SOUTH BEND — Surrounded by traditional shiny ornaments, a single butterfly decoration is wrapped around a branch of Rodney and Jen Semak’s small Christmas tree this year.
An identical one was to be placed on Jen’s sister’s grave Monday afternoon.
“She liked butterflies a lot,” Jen said.
Ashley Lear, then 24, suffering from longstanding depression and despondent over being burned out of her apartment, her sister said, took a lethal overdose of prescription pain medication almost a year ago.
Her two kids, Valarie and Cameron Reed, now 6 and 7, have been in the care of the Semaks ever since.
Although they have three children of their own, the young couple says they never considered the alternative.
The Tribune wrote about the family in January.
Since then, they’ve gotten legal guardianship of Cameron and Valarie.
Their brood now consists of two girls and three boys, ages 4 to 10.
The couple says they’ve been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support they’ve received from those they know, as well as strangers.
It’s ranged from monetary donations to a mattress to go on the trundle Valarie sleeps on that slides underneath her cousin’s bed.
The help has mostly subsided now and the Semaks say they have everything they need.
“Our goal,” Jen said, “isn’t something anyone can provide.”
The couple has their sights set on a bigger home.
With 1,400 square feet and three bedrooms currently, they say, they could really use the space, both outside and inside, for everyone to stretch out.
Jennifer works part time at Liberty Mutual Insurance Co. and Rodney works for a heating and cooling contractor.
The young family is extremely busy since taking in their niece and nephew, Jen said.
“We can’t have one do sports and not the others,” she said.
So, much of her time is spent driving kids to classes and practices and sitting at performances and games.
Academically, the kids are all well adjusted and getting good grades.
Emotionally, Cameron and Valarie each deal with their mother’s death in different ways.
Valarie often draws pictures for her mom, Jen said, while Cameron writes notes addressed to her in a journal.
And now that Ashley has a head stone on her grave, the couple takes the kids to visit it.
“It’s emotional,” Jen said, but it provides an opportunity for them to talk about and to their mom.
She was a single mom who loved her kids and was devoted to them.
Though months have passed, Cameron and Valarie still struggle often with the question of what happened to their mom.
It’s not easy for Jen to answer.
Ashley suffered from depression and even foreshadowed her own death a year ago when she told family members she wouldn’t be around after the holidays.
Jen sought out help for her sister, calling a suicide hotline and convincing her to see a counselor.
Why, despite being surrounded by people who loved her, Ashley took her own life, is a looming question that Jen deals with herself.
Still, she answers Valarie and Cameron as simply as she knows how.
“We say she was really sick,” Jen said, “and went to heaven.”
Ashley’s pain, Jen tells the blonde-haired children — who were to place a butterfly decoration on their mom’s grave before festivities began on Christmas Eve — is gone now.
Staff writer Kim Kilbride: