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Army veteran Rodney Chamberlin’s wife, Heather, died on June 2 at the age 38. Before Heather passed away Rodney was building her a paradise, after her health deteriorated to the point she could no longer leave the house. Chamberlin’s formerly-homeless housemates are now helping him complete his dream, a backyard oasis that will now serve as Heather’s memorial. (Video by Stephanie Earls)

The ‘60s split-level rancher off Murray Boulevard wasn’t supposed to be paradise, just a starter home in Colorado Springs for a young Army officer from Alabama who was sick and tired of renting.

A starter home it was, ideologically and intermittently, after Rodney Chamberlin returned from service in Korea in 2005, and between deployments. When his military career lured him back east, first to Georgia and then Fort Bragg, N.C., for special forces training, he chose to hold onto the property in the Springs.

“At that point, I’d been in 25 countries and 42 states and this was my favorite place,” said Chamberlin, 41. “Whatever it was, I felt like there was something telling me I might come back someday, because this is such a beautiful area. So I kept it and rented it out.”

He never imagined that day would come as soon as it did.

After retiring from the military Chamberlin chose to stay in the Fayetteville area, where he had a house and, in 2010, opened a European-style bistro with his then-wife, with whom he has a son. By late 2013, the restaurant had gone through a concept transition, into a wing joint and sports bar, and Chamberlin’s marriage had come to an end.

He’d also met his soul mate, a gentle and endlessly empathetic woman named Heather. Before she became so on paper, Heather was his “work wife” at the North Carolina restaurant, when she wasn’t sidelined by the severe pain and chronic, worsening kidney problems that had plagued her since childhood. Heather needed surgery, but the state didn’t agree.

“Let’s move to Colorado,” Chamberlin told her. “Medicaid is better there, you can get surgery.”

He had a house in the Springs where they could live.

It would be their re-starter home.

As it turned out, not theirs alone.

“Out of the six years we’ve been here, we spent maybe eight months with it being just us alone,” Chamberlain said. “Homeless, couch-surfers, you name it … when she wasn’t in the hospital and before COVID … we probably had 50 or 60 people through here over the years, and she was a big part of that. That’s just how Heather was, the most giving person you’ve ever met.”

Chamberlin’s formerly-homeless housemates are now helping him complete the backyard paradise he dreamed up and started work on last spring as a gift for Heather, after her health deteriorated to the point she could no longer leave the house.

“If she couldn’t go to paradise, I wanted to bring paradise to her,” Chamberlin said.

That backyard oasis will now serve as her memorial.

Heather Chamberlin died June 2 at age 38. But she left her husband with the words, and the hands, she knew he would need to climb out of his grief.

“I don’t know what I’d do if these guys weren’t here. Sleep all day, feel sorry for myself,” Chamberlain said. “Now I have purpose and people around me who have that same purpose, too.”

Rodney Chamberlin’s formerly homeless housemates are helping him complete his dream, a backyard oasis that will now serve as his wife Heather Chamberlin’s memorial.

Purpose had always been part of the equation for Rodney Chamberlin, a son and grandson of Christian missionaries who’d been born in Papua New Guinea and raised in Alabama. He was the first member of his family to attend college and then graduate, with a degree in psychology from Auburn University, where he also participated in the ROTC program.

It was the service industry, however, where the former Army captain ultimately found his groove, as well as the woman whose generous heart and soul matched his own.

“I’ve always had a kind heart, willing to give anything I had. If there’s somebody that just needs 10 dollars, I give it,” he said.

Gabriel Gurrola has seen that kindness in action. He remembers his first conversation with Chamberlin, and also the wisdom imparted that day in the spring of 2020.

Gurrola had been at his boss’ house next door when he spied a man in the neighboring yard that shimmied up the trunk of a massive tree, strapped in via makeshift gear and cutting away.

As Gurrola later learned, the tree wasn’t Chamberlin’s. It belonged to the elderly neighbor one door down. Following his own Samaritan bent, and given the fact he did tree cutting professionally and had the proper gear, Gurrola soon found himself working on high alongside Chamberlin.

Only then did he realize the true scope of the man’s endeavor.

“Why would you spend all this time working on your neighbor’s tree, when you have this whole huge project you’re trying to get done for your wife?” Gurrola remembers asking.

Chamberlain stopped cold, looked him in the eye, and said:

“Gabriel, always pay it forward without hope or expectation of ever having recognition or compensation, for you never know when that most unexpected person will be that good Samaritan to you in your darkest hour of need.”

Chamberlin had been to those dark hours of need. He knew their contours.

He did not yet know how deep they could run.

In preparation for the move from North Carolina to Colorado in 2015, Chamberlain left the business he’d helped build and planned to take a job with a national restaurant chain that had locations in the Springs. It would give him a foothold, he figured, and make for an easier transition once he and Heather relocated.

By the time the couple arrived belatedly in the Springs, in 2015, though, they were pennies from broke and Heather wasn’t the only one dealing with debilitating health issues. Despite the fact he was in top physical shape, Chamberlin had dangerously high cholesterol and blood pressure. Less than two months before he and Heather were scheduled to hit the road, genetics caught up with him. He had a stroke.

“I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t walk … I wasn’t paralyzed, but I couldn’t do a lot of things with my fingers,” he said.

