Grey Cup victory bittersweet for lifelong Alouettes fan Heather Lowengren

Unlikely win, which came only one month after the death of Laval woman’s husband of 51 years, helped her cope with the grieving process.

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Like it was for many Alouettes fans, the 13-year wait between Grey Cup victories was agonizing for Heather Lowengren.

That long drought finally ended on Nov. 19, when the Als came from behind to defeat the Winnipeg Blue Bombers 28-24 at Hamilton’s Tim Hortons Field, capping an incredible season-ending eight-game winning streak. But the team’s eighth CFL championship was bittersweet for the 72-year-old Laval resident.

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Lowengren never lost hope the Als were destined to win a title last season, even when numerous free agents left during the winter when the team had no owner. But she wasn’t sure whether to scream in ecstasy or cry tears of anguish after Tyson Philpot sealed Montreal’s victory with a 19-yard touchdown reception with 13 seconds remaining in the championship game.

So Lowengren did both in a cathartic release of emotions.

“I cried for an hour,” Lowengren recently told the Montreal Gazette during a lengthy and heart-wrenching interview.

Lowengren could have been in Hamilton that day, but chose to watch the game from home, surrounded by family — daughter Natalie and her partner, Dominic, along with granddaughters Jade and Lea. And most importantly, the ashes of her husband, Gerry, in an urn by her side.

“I wanted Gerry with us, at home, watching the game,” Lowengren said. “It (going to Hamilton) wouldn’t have been the same. I wish he could have been alive to see the boys — he used to call them his boys, too — win the Grey Cup.

“These young boys, they’re 22, 23. When I first met (receiver) Tyler Snead I asked him if he was old enough to play? Look at what they did. Look at what (quarterback) Cody Fajardo did. I was so proud of my boys.”

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The first and only love of Heather’s life, Gerry Lowengren died on Oct. 21, two days after his 78th birthday. The cause of death was Lewy body dementia, the second-most common type of dementia after Alzheimer’s disease. This form of progressive dementia leads to a decline in thinking, reasoning and independent function. Actor and comedian Robin Williams suffered from the condition when he died by suicide in August 2014.

The Lowengrens had celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary last June 17. In September 1972, the newlyweds narrowly escaped the fire that claimed 37 victims at the Blue Bird Café and Wagon Wheel Club. They had gone there, accompanied by her sister and brother-in-law, to celebrate Heather’s 21st birthday and were walking up the stairs to the bar when she smelled gas. Lowengren grabbed her husband of three months, fleeing through the kitchen with her other family members.

It took Lowengren months to recover from the near-tragedy as she became uncomfortable in social settings. More than a half-century later, she still feels compelled to sit close to the door at a restaurant or coffee shop. 

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But the incident did not deter her from decades of devotion and altruism toward the organization and, specifically, its players.

Lowengren, who attended her first Als game with her mother in the 1960s at the Autostade, has spent more than a decade baking muffins, brownies, cupcakes and cookies for the players on a weekly basis. During the summer, when it’s too hot to bake, she still comes regularly, providing watermelon and frozen treats. It’s a labour of love and, while Lowengren expects nothing in return, the organization has provided two season tickets along with post-game field access.

As much as Lowengren considers the Alouettes family, the organization has always reciprocated, never more openly than during her recent difficult period.

Only days following her husband’s death, and upon the urging of an Als front-office member, Lowengren attended practice with the team preparing for its final regular-season game on Oct. 28. Lowengren, as always, didn’t arrive empty-handed, having baked 120 cupcakes — twice her usual total to remain busy — along with a large jug of coffee, given the cold conditions.

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But she was in for a surprise that day. While doling out her goodies after practice, Lowengren was summoned onto the field, the players and coaching staff forming a circle around her. News of Gerry’s death had quickly circulated through the team and the players and staff took up a collection, placing it in an envelope inside a helmet signed by the players that was presented to her. The amount was generous, the magnanimous gesture not soon forgotten.

