On the last perfect night of her life, their perfect mother danced beneath the sky of a thousand stars.
It was almost midnight when Jaime Ruud jittered across the deck of a pontoon boat, singing and laughing, her right arm circling in the air in what was known as her "tick-tock dance.'' The boat's floodlight transformed the smooth surface of the water into gold, and the music was loud enough to wake the neighbors.
For most of her life, her oldest son said, Jaime "danced like someone's mom.'' This night, she danced as if there were no tomorrow.
''We are family ... I've got all my sisters with me.''
As Jaime sang, the words didn't seem quite as dated or corny as you might expect. She was surrounded by family and friends at Cross Lake, their Minnesota getaway. The linebackers in her life had gone to bed, spoilsports that they were, so the women had taken the boat out on the lake.
The temperature was a perfect 75 degrees. The music was perfect. The moment was perfect.
For Jaime's son Barrett, in the sweetest and saddest of ways, she is still on that boat, and the memory is perfect.
• • •
Even now, even a thousand nights later, it does not take much for the son to summon her memory.
Bucs linebacker Barrett Ruud sits in a bare room at One Buc Place in Tampa and closes his eyes. He imagines her swaying and singing on that boat. In his mind, she is wearing cutoff jeans and her worn University of Nebraska sweat shirt. Nebraska was his school, their school, the only school whose colors she wore.
Rudd speaks, and his words grow thick as he struggles to get them out. He is asked to describe his mother's face, and he says she is smiling. He is asked about her defining virtue, and he says kindness.
Ruud is a hard man in a hard profession, a fierce linebacker who has led the Bucs in tackles for two straight years. But when he speaks of a mother who died too soon, he is like the rest of us. Somebody's child.
"She was the perfect mother, the perfect friend, the perfect sister,'' Ruud said. "I don't think I ever knew anyone who disliked her.''
Grief is a sneaky thing. It creeps up at the strangest times, in the smallest of moments. On June 30, Jaime will have been gone for three years. But she comes back to him all the time. Just the other day he saw somebody give a laughable performance on American Idol, a show his mother loved. His immediate urge was to call her and make fun of the singer, just so she would play the Paula Abdul part and defend him.
Then Ruud realized once again he could not. And he missed her all over again.
"It's crushing,'' Ruud said. "I'll be cooking something, and it's awful, and I think about calling her. The Internet won't work, and I think about calling her. It's hard.''
He is not alone. Ruud knows that. Since his mother died, Ruud has volunteered with the American Heart Association, and he has heard the stories of other sons who have lost great mothers and of others who were fortunate to survive. He is aware that others grieve, too.
Jaime was his mother, however. And in telling her story, he is trying to pay tribute to a lot of mothers who will be missed today.
Like many men, particularly football players, Ruud keeps his emotions hidden deep. On the few occasions he has spoken publicly about his mother in the past, he has picked out a spot on a far wall and tried to talk without feeling the impact of his words. This time, for most of an hourlong conversation, tears stream down his cheeks in parallel lines, as if traced by fingertips.
"I took her for granted,'' he said. "I had no doubt she would be there until she was 90, 95 years old.''
She was 52 and looked 42. She was healthy, a nutritionist who had published books on the subject.
If Barrett counted on anything in his life, it was that his mother would always be part of it.
• • •
Three threads ran through Jaime Ruud's life: Nebraska, football and Nebraska football.
She was born and raised in Lincoln, home of the University of Nebraska, where her grandfather, Clarence Swanson, played football well enough to be inducted into its Hall of Fame. Jaime attended Nebraska, of course, and was a proud member of the Kappa Alpha Theta sorority. She later married a Nebraska linebacker, Tom Ruud, who was the No. 1 draft pick of the Buffalo Bills in 1975.
Barrett sums up his parents' romance this way: "Basically, my dad stalked her.'' They had three kids. Barrett turns 26 next week; Bo, a linebacker for the Cleveland Browns, is 24; and Kimi, a student at Nebraska (where else?) is 22.
"She let her kids be individuals,'' Jaime's lifelong friend Dorothy Hayes said. "When Barrett dressed as a ballerina for Halloween two straight years, I would say, 'You can't let him do that.' And she would say, 'I have to let him express himself.' ''
If you are focused on the image of a Bucs linebacker dressed as a ballerina, you are missing the point of the story.
Who was Jaime Ruud? She was a person who loved a thousand things, all of them good for a memory.
She loved Andy Griffith, Motown music and white wedding cake. She was likely to be, Barrett said, "the only white woman at a James Brown concert.''
She liked Honey Nut Cheerios, German shorthair dogs and, to her family's befuddlement, asparagus. She loved butterflies, because they reminded her of her mother.
