Photographs of Griffin and Nicholas Shirey line the walls of their home in Island Lake.
There are the twin boys as babies. There they are dressed as matching cowboys for Halloween. There they are covered in chocolate pudding after some wrestling fun at the Wisconsin Dells. There they are together on vacation petting a dolphin. There they are at Disney World. There they are with their medals from a swim competition, big smiles on their faces and wet arms draped around each other's shoulders.
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Brothers, teammates, best friends.
The photo collection stops halfway up the staircase to the bedroom that used to be home to the boys' bunk beds.
"There won't be any more photographs like that," acknowledges their teary-eyed mom, Britt Steinhoff, who was 38 when her boys were born. A horrific car crash on Dec. 12 of last year killed 10-year-old Griffin and left Nicholas fighting for his life.
As a divorced mom with two young boys, Steinhoff admits their house always used to go a little overboard with the Christmas decorations. They compiled a vast collection of sentimental ornaments and always had fun picking out a Christmas tree together. She still has the iPod that was to have been Griffin's big gift last year.
"This year, I just went to Home Depot alone and bought a small tree," she says, explaining this year's modest display. "I have 20 boxes of Christmas stuff that I don't have the heart to open up."
Nick, 11, and fully recovered from his physical injuries, has talked about possibly retrieving from storage the old Star Wars ornaments he and his brother got when they were young. Nick got Darth Vader. Griffin's was Yoda. A Yoda poster still hangs in Nick's bedroom that no longer boasts bunk beds.
Nick still plays basketball on the team that also would have featured Griffin, but the sixth-grader hasn't been to the YMCA in Lake Zurich since the crash, and he no longer competes on the Foglia YMCA Aquaducks Swim Team.
"I miss my brother every day and always will," Nick writes. "I wish he could be here again. It's not fair."
A registered nurse and caseworker at Centegra Health System in Woodstock, Steinhoff says she and Nick have received an outpouring of help and love from thoughtful co-workers, friends, neighbors, family and the community.
"I used to think my boys sent out some sort of sound waves," Steinhoff says, explaining how "within minutes of pulling into the driveway, their friends would materialize."
A neighbor girl named Maggie Christianson wrote an emotional poem about how the home "filled with laughter and joy" "brought tears to us all" after the crash.
In the wake of Griffin's death, Nick and his mom began volunteering with a dog rescue charity and are on the verge of starting a new rescue service called K-9s 4 U, with a special section of the newsletter dubbed "Griffin's Corner," with tips for kids who want to take care of dogs. Nick brought home a younger version of B.J., the family's black lab the boys got when they were 5. The new dog is named Griffiti, in honor of the brother who loved animals.
"Griffy was going to be a marine biologist and he was going to work with sea creatures," the mom says about her dead son.
An email brought good news this week from Jean Beasley, director of The Karen Beasley Sea Turtle Rescue & Rehabilitation Center in Topsail Island, N.C., where Griffin, Nick and their mom would volunteer during some vacations.
"This has been in the works for months," writes Beasley, who includes a photo of a rescued turtle. "Meet our newest admission, Griffin. Griffin is a truly adorable loggerhead, one of the smallest we have had. This turtle has so much personality as well as good looks!"
Nick and his mom plan to be there in July, when Griffin the turtle is scheduled to be released into the wild.
Tributes to Griffin take attention away from the crash and the ongoing criminal case. Blood tests showed the boys' father, Scott Shirey, 50, of Island Lake had marijuana in his system on that Monday when he was driving the boys to swim practice. The boys were in the back seat and wearing seat belts when their dad turned from Route 12 onto Old McHenry Road near Lake Zurich and a dump truck sped through a red light and slammed into the side of the car.
Shirey, who coached his sons and remains an active father, pleaded guilty in October and was given 30 months of probation and ordered to pay a $1,250 fine and participate in a drug-treatment program. Kenneth LaRue, chief of the Lake County state's attorney traffic division, says truck driver Matthew Loiacano, 30, of Kansasville, Wis., was charged with reckless homicide, a felony that could result in a prison term of up to five years. There were three men in the truck and Loiacano now says he wasn't driving, LaRue says of the ongoing case.
With a lacerated lung and other injuries, Nick needed a ventilator to breath for him the first couple of days after the crash. His father and mother told him together that Griffin was dead.
"Griffin already told me he didn't make it," Nick said to his parents.
"I have that belief Griffin's spirit lives on," says the mom, who is confident Nick did get a message from his twin.
"I'm never going to be able to forgive a lot of things, but I try not to focus on those things," says Steinhoff, whose car displays "I (heart) Griffin" and "Marijuana kills. Don't drive high" bumper stickers. "I'll never be able to understand."
Through the Hospice & Palliative Care of Northeastern Illinois, Nick attended Camp Courage, a day camp for children grieving the loss of a loved one. "Nick did not want to go and by the end of the week he was counseling other kids," his mom remembers. "I was so proud of him."
When the boys' Cotton Creek School launched yellow and green balloons last December in Griffin's memory, Steinhoff watched from the emotional cocoon of her car in a nearby parking lot. On the twins' birthday two months later, the parents went to Griffin's classroom and brought surprise baskets with whoopee cushions, hand buzzers and fake teeth for the kids who enjoyed Griffin's sense of humor.
"He was funny. He was confident. And he was kind," says Griffin's fifth-grade teacher, Jodi Mork, who led her students through the grieving process. "I remember thinking, he's going to be a good man, a good husband, a good father."
The family has photos of Nick at age 11, but his twin always will be a 10-year-old boy.
"I feel cheated that I don't know what he would look like as a teenager," his mom says. "What he'd pick out for his first car. What he'd look like if he went to prom. What those grandchildren would look like."
Before Steinhoff's mother Harriet died on 10/11/12 at age 84, she said, "You take care of Nicky. I'm going to take care of Griffin."
Nick talks about his brother at times.
"Griffin would have loved this, Mom," Nick says often.
"Yes," she says, "he would have."
About two weeks after Griffin was killed, Steinhoff was looking through some drawers and came across a small box containing a costume jewelry ring from the school's annual holiday mart. Griffin had bought the red ring for her and hid it as he waited for Christmas.
Unable to recall many of the details of last Christmas ("I was in a fog last year"), Steinhoff says this holiday is especially painful. But she says she owes it to Nick and to Griffin to celebrate life.
"I still have anger and a sense of injustice, that it wasn't fair," Steinhoff says. "But I really believe we have to focus on love and the Golden Rule. Be kind to each other."
That is, his survivors agree, what Griffin would have wanted.