Windmill at sunset

(Journal photo by Lacey Newlin.)

When someone passes away in a small town, the loss is felt throughout the entire community. The whole population drops off casseroles and cakes and the men pick up the slack on the farm or mow the yard just to help out, and no one rings the doorbell—they just walk in because everyone feels like family.

A man named TJ in my town of Cherokee, Oklahoma, passed away at the end of April at the young age of 41, leaving behind a lovely wife, Nicole, and five beautiful young children, Tate, Talyn, Tanis, Trace and Turner. He had fought cancer for nearly five years and finally succumbed to his illness and our town is devastated.

TJ was a farmer, a Cherokee School Board member, active in his church, a member of the National Guard, a volunteer coach and on the volunteer fire department. He loved this community and we loved him. The outpouring of love and support for TJ and his family has definitely caught my attention.

For the funeral, the whole town stopped what they were doing to pay their respects and a large portion of the town attended the service. Businesses shut down and school was canceled because when a small town loses someone like this, the ache reverberates throughout. After the main service, the police officers directed traffic as TJ’s semi-truck made its way down main street leading the funeral party and the driver honked the horn as it passed.

When everyone gathered at the cemetery for the military send-off, there wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd as the fire department radio filled the silence and the voice on the other end announced, “TJ you are cleared to go off duty and we will take if from here.” I felt goose bumps on my arms as I heard those words of finality and I saw a crowd of grown men—tough farmers and ranchers who never get emotional—crying hefty tears. It was something I’d never seen before, and I don’t know when I will see that many people weeping in unison again. It was heartbreaking and sobering, but it also reminded me of how many wonderful people there are in this world with so much love and respect for their friends.

The things I saw and heard that week made me realize losing someone anywhere other than a small town must be about the loneliest experiences a person can go through during one of the most difficult times of their life. We may be few in numbers—1,500 to be exact—but we more than make up for it in love for our neighbors and support of the people who make small towns great and when we lose one our own, we all grieve together.

The day after we said our good-byes to TJ it rained—clarification, it poured buckets. At first I thought it was a reflection of the weeping in our community, but then I considered it might just be TJ up in heaven helping out his farmer buddies and saying, “This county won’t be going through another drought while I have anything to say about it.” And at that thought, I smiled.

Lacey Newlin can be reached at lnewlin@hpj.com.

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