Mother copes with loss by baring soul in blog


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With her fork, Amy Ambrusko fiddles with an orange slice on her lunch plate. She pokes it, pushes it, dissects it, delicately separating peel from pith.

"Peter was such a picky eater," she says, looking down at her plate at the Square Cafe in Edgewood. "He wouldn't even let something like that be on his plate for a second -- he would move it onto my plate."

Readers of Ms. Ambrusko's blog, Callapitter, already know that 4-year-old Peter's diet consisted almost exclusively of beige carbohydrates.

They know that his 6-year-old sister Kate loved to sing along to Miley Cyrus and Mary Poppins.

And they know that when both of your children die one afternoon in a car accident, something as seemingly insignificant as an orange garnish can set off a landslide of memories.

Ms. Ambrusko, a 35-year-old divorced stay-at-home Penn Hills mother, began the blog in August as a way to force herself to keep a journal and to allow family and friends to easily keep tabs on her after the April 6 deaths of her children.

But in the months since she started writing, Callapitter's combination of poignancy, humor and unflinching honesty has drawn readers from across the world.

The blog, at callapitter46.blogspot.com, explores the sacred and the mundane, and everything in between. Spiritually, what has become of her children, wonders Ms. Ambrusko, and also what should she do with their dirty tissues still in her trash can?

April 6 was to be the first day of a week -- Easter week -- that Kate and Peter would spend with their father, Steven Ambrusko, a former Children's Hospital pediatrician now practicing in Buffalo.

For hours after dropping off Kate and Peter at the Panera Bread exchange point near Erie, she waited for the customary phone call from her ex-husband letting her know that they had arrived safely in Buffalo. When the call didn't come, she became increasingly frantic -- calling his parents, his friends and every state police barracks between Erie and Buffalo.

Police assured her that nothing had gone wrong, and that her ex-husband had probably just stopped for dinner.

Finally, Mr. Ambrusko answered his cell phone. He'd been in an accident, he said, and both the children were dead.

He'd lost consciousness on Interstate 90, and driven off the road. The car tumbled 110 yards off the road and down a remote hillside, and even though another driver reported the accident through OnStar, a police officer responding to the scene couldn't find the vehicle.

Three hours later, when Dr. Ambrusko regained consciousness, he first checked his children. Both were still strapped into their child safety seats, and though Peter still had a faint pulse, there was nothing he could do for them.

He then crawled out the car's smashed rear window and answered his ringing cell phone in the mud outside the car. After talking to Ms. Ambrusko, he called 911 and directed police to the car.

Police conducted an internal investigation as to the conduct of the trooper who couldn't find evidence of the car on that rainy and snowy afternoon. By New York state law, results of such investigations are not public.

"There's not a day that goes by that I don't think about that accident and that it doesn't bother me," said Capt. Michael Nigrelli of the New York State Police, noting that though he's seen countless accidents in his 25 years on the police force, "this one stays with me."

A police report investigating the accident determined that the manner in which the car left the road was consistent with driver drowsiness, Capt. Nigrelli said.

Dr. Ambrusko, who took months to fully recover from his head and back injuries, believes that he had a seizure while driving -- based both on his medical history and from descriptions of the accident.

He is back at work at the Women and Children's Hospital in Buffalo and said he may never drive again.

Psychologically, he has some good days, he said, "some bad days, and some really bad days." When he's down, he also sometimes checks the Callapitter blog.

"All of us have to cope in our own way and Amy is coping in a way that probably not only helps herself but helps many others, which is pretty incredible," he said. "Amy's always been an excruciating honest person, and that carries over."

In the eight months since the accident, Ms. Ambrusko has functioned by trying to stay so relentlessly busy that she doesn't have time to think.

But every day, the thoughts peek through anyway, ranging from doggedly upbeat -- "I am grateful that I spent the time I did with them and know that I am the luckiest mom in the world" -- to dark and brooding -- "I wonder if maybe I did something to cause this or if I'm being punished."

The very night of Kate and Peter's death, after Ms. Ambrusko made sure to pay all outstanding bills because she was convinced that she "was about to go insane," she had the idea to build a playground in Kate and Peter's memory.

They had been asking for a treehouse, and she decided that she would give them one -- hopefully near the grounds of the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, where Kate was in first grade and Peter would have started kindergarten this year.

The playground is still in the planning stages -- she doesn't have a target fundraising figure yet -- but she has already raised thousands of dollars toward the cause. She envisions "a playground no one's ever seen before," she said over lunch at the Square Cafe, where she would regularly take Peter in the hour between dropping Kate off at school and him to preschool. The restaurant is asking patrons for -- and matching -- $4 donations to the playground.

To fill her unscheduled time, Ms. Ambrusko cooks complicated dishes -- biscotti from scratch, homemade pasta and pizza -- finding solace from the methodical recipes and from socializing with friends she invites to eat.

"You can tell how sad I am by how many baked goods come out of my kitchen," she wrote.

She has in the past considered herself a fundamentalist Christian and a Catholic but is now exploring less conventional ideas such as reincarnation and multiple planes of existence.

She has met with mediums and visited the scene of the accident, where she was pleasantly surprised to find a quiet stream with flowers and butterflies.

There, she could feel her children communicating with her, telling her that her time on Earth would be short in comparison to the eternity she'd eventually spend with them.

"I SO wish I could find a cell phone provider with interdimensional service" she joked on her blog.

She refuses to assign blame for the accident, telling herself that Kate and Peter's death happened for a reason, and that something positive will come from it.

In that spirit, she called her blog "Callapitter," both because she liked the way that Peter used to mispronounce caterpillar and because after her children's death, she felt cocooned.

"I just hope that somehow I will become like a callapitter and will turn into a butterfly (not literally. don't worry I'm not smoking crack ... yet)," she wrote in her first blog post. "Is there a chance that something beautiful could grow out of a situation that seems so horrible?"

From the scores of commenters expressing appreciation for her blog, something already has.

"I am one of those fortunate to follow your posts," wrote one commenter. "It's like they extract the best humanity in us, the purest thoughts, the desire to live life at its fullest and to enjoy every single moment with our children."

Saying her greatest fear is that her children will be forgotten, Ms. Ambrusko appreciates that the blog introduces them to people who wouldn't have known them otherwise. She gets comments e-mailed to her -- positive nuggets that sustain her throughout the day. And when she feels down, she just posts pictures of Kate and Peter, or tells stories about them.

Such feelings are common for parents who have lost children, said Lulu Orr, executive director of the Good Grief Center for Bereavement in Squirrel Hill, noting that blogging after a loss is a "healthy outlet" that is becoming more common.

"One of the hardest things for grieving parents is that knowing that as precious as your child was, nobody else will be able to know them," she said.

For now, Ms. Ambrusko is still being supported by her ex-husband as she tries to figure out what to do with her life. A school guidance counselor until Kate was born, she now plans to go to culinary school in hopes of becoming a personal chef.

As for what else is on the agenda, she's simply trying to muddle through.

"Unfortunately, I know in my rational mind that there is no going back, no unwishing, no undoing," she wrote. "The only way out of this is through it. Ugh."

To donate to Kate and Peter's Playground, send checks to the "Kate and Peter Ambrusko Memorial Fund" to the Environmental Charter School at Frick Park, 829 Milton St., Pittsburgh, PA 15218.


Anya Sostek can be reached at asostek@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1308.


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