Updated: April 15, 2011 at 12:00 am
On a recent spring break day, chaos erupts at Susan Solich’s magazine-beautiful house.
A quartet of boys, ages 6 to 14, is in high-octane mode. They bolt out the side door to the driveway, then dash back in. They run through the kitchen, down to the basement, then back outside again. They quarrel. They interrupt her conversation.
She gives an apologetic “boys will be boys” shrug and tries to keep the conversation going with a guest, but eventually her patience wears thin.
“Please. Don’t throw stuff, you guys,” she implores in a voice more exasperated than angry. “Go back outside. Everybody needs to be outside.”
This is not a scene Solich would have expected to star in six months ago. She’s divorced, and all but one of her three biological and two stepchildren are grown and out of the house. For the past five years or so, it’s been just her and her youngest, 15-year-old Hannah, living quietly in their Mountain Shadows house. At 55 years old, she’s been thinking about retiring from her job in sports marketing and doing some traveling.
But now she has four boys living with her, and the life she was planning for herself isn’t the life she’s going to have, not for a while, anyway.
She wouldn’t have it any other way.
These boys are her grandsons, orphaned by the sudden death of their 34-year-old mother — Solich’s daughter Kimberlie Flowers — in October and their father’s death from a massive heart attack less than three months later. No, she wasn’t prepared to add four energetic boys to her household, but this is the hand she was dealt, and she’s not turning in her cards.
“I had close friends say, ‘You should have put them up for adoption.’ Really?” she says, tearing up. “How would you ever live with yourself? I am the grandma — that’s a fact.”
So after her son-in-law died in January, she went to College Station, Texas, where the Flowers family lived, took care of the overwhelming details involved with closing the book on someone’s life, and moved the boys to Colorado Spring in February.
The adjustment has been rough. The boys miss their friends in Texas. Routines have had to be established, bedtimes enforced. Solich has had little time for herself, and she’s had to absorb the cost of clothing and feeding the boys because their parents didn’t have life insurance. On top of it all, her 24-year-old son, Logan, recently deployed to Afghanistan.
“There’s no way to wrap your head around it,” Solich says. “There’s no way to describe it.”
One blow after another
Kimberlie Flowers had gone to Maine in October to help take care of her ailing grandfather. On the evening of Oct. 20, a Wednesday, she called her mother for some recipes.
“Then she said she was tired and going to bed,” Solich says. “She was going to get under the electric blanket with her laptop and turn on the TV. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘I can’t talk to you tomorrow because I’m traveling. Talk to you Friday.’”
Solich was on the road, driving back to Colorado from the East Coast with her boyfriend. She tried calling Kimberlie that Friday. No answer. She tried again. Still no answer. So she called her ex-husband, Kimberlie’s father, who called his relatives in Maine. They found Kimberlie under the electric blanket, with the TV on. She’d died in her sleep; the cause has not yet been determined.
Kimberlie’s husband, Nolan, was at a class reunion, and Solich tried desperately to reach him. She got the highway patrol to track him down, and he raced home to College Station. But he was so devastated, he couldn’t tell his sons about their mother. He loaded them in the car and drove from College Station to Colorado Springs, where Solich broke the news.
“It was just awful,” Solich says. “They didn’t even have clothes with them. One didn’t have shoes.”
She went back to Texas with them and spent a week and a half packing up Kimberlie’s belongings.
Not long after, Nolan Flowers and the boys returned to Colorado Springs for a Christmas visit with Solich and Hannah. Logan, his wife and their son were also there.
“We just had the nicest time,” Solich says, looking at photos of the visit fanned out on her dining table.
A few days later, on Jan. 6, 42-year-old Nolan Flowers was dead of a heart attack, his third since 2006. Solich flew out that evening and spent the next seven weeks in College Station taking care of the exhausting details involved with settling an estate and gaining custody of the children.
There were plenty of challenges. The couple didn’t have wills. They had a five-bedroom house filled with belongings that wouldn’t fit in Solich’s fully furnished hosue. There were creditors to deal with.
Solich was overwhelmed, but quickly comforted by the outpouring of support from the College Station community. A fundraiser in a grocery store parking lot raised more than $30,000 in four hours. The store donated food and gift cards. People brought over meals. Someone came to clean the house. Attorneys waived their fees and helped her get guardianship of the boys.
