Just days after the death of his wife, Pat, on January 4 from brain cancer, Ron Rudolph was feeling anxious. His family had returned home after Pat’s funeral and there he was, by himself, in the Hamel, Minnesota, home he had shared with his sweetheart for so long.
“I just had all kinds of anxiety,” Ron, 63, tells PEOPLE. “My kids left and my grandkids left. Neighbors left and friends left, and all of a sudden you’re all alone.”
Ron was having problems falling asleep, and long after the clock had moved past midnight, he finally got up, dressed and headed to his woodworking shop in the hopes of taking his mind off of the sorrow that was engulfing him. It was there that he noticed a bluebird house he had made long ago, and he had a moment of inspiration.
“I had made bluebird houses in the past, just a few, and I kept one as a pattern,” Ron recalls. “I saw it and that’s what inspired me to just start cutting pieces, just to pass the time.”
But Ron found himself cutting and cutting, until he eventually amassed a small collection of homes for his wife’s favorite bird.
“The building process just helped him. It kept his mind and his hands busy,” Ron’s daughter, Kristy Boike, says. “I had been asking him how I could help through all of this, because I could see how much pain he was in.”
Ron soon asked Kristy to help him clear the garage of the birdhouses, so she took to Facebook Marketplace — which allows neighbors to exchange goods online — to put them up for sale.
Soon, dozens upon dozens of strangers inquired about how they could purchase a bluebird house after hearing about Ron’s story. Many of them were inspired to share their own experiences with cancer as well.
“It was incredibly emotional, but it was also really incredible. There were lines to come into my neighborhood of cars for people that had placed orders,” Kristy, 35, says. “They’d walk up the driveway with Kleenex in their hands and tears on their faces before they even met us.”
As more orders came in, Ron went to work, and took special care with each home he built. He even began placing a small blue plaque to each house that reads, “Made By Ron Rudolph, In Loving Memory of his Wife, Pat.”
“It has catapulted our healing process to see so many people that were touched and inspired by how we were dealing with the loss,” Kristy explains, “and how we came together to use our hands to work together through such a painful time.”
As of today, Ron has made nearly 1,500 houses — sold through their Facebook page with the help of Kristy, his grandson, and even his 90-year-old father — in tribute to the love of his life.
“It helped me knowing that I was able to help him in some small way,” Kristy says. “That was the most painful part for me after the funeral, was coming to visit him and just seeing the pain in his eyes and not being able to do anything about it.”
For Ron, this unexpected journey has helped in his healing, and he feels surprised by how fast the year has passed.
“Time is the ultimate healer, but it was also my worst enemy. I needed to fill time,” Ron says, reflecting on what the project has done for him. “I was there alone, and it was the best thing I could do. I didn’t have a lot of extra time just to dwell on what had happened, so I’m grateful for what’s happened, and for how fast time has gone by.”