LIVERMORE, Calif. The first call to 911 was a shock: A mother of eight had died at home, her heart suddenly giving out. Two weeks later, another call from the same quiet street The father had collapsed.
In just two weeks, the eight children of the Scott-Cadigan family, aged 12 to 22, had lost both parents. Seven months later, the shock lingers, though the family is still together, sibling looking out for sibling.
"How do you go on after something like this has happened to you? I honestly don't know how all of us are doing it, but we are," says Janice Scott, 21.
"We have each other's back," says Jennifer, 22.
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Others, too, are pulling for the family. In the past year, a grocer has donated food and volunteers have worked on fixing up the family's modest home. A trust fund has been created to help pay monthly bills, with a couple of out-of-town relatives overseeing major withdrawals.
"It's amazing what people have been doing," says Sherri Plamondon, the 911 dispatcher who took the call when Diane Scott-Cadigan died suddenly of a heart condition last June.
Plamondon, who lost her own father when she was 21, was already working on getting help for the family when the second call came in two weeks later. Diane's husband, Mark, had died of undiagnosed heart disease, aggravated by the stress of his wife's death. Both parents were 43 years old.
Dispatchers are trained to stay distanced from the tragedies that pour into their headsets, but this one was different. Plamondon called a firefighter who was at the scene, needing to know how the children were coping.
"Sherri, you can't imagine their faces," he told her. "You just can't imagine the grief.'"
Fourteen-year-old Dolly Scott-Cadigan made both 911 calls.
"It's like a nightmare," Dolly says. "You couldn't even make a movie out of it because it's so horrible."
For the next few nights, the children dragged mattresses into the living room and slept together. No one wanted to be alone.
"It was like, 'What just happened?'" says Janice.
Within days, Janice and Jennifer, both of whom had moved away from home before their parents died, moved back into the family house in Livermore, 50 miles east of San Francisco.
After Mark's funeral they all sat down and talked.
Did they ever consider splitting up?
"No," says Jennifer.
Plamondon and colleagues at the fire and police departments helped coordinate support that has ranged from free amusement park tickets to house landscaping to a new minivan.
But there are years yet to navigate. Three of the children Dolly, Theresa, 12, and Jackie, 16 are still in school; the other five work at various jobs. Jennifer is a preschool teacher; Janice, a pharmacy clerk.
"I worry about them," says Plamondon. "What's going to happen in a year, what's going to happen in two years?"
As the oldest, Jennifer resists the idea that she's the "new mommy."
"My one and only job is older sister," she says. "The girls are more than welcome to tell me anything they want in the confidence they would tell any of their sisters. I'm not their mom and I don't want to be their mom. They have a mom."
Old routines have reasserted themselves, with older siblings taking care of the younger children and younger siblings pitching in as much as can be expected.
"If they get home first, and they see there's no dog food, they give the dog food," says Janice.
"If they come home and see a mound of dishes ... they don't do them," she adds, laughing, although she's quick to add, "They're all really, really good kids."
The eight children are a blended family, Jennifer, Janice, Daniel, Rachael, 18, Jackie and Dolly are Diane's children from a previous marriage, Kelli-Ann, 19, is Mark's daughter from a previous marriage, and Theresa is Mark and Diane's child born after they got married in 1990.
All the children except Theresa attended their parents' wedding; Daniel, just out of kindergarten, wore his Boy Scout's uniform to give his mom away.
After Diane died, the children grew even closer to Mark as they shared their loss. And after Mark died, they were reminded again of how much he'd loved their mom.
"It's just so hard," says Janice. "I don't even know where to begin grieving with him because I still don't know how to grieve for my mom."
Weekdays tend to be one long to-do list get up, make breakfast, drive people to school, to work, fix dinner, check homework, bed.
Mostly, they just try to keep going.
"I want to be strong for my sisters," says Jennifer. "I have kind of like the sink-or-swim attitude. I can move on and make this work for my family or I cannot. I'm sure down the road there's going to be a huge explosion in my head, but for right now I'm trying to hold it."
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