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Catholic Sentinel | Portland, OR Tuesday, October 13, 2015
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Grieving father creates memorial
Kristen Hannum

Petersen had no idea how naïve his petition was - to be allowed to enjoy the growing-up years of his daughters, 8-year-old Audrey and 6-year-old Chérie.

By the end of the day, he had found out he did have a brain tumor.

'But it was in Audrey,' he says.

The little girl had been ill for a week before his MRI - sick enough that Petersen had had to carry her into Oregon Health Sciences University on that March day in order to undergo the high-tech brain scan that would determine if he had multiple sclerosis or a rare, early form of Parkinson's disease. He has Parkinson's - something that might have devastated the Petersens in February 2000, but became barely part of their story when they learned the news about Audrey that afternoon.

Although her tumor had begun weeks or months earlier, the family counts that day as the one on which their lives changed, never to return to the busy, sorrow-free existence that they had taken for granted.

Petersen, a printer by trade, has published a book of poignant photographs and reflections on his loss. Although he had never been anything more than a snapshot taker, the book has won wide praise.

Audrey's death made him an artist, with sensitivity that he uses to reach out and move people almost by stealth - the Petersens have the letters to prove it.

'Who is this guy Craig Schommer?' Petersen asks when his wife, Julie, tells him that the Sentinel newspaper is here because Schommer bought two of his books, brought one of the copies to the newspaper's offices and petitioned the editor to share Petersen's story.

'Just a guy who liked the book,' she says.

Julie says that Audrey's death changed Jerre profoundly.

'His words are so beautiful - written by a man I never knew . . . It added something to his eyes and his heart,' she says.

People have asked Jerre what photography school he went to. 'The school of Audrey,' he replies.

'But if we could only trade it back for the way our lives were before, with Audrey,' says Julie, whose dark hair and eyes reveal her Italian heritage. Her maiden name is Saltamachio.

Audrey too inherited the Saltamachio coloring from her mother. On the program cover from her funeral, she smiles, looking fragile and young. Her funeral was filled with children from her school, Holy Family School.

'Thank God for Holy Family,' Julie says.

A third-grader with a friendly, serious manner, Audrey had fallen asleep in the car on the way home from school on one of the first days of March 2000. Julie suggested she go to bed and nap since she was so tired. Audrey slept until morning and the next day vomited.

Julie took her to the pediatrician, who diagnosed a mild case of the flu. A week later, Audrey was still vomiting, still tired, without other symptoms. Her doctor scheduled a cat scan that afternoon. Vomiting and fatigue could be linked to a brain tumor, the doctor told them.

Julie and Jerre took her with them to OHSU. Jerre carried Audrey, who, always slender, had lost weight during the week. After they left OHSU, they went to Good Samaritan, where Audrey had a cat scan.

Jerre, today, is still agitated when he remembers what happened next.

Audrey's pediatrician, via the phone, told them to go immediately to Emanuel Hospital, where a brain specialist would talk with them. Jerre remembers that the doctor was in tears.

He asked the medical technician what was going on.

The technician said Audrey had a mass in her brain.

Jerre, distraught, couldn't negotiate the rush hour streets from the one hospital to the other. He jumped from the car to call Father Bob Barricks, pastor at Holy Family. Julie took the wheel.

Father Barricks answered his phone at just after 5 p.m., one of many small miracles that the couple has come to embrace as a proof of God's hand in their lives.

'How did we even have his number?' asks Julie.

Father Barricks met them at Emanuel. Today, three and a half years later, the still grieving couple even now feel they can call upon him whenever the need arises.

Father Barricks says that Audrey's journey was both incredible and difficult. 'There were so many little miracles along the way, pulling the entire parish community together to support Jerre, Julie and Chérie - and each other,' he says.

Father Barricks recalls the school Mass that honored Audrey after she died. They released homing pigeons outside the church after the Mass, and the birds, rather than flying up, getting their bearings and heading home, as they typically did, flew to the church's steeple, circled it three times and then flew away. Their owner said he'd never seen them behave that way.

Julie says their daughter's death has led them to wonder how people come to choose the paths they do. If, for instance, the Petersens had chosen a public school for their daughters, they're certain they would not have received the support that they've found at the Southeast Portland Holy Family, where teachers still go out of their way to make sure Chérie is all right.'Our Catholic family has been there ever since,' says Julie.

That has seen them through the dissolution of their marriage - the two are separated, although they still work together in the print shop, where Jerre lives, and where they interact amicably.'It destroyed our marriage' Jerre says with emotion.

Julie, more measured, says that the two have gone in different directions, although they still try to function as a family.

The anguish they suffered with Audrey's death, the pressures of their business - Jerre closed the deal on the building four months before Audrey was diagnosed - and the Parkinson's has put their relationship on the back burner. 'I've never been so exhausted as during the last three years,' Jerre says.

The two note that part of the difference between what has happened to them after Audrey's death has been their experiences with friends. Julie's have been there for her. Jerre's, with two exceptions, were not. Most of his golfing buddies didn't show up for Audrey's funeral.

Jerre has forged new relationships with other men friends, including Father John Amsberry. 'He's unbelievable,' says Jerre. 'I'm not afraid to tell my friends 'I love you.' I learned that from Father John.'

Because of Audrey's death, when Jerre's mother died, he was able to be a strong support for his suddenly rudderless father - a father who hadn't understood before why Jerre's grief was lasting so long. After Jerre's mother died, his father said that he had never realized what he had endured. 'How did you make it?' he asks.

The two talk now as they never did before. 'Our conversations now always end with 'I love you son.' That from a man who before had maybe told me he loved me half a dozen times in my life,' says Jerre.

Another life lesson that the Petersens count from Audrey is the importance of teaching kids about death and remembering that it's as much a part of everyone's life as is birth. 'It's a scary subject,' says Julie, who says that it doesn't become less scary by ignoring it.

Audrey's casket was an open one and there was a viewing. Many of the children were curious about her body. The little girl who spoke with the most fear asked if Audrey's feet had turned green and shriveled up when she died. Her parents hadn't brought her to the funeral, and she hadn't seen Audrey.

Both Petersens say their faith has been strengthened since Audrey's death - Jerre's through revelations and Julie's through prayer and signs, although she admits that at first, even as a cradle Catholic, she had thought that when you die that's it - nothing.

Since then, she says, she's come to realize that too many coincidences have come together, including prayers answered. 'People ask how can I believe in prayers being answered after losing my child,' she says.

But Audrey died without pain or fear. The Petersens often asked her during her last month, on a scale of one to 10, 10 being the best ever, how she felt at that moment. Audrey's answer was always 10.

'If your child has to die, we were blessed that Audrey died like that,' she says.

The family also never gave up hope that Audrey would be cured.

One out-of-touch friend showed up at the Petersen's door just as Julie and her sister were on their way to the hospital to dress Audrey's body to go to the mortuary.

The friend was able to do much that Julie and her sister couldn't. Since then, that friend, almost unbelievably, has also been diagnosed with a brain tumor. Julie sees the hand of God at work.

Jerre's book, Heart Works: A Father's Grief, seems to have come together in the same way - as though it was meant to be in some larger picture that we can't begin to understand. 'I believe this book was my purpose,' says Jerre.

For more information on Heart Works: A Father's Grief contact Heart Works Publishing, 930 SE Sandy Blvd., Portland 97214; (503) 236-1350; or at their website, negativeperfection.com

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