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Down, but not out

Christmas memories continue to live on despite holiday vandalism

By Miriam Orr

A midst the sparkling lights, soft Christmas music, and crunching white snow on Viking Drive sits a glowing "Zach love you" sign, illuminated in blue and green lights with a bright scarlet heart. Above the garage is Santa in his sleigh, with a long troop of trusty reindeer seeming to take off into the night sky above the trees. Beside the front door, dutiful elves climb a ladder leading to the roof, perhaps in hopes of assisting their friend, Mr. Claus.

Within all of this resides not only what are now a few deflated decorations, but also the memory of a little boy - Zachary Nelson.


The Nelsons

Terry and Carla Nelson, Buffalo residents, have welcomed winter with open arms every year since 1989 with their family. Terry currently works for the City of Buffalo, in the Electric Department, and has been doing so for 31 years.

Carla, too, works for Buffalo, in the Wright County Auditor's office, and has done so for 28 years.

After the loss of their son, Christopher, at three months old from sudden infant death syndrome, the family decided to band together and decorate their home in a way that would let their lost son know that they were still here, despite the fact that he was no longer with them.

Then in 2000, another Nelson son, Zachary, died of a viral heart infection at eight-years-old.

 "Zach had Down Syndrome," Carla says, "and he loved being outside looking at Christmas lights and watching people walk by."

Carla remembers how Zachary used to stand outside in the cold, watching Christmas lights and people walking by. One of his favorite activities of the season was going out and watching lights, and frequenting his favorite displays around Buffalo.

"We decided to really decorate in 1989, after we lost Christopher," Carla explains. "After that, Zachary had just loved lights, and he loved putting them up."


The Lights

The display itself takes the Nelsons approximately three weeks to put up at their home on Viking Drive. It spans the entirety of their front yard, up the side of their home, and on top of the garage. A string of lights canopy over the driveway, and a massive blow-up commandeers the corner of the yard - or, it used to.

Currently, many of the Nelson's decorations lay slumped over, evidence of recent vandalism that swept through Buffalo communities on Dec. 23, 2017. What was once a huge blow-up in the corner of their yard is now a deflated sheet, hanging over its supporting ties.

Quite a few of the decorations, Terry states, are outdated and now, quite expensive to replace. Many of the assortments have been wintering Christmases since 1989, and are now obsolete, and unable to be replaced by their originals. What means more to the Nelsons is not the price-tag, or reparability - it is the memories they have with their son, Zachary, and the way the inflatable decorations and lights themselves brought him so much joy in his eight years of life.

Those memories are not as replicable. The design of the decorations may have to change, but they are no longer the same decorations the Nelsons put up with their son in honor of their family and the tragedy they have endured.


Vandalism on Viking Drive

Terry and Carla were home Dec. 23, around 8:00 p.m., when four unnamed strangers came to their yard and destroyed their elaborate, commemorative display. Had it not been for observant neighbors, the Nelsons would have never known their home was vandalized until they'd seen it for themselves the next morning.

Carla is thankful no one was hurt during the carelessness. "They are not afraid of consequences," said Carla regarding the vandals. "I don't think they understand what this can turn into, and I don't know if families are communicating or even aware what is happening. We need communication with our kids so these types of tragedies don't keep happening."


Buffalo's reaction

Losing two sons affected the Nelsons greatly, but they were determined to overcome the grief in their lives. Carla states that she lost her brother early on in life, and that she did not want to experience the entrapment of grief like her family had.

She insists that there is worse in the world happening to others than what happened to her family regarding the death of her children.

"Death is a part of life - others go through a lot too. You have to decide to become victims, or fighters. Your world does bottom out, but eventually, it becomes a new normal; a different normal." She explained.

The story of Zach has touched lives in the Buffalo community, even to the present day. Schoolmates have recalled to Carla and Terry throughout the years, about how Zachary was an amazing young boy, a great student, and is still a dearly missed member of the Buffalo community.

"He made a lasting effect, even though he wasn't here for long," Terry comments.

Some of those lasting effects have reached the Nelsons well after the passing of their son. For instance, some of Zachary's teachers have approached Carla and Terry to reminisce about their "special son" who was a cherished student and determined in his efforts and kindness, and how he set an example they still recall in their teaching careers today.

Carla also recalled that while Zachary touched many lives, their son Christopher had also played a lasting part, despite dying at three months old. Giving back, especially in a time of grief, was how Carla processed the loss of an infant.

"Christopher's heart went to an infant girl who lived to be four years old," Carla says, "that in and of itself helps me a lot; knowing that someone else could live, even if for a short amount of time, when my son died."

In regards to the vandalism outside their home, Buffalo and surrounding communities have rallied around the Nelsons as they begin to pick up the pieces and rebuild the memory of their sons. Small collections have been taken up outside their home, and others have brought replacement decorations to the Nelson's lot. Home Depot heard about the tragedy and decided to pay it forward to the Nelsons and help them restart their display.

Terry states that the vandalism won't stop them from their annual decorating, which he now does with his son, Kenneth.

"I won't let this stop me, even though it is terrible." He commented.

Of Buffalo's reaction to their plight, Carla states, "We are so genuinely thankful, and proud, of the Buffalo community. The generosity and helpfulness is so strong. We are so grateful and awestruck; this is such an awesome community."

So far, funds collected for the Nelsons are approximately $800.00, but are continually growing. The Nelsons have payed it forward, and are working to support other families that have seen vandalism to their own displays, and hope the Wright County community will continue to support one other.



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