Special Reports

For Crystal's family, life goes on, quiet but sometimes complicated

On the wall of a kitchen cabinet in Gig Harbor hangs a calendar made by a little boy.

A picture of his smiling face hovers in the sail of a paper boat floating on a paper sea. Below it are rows of dates.

At the bottom, in the square for April 26, the boy's older sister has written three words:

"Mom got shot."

The 6-year-old boy's name is David Judson. His sister is Haley, 9. Until last summer, their surname was Brame. A year ago, they saw their father fatally shoot their mother and himself.

The children now live with Julie and David Ahrens, their aunt and uncle, in a quiet suburban corner of Gig Harbor. David Jr. started kindergarten last fall. Haley is tackling third grade.

The children are a busy pair. They bring stacks of paper home from school, pile into their aunt's car for after-school sports and ballet lessons and chatter about getting a dog.

It might be any family's life - except for the therapy sessions and unwanted fame. After a year of media coverage, the Ahrenses and the children of Crystal and David Brame have become familiar faces. At the store and around town, people recognize them. Strangers approach the children, offering gifts and hugs - some just want to say how sorry they are.

Almost always they are courteous and kind; the Ahrenses appreciate the gestures. Still, they find it unsettling. Their instincts and advice they get suggest that healing will come from the quiet comfort of routine. In that spirit, they prefer to keep the children out of the public eye.

"We realize everyone's concerned about them," says David Ahrens. "We just want to say the kids are doing good."

They moved in with the Ahrenses on March 7, after spending almost a year with their grandparents, Lane and Patty Judson. There were plenty of sleepovers at Aunt Julie's house along the way - enough to make the transition comfortable.

As the children adjust to their new life, so do their aunt and uncle. They've never done this before.

"We're instant parents," David Ahrens says. "We do a lot of reading."

The days are happy, but far from easy. Two more beds need making. The laundry pile has doubled. There is attention to give: praise for completed homework and new words learned, smiles at silliness, wishes to fulfill. If the kids get a dog, Julie wonders whether she should redo the floors to ward off scratches.

Even relaxing gets complicated. Recently, the family rented a movie - a Disney release called "Brother Bear." In one early scene, the main character's mother dies. Most parents could comfort a child with an adage: It's just pretend. This family can't. On the first viewing, the scene was a little upsetting. Since then, the children have watched the movie many times and it no longer seems to bother them.

Sometimes, the children say they miss their mother. Recently, Julie, not wanting to deny a possibility, asked if they missed their father. It would be OK to talk about him if they wanted, she told them. They didn't.

The children aren't the only ones who grieve. A year later, Julie still misses her big sister.

"Every day," she whispers.

Last summer, going through forgotten possessions, they found Christmas presents from Crystal, bought for her family almost a year in advance, labeled with handwritten sticky notes. Julie left the notes where Crystal placed them, and wrapped the gifts. The family opened them during the holidays four months ago. Julie watched, and made a silent promise to Crystal.

"I know she would have done anything for me, any time," Julie says. "I look at Haley and David and know I just have to take the best care of them that I can."

Sean Robinson: 253-597-8486