I met my husband, Erik, ten years ago. I'm a native Texan through and through while he was born in Boston and raised in Ohio. We have had a storied life before we, before I, gave in and let fate take over. There's no doubt whatsoever that he and I were meant to be. It was only a year and a half ago that we got married. My husband and I, my three daughters, his son and daughter and our minister were the only people present at our little ceremony. I had lost my father in 1999 from a stroke and my mother couldn't travel. His parents lived in Florida where his father was battling lung cancer and his mother was her husband's full-time caretaker. It would take 6 months for me to finally meet my in-laws and regrettably it was urgently in Hospice in Florida. Beyond FaceTime on the iPad, I never got to have a full face-to-face conversation with my brilliant father-in-law, Dr. Richard A. Okerholm. I would also never be able to imagine how close I would someday be with my mother-in-law, Rita Okerholm.
Dr. Richard A. Okerholm was born in 1941 and raised with humble beginnings in Woburn, Massachusetts. Through his education and career, he and his family moved from Ann Arbor, Michigan, Fairfield, Ohio, West Chester, Ohio and finally settled in Palm City, Florida. He earned his Phd from Boston University school of Medicine. He dedicated his life to being a great father and a Research Pharmacokinetist. As the description of his field of study is more articulate than I am, I defer to Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharmacokinetics Simply put, he studied the effects, chemical absorption rate and risks of the chemical makeup of pharmaceuticals on the human body. He was instrumental in the development of Lipitor, Sudafed, Seldane, Mucinex, and many more drugs and pharmaceuticals still on the market today. He often remarked at how he struggled with seeing the abuse of drugs which were designed to help, and it truly hurt him that people used these medications as the vehicle for self-harm. Despite that, millions of people worldwide have been positively impacted by his influence on the pharmaceutical industry through his work with Parke-Davis and Marion Merrell Dow. After his retirement, he continued to work as a member of the Scientific Advisory Board of ProCertus BioPharm, Inc. as well forming his own consultant company, Okerholm & Associates where he was posthumously granted a patent for a project he collaborated on just months before his passing in November of 2016.
Rita Veronica Okerholm was born in 1943 and raised in Arlington, Massachusetts. She was a beautiful, loving, dedicated wife, mother and teacher. She earned her Masters in Education from Boston State College and became an elementary school teacher and reading specialist. In a few short calculations with her, we came to realize that she taught over 1,200 children in her lifetime before retiring in 2000. Much like her husband, Richard, she continued her passion up until just a few months prior to her death as well as her last student was Laurel, my best friend's little girl who needed a little extra help with reading. Rita had planned to spend Christmas 2016 with us in Austin and upon her arrival, we knew something wasn't right. She was intensely jaundiced and after a short hospital stay, it was determined she had stage 4 extra hepatic cholangiocarcinoma (liver cancer). Chemo was an option that would be palliative, but she could at least feel better and take care of any unfinished life business. She decided to stay with us in Austin as I was a self-employed decorator and my husband mostly worked from home as a Senior Sales Engineer for a software company. We knew we could work together to move our schedules around to care for her full time. She admirably endured 18 rounds of different chemo plans through 2017.
I would soon nickname Rita as the "Queen of the Silver Lining" with her unbroken spirit as she found joy in every little thing. It was awe-inspiring! She was faced with terminal cancer and illness from cancer, chemo or just ill. Her favorite saying was, "What is, is! Deal with it!" And deal with it she did...but then she let it go and moved on! We didn't sweep it under the rug, but we didn't sit around discussing cancer or chemo or hospice. There was no dwelling...we lived. Her Oncologist told her it was unlikely she would live until Christmas, but we never hard the heart to tell her. We tried to invoke life in each of our days...I never wanted to take that from her by giving her a date in which she may no longer be here.
I would soon learn this awe-inspiring lady and I had more in common than one would think. With a shared love of nature, pretty things, motherhood, cooking and making memories, I would sit with her and listen to stories of varieties of flowers, butterflies, recipes and her many travels. Realizing that every season upon us and ones past would be the last she would see, I sought out to locate and plant certain plants that might be able to endure the central Texas climate, even if just for a few weeks. As I sit here and type this in the very room and in the very spot she slept, chatted with friends from afar and read countless books, I can see her tulips, hyacinths and lilies I planted for her last spring. It's in these moments I know she is with me.
Rita had story after story of teaching and used the words "my children" interchangeably whether talking about her own children or her students. We all remember that one special teacher...Rita was that teacher! Hearing her speak of her students in great detail would lead you to think she just retired a few months ago. Her stories were so vivid, you would find yourself asking her what decade or year that student was in her class. She often spoke of one particular student named Linda...so much so that she called her "my Linda" so we thought her name was Mylinda. It was clear she absolutely adored this little girl that she had the joy in teaching Linda in Rita's first and second years of teaching. We found Linda, now a doctor, on Facebook and about a month before Rita passed away, she and her own lovely 80 year old mother came to visit Rita. I prepped Rita well ahead of time and told her I had the surprises of all surprises planned. I reminded her it was important to have a feel-good day and that we needed to do all we could to make sure she felt well as it was a surprise she certainly wouldn't want to miss. 46 years after a 5 year old Linda walked into Rita's first classroom, they were both tearfully embracing again. It turned out, Rita had the same impact on Linda as Linda did on Rita They never forgot, their hearts and adoration for each other never disconnected.
When Rita was finally having good days and in-between chemo, I took her for a day trip to Johnson City and Stonewall, Texas to see the Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ) Ranch. When we were driving over the ranch and she said, "Why would you ever leave this place to become President??" in a tone that she made sound like the role of President of the United States was a menial job which still makes me laugh to this day. It was at that point my creative cogs began turning. She was so happy there and told me stories of how much she and Richard loved visiting Austin and the Hill Country. She said the Hill Country felt like Heaven on earth. We relayed our stories of our day trip to my husband and her son, Erik. It was days like these that we yearned for and were so grateful for with and for her...illness-free good days and happy days. While on the LBJ Ranch, she paid special attention to the schoolhouse on the property. Rita loved everything to do with teaching and education, even in the structures in which children were taught before or after her career . By now my creative cogs were spinning in overdrive. Through the year, our ideas began to take flight with ideas of an 1800's style one-room schoolhouse named in her honor, complete with the mementos she gave us from her many years of teaching for the schoolhouse.
We were told by the Gastroenterologist and Oncologist that Rita's cancer and cancer-related illness would take her quickly. She likely wouldn't linger. I found that harsh, but in
Rita fashion, I had to take it as a blessing. She wouldn't want to suffer or linger without living. Days before Christmas and for the fifth or sixth or seventh time (we lost track), Rita spiked a fever, became ill and we had to get her to the hospital. Only this time it would be the last. Within days, she made the decision to let go and was transferred to hospice. In one of our last conversations with her, we asked her where she wanted she and her husband's cremains spread as we had never discussed it. Options thrown out were Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where they spent two weeks of every summer for the last 30 years, the 10th hole on the golf course behind their house in Palm City, Florida or...."The Ranch" she said, "I want to go to the Ranch." In that moment, I lost it. After all we had discussed, after all we endured, she wanted her final resting place to be a place that did not yet exist. In that moment, I felt an overwhelming rush of Rita's approval.
This morning, I was eager to get out to the Hill Country to see a property that my husband and I quickly began to fall in love with over text. For the past year or so, we have had our hearts set on the Texas Hill Country, namely Fredericksburg. We knew that this dream, this purchase, would only come byway of the legacy and inheritances left to us by our parents. It was a bittersweet opportunity to not only stay true to our parents lessons of investing wisely, but also a way to continue to tell their story. Little did we know, it would be a prideful way of grieving their losses as well. Everything we've set out to do in this process has been with the thought of them at the forefront of our minds and hearts. We've sought out to make them proud, honor them, treasure their memory, and continue their legacy. These weren't ordinary people...they dedicated their lives to helping others and their reach is far and wide.
This is our story...today begins our story of our Legacy Ranch in existence.