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Couple Found Themselves In Each Other Their Love Chases Away Emptiness Left By Tragedy

In the months after his wife died in the Fairchild Air Force Base massacre, Rande Lindner was a traveler lost in space, haunted by all the black holes around him.

At the dinner table, the emptiness settled between his two sons and one daughter. He’d be repairing electronic equipment for the Cheney School District and expect Anita to call. Once, driving home, his son cried: “Mom’s home!” and everyone in the Suburban believed it.

He went to support groups, church dinners and counselors. He washed clothes, cooked meals, packed lunches. He poured 18-hour days into the house and the Cheney recreation camp that he and Anita had founded.

Only at night, when his hand slid across the cold flat sheets on Anita’s side of the bed, was he swallowed up.

He named guardians for his kids. He wanted to die.

“Talk to Margie,” his mother-in-law urged. Their old friend Margie, , widowed at 40 with a daughter and three sons, knew what it was like to need to sleep on the other side of the bed.

He began calling - sometimes at 1 a.m. She’d answer in that cotton voice that comforted 1,000 babies in a hospital nursery, coached 1,000 expectant mothers to breathe deep. She’d say, “Hello,” and then just listen.

She was a comfort, a friend, a fellow traveler.

And eventually, a handhold in space.

Precious time

In Wibaux, Mont., the wheat grows, the wind blows and any girl with any sense goes to college. Margie went to Western Montana College in Dillon where she met and married Bob Wickenhagen.

They settled in Cheney, opening a sporting goods store and raising Devin, Ryan, Anissa and Rob.

At 37, Bob became Spokane’s first recorded case of mesothelioma, a rare cancer that attacks the linings of organs. He lost a lung and spent a year in chemotherapy before remission.

Frightened, Margie went back to school, earning her nursing degree and joining the nursery at Deaconess Medical Center.

Looking back at all the childhood hours she’d missed working and studying, she vowed to make up precious time with her older sons. They were active in the Cheney Civil Air Patrol and she joined, becoming both the finance and medical officer. The squadron commander was Rande Lindner; the administrative officer, his wife.

In 1991, Bob called her into the bathroom to look at a lump under his left arm. The cancer was back, spreading from his lymph nodes to his stomach, draining him until he said he’d rather die than have more chemo.

He had six good months before clots formed in the veins of his legs. En route to a family reunion in Chelan, he was hospitalized and never really got out of bed again. Margie imagined he would die slowly and that she would nurse him to the end.

That fall they moved into a new home in Garden Springs. She put the Christmas tree up early and the two of them would sit watching the lights. They planned an open house Dec. 22, for all the Cheney friends who’d thrown spaghetti feeds and benefit raffles, who’d made meals and time for them.

She cleaned and cooked half the night. Then, with Bob restless and perspiring in their bed, she collapsed on the couch.

When she woke, he was dead.

She called friends to cancel the open house. They came anyway, more than 50 people bent on a communal embrace, an old-fashioned wake like her family once had in Wibaux.

Then, she was alone.

She couldn’t walk into their bedroom for three months. The emptiness in her life was most obvious on his side of the bed.

She found peace as a labor and delivery nurse, monitoring high-risk pregnancies, independent, exciting work. She concentrated on her kids. But she was wearing out. One winter, she was hanging out an upstairs window using a hair dryer to thaw an ice dam on the roof. She missed Bob’s sense. She was scared stiff her kids, 10 to 19, would run all over her. She felt old and tired.

All told, outside the cancer, she and Bob had had 10 good years.

That terrible day

A helicopter crash at West Medical Lake on Jan. 22, 1980, ended Rande Lindner’s military career.

The son of a Boy Scout executive in Spokane, he grew up seeking adventure. He became a Air Patrol cadet and Eagle Scout, went to college and joined ROTC.

He was at an air patrol conference on the West Side when a radio friend, Gladys Dunn, introduced him to her daughter, Anita, a young single mother in the Air Force ROTC.

They married and moved to Cheney, where Rande became a reservist in the Army National Guard.

They were expecting their first son when a helicopter he was riding in crashed on a training flight. The accident dislocated both Rande’s knees and his vertebrae, shattered his left arm and elbow, broke his lower leg, ruptured his diaphragm and left a “moderate to severe head injury.” Most of his memory was wiped clean.

