The Thanksgiving turkey grew cold on the counter. Outside, eight kids rode bicycles and bounced a volleyball, not wanting to stop and eat. So Brian Duncan set up his laptop and searched the Internet. Times had been tough, but he still wanted to buy his family Christmas gifts.
Later, they poured hot gravy over the turkey, mashed potatoes and the stuffing that 13-year-old Meritza made at the last minute. Lourdes, 11, decorated the table to surprise everyone.
Like every other family dinner, they gathered around the table together. "We laughed and talked," said the oldest of the brood, 16-year-old Darien. "Just us."
They never dreamed it would be the last time they all had dinner together.
Two days later, their 47-year-old father collapsed in the kitchen, where a fatal heart attack took his life.
The children gathered on their parents' bed the next day and told stories about their father. Their mother, Shawny Duncan, wrote down the memories.
He had hugged 14-year-old Lexie before she left to help a family friend move the day he died. That week he pulled his youngest kids around the yard in a wagon hooked to a riding mower. He Googled "how to moonwalk" and practiced with the older ones. He had taken 8-year-old O'Hanna to the store to buy Christmas tree ornaments hours before he died.
But they never set up the tree. The ornaments remain boxed in his office.
"Everything is a reminder," Darien said.
• • •
Shawny, 37, is half Cuban, half Puerto Rican, and always wanted a big, close family.
Nineteen years ago, she married Brian. They agreed she would be a stay-at-home mom and homeschool their children. Together they went to church at least twice a week. He was the provider, earning money at one point through his home painting and remodeling business.
Then, nearly two years ago, he became ill. In January 2009, he was diagnosed with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system. For several months he was a quadriplegic. Yet his spirits had never waned, Shawny said. He quoted II Corinthians 12:9 to friends and family: My grace is sufficient for thee.
Gradually, he recovered but was unable to work full time.
With no income, the family lost their home to foreclosure. They got by with donations from many sources, including their church, Gospel Fellowship; a homeschool group; and the Greater Brandon Community Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports local charities.
They negotiated a deal and moved into a house in Brandon, agreeing to fix it up in exchange for six months of free rent, Shawny said. Brian and Darien and many friends made the house livable.
Things were looking up before Brian died. In November, the family had started making what are called Jesse tree ornaments, a 25-piece set of biblical depictions. The kids cut felt designs and Shawny sewed them. Darien set up a website. Brian made booklets. Last year they sold 70 sets.
But now they are hoping for a holiday miracle.
Come January, they will have to start paying $500 a month for rent. The house has been for sale for years, Shawny said, and the family could continue to rent until it sells. Right now, they have enough money to pay rent for two months, but Shawny wants a long-term solution. She wants to be settled elsewhere.
"We need a home," she said.
She wants to keep staying at home with her children without the worry of being evicted.
"I know some people think it's a luxury," she said. "I think it's a necessity."
• • •
Three weeks have passed and Shawny is trying to hold her family together and surviving mostly on donations.
"We're not in our groove," she said. "We're trying to figure out our new normal."
Around the dinner table recently, she asked: "Alright, who's going to use their money to go see the new Narnia movie?"
O'Hanna has $12. Darien tells her she can buy his ticket, too.
Five-year-old Samuel runs to his room and returns with a leather pouch and a chorus: "Mommy, Mommy, Mommy. … How much money do I have?"
His sister counts out 13 pennies.
Shawny is sitting in her husband's place at the table feeding the baby noodles when the 2-year-old asks: "Where's Daddy?"
She asks this often.
"Where is Daddy?" Shawny repeats.
"Jesus," the little girl whispers.
"Yes, he's with Jesus," Shawny says.
Each child is dealing in their own way with his absence. As is Shawny. That first night, she slept on Brian's side of the bed. Stuck on a dresser nearby, a Scripture penned by a friend begins: For thy maker is thy husband.
Such quotes speckle her house. Reassurances that she can make it if she keeps her mind focused on God's promises. She believes that, but still she misses his touch. He was her best friend.
Last year Brian had taken the family to Tennessee for Christmas. It was the first time the children ever saw snow. They made snowmen and had a snowball fight.
This year will be different.
But the children have something to look forward to on Christmas morning.
The gifts he bought on Thanksgiving are still in his office.
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3431.