A Mother's Strength
The paint looks as good on the walls as it did on the swatches. Better, even. Late-morning light is gently bathing the little Cape Cod and brightening its new coats of celery, pink and creamy yellow. The effect seems to be what Sarah Adkins wants, which is a simultaneous reflection of peace and cheer.
She's asking a lot of this house. And it appears well-positioned to deliver: The tidy brick sits on a street called Sunnyside, came with a garden and affords a clear view of her childhood home, where her parents still live. Adkins snapped it up earlier this year before the seller had the chance to list the house for sale.
The 36-year-old pharmacist never planned to move back to Athens, Ohio, much less as neighbor to her mother and father. "I came back not by choice," she says. "I came back because it's safe. People don't recognize me. They don't knock on my door and tell me how beautiful my sons were."
Adkins had two blond-haired boys, ages 8 and 6, whose energy had already become legend in their Upper Arlington neighborhood. Solomon, the oldest, played dodge ball and climbed the monkey bars at Barrington Elementary School like it was his job, Adkins likes to say. Samson was a deep thinker who felt certain he would grow up to be an ice-cream truck driver.
The brothers also tended toward whimsy, with their mother a frequent accomplice. Adkins had a busy, demanding job, but at the same time, hewed to a free-spirit outlook that permitted Popsicle binges and the pet hamster's trip to the beach.
Her husband, Troy Geller, found it harder and harder to join the fun.
Adkins called out to her family as she opened the door of their Doone Road home on Sept. 26, 2010, after a weekend antiquing trip with her sister and mother. Yoo-hoo, she thinks she probably said, Mommy's home!
The silence didn't frighten her at first. "I thought they were hiding," Adkins said. "Playing a trick on me."
The search didn't take long. Adkins found Solly in his bedroom; Sammy and their father lay in the basement. Geller, 35, had fatally shot his sons and then himself. He left a note saying, in effect, that it was better for the children to die than to live with divorced parents.
Geller was a pharmacist, too. But with his wife completing her doctorate degree and moving into a supervisory job at Medco, one with significantly better pay, he had opted to become a stay-at-home dad. They celebrated her accomplishment with a party.
The two met as students at the University of Toledo and had been together more than a decade. In the beginning, things were good. "No matter who you marry, you marry potential," Adkins said. "Because you never really know."
Geller didn't fall apart overnight. He gradually withdrew. "It was like a long, slow progression," Adkins said. "At first, he was protective. Then, it was overprotective. He didn't have friends anymore, and he was so afraid to look at what was inside of him."
She begged him to get help, to talk to a therapist. He refused and said he was fine. Geller never hit his wife, and neither had an affair, Adkins said. But he had turned cruel and smothering, and their home life was marked by anger and despair, she said.
Adkins eventually told Geller she wanted a divorce. She promised she would never keep him from Solly and Sammy. Mental illness, rage, evil-Adkins never will know the ingredients and depth of that toxic brew-apparently convinced Geller that he should respond to her request with horrifying finality.
Adkins remembers closing her eyes and trying to transform the sight of her children's still bodies. In an instant, even before the screams for help and the 911 call and the surreal ambulance ride, her mind worked to make their blood-matted hair shiny again. She pictured her boys in the arms of God.
A year later, Adkins still fights with memory. For as much as her new home is full of hard-won testimonies to love-a Martin Luther King Jr. poster, words from Gandhi, a cherished miniature teacup collection-this is also a house of pain.
"I cry a lot," Adkins said. "I have a punching bag in my basement. I go there and scream at the top of my lungs."
There is a blue fish and there is a red fish, the auctioneer says, and bidding for the two framed pieces of art opens high.
Roughly 300 people are gathered in the Archie Griffin ballroom at Ohio State University's Ohio Union, and Doug Sorrell wants them to understand that he is not often sentimental about his work. "I'd sell you a horse that couldn't outrun a fat man in velvet boots," and not feel bad about it, he says. The audience laughs, grateful for the levity. But tonight is different, he continues, which is why he expects-demands-that these bids come not from the head but the heart.
