published Tuesday, December 25th, 2012

In 1st Christmas without boys, Bates family tries to focus on good times

The tombstone of brothers Leland and River Bates is decorated with toys and memories of the two who died last summer. Their grandmother decorated the site two days before Christmas.
The tombstone of brothers Leland and River Bates is decorated with toys and memories of the two who died last summer. Their grandmother decorated the site two days before Christmas.
Photo by Tim Barber.

When Linda Bates unpacked her Christmas decorations this year, she paused as she unfolded the stockings for her two little grandsons, River and Leland.

She held them in her hands for a long while, then hung them up on the counter ledge. She left them there for about a minute before taking them down and packing them back up. The ache was just too heavy.

Last year, the boys' stockings were packed with candy, toothbrushes and BandAids decorated with cartoon characters. The boys got new bicycles for Christmas and spent the rest of the morning on them, barreling up and down the halls of their grandmother's house.

This year, the house will be quiet.

Instead of putting presents under the Christmas tree, a large group of family and friends gathered at Moore's Chapel Cemetery on Sunday to bedeck the boys' headstone with Christmas trees, teddy bears, balls, toys and flowers.

This is the first Christmas the large family will have without Leland and River, who died in June of severe heat stroke.

The boys' mother, Tasha Bates, who turned 27 several weeks ago, will spend this Christmas in jail as she awaits trial on charges of felony murder, child neglect and meth manufacturing. Tasha Bates has maintained that she found the boys unconscious in the yard after leaving them alone for 45 minutes.

At Christmastime, the family is trying to put aside the blame and controversy over the boys' deaths and focus on remembering their lives.

During Sunday's impromptu service, family members traded stories about the boys, talking about how much they loved Christmas and playing with their toys. One aunt remembered taking them to sit on Santa's lap last year -- how River kept thrusting his hand into Santa's beard and how Santa had to keep pulling it back out.

At the cemetery, the children's choir from Cookson Creek Baptist Church sang "I Can Only Imagine," waving their little arms and performing motions to go along with the words about life in heaven.

"I could just see River and Leland dancing in heaven before Jesus, with Leland dancing on his tippy-toes like he always did. River would just be right on Jesus' heels. That's just how River always was, just following you around."

At times, this season has been excruciating. The cheerful songs and glowing advertisements of kids playing with new toys are too glaring a reminder of what's missing.

But Christmas also holds more weight for the family now, a more solemn significance that runs deeper than the "gifts or the getting," says Linda Bates. It's a time to pull dear ones close and to hold them tight.

"Every day we need to let our loved ones know that we love them. Not just at Christmas. Every day," she said. "Because we don't know how much time we have with them."

She's tried to make their house a "little more Christmas-y than normal" this year. Last week she had her other grandchildren over to bake cookies. Flour spilled all over the counter and the 4-year-old kept nibbling the candy off the top of the icing. The home was warm and smelled like sugar cookies. It echoed with children's little voices.

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