Ever so slowly, a fam­ily is find­ing joy once again

Nine mem­bers of the Hol­combe clan died in ram­page

San Antonio Express-News (Sunday) - - Front Page - By Sil­via Foster-Frau STAFF WRITER

SUTHER­LAND SPRINGS — In the soft morn­ing light, John Hol­combe walks into his daugh­ter’s room, picks up her wooden harp and plays a melody.

Eve­lyn, 8, emerges from a pile of blan­kets and grins. Two empty beds sit next to hers.

Most morn­ings she wakes up like this, alone in a room she used to share with sis­ters Me­gan, 9, and Emily, 11.

Her fa­ther plays a harp that once be­longed to his mother, Karla Hol­combe.

Eve­lyn says she knows where they are now: “In Heaven.”

Her two sis­ters, her 13-year-old brother Greg, her preg­nant moth- er, Crys­tal, and her grand­par­ents all were killed in the Nov. 5, 2017, mass shoot­ing at the First Bap­tist Church. John’s brother, Danny Hol­combe, and Danny’s 1-year-old daugh­ter also per­ished. They were among 26 wor­ship­pers who died that day. Twenty oth­ers were wounded.

The Hol­combes lost nine of their own, the most of any fam­ily.

“The only way I could get them back is with a time ma­chine,” John,

40, said last Sun­day as he pre­pared a ba­con-and-egg break­fast. “I wish I could. I re­lied so heav­ily on my mom and dad and Crys­tal. They were my in­ner cir­cle. And my whole in­ner cir­cle went away Nov. 5.”

Many of the con­gre­gants were re­lated, with fam­i­lies that went back gen­er­a­tions. In a mat­ter of min­utes, the shoot­ing took chil­dren from par­ents and par­ents from chil­dren.

John and Eve­lyn were at the church that day. His old­est son Philip, then 15, stayed home. When the gun­man opened fire into the church, John was in the sound booth, where shrap­nel pierced his body. Out in the sanc­tu­ary, Eve­lyn was shielded by her wounded mother, who laid over her be­fore she died.

With­out Crys­tal, John has had to learn how to cook, brush Eve­lyn’s hair and take care of Crys­tal’s chick­ens, ponies, goats and cats. They were in the mid­dle of re­mod­el­ing their kitchen, and he con­tin­ues to work on it, de­ter­mined to fin­ish the plans she’d sketched on a piece of pa­per. It’s still hang­ing on the re­frig­er­a­tor.

John’s life re­volves around try­ing to main­tain her pro­jects and fill­ing the void left by the loss of Crys­tal and three of their chil­dren.

“I can’t re­place her. But I’m try­ing to fol­low her wishes with the chil­dren the best I can,” he said.

Some peo­ple have told John, “God won’t give you more than you can han­dle.”

He dis­agrees.

“You can be given more than you can han­dle. And a lot of peo­ple who go through some­thing like this never come out of it,” he said. “But I think that through Christ, who strength­ens me, it is pos­si­ble to get through it.”

Faith al­ways has been this com­mu­nity’s moral com­pass, the church its uni­fy­ing force.

“They’ve been there for us, they’ve prayed for us, they’ve hugged us when we needed it, and they’ve stood back when we’re do­ing OK,” John said of the con­gre­gants.

He’s gone to church al­most ev­ery Sun­day since the shoot­ing. He films ev­ery ser­vice and posts it on YouTube.

Some­times, Eve­lyn will clam­ber onto his shoul­ders while he’s record­ing. Other times, she’ll prance around with the other kids her age, ea­ger to make friends.

With­out her mother to teach her at home, Eve­lyn has be­gun go­ing to school for the first time. And with­out her sis­ters to play with, the house of­ten goes quiet. Her fa­ther, who works in in­for­ma­tion tech­nol­ogy, has en­rolled her in bal­let classes. They go to ther­apy at the Ec­u­meni­cal Cen­ter about once a week.

Philip is a se­nior cadet air­man with the Civil Air Pa­trol, the civil­ian aux­il­iary of the Air Force. He trains once a week with the Air Pa­trol’s Alamo Com­pos­ite Squadron based in San An­to­nio. He takes high school classes through a pri­vate, on­line school.

The Hol­combe fam­ily has dealt with the grief in dif­fer­ent ways. John’s sis­ter, Sarah Slavin, is tak­ing an in­ven­tory of their par­ents’ busi­ness, Amer­i­can Can­vas Works, and look­ing af­ter their now-empty home.

