Albert Chretien started every morning bouncing out of bed and yelling his victory call of yippee as he flew down the stairs with enthusiasm.
It was with that same devotion and love that close to 500 people gathered inside the Bethel Church in Penticton on Saturday to celebrate his life.
“Al rarely missed a day without saying to me I love you,” said his wife Rita Chretien in her tribute to her dearest friend and husband. “I have many good memories to cherish for the rest of my life. We were married 38 years. He truly was a gift of God to me. I miss him very much and I will see him again some day.”
It was just over one year ago that Albert and his wife headed out on a road trip to Las Vegas. The Penticton couple’s van become stuck along a Nevada forestry road after taking a wrong turn. Albert left his wife on March 22, 2011 to try to get help and has not been seen since. Rita survived alone for seven weeks on snacks, candy, melted snow and her faith before being rescued in the van by hunters.
With her children and grandchildren at her side, Rita smiled and sang along to her husband’s favourite song, What a Friend We Have in Jesus, which was played twice during the ceremony. At the front of the church was a table with his lunch kit, coffee cup, Bible, work gloves, hat and a big picture of Albert’s smiling face.
A reserved and graceful Rita, who received a standing ovation during her tribute, thanked those who gathered at the fellowship following the celebration of life.
“It will encourage me on those dark days when I’m not feeling so chipper and I will remember all those that came out to support and I’m sure everyone’s love will sustain me and help me remember those good days,” said Rita.
Henry Chretien, Albert’s brother, presented the eulogy, stating that his brother had always indicated that after his death he wanted there to be a party. Fitting, that the auditorium was asked to yell “yippee” three times in honour of Albert followed by “praise God.” Besides being known as a prankster with a great sense of humour, Albert was remembered for his code of behaviour which included integrity, generosity and tenacity.
“When I went to see where Al got stuck last year, to see where the van was stuck and know he only had a small shovel and small jug, I surmise his tenacity gave him the energy and determination to get unstuck. He got unstuck just to get stuck again. This time it was impossible. He couldn’t do it,” said Henry. “So he spent time before he left to go find help lifting the van and putting large boulders under it so that Rita would have a comfortable place to stay. Tenacity driven by love for Rita accomplished that.”
Henry said his brother knew that life was temporary. It is why on the back of the funeral card the lyrics — This world is not my home, I’m just passing thru — were written.
But it wasn’t just those close that were touched by Rita and Albert’s story. Those in attendance were invited to speak about Albert after the formal part of the celebration. Andrea Gardiner, a recent transplant to Penticton after becoming hooked by Ironman, explained that she doesn’t know the family but they have had an impact on her life. The woman said last year she bought her mom a car and said the only rule is she would have to drive from Victoria to visit.
“My mom and I decided, after seeing your story, that we would never go on a road trip without a Rita box. In our Rita box we put all the things we wish you could have had to get you through those days you were so brave and so strong,” said Gardiner through tears. “When I have trouble going over Richter Pass and pushing my bike up over Yellow Lake, I will think of the strength that Al had to get out and do what he did. When I slink down here at 11 p.m. on that last Sunday in August, I will pass this church and carry him in my heart and I will say I am being strong because he is pushing me forward. Know his life, even though I never met him, touched me very deeply.”
Raymond Chretien, the couple’s oldest son, also spoke at the ceremony, thanking the community, RCMP and volunteers for their support.
“We are all used to seeing tragedies in the media affecting people we don’t know. Of course, it is entirely different when something of this magnitude happens to you. Through all the ups and downs of this past year our family got to live out what exactly happens when it is no longer just a story on TV,” said Raymond. “We got to see how our Penticton community pulled together during a crisis. We got to witness the effects of the worldwide Christian community lifting us up in prayer. We were blessed with seeing people on both sides of the border, many of whom we have never met, take time off work to search for my parents … There were so many acts of kindness that saying thank you seems inadequate. We are and have been truly blessed by you.”