Bryan Smith 2015-08-12 23:11:45
Lions in Idaho honor a fellow club member in a way he’d appreciate. It rose like a bustling city, the backboards and hoops and risers providing the low-lying skyline. The snap and squeak of sneakers, the chirp of refs’ whistles, the shouts and laughter stood in for downtown bustle. Players of all ages filling out more than 50 three-player teams were the inhabitants. Men and women, decked out in yellow vests and hats, functioned as the facilitators. Humming through all was life, joy and hope, but also a deep sense of sadness. The three-on-three basketball tournament in Idaho was, like many such events, created to be a benefit as well as a campaign to raise awareness about a deadly issue—both of which suggested that beneath it all lay a great loss. In this case, it was true to the point of soul-ache. Gone in a way so sudden, yet so preventable were a father, a mother, and two sons, a tragedy that would have been crushing no matter who the victims. But this was Bill Parrish, the 6-foot-4-inch, larger-than-life, red-headed Chubbuck Lion who everybody liked and everybody wanted to be liked by. It was his wife, Cathy, whom everyone called Ross, the sweet, smart, funny, stay-at-home mom. It was 14-year-old Keegan, the popular extrovert who like his father seemed to be good at everything, including basketball. And it was 12-year-old Liam, quieter, with the dry wit, and smarts and talent to do anything he wanted. They beat, in short, at the heart of the community, their family name known, admired, and respected by most every one in the quintessential, quaint, close-knit town of Pocatello, population 55,000. Passionate in their faith, generous in contributions of their time and money to the causes they cared about, their membership in the Lions club such a part of the many Parrish family generations that it seemed part of their DNA, their sudden deaths in 2014 seemed nearly unbearable. No one was naïve enough to believe that this two-day tournament could heal all the wounds. But as two of the event’s main organizers—Bill’s cousin, Fred Parrish; Bill’s sister, Carri Curtis; and the two surviving children left to face life without the closest parts of them, Jensen and Ian Parrish—saw the smiles, heard the laughter, shared the stories and tears of support, it seemed life might just go on after all and that from the tragedy might even arise something... good. *** Something wasn’t right. Anyone who knew anything about Bill and Ross Parrish knew two things: they never missed church on Sunday and they were among the first to arrive at a weekly tradition that had achieved almost legendary status in town: a Sunday night dinner at the home of the family matriarch, grandma Becky. So large had the event become that she’d had a 1,500-square-foot clubhouse built, complete with a large screen television for karaoke and movies, a lounging area where family could catch up, and a dozen large round tables built to accommodate the 30 to 40 people who showed up each week for taco night or pizza or any of a multitude of home-cooked fare. “We’ve been doing it every week for as long as I can remember,” says Carri Parrish-Curtis. “We do it so the family can stay close, find out what’s going on in each others’ lives.” Adds Jensen, “We’ll get together and just hang out, play games or sing karaoke sometimes. My extended family is really close.” Bill’s absence, in particular, was impossible to ignore. “He was big man with a big shock of red hair,” says cousin Fred. “He could just light up a room with his personality. He had one of the most infectious laughs you’ve ever heard.” Bill was entirely at home among Lions. His father and uncles had been Lions, and Bill had tagged along with them selling brooms and lightbulbs. Outgoing even with strangers, his familiarity with Lions made it easy for him to put in his two cents at meetings. “He wasn’t shy about putting forward ideas and suggestions,” says Tamye Durrant, past president and a family friend. Members did not begrudge his input; he earned it. Bill and Ross and their four children counted as twelve–a dozen hands when helping to sort eyeglasses. Or a Parrish could be relied on to keep score at the club’s softball tournament. “Being a Lion was just part of his family’s life,” says Durrant admiringly. People wanted to be like Bill, Fred Parrish says, and because of that, “he inspired people to do great things, just as he did great things himself—coaching Little League teams, his service in Lions, in his church and youth groups.” Cathy had a similar effect on people. “She was just a loving, giving person who made every one feel special.” When neither they, nor two of their four children, Keegan or Liam, showed up for church that morning of Sunday, Feb. 22, 2014, the rest of the family was already concerned. When dinner time rolled around and there was still no word, worry grew. “Is everything OK,” flashed the text on Carri’s phone. “Where is everybody?” Maybe they went out of town, Carrie thought, trying not to panic. One daughter, Jensen, was out of town, in Portland, Oregon. In the 13th month of an 18-month