Jenni Hol­combe, Danny’s widow, vol­un­teers at the church, of­ten fill­ing the role Karla Hol­combe,

“She was such a happy per­son, you can’t not be happy

re­mem­ber­ing.”

Jenni Hol­combe, about her daugh­ter

“I was al­ways in­de­ci­sive. … But

now I’m su­per-in­de­ci­sive.”

Sarah Slavin, about the deaths

her mother-in-law, once played in or­ga­niz­ing ac­tiv­i­ties such as Va­ca­tion Bible School and Fall Fest. She also started work­ing part-time at a non­profit for at-risk chil­dren.

Scott Hol­combe, the brother of Sarah and John, re­lapsed into al­co­hol abuse and checked into rehab in Au­gust. He was re­leased last Sun­day.

John Hol­combe’s life re­volves around his two sur­viv­ing chil­dren, Eve­lyn and Philip.

“I want to take care of them and be there for them, and I want to raise them the best I can,” he said. “They’re both do­ing very well.”

A quiet man, John gets a kick out of Eve­lyn’s feisti­ness. Bored at church one Sun­day, she de­manded he hand over his car keys so she could drive home.

When John awoke Eve­lyn from her slum­ber be­fore church re­cently, she switched into high gear.

“Do you know how rude it is to in­ter­rupt my sleep?” she said.

“Se­ri­ously?” said John, his fa­vorite re­sponse to his daugh­ter’s sassy com­ments. “Were you hav­ing a good dream Eve­lyn? I’m sorry we in­ter­rupted your dream,” John said as she stretched in her emoji-pat­terned pa­ja­mas.

“It’s none-ya,” she shot back. As in, none of your busi­ness.

He laughed, and she wrapped him in a hug.

They’ve grown closer in the past year, re­ly­ing on each other for sup­port. John can’t dwell on dark thoughts with Eve­lyn around — she’s too bright a light, and her games are too de­mand­ing for him to think about any­thing else.

“He’s my fa­vorite dad,” she said. “He prays for me and I just love him.”

Los­ing hus­band, child

Jenni Hol­combe’s 1-year-old daugh­ter, Noah Grace, would dis­ap­pear into her mother’s closet and reap­pear with Jenni’s grownup shoes on her feet.

She’d sit on the lap of her fa­ther, Danny, and cover his face with a blan­ket, say­ing “Where’s Noah?”

When she’d wake in the mid­dle of the night, Jenni would fetch some Jell-O and they’d slurp it to­gether on the kitchen floor.

“She was such a happy per­son, you can’t not be happy re­mem­ber­ing her,” Jenni said.

Noah was killed in Jenni’s arms on Nov. 5, along­side Danny.

“We joke (Noah) never slept be­cause she had too much life to put into that lit­tle bit of time that she had, that she had to just get ev­ery­thing she could out of it,” Jenni said.

Church mem­bers re­mark on Jenni’s in­ner strength. David Col­bath, an­other sur­vivor, tears up when he talks about her. They revel in her abil­ity to find joy, and how her sense of hu­mor seems to never have left her. Jenni chalks it up to faith in God. “This is like a gift God has given our fam­ily, to be able to be this way, so we can show other peo­ple that you can get through things,” she said. “That it will still hurt, but you can have joy again, and laugh, and have peace about what you’ve been through.

Af­ter years of fer­til­ity treat­ments, Jenni and Danny con­sid­ered Noah’s birth a bless­ing.

At night, Jenni writes lists in her note­book of fa­vorite mem­o­ries with her daugh­ter.

One list is ti­tled “Foods she liked” — marsh­mal­lows from Lucky Charms ce­real, man­darin or­anges and peanuts, which Noah called “neenuts.”

“Foods she didn’t like” in­cluded bread, pota­toes and cake.

When Jenni has trou­ble sleep­ing, she’ll post pho­tos and videos of her daugh­ter and hus­band on Face­book. They show Noah climb­ing on her fa­ther’s lap, play­ing with her cousins and crawl­ing mis­chie­vously through the kitchen with a trail of toys be­hind her.

“I want to re­mem­ber the good things, not what hap­pened,” Jenni said.

The hard­est part is be­ing alone. She’ll call Sarah Slavin, her sis­terin-law, and they’ll run er­rands, clean out the shop of her late in­laws — any­thing to stay busy.

“Some days I have to force my­self to do stuff at home,” Jenni said.

