By Jenny Neyman
When Linda Cooper told her daughters what she wanted for her funeral service and burial, the three gave really the only acceptable response possible when a loved one with a terminal illness makes requests about final wishes.
“When she would tell us this I know all of us, at least me in particular, would kind of laugh and say, ‘Yeah, right.’ We’d tell her, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do it,’ but none of us actually thought we were going to,” said Christina Cramer, of Soldotna, the youngest of Cooper’s daughters.
As her six-year battle with multiple sclerosis and a neuropathic condition progressed, Cooper, of Soldotna, started talking more frequently about her final arrangements with her husband, Tom Cooper, and her three, 30-something daughters. Despite their mom’s deteriorating condition, her daughters said the comments and conversations still seemed hypothetical. The family sifted through symptoms and setbacks looking for flashes of hope like a miner sluicing for flakes of gold. Each glimmer, like being released from the hospital, could be plucked up and polished into the possibility of a brighter future.
Even though, realistically, they knew it would come, Cooper’s death on April 17 at age 54 still came as a surprise.
“You’re ready for it, but you’re never really ready for it,” Tom Cooper said.
Diana Long, of Anchorage, joined her sisters, Cramer and Sharon Jackson, of Soldotna. As they faced their grief, they also faced their mother’s requests.
Cooper had discussed her end-of-life wishes with Tom and each of her girls, but the sisters had never really discussed the matter with each other, much less decided whether they wanted to go through with it or made plans for how to do so.
“We just kind of blew it off. We didn’t think it would really happen. It didn’t sink in or anything,” Jackson said. “But when she died it was like, ‘Alright, now we know what we’ve got to do, let’s go do it.’”
Cooper liked uniqueness and personality.
“My mom, she’s original,” Jackson said.
She didn’t want “just any old plain burial,” Cramer said. She wanted the reception to be a celebration of life, with photos and stories and as much of the entire, blended, extended family together as possible. She wanted to be buried in the cemetery in Cooper Landing, tucked among the trees and surrounded by streams and mountains, rather than acres of neatly manicured, orderly cemetery grounds. And she wanted the arrangements to be handled by her family as much as possible.
Tom and family members dug the hole for her burial. Her brother, Bill Peace, of Soldotna, drove her casket to the cemetery in his big blue van. Her daughters did her hair and makeup and dressed her for burial in her “good ol’ blue jeans,” Cramer said, with a pack of cigarettes in one pocket and a lighter in the other, letting her indulge a habit Tom wished she’d give up, but wasn’t going to try to deprive her of now.
As arrangements progressed and the funeral date neared, the girls had one other duty to perform to fulfill a request they didn’t expect to come due.
“I honestly didn’t think it would ever happen,” Cramer said. “And then when she died we were all sitting there and it’s like, ‘Well, I guess we’ve got a coffin to build.’”
One of a kind
Cooper’s life had been a series of seized spur of the moments. Her daughters remember their early days as gypsylike, often on the move as their
independent, self-reliant mother tried this place, visited that one, then felt like checking out another.
“Mom was very, very spontaneous,” said Jackson, Cooper’s oldest daughter. “She’d say, ‘Oh, it’s a nice day, let’s go to Fairbanks.’”
Looking for adventure and a fresh start, Cooper moved her daughters to Alaska in the early 1980s, when her youngest, Cramer, was still just a baby.
“We drove the Alcan, us girls. Mom packed up and said, ‘Here we go,’” Long said. “And that’s what kind of person she was. She didn’t need anybody else.”
Get while the getting’s good. May hay while the sun shines. Such phrases describe an approach to life that’s well-suited to the expansive bounty, yet restrictive seasonality of Alaska. Those who ascribe to it often love the challenges and requisite hard work of life here as much as the rewards. Cooper was one of those.
“Yeah, Mom knew her outdoors,” Cramer said.
She loved fishing, hunting, camping, mining for gold, rock hounding, metal detecting, beach combing, archaeology, herbalism and natural plant lore.
“She could out-hunt, out-fish, she could pretty much do anything better than a man,” Long said. “Mom was good about that stuff.”
But even if she wasn’t naturally good at something, that didn’t stop her from doing it. She decided she wanted to build her own cabin in Sterling and went ahead and did so, with her daughters pitching in to complete various phases of it.
“She didn’t care if she had the skills or not. If she had it in her head to do something, she would do it. There was absolutely nothing that could stop my mom from doing things. And she always had ideas on what to do,” Cramer said.
Alaska offered ample destinations to satisfy Cooper’s gypsyish tendencies.
“We traveled Alaska top to bottom from the time we were little,” Long said. “She brought us up here on her own and she always drug us everywhere.”
“She used to come pull me out of school to go fly to go fishing. She’d just show up and say, ‘There’s a flight going to Akutan. Hurry up; grab your stuff, we’re going,’” Cramer said.
The family moved to Soldotna in 1995, where Cooper worked for Frontier Community Services and got her associate of arts degree from Kenai Peninsula College in 1999 and pursued a degree in archaeology.
In 2000, she found a partner in life and adventure when she met Tom Cooper, a carver and rock hunter himself, who owns Alaska Horn and Antler along the Sterling Highway. They met through their mutual interest in rock hunting. Tom Cooper had already raised a family and said he had given up on dating by the time Linda walked into his shop. But he knows a gem when he sees one.