stint doing missionary work for the Mormon church the family attended, the BYU-Idaho student was not planning to return home for another five or six months. Likewise, Ian, 20 at the time, was away, also working as a missionary for the church, in his case in the 18th month of a two-year call in South Dakota. But no. The rest of the family would never simply go on some kind of impromptu overnight outing without telling any one. And they would not simply ignore repeated calls to their cell phones. The more Carrie’s husband, Brian, an emergency medical technician heard, the more he was convinced something was terribly wrong. And so, at the end of the dinner he and Carrie went to the Parrish’s home. It seemed eerily still, as if the entire family was already asleep. When Carrie’s knocks went unanswered, and when “G,” the family dog, failed to bark, the sister opened the door with a spare key. “Take a deep breath,” the husband advised. Calling out their names, Carrie went room to room. Each lay in his or her bed, completely still. “Within 30 seconds, we knew,” Carri says. The family was dead. “It was not a gruesome sight,” she says. “They were at rest, at peace.” But Carrie’s husband knew enough to know that whatever killed the family—be it gas or carbon monoxide—still hung in the air. The couple hustled out and dialed 911. *** The call, when it came, seemed unreal, Jensen recalls, the words clear enough, but the reality of them a nonsensical jumble. There’s been an accident. The family is dead. “I can’t even explain it,” she says. “I just didn’t know what to do.” The first thing was to connect with her surviving brother, Ian. Together, they made plans to meet in Utah two days later, then travel together back to Idaho. The news, announced in newspaper headlines and carried on television news broadcasts throughout Idaho, landed on their community like an atom bomb. The Parrishes? It wasn’t possible. But indeed, as Brian Curtis had suspected, a carbon monoxide leak from a faulty water heater had silently, odorlessly filled the home with poisonous gas sometime between 11 p.m. and midnight on the Saturday before the bodies were discovered. The family appeared to have been in the home for a while, Bannock County Coroner Kim Quick later explained. Tragically, though the family had smoke alarms throughout—Bill Parrish had even recorded his voice on those alarms because Jensen was hard of hearing—there were no carbon monoxide detectors. “It hit me like a hammer blow to the chest,” says Durrant. “The Parrish family is huge—several Parrish patriarchs with large families and it extends out into a maze of aunts, uncles, and cousins. I think at least a third of our community are related to the Parrish family in some way.” “Our families knew each other from Lions and also from church and living close to each other,” adds Durrant. “So it was like losing family members.” TV news crews were waiting for the surviving siblings, who said they were drawing on their faith, and their extended family, for strength. “When we saw each other, we kind of had a bonding moment,” Jensen recalls. “He put his arm around me and we walked out of the airplane into the airport and our family was waiting. It was one of those moments like, ‘this is awful, but we’re going to get through it together.’” Support poured in—from the church, their Lions club, friends, and family. The siblings already had a place to stay—with an aunt while they helped with funeral arrangements and prepared for the service. “It was really hard at first,” says Jensen. “But there were so many times when something strengthened me inside and let me know it’s going to be fine, it’s going to be OK.” One of the hardest parts was going back to the house, to begin gathering and cataloguing the family’s possessions. The siblings decided to sell off the belongings, which meant spending weeks and months in and out of the place where their family had died to prepare for an October auction. Sometimes, Jensen recalls, she would simply listen to her father’s voice on the fire alarm over and over, agonizing over the irony that another danger had taken him and her other loved ones. As difficult as it was to be there, however, it also provided the two a chance to reflect on the wonderful moments spent with their loved ones. It was also when they started thinking about more than just the heartache they were feeling—but whether there was a way that to use the tragedy for a greater purpose. For Ian, that meant returning to his missionary work, and drawing on his family’s memory as an inspiration to give even more, work even harder. For Jensen, it meant starting a blog, which she called, “A New Normal.” In posts that were sometimes searing, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes painfully honest, and always hopeful, she began sharing her journey through her grief, and how her faith was helping her survive and even grow. “A little over a month has passed since everything has happened,” she wrote in her first entry, on March 26. “I’ve been the angriest I’ve ever been. I’ve been the saddest I’ve ever been. I’ve been the numbest