She liked the color red, chocolate chip cookie dough and the movie The Birdcage. She laughed, sometimes at things that weren't funny. Once, for a sorority skit, she and a friend dressed as Ike and Tina Turner. She was Ike. She was a nutritionist, but she baked cookies four or five times a week for her children.
"I was her worst client,'' Barrett said. "I would say, 'I need to get serious about this. I have to start eating right.' And she would say, 'Okay, but I made cookies.' And I would say, 'Okay, I'll have five, but I really do have to start eating better.' ''
She wrote books and worked with anorexic teenagers. Her friends made fun of the way she danced and the way she told a joke. She watched sports with her kids, even though she didn't always understand them.
"We would be playing basketball,'' Barrett said, "and we'd say something like, 'The point guard was terrible. He had no left hand.' And she would say, 'Come on, guys. That's sad. You don't have to give him a hard time over something like that.' And we would say, 'No, Mom, it wasn't that he didn't have a left arm. It was that he couldn't go to his left.'
"She just didn't get some stuff. You'd catch her reading books like Football for Dummies or Basketball for Dummies.''
• • •
What set Jaime Ruud apart from most mothers, her family says, was her kindness. She treated little people as if they were special. She treated unimportant people as if they were royalty.
Consider the treasured family tale of Jaime and the call girl. It was years ago, during a banquet at a country club in Lincoln. One of the members, a pleasant, recently divorced man, arrived with a rent-a-date.
Jaime noticed the woman standing by herself. She went over and spent most of the evening conversing with her.
"She didn't want her to be uncomfortable," Barrett said, laughing. "That's who my mom was. She didn't want anyone to feel badly. So my mom spent the evening hanging out with this prostitute.''
Barrett is quiet for a minute, and then he shakes his head.
"I have no idea what they talked about,'' he said. "Andy Griffith, maybe.''
• • •
Farewells are difficult, especially when a close family is saying goodbye to the best part of itself. Sometimes it is easier when others are willing to share the grief.
On the night before Jaime's memorial service, a pair of visitors came to pay their respects at Roper's Funeral Home.
They were members of Nebraska's Winnebago Indian tribe. The Winnebago are poor. The poverty level has been estimated at 44 percent, and unemployment is seven times the Nebraska average. For months, Jaime had been working with the tribal council to improve nutrition, driving two hours north to talk in schools and with the tribal leaders.
The two men laid a burial blanket over the casket and sang songs of mourning about her loss. It was solemn, and it was sweet, and it was moving.
"If an Indian tribe thought enough of a white person to do this, and it doesn't happen very often, I wasn't about to tell them they couldn't,'' Jaime's husband, Tom, said. "The people at the funeral home had never seen anything like it.''
• • •
No one saw the end coming. How could they? But even if Jaime Ruud had known, she could not have planned a finer exit.
For years, the family had been going to Dorothy Hayes' summer house in Cross Lake, playing and fishing and swimming.
This time was special. The linebackers — Tom, Barrett and Bo — were there. So was Kimi, one of her friends from school and Dorothy.
Jaime walked the dogs, Lucy and Cody. Later, they took the boat to a restaurant to eat, and they sang their way back.
Over the family's resistance, Hayes insisted on a family picture.
A little later, the linebackers trundled off to bed so they could get up early to fish. The women quickly mixed a CD — We Are Family, YMCA, No Place Like Nebraska, songs from Grease — and got back on the boat.
"It was a great last night,'' Barrett said. "Mom had probably exceeded her limit of three Miller Lites by one, so she was having fun.''
Hayes remembers Jaime turning to her and saying, "Dot, I am so glad I took the time to drive up here so we could have this special night.' It was kind of eerie.''
The next morning, as Tom, Bo and Barrett were preparing to leave for their fishing trip, Jaime rushed out to give them a camera. A few hours later, Dorothy went to Jaime's room to check on her. Something was wrong. Hayes called the paramedics.
A neighbor took his boat out to retrieve Jaime's husband and sons. When they returned to shore, Barrett heard a paramedic say nothing could be done. His mother had died of a massive heart attack.
Hours earlier, it had seemed as if so much time was left. Now there was overwhelming loss and devastating pain. It felt wrong. It felt unfair. Jaime did not live long enough to see her children marry. She never held a grandchild of her own.
"I think about it sometimes,'' Barrett said. "Would it have been better if she had gotten sick and I had a last year with her? But I think that would be just as bad.''
Ruud takes a breath. He wipes his eyes. Once more, he thinks about her last night.
"I wish she had died the same way,'' he says. "I just wish it was when she was 95.''