Ever so slowly, a family is finding joy once again
Nine members of the Holcombe clan died in rampage
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.”
“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
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.”
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.
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
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.
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.