“Heather is an amazingly supportive and kind woman,” head coach Jason Maas told The Gazette. “She has been a true constant at our practices and after-game celebrations for years now and, with the loss of her longtime husband, came out and was there for us this year. She is as loyal and supportive as a fan can get and she really is looked at as part of our Alouettes family.”

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It was Maas who addressed Lowengren that day, telling her how much the organization cared, loved her and would provide support before she briefly spoke, choking back tears.

But something else occurred that day. Although the upcoming game against the Tiger-Cats wouldn’t affect the standings, the players — Fajardo in particular — vowed they would win for Lowengren and her late husband, which they did. The scenario was repeated the following week, when Lowengren attended a practice before the East Division semifinal against Hamilton. And the week after that, when she came out before the division final, at Toronto.

The Als left for Hamilton two days after upsetting the Argonauts in the Eastern final, but even though she didn’t attend practices that week, they kept Lowengren in their thoughts.

“To see how she continued to show up for us, even going through her difficult time … gave this team strength throughout our late run,” Fajardo told The Gazette. “We knew the best way to ever pay her back was by winning. I remember a lot of us telling her we were going to do it for her, her family and late husband.”

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And win they did, with Fajardo being named the championship game’s MVP.

Lowengren attended the team’s Grey Cup parade on Nov. 22 and, with the help of offensive-lineman Sean Jamieson, the team celebration that followed at a downtown restaurant after she initially was denied entry.

“The event was for the team, friends and family,” Jamieson remembered. “Heather definitely falls into one of those categories, if not all three. It was only right for her to be there.”

Lowengren was photographed holding the Grey Cup, flanked by Philpot and receiver Austin Mack. It might be her most-cherished memory. She has come to realize the Grey Cup victory was the high point through a difficult time, providing some solace for the grieving widow.

“It was amazing,” she said. “I was crying. The respect. It means the world to me. It means I’ll always have a family. They showed that with their love and respect. I’m just a little old lady who likes to feed the boys. I just love them all.”

Lowengren has been enjoying her recent celebratory status, albeit somewhat sheepishly, doing multiple television interviews, being stopped for selfies and even having her photo taken with Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante at the parade. But following the euphoria of the Als’ victory, the weeks that have followed have been an emotional struggle for Lowengren — the void of her husband combined with the end of the football season becoming a reality. She has been surrounded by family and friends. Her son visited from B.C. and a friend made the trip from Florida. But Lowengren also recently spent her first night alone, awake before dawn, unable to sleep.

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As a former nurse’s aide, Lowengren witnessed the worst from patients when their health was deteriorating. But nothing prepared her for the rapid physical and mental decline of her husband, a strong and independent man who fell at home, developed a severe fever, was put in palliative care, restrained in a bed to stem his shaking and covered in ice packs, all in the space of a week. He died from a buildup of blood on the brain.

“From being superman to using a walker and not being able to do anything,” Lowengren said. “Not being able to chew his food. Not being able to swallow. It wasn’t a life. He was in constant pain.”

“This was the worst you ever want to see somebody change in a week.”

He awoke for the last time on his birthday, patted his wife’s chest, muttered ‘you found me’, told her he loved her, gave her a kiss and went to sleep. He was declared dead at 7 a.m. on Oct. 21, five minutes before his wife arrived. Lowengren sat with him for an hour, said her goodbyes and went home.

Lowengren keeps her husband’s urn in a corner of the bedroom, facing the television where she has watched a taped replay of the Grey Cup countless times, while trying to contemplate what’s next.

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“I kiss the urn every night,” she said. “It’s weird, but …

“What do I do now after 51 years?” she wonders. “I look for him every night and still hear him. He’s still here with me. He’s around me. He’ll always be beside me. Life’s going to be different now. I don’t know what I’m going to do, but I will survive; I have to. I have to get my life in order.”

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