and negotiation. This winter, he went to look at acreage near Oso’s Rhodes River Ranch. It was a beautiful piece of land, but as he walked, he kept peering over his shoulder. He was looking for Brandy, to see what she thought and where she might want to put the chicken house. He realized he was trying to replace something that’s been lost, forever.

For months after that, he stayed away from Oso.

People have given so much to the survivors, and Tim is grateful for the generosity. Often, the simplest way to help someone is with something material, he said. He finds solace in the gifts: a tablet to watch Netflix, a shelf ready for books and dishes in the china cabinet.

Even decisions about the contents of his rental house can be complicated. One day, he made up his mind to buy kerosene lamps from the Arlington Co-Op Supply.

The blue-glass lamps decorate his living room. They’d be perfect for a power outage in a winter storm.

Are there such storms in Arlington? Was he wrong to buy the lamps?

The pieces of his life have jagged edges now. They don’t fit together like they once did.

So he and Blue take walks. They go to Tim’s physical therapy and Blue’s service dog training. Tim helps organize weekly support groups for slide survivors. He represents families in the talks about building a memorial.

Survivors don’t have to say anything when they get together. Some didn’t talk much before. Some don’t know where to start, how to put words to darkness that doesn’t easily come to the surface.

“Everybody’s trying their best to help each other get through this,” he said.

New stories emerge and people’s experiences overlap and contrast. Sometimes supporting each other means just sitting there, spending time. Sometimes it’s sharing a cherry crumb cake, with Blue inhaling his piece from a plate on the floor.

Tim’s making new memories, finding moments of joy amid months of grief. He knows he can’t push down the hurt, or it would fester.

He lost Brandy, not the memories of the lifetime they spent together.

He needs time. Time means finding a way for the past and future to fit together in one life. And in his future, despite its unknowns, are the friendships that survived the mud and the friendships that grew from its depths.

Tim’s pelvis and right hip were crushed. He moves better than he did six months ago, using a cane instead of a walker. He jokes that he’s held together by bolts. His feet are different sizes and his toes often feel like they’re on fire.

Tim moved into the Arlington rental in October. He had reservations about leaving his daughter’s house near Warm Beach, but he knew he had to try, to keep pushing himself. He hears every noise in the house, every truck that passes on Highway 9. The grumble of compression brakes stops him. He hears echoes of the roar the earth made as it swallowed his house.

Survivors understand. They no longer ask each other, “How’s it going?”

That doesn’t work anymore. What should they say? Would others really want the truth?

They greet each other differently. They say, “It’s good to see you,” and it is. It is good.

Reporter Eric Stevick contributed to this story.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

Sunday schedule

Highway 530 will be closed between Oso and Darrington from 9 a.m. to noon Sunday for the one-year remembrance event in the slide zone. The event is not open to the general public. The detour route is Highway 20 through Skagit County.

A community potluck is planned for 1 p.m. at the Darrington Community Center, 570 Sauk Ave. Food needs to arrive by noon.

The Oso Fire Department plans an open house from 1 to 4 p.m. at its fire hall, 21824 Highway 530. The start time is tentative as the Oso firefighters will be coming back from the remembrance event.

The Darrington Fire Department plans an open house from 1 to 3 p.m. at its fire hall, 1115 Seeman St.

About relief

Most relief efforts directly benefiting survivors have wrapped up. The Cascade Valley Hospital Foundation plans to accept donations for Oso mudslide relief at least until the end of June. Donations specifically for mudslide relief no longer can be made online. Instead, people can call Heather Logan at 360-618-7805 or email foundation@cascadevalley.org.

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