September 20, 2007
Transcendence—a true story for Yom Kippur
Phil and Laura Donney's father murdered their mother nearly 12 years ago. They've not only survived, they've thrived. How did they do it?
(Page 3 - Previous Page)Phil and Laura have an iron bond with each other, and both of them clearly love -- and like -- Abby. In conversation, they all listen to each other respectfully, without interrupting, carefully understanding what the other is saying.
"My approach to this has always been to be as honest and direct as I can be," Abby says. "I've always explained things to Phil and Laura and been as communicative as possible. There's always been a lot of talking here. They don't always talk to me -- there are other people they problem-solve with -- but they always can go to these resources for support."
She also let them be themselves.
"I just let them make their own choices a lot," Abby says. "I didn't say to them 'you can't'; I said, 'If you don't like the results you have to remember this is a choice you made.'"
The kids went to after-school activities, and friends covered while Abby continued to work full time and pursue the many volunteer positions she has held over the years, including seats on the boards of Jewish Family Service, Jewish World Watch, the Jewish Community Relations Council and several city and county commissions related to children.
"I decided that I couldn't let go of all of my life, so they had to fit into my life. I fit them in as best as I could and tried to give them what they needed," she says.
Now single and 50, she admits that having two kids complicated her dating life -- but they also brought her fulfillment.
"I had a lot of people in my life suddenly, and the level of intimacy that children bring into your life fills a huge part of your need for intimacy," she says.
And she says she never felt burdened by having Phil and Laura.
"I remember thinking that I wanted my life back, like I had lost control of my life, but I never resented their presence. It just complicated my life in ways I wasn't expecting, and I felt like I didn't know what I was doing, and I wanted to do it right -- I felt for their sake I had to do it right."
She also immediately got professional help for all of them.
Abby knew she needed more than her regular therapist could offer, so she and Marjorie went to a psychologist who specialized in shock trauma. They started the kids in therapy right away -- something she credits with keeping all of them centered and calm.
She learned to cope with insensitive comments about her not being the kids "real mother," or when others minimized her grief in losing "just a sister." She learned to help the kids through nightmares, and to be tuned in to the transitions and dates that affected them. Together, they became a family.
A Sanctuary of Support
While the family was sitting shiva for Nina, Temple Israel of Hollywood's Rabbi Rosove offered Abby -- whom he had met once before and who was not a member at his or any other synagogue -- full scholarships at the Reform congregation's day school. It was a pivotal gift, and to this day, Temple Israel remains a major focal point of friendship, spirituality and support for them.
Abby and her sisters went to a Conservative congregation while growing up in Chatsworth, but she hadn't belonged to a synagogue since then.
When Phil's new teacher asked how to welcome the new boy, one kid -- who is still Phil's best friend -- proposed that Phil should be line leader for the day.
Laura introduced herself to her preschool class with characteristic drama, Abby recalls.
A little apprehensive in her new surroundings, Laura began to fiddle with the classroom computer. The kids surrounded her, wanting to know how she knew so much about computers.
"My mommy taught me but she's dead now because my daddy killed her but he's in jail," Abby remembers Laura telling the class. "The kids didn't bat an eyelash -- they were more interested in finding out how she made purple come up."
But moments like these made some parents, who after all had chosen the sheltered environment of a Jewish school, squeamish about exposing their kids to death and violence.
"Sometimes I would get angry at these parents who didn't want me to say in front of their kids that I was the aunt, because their kids would ask questions," Abby says. "And I would think, 'You know, if Phil and Laura can live through this, your kids can hear about it -- it's not going to hurt them.'"
While the overwhelming atmosphere was one of support -- teachers took extra care on Mother's Day, for instance -- the difficulties were persistent.
"When you're in school, no one has any idea how much the words 'your mother' or 'your parents' come up in daily discourse," Abby says. "A teacher would say, 'you have to ask your mom,' which for Phil and Laura would precipitate a thought process that no child should have to go through: 'What should I do. I don't have a mom. My mom is dead. How should I handle this? Should I say my mom is dead? Should I say my aunt will?'"
Even what they call each other leads to questions. Abby refers to them as her kids, but also as her niece and nephew. The kids refer to her as "my aunt," but Laura addresses her as "mama." Mostly they call her Aunt Abby (which became Tabby, which sometimes playfully morphs into Tabitha).