We survived, thanks to six amazing aunts and one strong grandfather

It wasn’t the heavy and personal nature of this assignment that had me pacing and chain-smoking last Sunday; it was an unavoidable conversation with my brother. Rick and I had not spoken about her — to one another, alone — in 10 years.

I remember it went something like this:

Me: “Hey, it’s the 10th anniversary of Mom …”

Rick: “I know … Wanna go surf? Cold front brought a swell.”

Me: “Yeah.”

And we went surfing.

A decade earlier we were saying, “If Dad had been there [last night], he would’ve shot him.”

And talking about mom ended there.

I realize that this looks sad on paper, but the fact of the matter is, Rick and I don’t need to discuss our lives before Nov. 29, 1992. I know how Rick feels about it. And Rick knows how I feel about it. We remember. We were there. We’ve been thinking about it every day for 20 years, so there is no need to say it out loud.

But this is not to say that Sara Tokars has been absent from our lives during the last two decades; not at all, actually. I speak about my Mother frequently — to close friends who know what happened, and also to acquaintances who don’t.

I never get heavy on it outside of familial zones, and have grown into a habit of talking about her the way other people talk about their mothers who are alive; because it is not necessary to include the horrible detail. Once, I bragged to a cute hipster chick from Colorado that “my Mom went to college in Boulder, in the 70s.” I suppose I do this because — well, I suppose I do this because I wish I was someone with the option of talking about my Mom, as if she were alive.

I do, however, bring up the murder when talking with my aunts — the Ambrusko sisters — who, despite the immeasurable and ongoing sadness they’ve been forced to cope with, continue making extraordinary efforts to keep Sara alive for Rick and me. And I do feel her in all of them — in six separate ways that come from each sister’s similar but unique relationship with my Mom; but there is also an all-encompassing force which they share as a whole. Attempting to describe this internal reaction would be useless; but I have observed the spirit does not come from an individual source, but from all of their efforts combined.

It feels safe, and warm — like Mass on Christmas morning.

When I graduated from University of South Florida last year, not a single aunt missed the commencement. They brought all of the available uncles and cousins, from each corner of America, down to swampy Florida — the land of runaways and fresh-starts, where Rick and I grew up.

All six of the Ambrusko girls sat together, in place of their middle sister, Sara — who I’m told once made a heck of a cheerleader — and cheered for me, the fortunate orphan.

Later that night, at a beach bar near our home in Bradenton, the entire family gathered around a table, drinking and laughing and smiling together, watching me on stage, where I was playing guitar and singing with my band. At one point during our second set, while we were riffing on some instrumental number, I took the opportunity away from the microphone to get a good look at my family.

I lit a cigarette and let the rhythm section carry on for a bit; smiled back, and tipped my bottled-water their way for a subtle “cheers” to all of them, but especially to my aunts.

You might remember them from the extensive media coverage of the murder of Sara Tokars; but for the sake of clarity, and to give credit where it is due, I’m going to list them here:

The Ambrusko girls are: Theresie, Gretchen, Mary, Sara, Joni, Karen, and Krissy.

They are all wonderful and have gone above and beyond for Rick and me. In the wake of such a deranged adversity, we were — and are — very lucky to have them.

And in regard to my father: His name is Dr. John Ambrusko.

My grandfather always wanted boys, and ended up with two as an old man. He is the reason that Rick and I survived. It was through his example that we learned to be strong and composed, to work hard and to pray.

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