The fish that Solly painted fetch more than $2,000.
The inaugural gala for Solly and Sammy's Foundation for Peace, a dressy affair held on a steamy Friday in July, kicked off Adkins' public response to her private tragedy. Instead of ending her own life, which she acknowledges considering, Adkins is working to honor her sons by easing the suffering of others. The new charity raises money to support programs that serve women and children, educate against violence, and provide grief counseling.
"She's just trying to make something for herself and for the boys," said her mom, Carol Adkins. "She's trying to make sense."
Adkins doesn't hide her sadness, said Karen Days, president of the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence. But the grieving mother appears determined to let love win. "I am in complete awe of her human spirit," Days said during the gala's keynote speech. "Sarah is not afraid to cry, laugh and cry some more."
The gala audience is a patchwork of people linked in heartsick remembrance of two rambunctious boys: teachers, a wrestling coach, colleagues who worked with their mom, neighbors who drink coffee with their grandparents. "I brought food to the house when Sarah was born," said guest Rita Snider, whose Athens backyard bumps against Adkins' new place.
It's hard to imagine a family less likely to be visited by such a crime, Snider said. Sarah, her parents and two sisters are solid, close and warm. The kind of people who say nice things and mean what they say because they naturally see the best in others. "That's what everyone talks about in this situation-that they're so kind," Snider said. "A lot of people are so busy and disconnected from their families. Not them. Not Sarah."
Carol Adkins said the family tried to include Geller and help him to feel a part of gatherings. He seemed uncomfortable, not dangerous. "We never had an inkling," she said. How do you stop something you don't see coming?
She and her husband are proud of their youngest daughter's strength. At the gala, Sarah Adkins spoke briefly but powerfully to a rapt audience.
"What I hope to do is give back to others as I have been given to," she said. Solly and Sammy were "two fantastic children who had fantastic lives ahead of them. We'll continue to live their lives for them."
Someone walked to one of the silent auction tables and penciled in a bid for another painting by Adkins' oldest son. The House that Solly Built, a child's rendering of a happy home against a blue-moon sky, brought $500, more than the professional works on the table beside it.
A few times each week, Adkins drives from her Athens haven to Columbus. She used to make the trek in reverse order, bringing two giggly boys for visits with adoring grandparents. Now she goes to Columbus to meet with a psychologist.
Adkins wants to be able to sleep. She wants to control the panic attacks that strike without warning. She wants to admire the pictures other kids draw, to look at a blond, chubby-cheeked boy without feeling a surge of adrenalin and a rush to protect him.
The brain struggles to process traumatic experiences. Normal cognitive and neurological coping mechanisms don't know how to respond, experts say, which means the bad thing that happened isn't properly filed and stored. The memory lingers, and so do the disabling effects.
"You get stuck," Adkins says. "You don't put it in a box and process it, because it doesn't make logical sense."
In Columbus, her doctor counsels her and guides her through a treatment called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). It's a form of psychotherapy designed to help the mind process anxiety-producing memories and thereby diminish their influence.
The therapy centers on bilateral stimulation of the brain.Therapists might, for example, ask clients to hold the distressing memories while tracking the back-and-forth movement of a finger or object-as if watching ping-pong or a swinging watch. Not all psychologists endorse EMDR, but many who do say it promotes relaxation, synchronizes the two brain hemispheres and stimulates the proper functioning of the deepest sleep cycle, known as REM (rapid eye movement).
The result, usually along with supportive counseling, is that the brain manages to exchange the traumatic images for more resolved feelings.
Most victims of tragedy and trauma don't have access to the kind of top-notch care and emotional support Adkins relies on, she said. She has a veritable army of friends, family and colleagues-angels, she calls them-behind her.
