After a tragedy, a toddler helped them heal
It was a hot July day in Chandler and a monsoon storm was coming, so the guests packed into the kitchen and living room, ducking under lines of yellow streamers.
Frosting sunflowers adorned cupcakes. Someone had written “You are my sunshine, Clara” on a chalkboard.
Clara, the guest of honor, was 2, with curly blond hair.
She carried a yellow balloon up the stairs to her brother and then dropped it back down the stairs, again and again, yelling, “Up!”
Her brother Cole sat patiently, smiling every time she handed him the balloon.
Her sister Karinna took photos of the guests while their parents, Brad Bolt and Robyn Young, mingled.
It has been a little more than a year since Wade Young was killed. He was just 17, Brad and Robyn’s second child and the most outgoing and energetic.
Last year at this time, the family had been planning a “celebration of life” party.
They hadn’t wanted to call it a funeral;
it didn’t seem to fit, not for Wade.
Now they were hosting Clara’s adoption party.
When Clara first came to live with the family in Tempe, a year and a half before Wade died, no one was sure if this day would come. Now it was here, and it was bittersweet.
Clara had needed a family. Only now was it clear how much they had needed her.
Suddenly, a baby in the house
Clara was almost 3 months old when she arrived at the Bolt/Young home early in January 2015, the day before Karinna’s 13th birthday.
The parents have experience blending families — Brad became the stepfather to Cole, Wade and Karinna after he and Robyn married in 2008.
Clara is the daughter of an extended family member. She could have gone into the foster-care system or come here. Robyn and Brad rushed to baby-proof their home.
They instantly fell in love with her. The kids’ reception was not as warm. Cole was almost 17. Wade was 16. And as the baby of the family, Karinna’s vision of entering her teens looked different with an infant in the house.
Even the dog, an older mutt named Stuart, had to adjust. He was confused when baby gates went up, blocking him out of the living room.
“It was risky opening your heart to her too much,” Brad said, “because you didn’t know if she was gonna stay with us or not and if we would have to give her back.”
Forging bonds with ‘Nugget’
Wade was a busy teenager: taking honors classes and acting as president of the DECA club at Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, singing in the school’s top two choirs, playing club rugby, working nights at a seafood restaurant and spending time with dozens of friends and his girlfriend.
He had always been very active, working out every day, playing sports, hiking and camping.
Even though Wade was rarely home, always whizzing in and out of the house, he started showing up more and slowing down once Clara arrived.
“Wade, he’s very goal-oriented and he has a plan for everything, and this little 2-month-old coming into his life was not part of his plan, so he was very much against all of this,” Brad said. Wade began calling Clara “Nugget.” He had taught himself how to play piano, and he would play and sing for her, setting her up next to him.
“I liked it when Wade would play the piano, because he’s the only one who would,” Karinna said.
The music would pull the girl out of her bedroom to where Wade played, and she’d watch Clara try to pull herself up to her feet using the piano bench.
“I felt more whole, I guess, to really be with both of them at once,” Karinna said.
Wade would pick up Clara and hold her out in front of him, like Rafiki lifted Simba in “The Lion King,” and sing “Circle of Life.”
Clara laughed every time, and it was a distinct giggle, deep and silly, one that only Wade could bring out in her.
“She had a specific laugh that ... was just unique to them playing together,” Robyn said. “You heard it, and you knew who she was with and what they were doing.”
Soon Cole and Karinna were asking to hold Clara or give her a bottle.
“Wade was the first of the three kids to open his heart” to Clara, Brad said. “I think he kind of served as a role model for all of us.”
After Karinna had her tonsils removed in seventh grade, she napped with Clara by her side.
Stuart the dog became protective of Clara instead of scurrying out of her way, barking every time she cried in an effort to summon someone to take care of her as fast as he could.
As Clara learned to talk, Wade read to her and taught her new words. Everyone in the family learned basic words in American Sign Language, reminding each other of the sign to use when Clara wanted to watch Mickey Mouse — cup your hands into a “C” and bounce them on your head, like mouse ears.
“During that time, we were more of a family,” Karinna said.
Successful climb, sudden tragedy
Wade had tried to hike Humphreys Peak, the highest point in the state, a few times before. He was determined to make it to the top before college began.
Wade woke early on a Wednesday in July 2016, made oatmeal, packed a backpack and said bye to Robyn and Karinna, the same as every morning.
He said goodbye to Clara, calling out, “Bye, Nugget! I love you,” and blowing her a kiss before walking out the front door, locking it behind him.
Wade and two of his friends left for Flagstaff, stopping for Starbucks on the way.
They made it this time, all the way to the top. They fist-bumped at the summit — 12,633 feet — and then lightning hit the peak.
The strike killed Wade instantly and injured both of his friends.
Every morning after his death, for months, Robyn would wake early and walk into the hall, expecting to find Wade getting ready for his day’s adventures.
But the kitchen was quiet. The couch was empty, no spilled oatmeal to clean up.
For weeks, she would drive to the Corona del Sol parking lot every Wednesday afternoon, about the time Wade died, park the car, and cry.
She felt closer to him there, not like at the grocery store, where there were entire aisles she didn’t need to go down to get his frozen burritos or granola bars.
When she unloaded the car at home, there was no Wade with hands big enough to grab and carry four gallons of milk at a time.