Even after his body began to recover, the man who used to know all his credit card numbers by heart couldn’t remember the ingredients to a simple recipe

“But we still packed up and we drove out here. Not much conversation on the trip, but we drove out here with my truck behind us, in a 26-foot U-Haul,” he said.

Chamberlin was four years into a managerial job at Bad Boys Burgers in the Springs, just starting to envision the backyard oasis for Heather, when COVID-19 hit.

“To tell you the Truth? COVID saved my life,” he said.

Army veteran Rodney Chamberlin shows off the outdoor kitchen he built at his home in Colorado Springs on Thursday, August 12, 2021. Chamberlin’s wife, Heather Chamberlin, died on June 2 at the age 38. Before Heather passed away Rodney was building her a paradise, after her health deteriorated to the point she could no longer leave the house. Chamberlin’s formerly-homeless housemates are now helping him complete his dream, a backyard oasis that will now serve as Heather’s memorial. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

It certainly hadn’t seemed like a blessing at first, after the pandemic hit and staff at his restaurant was cut by more than 80%.

Chamberlin got lucky. He still had a job, but that job suddenly become a much bigger and more dangerous one. When the vice tightened late last year, and more lay-offs were announced, he said he welcomed the ax. His disability money from the VA would be enough for him and Heather to squeeze by on, after the unemployment payments stopped and the incentive money ran out.

“It was the first time in my life that free money was presented to me. I’d been working all day long, serving guests, and potentially taking COVID home to kill my wife,” said Chamberlin, whose nightly after-work ritual included a strip-down (work clothes in plastic bag, for separate laundering) and vigorous shower with Dawn dish soap.

He’d promised Heather a paradise. Now he had the time to finish it.

“I’d been planning this idea for maybe five years, this garden for Heather, and finally broke ground on it last April,” Chamberlin said “I wanted to make a place where it’s like stepping out of the city and into someplace else. That’s what I wanted it to be for Heather, and everyone who saw it.”

Rodney Chamberlin’s formerly-homeless housemates are now helping him complete his dream, a backyard oasis that will now serve as his wife Heather Chamberlin’s memorial. (Chancey Bush/ The Gazette)

When he first explained the plans — for a zen garden with torri gate and pergola, burbling creek and koi pond surrounded by rows of towering bamboo trees — the vision was almost too big for her to see.

Soon enough, though, those strings, chalk lines and dirt scribbles began to take shape, and make sense.

“I know Heather was really excited about this, and excited to see what it was going to be when it was done,” said John Smalls, a friend of Heather’s.

By late Spring of 2021, the end was in sight. Chamberlin would have to refinance his home again, but with that money and a final sweat equity push the project should be done before the end of the summer — in time for Heather, for their friends and loved ones, to come enjoy the space with them.

Gurrola was at the house, working in the backyard with Chamberlin, that day in early June. Chamberlin left to pick up lunch for everyone.

“We he returned, he came down and shouted ‘Food! Wash up and take your shoes off. Come inside where it’s cool,'” said Gurrola, who told his friend he was good eating on the patio, under the pergola.

The next thing he heard was Chamberlin’s cry: “Gabe, help help help. Get in here now. Heather is dead.”

John Smalls moved into the upstairs bedroom that used to be Heather’s crafting room.

John Smalls met Heather through a friend of a friend, and the two quickly grew close. Before Heather became homebound, if she was heading out to go shopping she’d often give John a call.

“I would go to the store with her … she’d spend a lot of time in the store, especially the craft store,” said Smalls. “She was quiet and peaceful. She was like a best friend of mine. She was trying to help find me a companion. She used to tell me, ‘I don’t think that girl is right for you … ‘”

Heather was trying to find him some stability, personal and domestic. When he would talk about how tough life was living in motels, she’d remind him about their spare bedroom. 

“You can come stay with us,” she said. 

Two weeks after her death, after a conversation with Chamberlin about what would and would not be allowed (“be tidy, do your chores, let me know when you’re coming and going”) John moved into the upstairs bedroom that used to be Heather’s crafting room.

A few weeks later, Gurrola’s life took a hard turn and he too needed a place to stay. He moved into the big detached garage.

Chamberlin is “truly a Good Samaritan. He helped me, so much, and he’s helping so many other people,” Gurrola said.

Those people are helping him. Emotionally, and around the house.

“I don’t think my kitchen or living room has ever been this clean, and that’s all John,” Chamberlin said.

And in the backyard, where Heather’s Paradise is almost complete.

Heather Chamberlin’s urn at the Chamberlin’s home in Colorado Springs.

After Heather’s death, Chamberlin wondered if he’d ever be able to get back to the project she had inspired.

Even looking at it — the lagoon that had become an above-ground pool (her idea), and those cabinet doors in the outside kitchen that Chamberlin had been poised to tackle when she died — was enough to break him down.

He couldn’t bring himself to enter the bedroom that had been Heather’s special space, adorned, floor-to-ceiling, with sparkles, crystals and the crafts she had made. Not for weeks.

When he finally did, in search of some necessary paperwork, he heard Heather’s voice in his head.

The voice told him to be at peace, because she was at peace. It told him to look around the house, at the messages left on the walls of their home. Those weren’t just decorations. They were for him.

Live. Laugh. Love.

Stay Humble. Be Kind.

Make Your Dreams Come True.

“I started walking around the house and really looking at everything,” Chamberlin said. “It was like she was trying to build me up and give me strength, tell me to keep going, keep living, and that I was not alone.”

This content was originally published here.