She wants Solly and Sammy's Foundation to make a difference for those who aren't so lucky. "I had money and I had friends. That's what made it possible for me to get through," she said. "If you live south of Broad instead of Upper Arlington and your kid is shot, what are you going to do? Have the bloodstain cut out of your carpet? Because it cost $20,000 to clean my house."
Franklin County Coroner Jan Gorniak, who serves on the foundation's board, said the community badly needs more help for trauma survivors. First responders, such as law-enforcement and safety personnel, "need that training, which we don't get. My office sends out a sympathy letter and a list of resources about a week to 10 days later. That's not enough."
Just one program in Central Ohio, the Mount Carmel Crime and Trauma Assistance Program, offers free counseling with specially trained therapists, said Laura Campise of the Mount Carmel Foundation. "We try to break down that barrier of cost," she said. "We have people come from two hours away."
The night she found her boys, Adkins was taken to a different local hospital. She doesn't mean to criticize, because the staff was kind. But the care was inadequate, she realizes now.
"I stayed a couple hours, and then they said, 'Go to a hotel because the press is looking for you. Here's three Xanax,' " Adkins remembered. "That was it. And that was so not OK."
Most days, Adkins still laughs easily. She craves the touch of people who are good, and she bookends most encounters with a hug. A frequent visitor to downtown Athens shops and restaurants, Adkins champions the Casa Nueva homemade French toast, local bacon, eggs and coffee with Meigs County cream."The best," she says over late breakfast one day. She has pinned a tiny button on her purse that says, "I don't recall volunteering for this s***." Adkins flashes it and grins.She left her Columbus job in the spring and started a new teaching position in July. She's working through Ohio State as a part-time pharmacy resident based in Athens at Ohio University, which doesn't have its own school of pharmacy. The two programs joined to recruit and train more students in rural areas. "It just happened to work out," Adkins said.
She didn't want to give up her career at Medco, where she loved the work and the people, but she felt overwhelmed, then paralyzed, by reminders. "I had 30 pharmacists under me," Adkins said. "If every one of them asked how I was doing, that was my entire day." A well-intentioned co-worker once brought in a box of Legos in honor of Solly and Sammy and delivered them to Adkins. "It was 2 o'clock in the afternoon. I had to leave." She eventually told her bosses that it wasn't fair for her to keep a job she couldn't do.
Adkins doesn't scold people who unwittingly say the wrong things, of course. But sometimes the words sting:
"I hope you get better." Better? Like I have the flu or something?
"You need to forgive Troy." How dare you.
"Sarah, you get a whole second chance at life." I liked my old life. I liked that Sarah.
The new Sarah believes the best she can do is try to salve some of the hurt that comes to other families and do it on behalf of Solly and Sammy, who, she thinks, still can accomplish much good in the world. "Maybe they weren't meant to be here forever," she said. "Maybe they really were angels."
Adkins went to church on Easter and heard the pastor say that a parishioner-who happened to be sitting next to Adkins-had just been given a cancer diagnosis. She remembers thinking how unfair it seemed that, in the next breath, people were pronouncing the woman strong and ready to fight. Maybe she is, Adkins thought. Maybe she isn't. Adkins reached over and held her hand. Later, she phoned the woman and sang part of her favorite hymn. She followed up with one of the funny buttons for her purse.
George and Carol Adkins say hope and compassion always came easily to Sarah. It was plain when she was little, and even Troy Geller couldn't destroy her true nature. Adkins might forever need the punching bag, but she also plays a baby grand piano upstairs, and she's thinking about putting old movie theater seats in her kitchen nook just for fun. She wants to hear the sound of laughter in her new house. If not from her children, then from friends and family.
"Prevention is one thing," Adkins said. But sometimes, all you can do is pick up the pieces.
HONORING THE BOYS
Sarah Adkins started Solly and Sammy's Foundation for Peace in honor of her sons to support programs that serve women and children, educate against violence and provide grief counseling. For more, visit SollyAndSammy.org.