Jenni vol­un­teered at the Alto Frio Youth Camp this sum­mer, started work­ing at Floresville’s All City Youth Pro­grams and has be­gun babysit­ting in the nurs­ery dur­ing Sun­day ser­vices.

Dur­ing Sun­day ser­vices, Jenni used to sit in the back of the sanc­tu­ary, just go­ing with the flow, she said. But last Novem­ber changed her.

“We wanted to raise Noah up to stand up for what she thought was right and what she be­lieved in,” she said. “So I have to do that now. For her, for Danny.”

‘One piece at a time’

Bryan and Karla Hol­combe’s old can­vas up­hol­stery shop, once filled with tarp and the whirring of sew­ing ma­chines, now is stacked with boxes of ukule­les, clothes and shoes.

“You know how he al­ways had a ‘thing?’ His last was shoes. Look at these,” said Sarah Slavin, sur­vey­ing boxes of her fa­ther’s old shoes.

She picked up one shoe, ran her hands over it and sighed.

“I need to do some­thing a lit­tle more brain­less to­day,” Sarah said.

What should be done with the shoes, the shop, her par­ents’ home? Some­times the weight of the de­ci­sions is over­whelm­ing.

“I was al­ways in­de­ci­sive, even be­fore Nov. 5. But now I’m su­perinde­ci­sive,” she said. “I’m scared

that some­thing I de­cide will hurt some­one, some­how. They’ve al­ready been hurt so much, and I don’t want to add to that.”

Her daugh­ter Elene, 3, in­ter­rupted.

“Mommy, mommy, can I take this home? That way we can catch but­ter­flies!” she said, hold­ing up a small net from what they jok­ingly called the “baby jail” — a penned­off play area for Elene and Noah at the can­vas shop, filled with toys and a TV.

Sarah said of course she could. “This is also some­thing that helps me. If I start to get too into a dark mood or a neg­a­tive thought, she won’t let me stay there,” Sarah said.

It’s hard to dwell on death when there’s but­ter­flies to catch and swings wait­ing to be swung on. When Sarah’s fam­ily vis­ited John, Eve­lyn and other fam­ily mem­bers in the hos­pi­tal in the days af­ter the mas­sacre, Elene of­fered small mo­ments of joy.

“I re­mem­ber Elene run­ning down the halls, just laugh­ing, and I re­mem­ber even in that mo­ment thank­ing God that there was still go­ing to be laugh­ter,” Sarah said.

Like John, Sarah is do­ing the emo­tional work of preser­va­tion. She’s car­ing for her mother’s hon­ey­dew plant, which at­tracts but­ter­flies and hum­ming­birds. She’s also tend­ing the mi­mosa plant and the fig tree, grown from a cut­ting her brother Danny Hol­combe took from the fig tree at the church.

“It’s like a piece of them I’m not ready to let go of,” Sarah said. “We have to let go of them one piece at a time.”

Bryan had a habit of col­lect­ing things, and Karla made those items into art. A col­lec­tion of mix­ers dec­o­rates the tops of the kitchen cab­i­nets, and the bath­room is fish­er­man-themed, with boots and sinkers care­fully ar­ranged.

In the yard, the trees hold a run­down tree house, a frayed rope for piñatas and four ukule­les.

“She turned bro­ken ukule­les into bird­houses. Isn’t that cool? I loved that about my mom,” said Sarah. “She just took what she had and made it into some­thing beau­ti­ful.”

Sarah tries to do the same thing ev­ery day to get through her grief. She’ll crack open her mother’s Bible and re­solve that though she’ll cry for those she’s lost, she’ll also smile at the way her mother an­no­tated the verses, “like a school­girl.”

“There’s a lot of mem­o­ries that bring me com­fort. And there’s a lot of bless­ings,” Sarah said.

A box full of me­men­tos in­cludes a table­cloth signed by mem­bers of her fam­ily on Thanks­giv­ing Day 2016. For many — nieces, a nephew, her par­ents, her sis­ter-in-law, her brother — it was their last Thanks­giv­ing.

Among the do­nated gifts is a col­lec­tion of chil­dren’s cards from the world over that she keeps in a bin­der. One card bears the in­scrip­tion “No mat­ter how dark it is, there is al­ways light two thoughts away.”

“They re­mind me that even though the chil­dren that we lost are gone, there are still chil­dren that are here and that are go­ing to grow up and live and love,” she said.

