The early-morning calm can be deceiving in more ways than one. The fresh smell of a new day cleansed by a night of much-needed rain and the smoldering ashes on the mountainside give off an eerie sense of calm on Tuesday night after a roller-coaster Fourth of July for one of many families residing in Alpine who were evacuated by the area's Quail fire.
At 2:15 Tuesday afternoon, life took a familiar fight-or-flight turn for Lance and Nancy Boldt and their soon-to-be 9-year-old daughter, Sadie. Her birthday party was slated for Friday afternoon but, with all of her neighborhood friends evacuated, the party was postponed.
To understand the mindset of the Boldt family, a little background and a trip back to 2003 is necessary.
“The alarm had just gone off and I got a call that my family had been in an accident in Nebraska and that one of the boys didn’t make it,” Lance recalled. “I literally fell off the bed to the floor. When I caught my breath, I went to my knees to pray for my family. Within moments I received another call that my son had been revived.
“I don’t remember the flurry of details and sequence of events that immediately followed, but I had gone into full battle mode. I think this is pretty common with men — suit up, marshal resources, get a plan and get moving,” Lance continued. “My wife and six of the kids were in the accident, I was taken aback by how beat up everyone was but no broken bones or major injuries.”
Nancy was traveling to Michigan with the children to visit family. The Suburban that carried the family blew a tire in Kearny, Neb., and rolled multiple times at freeway speeds before coming to a stop on the side of the road.
“When I went to see the Suburban, it was like getting kicked in the chest to see how utterly demolished it was. There was blood all over and vomit stuck to the ceiling,” Lance said.
The miracle was that Joshua was revived on the scene and no one was seriously injured. Nancy recalled the intense feelings of fear that gripped her on that Nebraska roadside years ago.
“I kneeled down by his side, sobbing and pleading with God to not take him yet,” Nancy said. “I can’t describe the fear and helplessness I felt.”
For as much as that experience impacted normal day life for a while, everyone healed and each family member was able to deal with the trauma of the accident. However, no one was prepared for what would come next.
“Nancy came to my office to tell me that Josh had cancer,” Lance said. “We both kind of dripped down the wall and held each other and cried. The next day for me, it was once again suit up for battle. That trite phrase 'battling cancer' is more real and accurate than you can imagine.”
Joshua was diagnosed with acute myeloid sarcoma in 2005, a very rare form of leukemia. It consisted of a ball of leukemia locked into the bone of his left leg. Most leukemia travels through the bone marrow, affecting the entire system. Josh’s tumor however, was a ticking time bomb of a lethal dose of cancer. Once the tumor burst, it would overwhelm the system and would be virtually untreatable. After several rounds of chemo, Josh took a turn for the worse.
“When Josh was in the intensive care unit at Primary Children’s, the doctors told us to say our goodbyes,” Nancy said. “I knew that it wasn’t his time yet and he would come home.”
Josh would make a miraculous recovery and was able to return to his family, leaving the pain and suffering of the ICU behind, Josh’s love for life and tolerance for pain gave everyone he came into contact with a boost and renewed sense of what was important. After six months of remission, and a Make a Wish foundation trip to Walt Disney World, he succumbed to tug of cancer and passed away.
“Nothing compares to the pain and suffering of losing a child,” Nancy said. “When Josh died, I couldn’t walk in the door and sit down with him again. Nothing in this life can make up for that.”
If that were all, this story would be too much for even a Hallmark movie. But Benjamin, who like his brother Josh has Down syndrome, was diagnosed with “normal” leukemia in the weeks following his brother's death. The doctors were confident that he could be treated and make a full recovery. That too would prove to be false comfort. Nearly one year to the day of Joshua’s funeral, Benjamin passed away.
“At some point in the disease progression, we knew that the boys were going to die — not if, but when,” Lance said. “With Josh, we focused on helping him be as happy as possible and making great memories for the family. Ben’s challenge was more of providing for his physical comfort.”
“So much is neglected in a family, work relationships, financial situation, etc. that it takes years to try and mend. Nothing will ever be the same. After some months you’ll notice that you actually laughed or had a spot of fun and immediately feel guilty about it. And 'what’s important' gets more refined and narrow,” Lance said.
Fast-forward to July 3, 2012. A small plume of smoke in the hills behind the family's home quickly turned into a full-blown wild fire. At first the reactions are what you would expect: a frantic phone call to the office interrupting a meeting, a panic of locating family members and then deciding what to take with you. But for the Boldts that’s where things change.
“I didn’t feel much panic after that initial wave,” Nancy said. “I was worried about Sadie, she has gone through so much that I was scared this may be too much for her.”
A lifetime of learning tough lessons however has made its impression on the youngest Boldt.
“Things are replaceable but family isn’t,” Sadie said. “We don’t need any of our stuff, just each other.”
Among the items quickly removed from the home were family portraits, a few items that belonged to the deceased boys, but the prize possession of the Boldt family is plaster hand molds of each of the family members holding hands with Joshua and Ben.
“Immediately, (the hand molds were) all I thought of,” Nancy said. “Everything else could be replaced or wouldn’t be missed, but we would have no way to replace those small reminders of the boys. There is nothing in this world more precious to me than my children.”
The father of the family echoed that sentiment as well.
“Nancy, Sadie and I were all completely at peace with losing our material possessions,” Lance said. “Everything else could burn and we knew, based on what we’ve been through before, that we could handle whatever happened.”
Thanks to all things coming together in miraculous fashion — the first rainstorm of the summer, winds dying down and every resource in the state being available —the residents of Alpine are breathing a sigh of relief.
That eerie calm, while peaceful, still holds unknowns for the Boldts and other Alpine families. Officials still warn of the danger that stares down their homes, with base camps for firefighters and helicopters in nearby fields, ready to spring into action at a moments notice.
The author is the son of Lance and Nancy Boldt.