Monday, April 28, 2003
In loving memory, Annie's
Lauren and Glenn Yasuda navigated the first months after their daughter's death through a fog.
One Saturday two weeks shy of her third birthday, Annie, her tiny face framed by shaggy, dark brown bangs, didn't wake up.
Like driving a car through a soupy gray haze, Glenn and Lauren kept moving, unable to see their way out but hopeful the grief would one day lift.
Annie's fraternal twin sister, Sophie, and her older brother, Nate, then 5, needed them.
Later, a neighborhood project spurred by Annie's love for playgrounds also helped propel them and turned them into something of community activists.
More than a year after Annie's death, Glenn and Lauren, both biology professors, are still raw.
Tears come quickly, but so does laughter. Annie's memory can elicit either.
Her death remains a mystery, officially attributed to a probable febrile seizure -- brought on by an increase in body temperature -- during the night, although she wasn't sick at bedtime. Her parents may never know what happened.
Lauren won't talk about the morning they found her, but she relishes a chance to talk about Annie.
Any glimpse of swings or a slide prompted Annie to shout "playground," followed by the considerate request, "Can we go tomorrow?"
"She was so loving and not at all demanding," Lauren said.
Glenn and Lauren set up a memorial fund at Meadowbrook Community Center within days of Annie's death.
A short walk from the Yasudas' house, the community center's adjacent playground is an aging sandy plot with giant tires for climbing and crawling through, swings and a decaying merry-go-round. It was a natural favorite of Annie's.
Glenn and Lauren assumed the memorial fund could be used to spruce up the playground but had only the fuzziest notion how.
By early 2002, the Annie's Playground fund had collected $20,000 in donations and Seattle Parks and Recreation, which was already planning a makeover for the playground unknown to Lauren and Glenn, took notice.
Still mired in their family's private tragedy, Glenn and Lauren took up a new mantle as community activists.
They've studied playground designs, weighed the pros and cons of plastic and metal slides, staffed a table at a pancake breakfast, sold T-shirts, organized volunteers and written grant proposals.
Now an independent non-profit, the Friends of Annie's Playground has so far raised $60,000. A matching grant from the city could double that, adding -- with additional fund raising -- some $170,000 to Seattle Parks and Recreation's $386,000 Meadowbrook playground renovation budget.
Construction is expected to start in the spring of 2004.
"We get to hear her name a lot," Lauren said. "That's kind of neat."
Annie, who had a history of febrile seizures, died in her sleep on Nov. 10, 2001. Febrile seizures run in Glenn's family but have never been deadly. A neurologist assured Glenn and Lauren that Annie would grow out of the seizures.
After her death, the couple enrolled in a San Diego doctor's research study of Sudden Unexplained Death in Childhood, a less common killer than Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. SUDC strikes children older than 1 year.
Still, Glenn and Lauren say they prefer not to dwell on the cause.
"Something about her brain was sleepy," Lauren said.
"Her absence created such a void in our lives. We weren't driven to find out the cause because we didn't feel it would help us."
Lauren and Glenn, both 41, met as undergraduates at the University of California-Los Angeles.
Lauren grew up in the San Fernando Valley, Glenn near Anaheim. Twenty years ago, they moved to Seattle for graduate school at the University of Washington and married after graduation.
Glenn is now chairman of the biology department at Seattle University. Lauren teaches genetics and microbiology at Seattle Central Community College.
Five years ago, when Lauren realized she was pregnant with twins, the couple searched for a house with more bedrooms.
They found one in Meadowbrook. The split-level home is tucked away at the end of a country lane, separated from a busier street by a bridge that crosses a short stretch of Thornton Creek.
At home, they incorporate each other's cultures. Lauren is Jewish. Glenn is Japanese. Family members remove their shoes in the house, according to Japanese custom. They place stones on Annie's grave -- a Jewish tradition.
The room Annie and Sophie once shared is now a playroom.
Their walls are mostly bare, save for pictures of Annie, Sophie and Nate.
A gallery of the kids' artwork blankets two kitchen walls. A birthday card Nate made for Sophie and Annie on the first birthday Sophie celebrated alone hangs near Annie's finger paintings.
Always the low-key, shy twin, Sophie is more talkative and outgoing than before. She understood right away that Annie wasn't coming back, Lauren said. Now 4, Sophie colors pictures in pink, Annie's favorite.
Nate and Sophie collect little rocks, beads, necklaces and other treasures to place beside Annie's picture.
The brother and sister are a close pair now. They share bunk beds in Nate's room, where Sophie moved in after Annie's death.
On Sundays, the family visits Annie's grave, a 15-minute drive from their house. She's buried at the edge of a forest.
The outings provide rare moments of peace, said Lauren, who finds solace in the trees and the grass.
"That's our one break in the week," Lauren said.
Despite the good they feel they're doing in Annie's name, Glenn stops short of calling the playground project a relief or catharsis.
Meetings devour their evenings; planning swallows up free time. Lauren estimates she spends an average of two to three hours a day on playground-related activities.
Before Annie died, the Yasudas had never hired a baby sitter, so infrequent were their evenings out.
"I wonder sometimes if we haven't been allowed to grieve in the way we should have because we're so busy," Glenn said.
But they appreciate the kindness of neighbors and friends. "It keeps us going," Lauren said.
Lauren and Glenn's personal touch and the community interest they've inspired will elevate this playground beyond the bare bones, city parks officials say.
Last week, Glenn and Lauren attended the final public design meeting for the playground.
With a handful of others, they hashed out color schemes -- primary colors or earth tones -- and chose a playground equipment company.
A melange of swings for all ages will recall Annie's preferred playground apparatus.
A picnic area and plans for artwork of fish, ferns and other native wildlife will add to the park's character.
"We don't consider the playground a memorial in any sense," Lauren said. "It's a place for kids to be as happy as Annie was."