The death of a child is a parent’s biggest nightmare.
For Sara Hebard, the nightmare came true in January when her eight-year-old son died suddenly after crashing his bike and developing a rare infection called necrotizing fasciitis. As flesh-eating bacteria attacked the boy’s soft tissue, surgeons tried to get ahead of the deadly bacteria by amputating parts of his body during four separate operations.
Liam Flanagan died on Jan. 21, leaving behind a devastated mother, stepfather Scott Hinkle, and three stepbrothers. The death stunned the family’s tiny community of Pilot Rock.
The weeks since losing Liam have been a barrage of emotions for Hebard.
“It comes in waves,” she said. “It’s the little things that get you — a song, a phrase.”
Hebard cried when she read a paper Liam had written in school mentioning how much he liked singing in the car with his mom. That, she said, put her over the edge.
“We sang whatever was on the radio,” she said. “‘Sweet Home Alabama’ was always a favorite.’”
The outpouring of the Pilot Rock community and others in the area still hasn’t stopped. On Saturday a benefit dinner and auction will be held at the Pendleton Eagles Lodge to pay expenses, and also raise money for the Liam’s Legacy Foundation.
The support, however, has gone beyond financial.
During the Pilot Rock/Stanfield basketball game on Jan. 26, for example, players and fans from both towns came wearing camouflage to honor Liam, who loved wearing camo. Hebard was especially touched when Stanfield players approached her en masse.
“They found me and gave me flowers,” she said. “Each and every one gave me a hug.”
In another show of support, teams, employee groups and others posted photos of themselves wearing camouflage on social media. They used the hashtag CamoForLiam.
Recently, at the Pilot Rock Senior Center, members of the Rocky Ridge Quilters sewed a quilt in memory of the eight-year-old, which will be auctioned at Saturday’s benefit dinner. Gathered around the quilt, they ranged in age from 12-year-old Jonathin Hascall to Alma Day, the oldest member who serves as instructor and mentor to less-experienced members.
The mission this day was hand sewing the quilt’s border. The design includes several different camouflage patterns. As the quilters stitched, they chatted and laughed, but underlying the frivolity was a determination to help buoy a local family after an unimaginable loss.
“This community always rallies,” said Karen Fulbright, who spearheaded the Liam quilt. “The community is so strong.”
“When there’s a disaster, we pull together,” said quilter Neva Hascall.
Hebard feels the love.
“It’s hard for me to wrap my head around what people have done,” she said. “It’s phenomenal.”
She said the shock of losing Liam is slowly wearing off and “we’re just starting to grieve.”
In Hebard and Hinkle’s living room, Liam’s ashes sit in a wooden box adorned with the Batman logo. Some of Liam’s ashes are inside heart-shaped lockets worn by family members.
Hebard said she and Hinkle are legally married, but planned to do a bigger ceremony with family and friends on July 7, the day after Liam’s birthday. After Liam’s death, the couple pondered canceling the wedding, but then focused on what Liam would want.
“Liam would have been furious with me,” Hebard said. “He was so excited.”
They will go ahead. Hebard will carry a photo of Liam as she walks toward her groom.
“Liam’s going to walk me down the aisle,” she said.
At Pilot Rock Elementary School where Liam attended, students and staff are still grappling with the death, said Principal Steve Staniak. He said second-grade teacher Marcy Jerome spent time on the first day back helping her students deal with their feelings.
“She was amazing with them,” Staniak said. “There were lots of tears. They talked about memories of Liam.”
Staff will continue to monitor and urge students to talk about their feelings, he said.
“This will stay with them for a long time,” Staniak said. “Liam was a sweet little boy — one of those kids who always had a smile on his face. Kids were kind of drawn to him. We’re all missing him.”
Since Liam’s death, Hebard has spent many hours researching necrotizing fasciitis. She joined a Facebook group for survivors and family members. She reached out to the father of a five-year-old autistic boy who nearly died from the monster bacteria. She started Liam’s Legacy, a foundation with the mission of helping other families that experience necrotizing fasciitis or other tragedies. She is still working on the mission statement.
“My goal is to never let Liam’s memory die,” she said.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-966-0810.