Re­cov­er­ing from ad­dic­tion

Scott Hol­combe, 31, was home on Nov. 5, 2017, high on metham­phetamine.

He lived with his par­ents, Karla and Bryan, and looked for­ward to Sun­days, when his fam­ily would go to church and he could get high in se­cret.

His wife, Jes­sica, learned of the shoot­ing from a text mes­sage. Over the course of hos­pi­tal vis­its that day, they grasped the scope of the dev­as­ta­tion vis­ited on their fam­ily.

“I could not stop cry­ing that whole day,” he said.

Be­fore the shoot­ing, Scott was con­stantly get­ting high, black­ing out, los­ing a job. In the af­ter­math, it got worse. He added pot and al­co­hol to the mix.

“I was like, ‘Who are you to tell me I can’t use? … You have your fam­ily get killed in a mass shoot­ing, and then tell me some­thing about not us­ing,’ ” he said. “I felt real sorry for my­self.”

Ear­lier this year, he failed a manda­tory drug screen and spent three weeks in jail for vi­o­lat­ing terms of his pro­ba­tion for a rob­bery he com­mit­ted years ago. He en­tered rehab in Au­gust and trans­ferred to a half­way house last Sun­day.

Scott said he has been sober for 82 days. He said he was proud to have got­ten clean in time to honor his par­ents on the one-year an­niver­sary of the mas­sacre.

“Af­ter they got killed and I was do­ing drugs, I didn’t feel them. It didn’t feel like they were around,” he said. “But now that I’m sober, I feel like they’re here.”

Scott won­ders if the tragedy forced him to hit bot­tom, so he could fi­nally get bet­ter.

“I’m on the right path. So I don’t have to be mis­er­able about it any­more,” he said, eyes wide at the thought.

“I can’t feel sorry for my­self when I’m see­ing so much good and so much love ev­ery­where. I didn’t know that there was such a beau­ti­ful life out here.”

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

John Hol­combe, with his chil­dren, Eve­lyn Hill, 8, and Philip Hill, 16, wa­ters flow­ers and an olive tree they planted at the graves of nine fam­ily mem­bers who are buried in Suther­land Springs.

Eve­lyn and her fa­ther get ready for church last Sun­day. On the day of the shoot­ing last year, Eve­lyn was shielded by her fa­tally wounded mother.

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Hal­loween mu­sic plays at Stu­dio C dance school in Floresville last Mon­day as Eve­lyn and her class­mates warm up for their tap and bal­let class.

John plays a harp that be­longed to his mother and sings to wake up Eve­lyn, who used to share the bed­room with her two sis­ters.

Church re­mains a large part of life in Suther­land Springs. Five months af­ter the shoot­ing, Eve­lyn bounces with her dad at the First Bap­tist Church’s tem­po­rary sanc­tu­ary.

Un­born child of Crys­tal Hol­combe

Noah Hol­combe, 1

Emily Hill, 11

Greg Hill, 13

Me­gan Hill, 9

Bryan Hol­combe, 60

Karla Hol­combe, 58

Crys­tal Hol­combe, 36

Marc Daniel Hol­combe, 36

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

Mark­ings on a door in her home show the heights of Eve­lyn’s sib­lings, Emily and Me­gan, who were killed in the shoot­ing. The room is be­ing ren­o­vated.

Sarah Slavin, hold­ing her daugh­ter, Elene, 3, at­tends fam­ily day at Va­ca­tion Bible School. VBS was one of the beloved church events led by Karla Hol­combe, Sarah’s mother.

Jenni Hol­combe is com­forted by her sis­ter, Shar­lene Estes, as the names of the vic­tims of the shoot­ing are read dur­ing the May 5 ground­break­ing for the new church.

Three months af­ter the shoot­ing, wor­ship leader Kris Work­man, who was par­a­lyzed, joins Scott Hol­combe, left, and Pas­tor Frank Pomeroy in prayer with their con­gre­ga­tion.

Pho­tos by Lisa Krantz / Staff pho­tog­ra­pher

John Hol­combe records ev­ery ser­vice and posts the videos on YouTube. Dur­ing Easter ser­vice, Eve­lyn prays while hang­ing by her knees from his shoul­ders.

John picks up his daugh­ter from Stu­dio C. Eve­lyn started tak­ing dance classes af­ter the shoot­ing.

“The only way I could get them back is with a time ma­chine,” Hol­combe says as he sits with his chil­dren, Eve­lyn and Philip, at the graves of their fam­ily mem­bers.

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