Empty Arms, Heavy Heart

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. — 

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16 responses to “Empty Arms, Heavy Heart

  • Celeste

    This is one of those times there are no words. Only tears, so many tears. Love you my sweetest friend ❤

  • Phyllis newman

    Oh, Laura, my heart breaks for you and your family. I too lost a child so can fully empathize. Your mom sent me a copy of the picture that was distributed at the memorial for Aaron and Kathryn and I keep it on my desk next to pictures of my own children. It somehow seems important to remember always the fragility of life. My deepest, heartfelt condolences.

  • sharon DiGenova

    It seems so strange to say to someone i have never met in person, “i think of you often” – but the truth is, I do. Thank you for sharing this. When i was a child the housing development i was living in (brand new “affordable” housing for young families) had a gas explosion. My dad was at work and my mom managed to get my sister and i out. 57 people lost their lives and young us watched fires rage and people run and terror all around. We were fortunate. Our friends were not. I think of you often.

  • Kjiersten Kinney

    Laura, this is beautiful and painful. When I read about their new adventures in the neighborhood I am so very grateful my Carly got to be part of it. I remember Watching them all jump on their bikes and ride off to explore and thinking… this is the epitome of what new freedoms look like. I am thankful every single day that you and Kathryn and Aaron came to Schmidt. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of all three of you and smile at the beauty of the kids friendships and how incredible that time was.

    Your strength and courage as a person is incredible but not nearly as incredible as you as a mother. You are a fantastic mother, there is no mystery why your kids were amazing, they have an amazing mother.

    I love ya!

    Kjiersten

  • Chris Erickson

    Beautifully written. Thank you. URLUVD

  • Tracy Droubie

    We do not know each other, however I want you to know that not a day has passed that I haven’t thought about your or your children since I heard the news of this tragedy. My thoughts and prayers continue to be with you. Thank you for sharing this…a beautifully written tribute to your children.

  • Vicki DeWitt

    Beautiful tribute. Thank you for sharing, Laura. We think of them and you often. Sending our love. XO TVAR

  • Sharyn Talbert

    They were perfection. Anguish, the unwanted companion, will be there still as I take my final breath. But sinewy sorrow cannot vanquish the precious lessons Aaron and Kathryn taught. Sorrow cuts its lessons of love deeply upon the heart. Children, your examples of joy and sweetness, of vitality and luminous curiosity, will be my lifelong inspiration. I will forever savor your presence in the realm of the imagination. I love you, darling Aaron and dearest Kathryn. Grandmommy. –walk in courage, my wonderful daughter Laura.

  • Reyne

    Laura,
    A perfect title to a beautiful tribute. I love how you weaved their story and yours about adjustments and your attempts to make the transition to Schmidt and city life work. The photos you chose were the right ones! Aaron, Kathryn and you are remembered here everyday. You, my friend are such a strong, sensitive, loving person. You did such a great job as a mom to these two special children. I can’t even imagine how today was for you.

    Sending a hug!

  • Quincy

    What a poinent memorial . I can’t imagine having such beautiful perfect children let alone losing them . I’m sure they would have done so much good in the world . It’s a infinite loss for you and a loss to the world too . So unfair . I think of you guys often and my heart aches

  • Asta

    All my love Laura, and thank you. No more delaying with our fire alarm. Deep peace be with you. Xxx

  • homeactivist

    Thank you for sharing this tribute to your beautiful children. I am so sorry for your loss.

  • homeactivist

    Regarding your message of fire safety, yes we must all make sure to have properly placed smoke detectors, with good batteries. Are there any other fire safety lessons from this situation? Were there adequate exits to get out of the house during the fire? Sometimes bedrooms have no exit window. We all should check, and yes, even do fire drills in our own homes. Also, is the cause of the fire known?

    Here is a link to some common causes of fire in homes: https://www.realinsurance.com.au/news-views/the-most-common-causes-of-house-fires

  • Norman Pease

    As always Laura, I am pained by this tragedy. Thank you for sharing this.

  • Bonnie

    Praying for you, I lost my sweet Grandson who was 14 on May 15,2017!
    He was killed by another boy, who was also 14! Such tragedy! Prayers for you!

  • Patricia

    I write the words now that have been in my heart since the event was discovered; the hurt that is unwanted will never touch them. Love is. Prayers are purposeful. Thank you for preparing a format to voice and a
    way to share.

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