He spent two years in rehabilitation before being permanently retired. The $149 monthly check from the Army was hardly a living, so the radio technician began repairing audio-visual equipment for the school district.

The couple rebuilt their life, raising Anita’s daughter, then Richard, Matthew and eventually Candice. They became increasingly involved with the Civil Air Patrol - Rande loved the regimen and camaraderie, it felt like the career he’d never had.

Their dream, realized in a property negotiation with the Dominican Sisters, was to build a camp in Cheney for Civil Air Patrol, Scouts and Camp Fire groups.

Once, Anita asked him if he would remarry if anything happened to her. “Yes,” he said, “to the right person.” She got mad, accusing him of not really loving her, saying that’s why he never joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A few days later, she said she understood.

On June 20, 1994, as Rande was setting tents up for CAP cadets and their children were planning a birthday party, Anita walked to the Fairchild pharmacy and into the path of Airman Dean Mellberg.

Mellberg had just left the hospital where he had killed three people and wounded nearly 20.

She was turning to run when he shot the 39-year-old mother five times, his last victim before he was killed.

One news reporter later said of all that happened that terrible day, she was most haunted by how close Mellberg must have stood to Anita Lindner.

Anxious over her failure to arrive home, Rande made calls and worried for six hours before a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy came to the house. Later, he prayed with his kids before telling them Mom was never coming home.

The children of grief were also lost in space.

Anita’s nephew who’d been living with them - who’d lost his mother years earlier - ran away. One son shelved his grief for nearly two years. Everyone’s grades went to Fs. They panicked when Dad was late. They bristled when LDS members invited him to singles events.

They went to counseling. They went to grief camp in Walla Walla, one they’d learned about after Margie’s son Rob attended.

Still, Rande could not bury his wife’s ashes or his anger. How could God take such a good and caring woman? He was overwhelmed with guilt and considered being baptized Mormon to somehow make up. Church elders gently helped him see that was no conversion.

Margie, meanwhile had been praying. She no longer wanted to raise her children alone, she wanted someone to share her life in God.

When Rande called to talk, she invited him to a Bible study at First Presbyterian Church in Spokane, the first week of Advent, 1994.

He had dreams, she had stability. He reached out and she grabbed on.

Experts at surviving

Their second date, they went Christmas shopping at Costco.

Friends were thrilled at the budding relationship. Their children were horrified.

Teenagers may have a hard time with parents remarrying. But the anger and judgment the couple felt hurt and mystified them.

They felt like they were cheating. It seemed worse because they all knew one another.

Rande and Margie admitted it: They needed each other for the good times.

They were experts at surviving the bad. But sweet moments were unbearable: Devin and Ryan growing successfully into military careers and marriages without their father. Candice’s first day of first grade.

Gradually, Rande’s sons began to call when they thought their dad needed Margie. Little Candice, who’d known Margie since infancy, latched on tight. The youngest in both families developed a relationship of unexpected gentleness.

Last August, Rande finally took Anita’s ashes from their living room to be buried.

On Sept. 6, he and Margie were married at Cheney United Methodist Church. More than 200 relatives and friends packed the pews including a Mormon bishop and Anita’s mother, who sat in the place of honor. The couple started the service lighting memorial candles to their lost spouses.

“If not for them, Rande and Margie would not be who they are today, and if not for the solid marriages Rande and Anita and Bob and Margie had, it would be much more difficult to take this step,” the Rev. L. George Abrams said.

“I lived, ” Margie said in her vows. “I loved, I died.”

Abrams described the moment as what Catholics would call the communion of saints, psychologists call the echo of ancestors, and Native Americans call “our relations” - the sense that all those who had come before were taking part.

The couple honeymooned three weeks in Europe, visiting Devin and his wife stationed in Germany. While they were gone, Margie’s daughter, 18, moved out.

They still live between two houses, trading off children and chores. Rande is still dreaming of the camp, Margie still putting up her own angel Christmas tree; two complicated lives intersecting.

The pain of their past isn’t past. It is part of them. They give one another room.

“You can love more than one person,” says Candice, who is 8.

Margie weeps sometimes, in fear it is their last night together. When she is late, Rande cannot stop terrible pictures forming in his mind.

But they plan for the future. They plan a photo wall at Rande’s house, with them in the center and pictures of their children and grandchildren branching out like lifelines, love enough to fill the blankness of space.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo

Tags: biography