Friday afternoon would have been a great day for outdoor sports. The radiant sun gleamed in a blue sky overlooking the throngs of people standing outside.
Shutting the car door, I heard numerous children’s voices echoing across the landscape, with the deeper tone of adult voices murmuring around them.
Ilah likely would have loved the weather and the chatter, running around with her friends and family, playing softball, volleyball or basketball. As an only daughter she could keep up with her brothers in a backyard game of football, too, and loved the farm life and all animals that crossed her path.
But Friday’s gathering wasn’t a fun school activity or family reunion. It was a visitation for Ilah Portz, a 12-year-old sixth grader at Andrew who passed away following a UTV accident April 25.
The beautiful sky and warm sunlight cast a deceptively peaceful and serene glow over the long line of mourners who patiently walked toward Salem Lutheran Church to express their sympathies to Ilah’s parents, Tony and Valerie. By long, I mean a line that stretched for a full city block and consistently remained that length for most of the four-hour visitation.
The sound of dozens of children’s voices? It brought the immediate realization that this wasn’t a typical visitation — it was for a child, a daughter, a sister, a classmate, a teammate, a granddaughter. It immediately evoked tears.
There’s nothing, absolutely nothing, that can prepare you for such a tragic event. Parents are never supposed to outlive their children.
My mom, ever a wise woman, summed it up: “The young can and the old must.”
I’d never heard that adage before, so I had her explain it: The young can die and the old must die.
That makes sense in the grand scheme of the “normal” world, but there was nothing “normal” about seeing youngsters wearing white “Lady Cards” T-shirts with the number 7 and “Portz” on the back, tears rolling down their reddened cheeks as they exited the church after paying their respects to their former basketball teammate.
Or seeing some of the young men on Maquoketa’s football team all dressed up — not for a home game but to show their sympathy for the loss of teammate Emmett’s younger sister.
Or realizing that all the flowers, cards, plaques, and hundreds of photos of Ilah with her friends, family and teammates lined not a graduation display but the church aisle leading to her grieving parents.
Or knowing that the white hearse parked in front of the church will soon hold the body of a young lady who had so much life yet to live and so much attitude left to give.
Friends described Ilah as vivacious on social media, loving farm life, and noted her smile as they waited in line to pay their last respects.
“You always saw a smile on her face (pause) except when you didn’t,” some said, suggesting the Ilah was a lighthearted pre-teen with a positive, laid back, kindhearted, selfless attitude but a fiercely determined spirit.
On social media, her mother referred to her “sweet baby girl’s” contagious smile, generous ability to forgive, and the love she had for life.
Ilah’s premature death was a tragedy, plain and simple.
But here’s what we learn:
Realize that anything can happen at any moment. Realistically, there’s no such thing as “never” and “normal.” Expect the unexpected, both good and bad.
Share the funny stories and the embarrassing anecdotes as well as the praise. It’s natural to reminisce when a loved one dies, but it’s even better to share those memories while the memory-makers are still alive.
Know that the hollow feeling will never go away, nor should it. But remember that it’s OK to laugh and cheer and continue to live for your own sake. No one will frown upon you or think you have forgotten your cherished one, but instead know you are carrying on in the sweet, sassy spirit Ilah would expect.
Understand that you will not be able to say anything to truly take away someone else’s pain. Sometimes a hug or pat on the back is enough. I told my cousin Roxanne Portz, Ilah’s grandmother, “I’m sorry. I just have no other words for this.” “I know. It’s OK,” she replied, and tears slipped down my face behind my facemask.
Which leads to another piece of advice: Do something kind and unexpected. It’s a need that always strikes me when someone passes. The gesture doesn’t have to be for the deceased’s family nor should it even be acknowledged. It makes me feel a tiny bit better knowing I did something positive in someone’s name when tragedy strikes.
Of course, hug your children — all your loved ones, really — as often as you can and let them know you love them. You just never know.
And with the words written on the photo memory boards and prayer cards handed out at Ilah’s visitation:
“Always share an Ilah smile.”