“She came in and it was just instant. I’d never cold turkey asked a girl on a date before, I always had to build up and all that,” Tom Cooper said. “But she came in and stood right there and I was twitterpated, right from the beginning. She asked if I had any rock trips going. I said, ‘Maybe we should get together for dinner and talk about it.’ So we did. We started off on a rocky start and it’s been that wonderful ever since.”
Having found each other, the two enjoyed years of seeking together, looking for antlers, rocks, gems, ivory, plants, artifacts and anything else that caught their eyes. He was the love of her life, and became a true father to the sisters, they said, even though they were grown by the time he came into their lives.
“Her time here, this is the best years of her life,” Jackson said.
Though Cooper didn’t naturally tend toward long-term planning and organization, her illness forced a measure of forethought on her life — not that she always bowed to it. She still up and decided on taking trips, even she and Tom’s annual winter trek to Arizona. But over the winter, her condition worsened and the increasingly radical treatments the doctors prescribed didn’t seem to do much good. The MS was hindering her mobility, and a neuropathic condition called trigeminal neuralgia caused her great pain to one side of her face, making it difficult to talk or even swallow.
Cooper had taken a class at KPC on death and dying. Cramer said that instilled her with ideas on how she wanted to prepare for her own death, particularly that her family should have an active role in the final arrangements. That’s where the idea of a handmade casket originated.
“She thought there were some important things for dealing with sorrow, and she thought that was a good way for us to deal with everything,” Cramer said. “She wanted us to participate in the whole process. She wanted us to have a way to focus our energies and blow off steam and to deal with our grief through a creative process, you could say.”
“Oh, it was creative, all right,” Long said.
Cooper’s specific request of her daughters is that one build her casket, another one paint it and the third daughter do her hair and makeup for burial. The daughters decided they’d do their mom one better and fulfill all three requests together.
Grasping the significance of this being a collaborative effort requires dispelling the notion that this was some sort of idyllic, “kum-ba-yah” experience.
These are women who build their own cabins. They hunt goats. They inherited their mother’s self-reliance and the individualism that comes with it.
“We’re all three separate individuals,” Long said. “We’re all our mother’s daughters but all three of us are stubborn. We want our own way and we have our own style, our own likes and dislikes, and by golly, you’re going to hear about them.”
That’s not to say they didn’t also inherit their mom’s deep capacity of love and desire to take care of their loved ones. The sisters can fight just as fiercely for each other as they can with each other.
“We about got in a fistfight because the doctor said only one of us could be in that room,” Cramer said. “Finally, there was so much tension the doctors were like, ‘OK, you both just stand there and don’t say anything and you can both stay.’”
“But if they both wouldn’t have been in there, I don’t know how I would have done it,” Long said.
So a joint effort is saying something.
“That’s the whole point of this — the whole bonding experience,” Long said.
“It was a little difficult at times, because we all had our own ideas on things,” Cramer said.
“But like you said, nobody ended up with black eyes, we’re all walking and we’re all happy. It’s all done and it turned out wonderful,” Long said.
Though the three aren’t strangers to tools or construction projects, none had experience that was particularly relevant to casket construction. A friend of Tom’s, Bob Condon, in Soldotna, offered up his tools, shop and woodworking expertise.
The three decided on a “Wild-West-shaped” casket — angular, widest at the shoulders and tapering toward the feet. They each measured themselves and tried to estimate how much bigger the casket should be to accommodate their mom, Jackson said.
For the decoration, they each came up with ideas that incorporated their mother’s personality. The outside is painted purple — Cooper’s favorite
color — with tiny floral runners adding extra embellishments. Jackson wanted Coopers’ grandkids and great-grandchild to decorate the sides with brightly colored handprints and footprints. On the lid are three glassed-in shadow boxes. One holds a wood cross, made by Condon. The next holds a collage of heart-shaped stones, which Cooper loved to collect, that Tom put together. The third box and the casket contain other special keepsakes — including a medal from the World Eskimo-Indian Olympics, which Cooper used to go to Fairbanks to watch; a lock of Cramer’s son’s hair; the first dollar Cooper’s grandson, Robert, made in the Army; and a bracelet one of her daughters made for her.
If their mom had to give up her wandering ways, the sisters figured they’d make her final resting place as desirable as possible.
“All she said was, ‘Build a casket.’ We did it how we thought we liked it and how we thought she would like it,” Jackson said.
The inside of the casket is lined with a fabric pad printed with purple irises, Cooper’s favorite flower, made by Barbara Massey. The inside walls are lined with a collage of family photos. The inside lid is painted a bright yellow.
“Her cabin, she painted the ceiling like that. And everyone makes fun of her and everybody tells her how horrible it is, but she doesn’t care. She loved it, so that’s what we did in the casket,” Cramer said.
Long added an LED nightlight above Cooper’s head.
“That was something that meant a lot to all of us because she did not like the dark,” Long said.
Cooper’s funeral and burial were Saturday. The brightly painted casket seemed at odds with the solemnity of the occasion, but fit in with Cooper’s desire to celebrate her life, rather than just honor her death.
Her request was fulfilled. Not only did her daughters participate in her final preparations, they did so together, creating something that symbolizes love and life and that will stay with her forever.
“I think she’s probably smiling from up above, saying, ‘It’s about dang time they got together and swallowed each other’s pride and did it,’” Tom Cooper said. “It ended up, I think, even better than she expected, with all three of them working on the whole thing together.”
“I’m so glad we did it, because my mom liked things different,” Cramer said. “She would have bawled if Mom had known we actually worked together and built that. I think she would have been so proud of that, of us working together and doing it.”
“She is proud of that,” Long said.