Taking nothing for granted
On a recent snow day, Carol Girard took advantage of having her four children at home in Voluntown.
There were things to do: Trim the Christmas tree, hang the garland and lights, make cookies for guests coming to the house and wrap presents for a gift exchange.
"It's unusual to have them all home from school and not going anywhere. I had to take advantage of it," Girard said, laughing while unwrapping an ornament.
It's been one year since the Girard family came home from Walt Disney World to their 3,200-square-foot castle-style house, built by volunteers as part of the ABC show "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
Looking back, Girard said it was an overwhelming experience that not only provided them with a place to live, but with a blessed distraction for her and her surviving children: Adam, 18, Jacqueline, 16, Lucas, 13, and Hannah, 8.
Christmas 2008 was the first for the family without their father, Thom, and older brother, Marc, who had died the previous summer in a swimming accident.
"What helped us through all of that was this house," Girard said recently, spreading her arms out and looking around the room.
"This year," she added, "is more difficult. These last few months are the hardest months for me because you don't have the preoccupation of everybody there. You still have the support you've always had, but it's different, and it should be, because people have their lives they've got to go to, and you've got to deal with it."
While watching Jacqueline in a school concert recently, Girard said she thought how proud Thom would be of their daughter and how nice it would have been to have him there.
"Sure enough, I open my BlackBerry and a friend of mine e-mailed ... and there was a picture of my husband. And it's like, 'Oh my,' so I'm standing in front of like 300 parents and I'm crying," she said.
Jacqueline Girard confided in her mother after the concert that she had been thinking of her father, too.
"It was very consoling. Very upsetting, but consoling," Girard said.
All the prayers helped
There isn't a day that goes by that the family does not think or talk about Thom and Marc, Girard said. As they decorated the Christmas tree, Lucas wore a black T-shirt distributed for a motorcycle run to memorialize the men.
"I think the more that we're by ourselves, you don't have to put a face on for people, and that's where we are right now. That's why it's been harder lately here, but it's going to take a while, and I know that," she said.
"I really do think that people just got to keep praying for other people that are going through this because it takes more than a year, takes more than a few months. ... I think that people, just the prayers that they've been doing for us, is just so helpful."
The family remains tightknit, even more than before the tragedy, yet they sometimes lose their patience when nerves are frayed.
They try to pick their fights.
"We don't know when we're going to get called to move on ... and your last words - you don't want to be remembering this person and saying, 'Oh, I was so mad at them.' You want to have good things," Girard said.
The growth in maturity is bittersweet in some ways, though.
"My kids have been really great, but they've come through a lot," she said.
Hannah will be 9 years old in January and is blossoming into a wonderful young girl, her mother said. She and Lucas were at Green Falls Pond when Thom and Marc Girard drowned.
"One day I had a serious talk with her, and here I am crying and she's looking at me," Girard recalled. "She feels so bad for me, and I said, 'I just don't want you to forget Daddy and Marc.' And she said, 'Don't worry I'll never forget them.' I was like, OK. She's my biggest support here at home and she helps pull me through a lot of things in life."
Girard said she thinks that with all that Lucas has been through, his energetic spirit and ability to "pull people in" will enable him to grow into a "special young man."
Jacqueline has taken the experience and used it as a means to help others. Many of the extras she had in her room that did not have personal significance she has given to needy families.
Adam sees things as black and white. He knows Thom and Marc will not be back. He hit his emotional wall in school one day and has moved on, his mother said.
For now, Girard is doing odd jobs while the children are in school. Adam, who has special needs, is at his work-study. Girard said Adam needs a lot of her attention. She said she keeps herself busy by making sure everyone stays on track and gets the attention they deserve and need.
After the cameras left last December, the first issue the family immediately had to deal with was the amount of "stuff."
In the summer of 2007, a year before the drownings, the family home had burned. The family lived for that year in a camping trailer in their backyard after losing nearly all their possessions in the fire.
"We've been without a lot of, say, things for over a year, and then all of a sudden there's things all over the place," Girard said.
Within one week Jacqueline had packed away many of the items adorning her scrapbook-style walls and the pictures that hung above her bed from the ceiling.
"She ended up putting things under her bed, in her closet - she couldn't handle the overwhelming part of that," Girard said.
The boys, she said, took the "stuff" in stride.
Hannah liked her room so much she slept there for a few months; previously she'd been sleeping with her mother. But once the excitement had subsided and some of the nightmares returned, Hannah was back in her mother's room every now and then.
Girard credits the house for helping the family begin healing. Gradually, they have become comfortable with their new space, to the point that Girard has started to rearrange the furniture.
Adam's room is set to undergo the greatest transformation since the TV crews left. At 6-foot-1 and nearly 200 pounds, he's too big for his twin bed. The massive train table and desk built for his room will be relocated to the basement, where a new space will be created for the children to play and hang out.
Adam will get his mother's double bed because she recently bought a queen-sized canopy bed for her room.
Jacqueline has started to add things back to her room. Lucas has not tired of his knight-themed quarters, and Hannah still enjoys her snowflake hide-a-way.
The shag carpet in the great room is a favorite place for the siblings to wrestle while the giant tub in Girard's bathroom has been determined as the best place to take a bath.
Because the house was built so quickly, and in some inclement weather, the contractors have had to return to tweak and fix some items. Two of the three gas fireplaces are scheduled for repair. Before the gutters were put on - they were kept off for the "reveal" for aesthetic reasons - water would seep through the outlets in the basement during heavy rain. That has since been corrected.
Some grout repair here and faucet repair there, and otherwise things are perfect, Girard said.
"Any little issue I have, if it needs immediate attention, (the contractors) usually come out right away, but if it doesn't I tell them when they're in the area just to stop by," she said.
A subdued holiday
On a recent visit to the Preston City Road home, the first thing a visitor noticed was the string of lights that adorned a knight guarding the entrance to the house.
Inside, the family was decorating a large Christmas tree. Lucas stood tippy-toed on a short ladder to straighten the star at the top as his mother took more ornaments from boxes and bags strewn about.
Jacqueline occasionally checked her e-mail from a laptop computer in the dining room while helping Hannah secure hooks to ornaments. Adam watched the scene unfold from the kitchen before setting up for grilled cheese sandwiches.
Sugar cookies were in the oven and holiday music was playing from the speakers.
A statue of the Virgin Mary was prominently displayed in the foyer, shrouded in candlelight. In the great room, the fireplace mantel - made from a beam taken from the Girards' old house - was trimmed with garland and lights.
Overall, the Christmas decorations are a bit more subdued this year.
"What we decided to do is kind of go a little mellow. It means something different now to us. It's more family, I think," Girard said, adding that she looks forward to just sitting and looking at the tree.
They were still trying to decide what they could do this holiday season to help someone else.
"I think this experience with the house has showed the kids that it's OK and a good thing to help other people and to go out of your way," Girard said. "Helping people is a good thing."
The back story
In the summer of 2008, the Girard family suffered an unimaginable tragedy when father Thomas Girard and eldest son Marc died as the result of a swimming accident. The small community of Voluntown rallied to help Carol Girard and her four children, Adam, Jacqueline, Lucas and Hannah. In December 2008, thousands of volunteers came together to build the Girard family a new home as part of the ABC program "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition."
Right, Lucas Girard, 13, sits on the shoulders of his sister, Jacqueline, 16, as they decorate the tree along with their sister Hannah, 8, in their Voluntown home earlier this month.
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