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Couple who lost home to mudslide see God at work in community response

By Jean Parietti
Catholic News Service

ARLINGTON, Wash. (CNS) -- Ron and Gail Thompson are grieving their neighbors who are lost or missing in the Oso mudslide, but faith and lots of love and prayers are helping them stay strong.

"I've just been holding the hands and hearts of my neighbors who are still waiting for word of their loved ones," Gail said a few days after the March 22 disaster that wiped out their neighborhood. As of April 9, the official death toll stood at 36, with 10 people still missing.

Only two families in their neighborhood of 27 homes haven't suffered the loss of loved ones, Ron said.
Ron and Gail, along with Gail's elderly mother, Mary Jira, missed the slide by perhaps 15 minutes. They had left for Costco to purchase food for the youth of their parish, Immaculate Conception in Arlington, who were coming the next day for a work party. The event originally was planned for that Saturday -- the day of the mudslide.

Gail and her mother almost didn't go on the shopping trip. Her mother wasn't feeling well, but as the morning wore on, she started feeling better. Ron suggested it would be good for her to get out of the house. "As soon as he said that," Gail recalled, "I heard, 'You go.' I said, I'm supposed to go. I heard that loud and clear."

They are saddened when thinking of the neighbor who waved as he drove into the neighborhood as they were leaving that morning. He was among the missing in the slide's aftermath.

Tears mixed with laughter as the Thompsons reflected on the disaster, good memories of their close-knit neighborhood, and the broader community's response to those in need.

"It's so hard for us to be happy for us and for our family" when others are facing the loss of loved ones, said Gail, who is the secretary at Immaculate Conception Parish. But the Thompsons take comfort in their faith.

"We believe that life is stronger than death, and so to be absent from the body is to be at home with the Lord," Gail said. "Our belief is that they're there now, praying for us because we're the ones that are needing it."

They also feel the support, from near and far, of family, friends and even strangers. "Every time we get hugged or prayed for, I'm telling you, it just enlarges my heart," Gail said in an interview with Northwest Catholic, the magazine of the Seattle Archdiocese.

The Thompsons are awed by the outpouring of donations from all over and the hard work of so many volunteers, at the mudslide site and behind the scenes. "I see how God is in this and how he's working it for good," Gail said. "There's so much good," Ron said. "Everybody can do something and this is bringing that part out."

Ron and Gail said they feel blessed that their neighborhood had a St. Patrick's Day party just a week before the disaster. Gail cuddled 4-month-old Sonoah Heustis, "holding her and kissing her and telling her what a wonderful future she had ahead of her. And I see her face," Gail said, her voice catching. The baby and her grandmother died in the disaster.

"We weren't even aware of the fact that (as) we hugged and kissed and shook hands and were saying goodbye ... that was goodbye," Ron said.

The Thompsons moved to the five-acre property in 2003 and considered it their little piece of paradise. "We put ourselves, everything, in that because that was our investment in life for ourselves, our future, for our children," Ron said.

They had paid off the property, so they would "owe no man nothing but love," Gail said. "Our mission was that everybody would know that all we had belonged to the Lord," Gail said. "We never saw that as ours."

Every year, Ron cultivated a large garden, asking neighbors what they wanted him to plant, and then sharing the harvest with them. In winter, he enjoyed plowing snow from the neighbors' driveways with his John Deere tractor. The couple turned a bedroom into a well-stocked pantry, ready to help the neighbors if needed. "It was more than just a neighborhood," Ron said. "It was a family."

Their five daughters and extended family also loved the property along the Stillaguamish River, where they would have family gatherings and campouts with outdoor movie nights.

On the Friday that would be their last one in their neighborhood, Ron and Gail dined on stuffed mushrooms and breaded green beans, sipped a glass of wine and sat by the fire pit until darkness fell.

"It was a wonderful last evening," Gail said. "The snow was all over the mountains. The sky was so blue; the sun was out. It was just like God really blessed our last day above and beyond what I could think or imagine."
Ron and Gail have great trust in what the future holds.

"Really, we're fine," Gail said, "because the Lord is everything for us. We want to be signs of love and sources of joy and beacons of hope for everyone."
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Parietti is a contributing editor for Northwest Catholic, the magazine of the Seattle Archdiocese, and local news editor for the website NWCatholic.org.

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