Losing a child is always a tragedy, no matter how many siblings are left behind. But when that child is the only one you have, said Celeste Peterson, the pain is "indescribable."
SHE AND HER husband Grafton, all their relatives and, indeed, the entire country are grieving the loss of their only child, Erin, 18, who died last week in the Virginia Tech massacre.
"It's a gaping hole," she said. "How do you fill a gaping hole? You don't."
A 2006 Westfield High grad, Erin was an honor student and star athlete majoring in International Studies and minoring in French at Virginia Tech. And she and fellow Centreville resident, Reema Samaha, were in French class together in Norris Hall, April 16, when a madman entered with a gun.
"I always told her, 'Your destiny is greatness,'" said Erin's mother. "I'm sorry she had to go home to be with Jesus to [achieve] it."
Seeing the shelves in the family room lined with framed photos of Erin, chatting with her family and hearing them refer to her as "the baby," it's obvious how much this young woman with such a bright future was loved.
"She was a happy baby and spoke perfect English at the age of 3," said Celeste Peterson. "And she always wanted to be close — even at 18. If you went upstairs, she came up there, too."
Erin was also her father's second child — and the second one he lost. "She was born two days after [his first daughter] Carla died at age 8," said Peterson. And Erin and her dad had a special bond that remained strong even when she left for college.
"SHE CALLED home every night; she never missed," said her mom. "And she called her father additionally, every day, because she said he needed it. My husband is mourning her very deeply; he lost his best friend."
Sitting around the Petersons' kitchen table, Monday afternoon in Centreville's Braddock Ridge community, Erin's maternal grandmother, Bettie Robinson of Purcellville, noted Erin's love of music.
As a toddler, said Robinson, "Erin liked me to sing 'La Marseillaise,' the French national anthem, in the car, all the way from here to Purcellville. She liked the way it sounded, and she was in French class when this tragedy happened."
She said Erin called her Nanny and loved to tease her "about my hair, my ears, anything. She was always messin' with me. She was funny and had a good sense of humor. She even imitated how Oprah [Winfrey] acted in 'The Color Purple.'"
Robinson recalled how the family took vacations together to Nag's Head, N.C., and had a good time at the beach. But she worried that Erin's mom drove too fast so, said Robinson, "Whenever we went to our vacation home south of Saluda, Va., Erin and I would watch DVDs together in the backseat to get my mind off her mom's driving."
Erin's great uncle, William Robinson of Oxford, N.C., described her as "a wonderful, beautiful, young lady. I always admired her kindness and the patience she had with other children. My son Thomas was her favorite."
Mary Canady of Middleburg, Erin's aunt and her father's sister, said her 15-year-old son and Erin were more like brother and sister than cousins. "He idolized her," she said. "She took him to New York with her on spring break to see 'The Color Purple.'"
HE ALSO LOVED seeing Erin play basketball, said Canady. "We traveled wherever she went to see her games," she said. "She had her own cheering section. Her mom and dad would say, 'Run the court, baby; run the court,' and I'd give them a look saying, 'Leave her alone.'"
Erin played center and power forward. "She'd say, 'I'm the Little Shaq, Nanny," said Robinson, referring to pro basketball star Shaquille O'Neal." Canady said she and her son and Erin's dad saw Erin play in the nationals in Florida, five years ago, with her AAU team.
"We watched her put a move on another player and we were so proud of her," said Canady. "We were yelling and screaming, and never once did she say, 'Y'all cut it out;' and the team liked it, too."
As a child, Erin didn't like new things, said her mom. "She didn't like summer camp, and I signed her up for soccer and she hated it. She didn't start playing basketball until high school, but she really took to it."
Peterson said Erin didn't know how to dribble, at first, but made the JV team at Westfield and played for three years on the varsity. "We were her biggest fans," she said. "We traveled all up and down the East Coast when she played AAU ball."
Now, after Erin's tragic death, a black-and-yellow basketball covered with handwritten messages sits on the Petersons' coffee table in the living room. One reads: "I love U and miss U, Erin! I know U R watching down on us. Love always, J'Quita Babineaux."
And Ashley W. wrote: "Erin, you were such an amazing person and you always made me laugh! You have touched so many people's hearts with your joy and smiles. I love you!"
Erin's relatives weren't at all surprised by the depth of feeling her friends had for her. "If you'd meet her, you'd love her," said Robinson. "That smile," added Canady. "And she liked sitting close to her family on the couch; she loved everybody."
"SHE WAS a sweet girl and a good girl — gifted, talented, humble and giving," said Erin's cousin, Tracy Littlejohn, 32, of Simi Valley, Calif. "She wanted to work for a nonprofit. She saw [Hurricane] Katrina and thought, 'If nations would just work together when bad things happen — instead of being 'them' and 'us' — then things could work out.'"
