Steamboat Springs Saturday was a good day for Brett and Mielle Kerkhof, and near the end of it, they stood facing each other, holding hands, on a snowy trail overlooking Fish Creek Falls, shivering as the sun set and a collection of their best friends looked on.
Mielle was cold, her long, black, backless dress more suited for the dinner they would soon share than the winter wonderland that surrounded them.
But her voice was clear, cutting through the rustling breeze and over the couple’s daughter, 1-year-old Cadence, fussing nearby.
“My sweet husband,” she began, letting go of Brett’s hands to unfold a piece of notebook paper, “what a year we’ve had.”
The year had been the worst, and at the same time, not. They were here, after all, even though Brett, a 28-year-old Marine, had been on his deathbed only six months before — a rare liver cancer pushing him so near the white light that hospice nurses insisted Mielle and Brett’s father stop feeding him and providing water.
“It’ll only prolong things,” they said. “He’s at the end of life.”
But somehow, she didn’t stop, and somehow, he didn’t die, and despite all the grief and heartbreak, all the numbing trips to the hospital and the tear-drenched nights, they decided 2015 was something to celebrate, and that’s what brought them to Steamboat Springs, to a day skiing Mount Werner and, eventually, to a snowy outlook above a frozen waterfall.
They’d come to renew their vows, and slowly, steadily, Mielle did just that.
“No matter what happens,” she said, “every day we are together is the best day of my life.”
"I wouldn't be strong enough"
Saturday started with an early morning appointment at the Steamboat Adaptive Recreational Sports office at the base of Steamboat Ski Area.
STARS helps people with disabilities of all sorts get on the mountain, sometimes on traditional skis or snowboards, sometimes on sit skis or snowbikes.
Brett said he once was the most fit man in the diesel mechanics shop he oversaw for the Marine Corps, able to click off three miles running in fewer than 18 minutes. That was before he was diagnosed with cancer in August 2014. Now, he’s still trying to rebuild his strength after a massive surgery in September.
“I really wanted to get on the mountain, but I knew in the back of my head I wouldn’t be strong enough to snowboard,” he said.
STARS was there with the help he needed in the persons of John Trolley and Greg Dalsis, volunteers who set Brett up with a sit ski, then gave him a guided tour of Mount Werner.
It was, in a word, awesome. He learned to carve on the skis from the seat, leaning into turns and cutting down Heavenly Daze and High Noon on the soft snow high above Steamboat Springs.
“I wanted him to do the things he’s used to doing,” Mielle said. “I just wanted him to feel like a normal human being.”
"That means everything to me"
It had been a long time since Brett felt “normal.”
Afraid he wasn't mature enough to handle college, he joined the Marines after graduating from his Birmingham, Alabama, high school. He quickly took to his role as a diesel mechanic, moving up in rank and responsibility to run mechanics shops.
Brett deployed across the world during his career, to Iraq once and on several long cruises aboard Navy ships, stopping in more than a dozen countries.
“I always told myself when I stopped having fun, I’d get out,” he said.
He never actually stopped having fun, but the cancer ended his career, two years after he and Mielle had married.
They’d gone to the hospital on Aug. 27, 2014, to check out a complication in Mielle’s pregnancy, but while they were there, she convinced Brett to have a persistent pain in his chest checked out.
“The same night they put me on bed rest — it was like 3 in the morning — they told us he had cancer,” she said.
It wasn’t any cancer. It was a rare liver cancer that’s only diagnosed about 200 times per year. It had potentially been growing in Brett’s liver for as long as five years, and the first tumor had already seeded others.
Doctors couldn’t offer a life expectancy for a disease they had to Google. They only said it wouldn’t be long.
“When you hear that, you don’t really know what to think,” Brett said. “It changes your perspective pretty quick.”
They moved from California to Colorado for better access to University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, but doctors didn’t make much progress reducing the tumor, and Brett took a serious turn for the worse May 1, his 28th birthday.
Mielle had arranged a surprise party for his birthday, and friends and family were flying in from California to celebrate. That day Brett woke up confused and groggy, an unexpected side effect of a treatment he was receiving.
Mielle rushed him to the hospital — one of the many times he said she’s saved his life — and he fell into a coma. As his body began breaking down, doctors didn’t think he’d wake up.
They pulled life support May 7 and transferred him to hospice, to die, May 9.
“Starting the funeral process at 27 years old is not anything I’d recommend,” Mielle said. “We’d picked out a place, and we were planning what he’d want. That’s when he started getting better."
“I just stopped. I told them, ‘He has to go back to the hospital. He’s not going to die of cancer. He’s going to die from malnutrition at this point,'" Mielle said.
It took several more miracles to get Brett to Steamboat Springs.
Six doctors refused to perform the surgery to remove the tumor before, finally, Denver’s Dr. Michael Wachs promised he'd operate if Brett continued to regain strength.
The surgery in September removed 2.5 pounds of the tumor but still only got 80 percent of it. More surgeries could be required in the future. Maybe, Brett said, if they can confine the cancer to his liver, he could receive a transplant.
The cancer isn’t gone. It’s simply slowed, but the treatment has meant more time, and it has allowed priceless moments. Last week, Brett and Mielle were there as Cadence took her first steps.
“Being able to see something like that," Brett said, "that’s everything.”
"I will never let you go"
The extra time has been a gift, one both Brett and Mielle have learned to savor.
That’s what brought them to Steamboat Springs, and, in turn, to Fish Creek Falls.
Mielle finished her vows as she wiped away tears.
“You will always have me to walk through life with,” she said. “I love you with my whole heart.”
Then, Brett spoke, exhausted by the walk to the overlook, but loud and clear in twilight’s silence.
“When I look back on my life, there are a series of events,” he said. “Without you in my life, some of these events would ultimately lead to my demise.”
Friends gathered around the couple. There were Marine buddies from California and a close friend from Mielle’s career as a hairdresser, a job she had to quit to care for her family. Brett’s favorite nurse made the trip, too. They all shivered as Brett continued, speaking from the heart about a bad year on a good day.
“I’ve never known the depth of love that could be possible, until I’ve seen the challenges and sacrifices you’ve made for Cadence and I,” Brett said. “I love you with every ounce of my being, and I always will. You’re too good for me, but, selfishly, I will never let you go.”
To reach Joel Reichenberger, call 970-871-4253, email jreichenberger@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @JReich9