Spencer Rendahl: Surviving Loss

May 4, 2015

Deanna Emberley Bailey grew up in Shelburne and Charlotte. In 1985 she crossed the Connecticut River to attend Dartmouth College, where she played varsity soccer and majored in biology and education. She also met her future husband Chris, a classmate.

After their Dartmouth graduations, Chris and Deanna followed their dreams around New England. They got married, and pursued graduate school and their careers, Chris in sustainable agriculture and Deanna in education. They also had two sons and eventually settled down in Barre.

Early Christmas morning in 2009, the family suffered a tragedy that made national news. A fire engulfed the house where they were staying with Chris’ parents in Louisville, Kentucky, trapping the boys – Solon, 12, and Liam, 10 - who were sleeping upstairs. Chris and Deanna tried desperately to get them out of the house – but both boys succumbed to smoke inhalation.

After the memorial service at Spaulding High School in Barre attended by more than 800 people, Deanna entered trauma and grief therapy. Her trauma therapist gave her an exercise: do something creative while thinking about the fire from the boys’ perspectives and imagine where they went afterwards. Deanna resisted this suggestion for two months. But when she finally sat down and began writing, she couldn’t stop. She spent the next seven months writing what resulted in a self-published book with the title, “Crossing the Horizon.”

In it, she remembers the family’s last day together - Christmas Eve – from Solon’s perspective. Then she describes the terrible fire but imagines lifting her sons to safety, and ultimately their afterlife. The story reflects the boys’ personalities - Solon craved solitude, Liam sought action. Deanna writes about family jokes at the dinner table and hiking in the Green and White Mountains. She envisions the boys attempting to comfort their grieving parents – then finally finding joy and peace.

Deanna met and befriended award-winning children’s book author Katherine Paterson through her church in Barre. Paterson read an early manuscript of “Crossing the Horizon.” She wrote in the book’s foreword that “my immediate reaction was that her story must be shared,” and called the book in a recent interview “a testimony to someone who has come through unspeakable tragedy.”

What started as a healing exercise became something more. For Deanna, remembering her sons apart from the fire became a way to bring them closer, despite the tragedy. The title of the book reflects Deanna’s ability to now think of them as being “…just across the horizon, safe as can be.” And five years after her family suffered unimaginable loss, she’s telling her story to help others survive.