Nolan had brothers, but Solich says she was the only logical choice to become her grandsons’ guardian.
“I was the one who had the relationship with the kids,” she says. “Nobody was ready for four more kids.”
In February, Solich loaded up a 14-foot truck with the boys’ belongings and put one of the boys in the cab with her. A baby-sitter she’d hired after Kimberlie died drove one of the couple’s cars with the other three boys and the Flowers’ cat, Vegas. Not long after Valentine’s Day, they were back in Colorado Springs.
New kids on the block
Conner Flowers, 6, runs to the room he shares with 10-year-old Tyler and comes back clutching a handmade book. “We Love You, Conner,” it says on the front. Inside are laminated pages filled with photos of classmates, teachers and others from his school in College Station, along with messages they wrote to him.
The boys agree: Leaving their friends in Texas and going to new schools ranks high on the list of the challenges they’ve faced since losing their parents.
“It’s not so good because I’d like to go to Texas and bring our friends back here,” Conner says.
They’ve also had to adapt to living with a new “sister,” Hannah, who fully supported having the boys live with them and has no regrets. But as it is with any siblings, they have their moments.
“It has been fun to have them here, but it can get on my nerves,” she says. “It’s crazy in the mornings.”
Solich is trying to set up a chore chart for the boys, although she hasn’t had time to do it, and she’s established more of a routine for them.
“Grandma has more rules,” Tyler says.
“We don’t get to drink all this soda,” 12-year-old Justin adds, “but Grandma got us sparkling water, but it doesn’t have sugar or caffeine.”
That’s a small adjustment, though — certainly nothing compared with trying to cope with the loss of their parents. To help with that, Solich quickly got the boys and herself into therapy.
Period of adjustment
But only a few months into the new living arrangements, it’s clear it will take a lot more time for the aftershocks to abate and everyone to adjust.
Solich, for example, lost her cool when Tyler and Justin were fighting in the back seat of her car one day. She asked for their cellphones — then tossed them out the window.
“We found my phone and parts of Justin’s,” Tyler says. “He had an iPhone. It was smashed flat. It was so remarkably smashed that we started laughing.”
“Grandma had a moment,” Solich acknowledges with a sheepish smile.
On top of trying to handle things emotionally, Solich also has the financial challenge of raising four boys. Even before the deaths of her daughter and son-in-law, she had tried, without success, to sell her 5,000-square-foot house because it was just her and Hannah living there, and it had become too expensive to keep. She got divorced five years ago, then was laid off from her part-time job as a ticket agent with US Airways. Her sports marketing job and the Social Security benefits she receives for the boys keep her afloat, but barely.
“Oh, my gosh — when you think about the magnitude of the expenses. The food, new clothing, school,” she says. “There was nothing provided for these children, so for me to have anything, to be able to save a little toward college, it’s hard. I’m not whining, and not holding my hand out. I’m a hard worker. But I’m just a little bit more challenged right now.”
So she’ll try again to sell the house and downsize. She’ll keep working. She’ll do what she must to take care of her suddenly supersized family.
One of her good friends, Priscilla Visintine, of St. Louis, has no doubts Solich is up to the challenge.
“Here’s the thing about Susan: She handles everything with aplomb and grace, and also an amazing sense of humor,” Visintine says. “She keeps her head above water, takes it one thing at a time and keeps going.”
Even as Solich’s own insurance ended with her US Airways job, she’s managed to get the boys on Medicaid, and is frank about turning to outsiders for help when she needs it — though she makes it clear she doesn’t want to come across as a charity case. Her goal is to make parents and grandparents think about how they might handle the unthinkable.
“I want this to be a story of courage and hope,” she says.
As she’s talking, 14-year-old Brandon appears out of nowhere, comes up behind Solich and gives her a big hug. She smiles.
“It’s been a little challenging, but it’s OK,” she says after he leaves. “The blessing is that they’re with me, and I’m with them every day. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
A fund has been set up for the Flowers children. To contribute, send checks payable to Susan Solich to Bank of America,, 111 University Drive East, College Station, TX 77840. Use account 586023930684. For wire transfers, use routing number 026009593 and use the same account number.