- Associated Press - Friday, March 11, 2016

CLAY CENTER, Kan. (AP) - Digging through the ashes of that last day, Joey Rott tries to find something - anything - shiny.

The Kansas City Star (bit.ly/1SsBx2K ) reports that he did get to tell Chloe, 7, and Tenley, 2, on the drive home that he had a surprise waiting. Then they all came in and there was Mommy. She had been away so long to have the new babies.

The little girls ran and jumped into Casi’s arms and they all hugged and laughed. Upstairs in the nursery, new white cribs waited for the triplets.

Everybody was coming home to the farm. This was Casi’s family, and after a rough stretch, life was perfect.

“That day was the happiest I’d ever seen her,” Joey said, his attempt at a smile pleading for that to be something because it was all he had.

The perfect of that day lasted about five minutes. Joey was soon racing down a gravel road with Casi beside him. They flew past brown, dead fields of midwinter, and he glanced over and knew she no longer heard him.

Joey, who grew up in small-town Kansas, met Casi when he went to find a job in the city. He was quiet and shy, and she was everything else. They worked together at a high-tech company but found their dream home in a run-down, century-old farmhouse on the edge of the Flint Hills.

Casi, short for Cassia, took a job as secretary at Garfield Elementary School in Clay Center. The kids loved her. When one didn’t - couldn’t - bring birthday treats, she bought some.

Joey doesn’t know if Casi, 36, died of the blood clot in the car or at the hospital. The shake of his head says it really doesn’t matter.

He just knows she’s gone and now he and the five kids, including Asher, Levi and Piper, the two boys and a girl born prematurely on Jan. 29, are in that big white house without her. She remodeled the place, learning as she went. And now she’s not there - and she’s everywhere.

In the floor tile she laid. Curtains she made from old bedspreads. In the smell of new paint. Her canned tomatoes.

It’s a busy house these days. Grandparents show up early, some driving an hour, to help with the babies and get the older girls ready for school and day care.

Other relatives and friends help too. The word went out and the town rallied. Neighbors and even strangers donated casseroles and breast milk. Diapers line a wall in the garage.

It is a house of new and loss, where joy and heartbreak meet on the steps. Everyone’s trying to get to a point where they can pick up a baby without thinking of Casi.

In rare moments of quiet, Joey, 33, thinks of what he will someday tell those babies about their mom.

“I’ll tell them what she did for them,” Joey said. “I’ll tell them that she got to hold them and that she wishes she were here.”

His eyes went to the floor briefly before coming back up.

“She was the nicest person I ever knew,” he said, then quickly turned to his mother. “Sorry, Mom.”

Barbara Rott stood just feet away. She tried to smile, tears in her eyes and a hand over her mouth.

No fertility drugs for Casi and Joey.

The triplets came as natural as the wildflowers on the back end of their old dairy farm near Clay Center.

Casi, who grew up in Olathe, knew the risks. That’s why she stayed in Wichita the third trimester - to be close to her doctors and the hospital.

But 117 miles from the little girls back home.

“She hated being away from them, but she didn’t want anything to go wrong,” friend Jamie Reed said. “She said this pregnancy was the hardest thing she’d ever done. But that’s all she said - she never complained.

“Casi never complained about anything.”

She left for Wichita in November. Joey said she wouldn’t have it any other way. She was determined to carry the triplets 34 weeks.

On Jan. 29, they came. Early, but healthy.

A few days later, on Feb. 4, Casi woke to severe chest pains. A CT scan showed a blood clot in her lungs.

“But we got that taken care of - got her on the right medicine,” Joey said. “We thought everything was fine.”

The babies had to stay in the hospital a little longer, but Casi arrived home about 1 p.m. Feb. 8. She was so happy to be home and wanted to do home things - so she started doing laundry.

About 4 p.m., Joey brought Chloe and Tenley home. Then came the mad dash to the hospital in Clay Center, while his parents watched the girls.

“They did everything they could,” Barbara Rott said of emergency staff there.

Reed works with Parents as Teachers in Clay Center and often saw Casi at school. She’s happy her friend made it home, that the end didn’t come in Wichita.

“I’m glad she got to see the girls that day,” Reed said. “And she got to see her house and her orchard and her chickens. She loved that place.

“She grew up in the city, but Casi was a country girl.”

The family has plans for a memory book and will ask people to write stories about Casi so that someday the kids will better know their mom.

Reed already knows what she’ll tell those babies.

“I’ll tell them I hope they find the kind of love their mom and dad had. Joey’s quiet, reserved, and Casi was always talking and laughing.

“It’s funny they found each other - at Garmin - and ended up on an old farm. But they were perfect together.”

She paused.

“Joey will be fine. He’s strong.”

On a recent cool morning, the sun barely up, Barbara Rott arrived along with her mother, Jean Bunch, to the house on the gravel road.

They watched the babies while Joey went to his IT job.

Barbara said it takes about 30 minutes to feed a preemie. Times three.

Then they need changing.

“You get that all done, it’s time to do it again,” she said.

And then there’s Chloe and Tenley. More family help comes on weekends. Aunts, uncles, Joey’s siblings.

Joey hired a service - Little Apple Doulas - to come in at night so he can sleep. Donations are being sought to help with the $117 nightly costs.

Also, a GoFundMe account for the family has raised more than $70,000.

Joey knows the future is going to be tough, but he’s determined not to sell the place Casi loved and made hers.

“We had decided we’d never move from here,” he said in the dining room, next to the three babies, a photo of Casi looking over them.

As for Chloe, the 7-year-old, she’s helping out these days by tending to Tenley. She also told her daddy that Mommy’s tombstone should be shaped like a heart, and somehow flat on the bottom.

So it can stand forever.

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