The days came and went. Wade’s 18th birthday. The day he was supposed to move into his dorm at Arizona State University’s Polytechnic Campus in Mesa, where he’d been accepted into the honors college.
Cole and Wade had shared a bedroom their whole lives, but now the wall covered in corkboard is frozen in time, covered with medals for golf and track and boutonnieres from high-school dances.
The boys always had bunk beds, Cole on the bottom and Wade on top. Of course, Cole would poke the bottom of Wade’s mattress to annoy him.
Cole doesn’t push up on the mattress anymore. There’s no point.
“He’s not there,” he said simply.
‘She was sent to us to help us’
At Wade’s celebration of life, just weeks after he died, Robyn told more than 1,000 guests packed inside the Arizona Community Church in Tempe that she didn’t have “one ounce of anger” about what happened.
She stood at the podium, tearful, and said Wade’s death was God’s plan and a perfect way for him to go. He had accomplished many goals and had a great day with his friends.
“I feel very fortunate, blessed, grateful that there is no one to blame,” Robyn said in an interview this summer, a couple of weeks after the first anniversary of Wade’s death.
“There was really no one else involved. There was no car accident, there was no medical negligence,” she said. “To me, getting struck by lightning, that’s just part of a greater plan.”
It was his time.
And Robyn believes the time was right for Clara.
“We definitely feel like she was sent to us to help us with the tragedy of losing Wade,” Robyn said.
“Being a foster parent, that’s hard, and taking care of Clara, especially the first year ... it was wonderful, but it was hard work and very emotional. Going through all of that with Clara really helped to make us stronger,” Brad said.
“If we had not had Clara, I don’t know if we would have made it through the last year,” he said, looking at Robyn. They celebrated nine years of marriage in September.
Family members sought other means of healing, too. Some have gone to counseling. Robyn has felt very positive effects from Reiki, a Japanese form of alternative medicine.
But Clara is an undeniable factor in their healing.
“The other thing with Clara that made it — I don’t know if easier is the right word — but you can’t lay in bed and feel sorry for yourself if you gotta get up and take care of a little toddler, because she won’t let you,” Brad said, chuckling.
Clara seemed instinctively to know what to do, or maybe it’s just what toddlers do anyway, but it was good for them. She would hug them, wipe away their tears and kiss them.
“She always seemed to know what we needed,” Robyn said. “We called her our ray of sunshine, and she really was, and I think she saved us, I really do. I think she saved our family, and we’re very, very happy to have her.”
Cole, who’s 20 now, said Clara keeps him going: “It just kind of feels like nothing until she’s there.”
A new middle name
In early August, almost a year after Wade’s memorial service, a handful of people met the Bolts and Youngs at the courthouse to finalize Clara’s place in the family.
To get Clara to wear a special yellow dress to her adoption ceremony, the family had her sleep in it the night before. She’s both strong-willed and strong.
Brad held Clara through the proceeding, which lasted a matter of minutes. The judge asked if they wanted to change Clara’s name; they said yes.
Not her first name, and she would keep her last name. They wanted to change her middle name.
The judge read her new name aloud: Clara Wade Bolt.
“I really believe that when Wade was alive, he and Clara had a very strong connection, and I believe that connection has continued,” Brad said. “We want Clara to feel a connection and have a tangible connection to Wade her entire life.”
They gathered around the judge, with Brad still holding Clara, and the judge holding a framed picture of Wade for a family photo. The entire family.
When the adoption ceremony was over, Brad cried. After more than a year of constant planning and working with lawyers and agencies for both Clara and Wade, it was a relief to be done.
Life continues, but Wade lives on
For six months, Brad has been fixing and upgrading a three-bed, pop-up camping trailer he found on Craigslist for dirt cheap.
Brad grew up camping every summer, stopping at different historic sites and museums on the way to Michigan, and although Wade loved camping, too, they never went together as a family.
Now, the idea of spending time together with the elements that took Wade seems therapeutic.
“I think that’s where we will connect with Wade the most,” Robyn said.
They are hoping to take the trailer out for the first time by the end of the year. Someday, they may go to Flagstaff, near the mountain where Wade died, but not yet.
Clara turned 3 this month, celebrating with a few bites of cake — sugar isn’t really her thing — and a new set of wooden building blocks, which are.
Robyn still cradles her every night. She sings “How Do I Live,” a song she’s sung to all of her babies, and she prays, meditates, or thinks of Wade.
Wade lives on, here in their house and in their hearts.
Some in his family believe he literally visits home, like when the lights on his bright-orange car — painted the same as Corona del Sol’s colors — flash on and off for no reason.
He definitely lives on in Clara. “She’ll be talking to somebody, like an imaginary friend, having this total conversation and then get quiet for a while like she’s done,” Robyn said, “and she’ll look at us and say, ‘Wade’s gone.’ ”
Clara can pick Wade’s smiling face out of family photos, no matter what age he is in the shot.
“That’s Wade,” Clara will say, pointing at him.
Sometimes, when Clara sleeps, she begins to squirm like she’s being tickled and laughs in her sleep.
Her parents and brother and sister can hear her.
It is Wade’s giggle, deep and silly, the one Clara reserved for him.
And in those moments, it is like Wade is there in the house with them still.
Robyn Young hugs Clara Wade Bolt, 3, whom her family adopted.