Littlejohn, who was raised in this area and graduated from Chantilly High in 1992 and Virginia Tech in 1996, lived with the Petersons for a year before attending grad school. And she said she and Erin were "tight."
"Erin was a homebody and so was I," said Littlejohn. "We were like two peas in a pod. We'd hang out, talk, listen to music, go for walks on the [nearby] trail." Littlejohn would also have her friends over, and Erin would hear them talking about being focused in school and applying to college. "All my friends loved her," she said.
Celeste Peterson said Erin loved her family and was "spoiled rotten," but deserved to be because she was so exceptional. She said they visited lots of colleges together before she decided on Virginia Tech.
"She said she liked Virginia Tech because 'it feels like a college,'" said her mother. "And that was her domain. She was co-president of a club there called Empower, for minority females in the area, and mentored younger kids."
Erin also played basketball on two, intramural teams there, and one won the championship. "She called me up and was all happy about it," said Peterson.
She also had an internship at the Rolls Royce Corp. in Chantilly during the summer and did so well that she was invited back for another year. Now, though, everything's changed, and Rolls Royce recently sent condolences to the Petersons after their loss.
"Imagine that," said Robinson. "They have over 80,000 employees — and the company president left a message on the phone."
<sh>In the Aftermath, a Desperate Search
<bt>A caring and loving daughter, Erin Peterson called her family in Centreville every day, even though she was now a college girl at Virginia Tech. So her family panicked when they didn't hear from her after last week's shootings there.
"I went down there with my brother [Erin's dad, Grafton Peterson] and Celeste [Erin's mom]," said Mary Canady, Erin's aunt. "I knew something wasn't right when I first heard about it. I called Grafton and he said she hadn't called. We were hoping and praying that maybe she was somewhere and couldn't get to a phone."
Arriving in Blacksburg, Erin's parents and aunt desperately tried to find her, but were continually given wrong information. "Celeste called and said, 'Mama, we can't find the baby,'" said Bettie Robinson, Erin's maternal grandmother.
"We went from one hospital to another," said Canady. "At one of them, they told us she was transferred to another hospital and was in surgery. We went all the way from Blacksburg back to Roanoke but, when we got there, the girl in surgery wasn't our baby."
The whole time, said Robinson, "She was laying in the morgue." But before the family knew that — and while there was still hope — Robinson prayed. "I begged the Lord, 'Please, just let her be alive,'" she said. "If she was paralyzed, I planned to come down here [to Centreville] and help Celeste."
When Erin's body was positively identified, said Canady, it was as if "somebody took a knife and just stabbed me in my heart. And I asked, 'Could it be a mistake?' because they'd made so many."
Grafton Peterson stayed up all night, last Monday, waiting for word of his daughter. Tuesday, April 17, around 10:30 a.m., the family learned she'd died the day before, along with 31 other Virginia Tech students and professors.
"I felt like somebody ripped out a part of my heart," said Robinson. "And I didn't feel that way when my mom died because she was 83 and failing, and the doctor told us she'd be gone in a couple weeks."
But for Erin to die so violently, so suddenly and so completely unexpectedly was unthinkable. It came as a total shock that left her family devastated.
"At first, I asked God why this happened," said her grandmother. "But a friend of mine — whose son died at age 6 after being hit by a car — told me, 'At least, you got to see her grow up.'"
Still, added Robinson, "This is not natural that my granddaughter isn't here and I am. I just feel so bad; I loved her so much. She was my only grandchild. I just pray and pray and pray that the Lord will help me to accept this and think on the good times we all had, and know that nobody can hurt her again — nobody."
Erin's cousin, Tracy Littlejohn, says there's a reason for everything and faith will sustain her through her grieving. "Every time I think about Virginia Tech, [the pain] is always there," she said. "And it's not a private tragedy, it's a public tragedy."
Initially, she dealt with it "one minute at a time, then hour by hour and, now, it's day by day." But ultimately, she said, "Erin was a happy person, and she wouldn't want us to be sad. God doesn't make mistakes, and I feel like something will come out of this, even if we can't comprehend it right now."
Faith is also helping Erin's mom. "I have a really strong, spiritual family, centered in God," said Celeste Peterson. "My baby closed her eyes and woke up in the bosom of Jesus Christ, so I knew my baby would be all right."
When asked what her hope for her daughter had been, she replied, "My hope was that I could have looked back on my life and known [that Erin was] a morally responsible, spiritually centered individual who contributed to society to make it a better place."
And as far those who knew Erin are concerned, she's already succeeded.
<tgl> — Bonnie Hobbs