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One Roof, Two Families And Enough Tragedy to Share

By Lonnae O'Neal Parker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 23, 2005

Fourth of a series chronicling the Larches of New Orleans as they rebuild their lives in the Washington area.

Todd Larche has big hugs for all the family members who've come to celebrate his brother-in-law's 58th birthday. He and Ronald Wallace have grown closer since Larche and his extended family evacuated New Orleans and took refuge in the Wallaces' Silver Spring home.

Ronald and his wife, Cassandra, have said the five of them can stay as long as they need, though that takes them from a house of two to a house of seven, with the Larches tripling up so everyone can fit in the three-bedroom, 2 1/2 -bath home. The Wallaces have made things as easy as possible for them.

But for the Wallaces themselves, there's been nothing easy about this summer at all.

As his son Marcus hands him a birthday card Wednesday night, Ronald Wallace is overcome. Leaning heavily on his walking stick, he steps outside to cry. Life came at them high speed this summer. It's taken a lot to keep up.

Nearly two months before the hurricane chased the Larches to their front door, Cassandra passed by a car wreck a few minutes from the house. One of the cars looked like Ronald's but it was too early for him to be driving home from work.

At 6:30, normally the time Ronald, vice president of a labor union at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, would be walking through the door, she got a call.

Washington Hospital Center. Bad accident. Come now .

Driving, Cassandra frightened herself, imagining how bad it could be. When she got there, "it was worse than I had imagined."

Her husband's brain was bleeding and he had broken bones in his neck. He had multiple rib fractures and multiple fractures in his right leg. The right side of his forehead was gashed.

He was in intensive care for five days, then in the hospital for two more weeks. After that, he spent another week at a rehabilitation center. Ronald, an exercise buff who worked out three times a week, couldn't shower or use the bathroom on his own.

Privately, "in the middle of the night, all hooked up by myself, I wondered, 'Am I going to make it?' " he says.

But he told Marcus, a 31-year-old physician, that they'd go to the first football game of the season. He told his daughter, Monica, a 28-year-old program analyst for HUD, that he'd be out of his neck collar by her wedding.

Four weeks after the accident, Ronald finally went home. Two therapists came by the house twice a week for a month. Cassandra agonized when she had to leave him to go with Monica to the bridal shop or to pick colors for flowers.

Ronald graduated from a wheelchair to a walker, then to a walking stick. He pushes his recovery. He still tries to help out, to clean up or cut the grass. "The pain he has, he doesn't let me know, but I can tell," Cassandra says. They've been married 35 years.

Four days before the wedding, Katrina hit. Three days after the hurricane, Ronald came out of the neck brace. The next day the Larches arrived. The following Tuesday, Cassandra, a third-grade teacher at Walker Jones School in Washington, went back to work.

Ronald doesn't know when he'll be able to go back.

Now Todd's cooking and running errands for the whole bunch. And Ronald's grateful for the help and the company the Larches give.

"It's kind of heaven-sent," he says.

Kind of true that everyone has their own cross to bear. Kind of strange how tragedy -- accidents and acts of nature -- can make people fit together to make each other whole.

The Wallaces and the Larches sing happy birthday, loud and off-key.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company