I’ve ever been. I’ve also been at some of my happiest points.” Meanwhile, a fellow Lion planted a seed of an idea with cousin Fred, and sister Carri. The late father and his sons had always loved basketball. Bill had actually played college ball at Ricks College (now Brigham Young University-Idaho.) He and Fred had kicked around the idea of a three-on-three tournament that could benefit those in need many times, but “then one of us would look at the other and say, ‘That sounds like a lot of work,’” Fred says, chuckling, “and we decided by virtue of not deciding not to do it.” From the moment he heard the idea, the cousin says, he knew it was the perfect way to honor the family as well as support the cause that had become the mission of him, Carri, Jensen, Ian, and most every other member of the Parrish clan: to raise awareness about the importance of carbon monoxide detectors in the home. The idea, says Fred Parrish, “was to make sure that no family has to go what we’ve had to go through, that this kind of thing never happens again.” They put themselves on a punishing deadline—starting in June, they planned the event for early August. Chubbuck Lions and community members formed the planning committee and organized the tournament. Thanks to a quickly recruited lineup of local sponsors and a last-minute donation from First Alert, which contributed 100 carbon monoxide detectors to be handed out as prizes, they quickly put together the first annual Bill Parrish three-on-three basketball tournament. By now, Carri had established a group called “No CO.” The simple message was: “All you have to do, the first step, is to buy that carbon monoxide detector,” she says. The group now works with the local fire department on programs to educate the community. They were ready, but had no idea what to expect. Would people really show up? What if it were a bust? They’d never done anything like this before. What if it was a flop? “None of us knew,” Jensen says. The magnitude of the response stunned them. Fifty teams, divided into “leagues” named after each of the lost family members, signed up and showed up in the parking lot on the Idaho State University Campus. “It was amazing,” Fred Parrish says. “There weren’t just men playing, but wives, girlfriends, hundreds of people out there participating.” Music played over loudspeakers; friends and family cheered on the players. “It was a little like a carnival atmosphere.” Jensen was floored by the response. “So many people would come up to me and give me their condolences or tell me a story or an experience they had with one of my family members. It was so supportive, so strengthening for me.” Lions registered teams, managed a silent auction, handed out water, kept score and officiated. Near the courts the district’s mobile screening unit, a colorful, state-of-the-art 38-foot trailer, offered health screenings. The sprawling basketball extravaganza mixed family and Lions, just as with Bill’s family. Club President Wilson Parrish, another cousin of Bill’s, ran the bracket. Jensen and Bill’s mother and stepfather staffed a concessions booth. Parrishes of both genders and various ages ran up and down the court, fiercely competing as if it were just another game but knowing it wasn’t. Above all, the event stayed true to its mission. A contest awarded prizes to those who correctly answered questions about the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning. As tournament director, Fred Parrish spoke on behalf of the family, thanking everyone for the support and reminding them of the program’s larger purpose: to spare others the heartbreak that made such a gathering necessary. By the end, more than $10,000 was collected, money earmarked for an ongoing, aggressive awareness campaign. “There were a lot of hugs and more than a few tears shed that day,” Fred says. “It was really great, then sad, then great again.” “As I was walking through, watching the games, watching these people play basketball, these kids, 10 and 12, I thought … this is one of the most satisfying days of my life.” And then, he says, reflecting on his late cousin’s attachment to basketball and devotion to his family, “Someone told me—and it was a pretty good line—if Bill weren’t in heaven right now he would be here and he would think he was in heaven.” *** The parking lot where the tournament was held is just that again: a place for cars, just as to Jensen Parrish the house where most of her family perished is now just a house. “It’s kind of bittersweet to know that it was a home,” she says. “But my extended family has taken me in so well, and I have so many friends and so much family that I’m not always dwelling on it any more.” The biggest difference is that the Lions want the tournament to be an annual event, and so this summer the cavernous parking lot was transformed again into a little city of hoops, a small piece of heaven for some, and for every one, a monument to turning grief and tragedy into a place of help and healing. Digital LION Watch a video on the dangers of carbon monoxide poisoning.
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