As friends share photos of 20th anniversaries, I realize how many weddings I missed because I couldn’t afford to fly across the country; was too busy with a new job; or happened to be camping overseas.

So when my good friend, who we’ll call “Tarn,” sent out a ‘Save the Date” this spring for a September celebration of 20 years in remission from Leukemia, I vowed to go. This was bigger than any wedding.

All summer promising events threatened to draw me away: a Grand Canyon River trip, a weekly class at George Mason University, my thesis, a kid’s big concert, a trip to Switzerland with the hubby, another Grand Canyon River opportunity.

Tarn never stops moving in her kitchen.
Tarn never stops moving in her kitchen.

Finally with my husband on that business trip in Switzerland, I checked out the miles on his account. (I would be leaving the 17-year-old home alone.) When you work for the federal government, one of the small perks you get in exchange for being away from your family a lot, is you get to keep your travel miles.

He had enough to get me to Montana and back, easy. They even bumped me to first class, where the company wasn’t as fun, but the snacks, drinks and legroom almost made up for it.

Tarn was in her mid twenties when she was diagnosed with Leukemia. She faced a bone marrow transplant if the chemotherapy didn’t work. She spent 18 months sick from chemo, during which time she knitted all kinds of gifts. She also gained a different attitude about death.

She would not have children or get married.

She would become the organizer for the Missoula, Montana annual parade, built off Spanish traditions, the Festival of the Dead.

She did not pursue the vocation she spoke of as a child, as we rode our horses together up the Rattlesnake Valley, she would not become a veterinarian.

She would teach dance.

Tarn’s lifestyle, by East Coast traditions, might be considered eccentric. But in Montana I’ve come across many people who are able to free themselves from the rat race enough to pursue such pleasures as one encounters chez Tarn.

Her living room is dominated by a fish tank, one of those huge, 75-gallon tanks you see in chic optometrist offices. Except Tarn’s has fish I’ve never seen before in it.

As I watched the fish and frogs, Tarn answered my questions about how she ended up organizing an avalanche rescue effort just up the street in January.

People were showing up and just digging, she recalled. “I suddenly realized it was way bigger than that.” She went home and unleashed the power of social media. A retired professor, his wife and a few neighborhood children had been buried by the catastrophe. I had noticed that the home was completely gone, replaced by prayer flags. I had heard the wife had not survived. But thanks to Tarn and a long list of volunteers, at least the man had his books. Learn more about it here.

Just off her other living room is a sunroom slash greenhouse slash jungle, home to exotic plants. Her yard features rare and native plants, a grave-like mound of rocks decorated with animal bones that she calls ‘the deathbed’ and its newest feature, a wind chime so big it would not fit in my bathroom, made from huge chunks of bamboo.

Tarn’s two freezers are packed full of huckleberries, elk meat that she shot last fall (and butchered herself) and summer fruits and veggies.

On her refrigerator a sign: “Don’t just stand there, sing something.”

As partiers started rolling in, filling the extra bedrooms and couches of Tarn’s fascinating home, I realized her friends are just as interesting as she is.

A cousin, who had flown in on a private plane she co-owns, brought a husband and a baby they had adopted at birth through an ‘open adoption.’ As she explained what open adoption is and that the quarterly visits from the birth-mother were going great, I wondered how this blonde toddler could be native American.

Soon another guest, who we’ll call “uncle Dave” came in. I had known Tarn’s father as a teenager and had worked in the Montana legislature as a page when he was first elected. This brother told me about their international upbringing, their father an agronomist with the Agency for International Development. They had lived all over the world.

Soon another guest arrived bearing chunks of meat in white butcher paper, still frozen. “This one is Bighorn,” he said, holding up his left hand, “this one is moose,” he said, holding up the right.

Tarn advised he just put them back in his cooler, they should be just thawed for the party. There was no room in her freezer.

I was casually admiring a colorful decoration on Tarn’s lampshade when I realized I was looking at something made out of condoms. “These aren’t used, are they?” I had to ask.

Tarn's condom skirt
Tarn’s condom skirt

She laughed, no, that was a skirt she had made by carefully unrolling each one and tying the ends together.

I snapped a picture and sent it to my kids.

“Jesus” my 17-year-old immediately responded.

“Didn’t take you long to figure that out,” I commented.

“What’s there to figure out?” he replied. “It’s Tarn.”