One year ago today, June 14, 2016, I was visited by a St. Paul police officer and a chaplain. Somber faced and guarded at my door, they were saddled with the task of delivering a parent’s worst nightmare. My children had died early that morning while visiting family in Columbus, Ohio.
Just two weeks before, on May 29th, Aaron, my darling boy, turned twelve. We bought him the bicycle he begged us for so that he and his nine-year-old sister Kathryn could explore their world in style. Like tiny marionettes riding along the bluffs of St. Paul, traveling city sidewalks perched on a series of cliffs leading down to the Mississippi, it was their first taste of freedom, and they relished it.
Kathryn, my witty, empathetic, miracle of a girl was exactly one month away from her tenth birthday. It had been a hard year for her. In October of 2015, our lives morphed overnight from insular, middle-income suburbia to a city rich with culture and diversity. But Kathryn saw only the downtrodden, the homeless, the obscenely colored plastic arches, all of it juxtaposed against the opulence of the looming Cathedral. I had found refuge for us in an affordable housing project for artists in the newly renovated Schmidt brewery. Aaron liked the urban feel of our new life, but Kathryn was deeply homesick.
Yet once the city thawed, Kathryn seemed to relax, to open up. An ocean of emerald emerged along the base of budding trees, a cool breeze animating the new shoots as they reached toward the sun. Tulips, popping their heads from the soil, spoke sweetly to her, reminding her of all the beauty she had been missing. She was finally feeling joy again.
As summer approached I struggled with the question of what to do with the kids while I worked a longer, busier schedule. I was no longer afforded the luxury of staying home with them. When my mother offered to take them to her house in Worthington, Ohio, I was grateful.
My mother loved spending time with the children. From the time the kids were babies, she visited us in Minnesota often, even taking us on a road trip to Yellowstone during the summer of 2014. We followed a meticulously thought out itinerary, stopping along the way to learn all about Lewis and Clark’s journey two hundred years earlier. She taught Kathryn and Aaron how to pronounce “Sacagawea.”
The children had a loving relationship with my mother, and she adored them. A retired professor with a PhD from OSU, she had the means to spend quality time with them. And so the summer plans were set. I would stay in St. Paul, working myself ragged to pay the bills. In Worthington, the kids would go to the pool and ride their bikes in the neatly landscaped neighborhood where I grew up. They would make new friends at the park. My mother would read to them, have conversations with them, give them treats, make sure they ate a proper dinner every night.
On the second of June, the kids and I tearily said our goodbyes. I hugged and kissed them, assuring them that we’d be together again in just a few short weeks, and that they would have fun. I watched and waved as they drove away, their eyes fixated on me until we disappeared from each other’s sight.
During the first week in Ohio, Kathryn attended “Annie” camp, a program organized by the Columbus Children’s Theater. While Aaron and his grandma swam or went out to lunch, Kathryn and other young girls learned songs and dance routines from the musical “Annie.” The youngsters delighted their families at the end of the week with a recital. Kathryn’s small solo was “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” A few months later, a mother who had filmed Kathryn sent me a copy.
On June 12, the children went to spend the night at my sister’s, about five miles from their grandma’s house. Charmed by her niece and nephew, Aunt Tacy carefully readied the spare bedrooms, making sure there were enough blankets and stuffed animals, placing fresh cut flowers from her garden by the bed in Kathryn’s room. Tacy adored the children. The next day, June 13, she took them to an amusement park; she said they made her feel like a queen. Aaron and Kathryn begged their grandma to let them stay with Aunt Tacy for just one more night, and with permission granted they stayed.
The next morning, at 6:00 a.m., a fire started in the basement, and within minutes, the house was engulfed. Aaron and Kathryn were lost to us that morning.
There’s no happy ending to this story, no closure, no words of wisdom describing how one deals with such a loss. Losing one child, let alone two, is impossible to process. It crumbles foundations. It shatters every preconceived notion. It has left me disconnected from reality. I now dwell in a place where I am unsure of anything. I’m perpetually sick and twisted inside.
The only meaningful advice I can offer is to check your smoke detectors. Do it now. Do it often, and, please, take nothing for granted. —