The power of family

by Toby Cooper

Sounder contributor

The door opens and Risha, a yellow pooch of undisclosed lineage, is the first to appear. She greets without fanfare, blocking all entry, demanding a pat on the head. No paws. No fuss. Just a quiet stipulation that all visitors pay a toll at this door – a small fee in homage to the just and peaceful home of Christopher Evans, Rusty Diggs, and daughters Bella and Mona.

Theirs is an indelible story of family – where love and trust win over adversity and fear.

It all begins two decades ago, with Christopher and Rusty happily sharing a mutual ardor for permaculture and a spiritually guided value set. Quickly, though, their friendship morphed into a transformative romance – the kind that leads to calling home and changing plans. But no plans could have prepared them for the legacy of love, trust, community, and challenge that has become their story to tell.

With their 2003 romance still young, Rusty perceived she was facing a crossroads in her life. She enrolled in a 10-day cycle of meditation. On day eight, she had the sobering “epiphany” that she was pregnant.

But there is more.

Upon hearing of her conviction, Christopher revealed he, too, had experienced a dream-sequence with the same plot lines while she was away at meditation. Rejoicing, they began to reshape their vision of life going forward. “Suddenly, there was the commitment of children,” they recalled. “So, you start to formulate a plan.”

But some plans are only good for the day. They decided to celebrate over their favorite farm-fresh breakfast. Christopher broke the first egg into the pan and “remarkably, it was a double yolk,” he said. “Then I cracked a second egg and, yikes, it was a double yolk, too.” They looked at each other and spoke with one mind – “twins!” And so it was.

For Christopher and Rusty, events threatened to outpace their ability to cope. They desperately sought stability. Bartering and housesitting, they moved three times in 13 months, ultimately settling in Eastsound. But then the twins, Bella and Mona, arrived eight weeks premature – tiny and precious at three pounds each – and an arbitrary birth trauma left Mona with severe developmental disabilities.

“It has been a spiritual path,” Rusty remembers, recalling her reconciliation with “the parent I thought I wanted to be, compared to the parent I had to be.”

“Birth stories are usually filled with positivity and joy,” Christopher added. “For us it was filled with months of upheaval” which devolved into a time of fearsome uncertainty. They were told one of the highest predictors of family breakdown is having twins. Another is having a disabled child.

The medical world delivered a dire prognosis for both children. “All we heard was ‘you can’t,” they said. But rather than yield to despair, they purged the word “can’t” from their vocabulary and put their trust in the family and friends who “lifted us in that time of need.”

Still, the early years were filled with happiness, perhaps in part because the buoyant family believes in miracles. Rusty notes that the girls were born as “Gemini Twins” on June 9, 2004, traumatically early, but “on that exact date, Venus – the Planet of Love – was its closest to Earth in 200 years.”

And Christopher credits his mom, who was his “inspiration” growing up. “I never knew I was lacking anything. She made everything fun.”

Because both Christopher and Rusty grew up with books, they never tired of reading to the girls. “In those early days, we read to them for three hours every day,” says Christopher. In fifth grade, Bella read War and Peace. Mona picked up The Oddessy and The Iliad. “We didn’t have a TV until they were 12,” he added.

As Christopher spoke, Risha entered the group and made her rounds, extracting another toll of affection from each family member. Then, an improbable chicken, the color and texture of mocha-chip ice cream, clambered up the outside stairs. “This is House Chicken,” Rusty offered. “The record for chicken longevity is 16 years. House Chicken is 13.”

Bella picks up House Chicken from the middle, like a cat. The bird flaps strenuously for a moment, then hunkers down and buries her head in the crook of Bella’s arm, punctuating the catlike meme. “In seventh grade, I decided I wanted to go to Harvard,” she said, raising a few eyebrows at the time. But when someone told her, “Kids from Orcas don’t get into Harvard,” the family never blinked.

Rusty interjected, “Why would anyone say that?”

Bella persevered all through school, never losing sight of her dreams. This year, she was awarded a full scholarship to Syracuse, but declined when Harvard University offered the same – a first in the history of the Orcas schools. Facing her impending time away from Orcas, Bella says, “It’s time. I am ready to go. Honestly, I feel secure in my path.” Longer term, her plan includes law school, leading to a career as a defense attorney.

Leaving Orcas will also be Bella’s first separation from Mona — the twin with whom she shares a web of invisible bonds. Mona’s disability cast Bella into the role of cultural liaison, helping Mona absorb lessons from the outside world.

“There was vicarious learning,” said Rusty of the girls’ early years. “Mona was quiet. Bella never stopped talking.”

For her part, Mona is a force, soon to be on her way to Whitman College — a progressive school with unique accommodations for students with disabilities. Christopher will collaborate as the primary caregiver as his daughter navigates the complex challenges of college life.

With Mona, a more willing and deserving recipient could not be found. She absorbs everything in the world around her, loves history, quotes Greek and Roman mythology, and wants to write about it all.

With Bella in faraway Boston, and Christopher and Mona in Walla Walla, Rusty looks forward to time with her guitars and learning piano.

This captivating story of a peaceful Orcas family — Christopher, Rusty, Bella, and Mona — does not end here. More will emerge from the corners of the nation. In the meantime, they all feel a debt of gratitude for the Orcas school system, for OPAL, and for Christopher’s mom — who made everything fun.