In the mine tunnel, the poisonous gas rested colorless and odorless at knee level, the life-giving oxygen at face level, until the act of simply walking through stirred everything up.
When Steve Novak went into an abandoned silver mine at Lake Pend Oreille two Junes ago, the order of everything changed.
The order of children outliving their parents and grandparents. The order of just rewards coming to just people. The order of notes, rising with hope and joy, to a musician’s ear.
“Absolutely everything you ever believed about life, how you are supposed to live, what you can trust, how God operates, even who God is, is called into question,” Barbara Novak said Sunday.
For two years, the hole that Steve Novak, 28, and his cousin, Chris Ost-Homstad, 22, left behind has swallowed up a great many things.
The family lost two grandchildren in one afternoon. Liz Ost-Homstad lost her new husband, Chris. Terry and Barbara Novak lost their nephew and their son.
For the next month, Barbara Novak, a bassoonist with the Spokane Symphony since 1975, couldn’t play music. She is a former police chaplain and longtime Hospice volunteer, but she couldn’t recall a single lesson about death. She is an ordained Episcopal deacon, but she couldn’t preach.
Last weekend, as her husband and mother watched, Novak took the pulpit at the Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist for the first time. Just coming to church remains extremely hard.
“It’s as if my sense of loss and grief is magnified here,” she said. “There is no place to hide in the Eucharist.”
As her husband watched with tears in his eyes, Novak spoke of the path they’ve taken to reach sanity. How they’ve tried to find order in a world that will never be set to right.
They were as opposite as the poles. From her apartment near the cathedral, Barbara Hosea sized up her new neighbor as he walked to his aging Karmann Ghia:
Briefcase, umbrella, trench coat, suit.
“Divorced businessman,” she concluded, turning away. She was divorced too, but artsy, poor and didn’t know, much less care, that he was the manager of the city of Spokane. Later, after they pulled into opposing parking places, Terry Novak asked her upstairs for a glass of wine.
“We started talking when we met 18 years ago and we’ve been talking ever since,” he said.
They married two years later at the cathedral. Almost immediately Steve, Terry Novak’s 14-year-old son from his first marriage, moved in.
It was an easy threesome. They loved camping, music and one another’s company. On Boy Scout outings, Steve preferred his dad to his peers. Barbara Novak, in turn, drew the boy close to her Spokane parents and sister Beverly Hosea, an Episcopal priest in Prosser.
When Steve was 18, Barbara Novak legally adopted him in a ceremony in a Superior Court judge’s chambers. It was characteristic of their need for sacrament: to legitimize, recognize and proclaim to the world that something powerful exists.
“It really changed our relationship,” Barbara Novak said. “It gave him the sense that I really did love him and that we were a family.”
A family never more so, than on their boat.
The Symphony No. 2 docked at Bayview, Idaho.
The 46-foot houseboat, named for Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony, was a little raft of ease on Pend Oreille. Barbara Novak used it to steer her workaholic husband, now executive director of the Riverpoint Joint Center for Higher Education and a professor of public administration at Eastern Washington University, into minivacations.
The weekend Steve turned 28, he came from Seattle to celebrate and attend his 10th class reunion at St. George’s. Barbara Novak’s niece, Liz, and her husband, Chris Ost-Homstad, arrived from Minnesota. Newly graduated from college, they hoped to land teaching jobs in Spokane.
Barbara Novak cooked a huge vegetarian meal. They opened birthday presents. Barbara then stayed behind with her ailing father and to practice for an upcoming solo. Terry Novak and the younger people headed to the Symphony No. 2.
The silver mine Steve and Chris entered above a sandy beach June 10 had been explored dozens of times. Four teenagers en route to explore it that afternoon stopped at the Symphony No. 2 first to borrow string so they could find their way out. When they emerged 10 minutes later, ill from carbon monoxide poisoning, Terry Novak knew something was terribly wrong.
He radioed the Bonner County sheriff and then called his wife. She raced 90 miles an hour north in sheer panic until she felt the presence of Steve in the car.
“I knew they were dead,” she said. “Steve came to me and calmed me down. I didn’t want to believe it was him, but it was.”
Three hours later, a deputy sheriff told the couple: “Here’s what we have: We have two deceased bodies.” Authorities believe carbon monoxide from campfires earlier in the week had become trapped in the mine.
Steve, the lanky, playful intellectual “whose life was a constant seminar” was gone. The environmentalist who had all of his dad’s political interest, skill and mannerisms, was gone.
In the terrible stillness of the house the morning after, Barbara Novak said she and Terry made a vow that only later did they realize were the most important words they’ve ever said. They vowed not to let the deaths turn them negative or bitter.
“We decided to face a certain direction and take a certain road,” she said. “We had taken one hand off our hearts and extended it toward God and grace.
“In other words, we chose life.”
From that moment, they talked. In times of tragedy when many people stop communicating, they checked in with each other constantly - he still calls daily just before lunch - and took time alone to share what was going on and how they felt.
They discovered they had two entirely different ways of grieving. Barbara Novak faced performing that summer with dread. Two days after the death, Terry went back to work half days.
“I couldn’t believe it at first,” she said. “I couldn’t understand it.” She realized that her husband wasn’t avoiding grief, but doing what he needed to. Terry also seemed comforted by reading books by other parents who’d lost children. She couldn’t read them. She needed to find her own way through grief.
“It’s important not to expect the people we love to react to loss the same way we do,” she said. “We need to allow them the room and give them support to do what they need to do.”
Together, they faced the anger they felt. Both had vivid dreams of Steve telling them he was OK. Barbara Novak believes he has communicated at least 50 times since. She said it is a clear feeling, a shivery, chilling, exhilarating sense of him that has steered her through - and helped run a business.
Steve started Far East Handicrafts, a wholesale import company, after traveling to Thailand and Nepal after college. His plan was to use commerce to make a difference in undeveloped countries. In addition to fair wages, he rolled 10 percent of the profits into reforestation programs, medical aid and bronze-worker protection.
After he died, the Novaks took over, debt and all - they’re still paying off his college loans. They hired managers, traveled to Nepal, tripled the number of stores the handicrafts are carried in and are buying a storefront building in the Fremont district of Seattle.
“It just seemed like the right thing to do,” Barbara Novak said. The business personified their son’s life but they also felt responsible for the people dependent on the income. Among their workers in Nepal are widows, the deaf and retarded. The couple is helping educate some of their workers’ children and are sponsoring a Nepalese student at EWU.
Each development, each trip, has been a step, a milestone beyond the deaths. But meaning, Barbara Novak said, comes very gradually.
“For Terry and I life now is forever wrong, it’s bent, it’s out of order,” she told the congregation on Sunday. “But life is still good.”
Steve was a Buddhist. In Tibetan tradition, mourners fly prayer flags over temples, houses and mountain passes. Blue for sky, white for cloud, red for fire, green for water, yellow for earth, the flags are their way of sending prayers - enlightenment - into the world.
Today on the anniversary of the tragedy, the Novaks will unfurl Tibetan prayer flags on Mount Spokane. From the summit, they can see Lake Pend Oreille and the sandy shore where Steve and Chris died, where bars have been erected over the abandoned mine. Around, are fields, green and orderly. The Novaks turn the other direction, toward Spokane.
“There are basically two paths in life, two directions we can go,” Barbara Novak said. “Both contain grief and sorrow. But only one leads to life, grace and healing.”
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo