LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Nobody knows Madonna Badger at the Friendly Chapel in North Little Rock.
Nobody asks why she's crying during Sunday services on this early December morning. It has been nearly one year since her parents and three children died in a Christmas Day fire 1,300 miles away in Connecticut.
Madonna is not alone in her tears. It's an exuberant congregation, and the room is filled with people sobbing, talking, praying, hugging, singing. She sits in the front side pew near a plastic nativity display, reaching for a box of tissues as the choir belts out the chorus to "Better than a Hallelujah," popularized by Amy Grant.
"We pour out our miseries/God just hears a melody/Beautiful, the mess we are/The honest cries of breaking hearts/Are better than a Hallelujah."
Madonna's shoulders shake.
She routinely points out people and places in Little Rock that saved her life since Christmas. Friendly Chapel is one of these places.
"I'm totally anonymous there -- it's just a very loving place," she says as she puts her blue Tahoe in gear and pulls out of the parking lot after the service. "I'm much more of a spiritual being than a religious one. I'm just there for the love, and that's all they talk about."
Madonna came to Little Rock in February, after six weeks of shuttling between friends' houses and mental institutions. At a group therapy trauma center in Tennessee she asked to see a doctor and was handed a "Relief from Grief" pamphlet. Madonna didn't need a brochure; she was looking for someone who could interpret her sadness.
She called Kate Anderson Askew, who she met when they were underclassmen at Vanderbilt University in the early 1980s. It was Kate who helped Madonna write her daughters' eulogy. Kate arrived in Tennessee to meet Madonna in a red Mini Cooper.
With nowhere else to go, Madonna asked her friend: "Can I come stay with you?"
"You know you can come stay with me," Kate replied. "You can stay with me as long as you like, but you have to promise me one thing."
Madonna had to promise not to kill herself.
"I thought about it all the time -- I think about it now," Madonna says of suicide as she and Kate recall the promise. "I had lost my three children, my mom and dad, my house. I had nothing. It was like, why be here?"
`I'M SUPPOSED TO DO SOMETHING'
One year and one day ago -- on Dec. 24, 2011 -- Madonna had everything. She owned Badger & Winters, an advertising company with big-name clients and a penthouse office in New York's fashion district. Renovations were nearly complete on her new home, a 116-year-old Victorian overlooking Long Island Sound in Stamford's upscale Shippan neighborhood 40 miles north of Manhattan.
She had three beautiful daughters, 9-year-old Lily and 7-year-old twins Sarah and Grace, who were just starting to make friends in their new neighborhood. Madonna was divorcing their father, commercial videographer Matthew Badger, but the couple enjoyed an amicable relationship. Madonna took two months off during the summer to spend time with the girls, and she and Matthew were getting along so well in August that the whole family rented a house together on Shelter Island, N.Y.
Madonna's parents, Lomer and Pauline Johnson, had moved to Connecticut after they retired to be closer to their grandchildren. They spent Christmas Eve in Stamford with Madonna and the girls, enjoying a ham dinner together in front of a crackling fireplace. That night, Madonna tucked her daughters into bed and stayed up late wrapping presents in the detached garage with Michael Borcina, a friend who was overseeing the work on her home. The pair had started dating a month earlier.
Before turning in for the night shortly before 4 a.m., Madonna asked Michael to clean up some ashes that had blown out of the small fireplace. She watched as he swept them into a bag, running his hands through the small pile before placing the bag in a garbage bin in the mudroom.
Madonna woke up choking an hour later. The smoke alarms hadn't gone off and her house was engulfed in flames. She climbed out her bedroom's second-floor window and scrambled up scaffolding on the side of her house in a desperate attempt to reach her daughters' bedrooms. She pried open a third-floor window and the smoke hit her like a wave.
She closes her eyes as she relives the horror.
"I tried -- I would imagine three or four times -- I tried to hold my breath and put my head into the smoke and toward the flame."
Firefighters arrived and dragged her off the burning building. Madonna lay in her bed at Stamford Hospital for hours, screaming for her children. A doctor finally took her hand and told her that her daughters and parents had died.
"I remember coiling up into a little ball and I looked at the nurse," Madonna says. "I just wanted to crawl out of my body. I don't remember anything after that. People in the hospital said I was just screaming and wailing."
Surviving the fire almost killed her. Somehow she made it through her daughters' funeral at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan, where she stood in front of the three little caskets and eulogized her "girl tribe." She flew to her Kentucky hometown the next day to bury her parents.
Then she disintegrated. Her hair turned gray and fell out in clumps. She waved a fistful of pills in the air and threatened to swallow them.
"I told everyone I was going to kill myself," she says now. "I had always wondered, imagined, thought, if anything were to happen to my kids that would be it. I don't know why I survived. But I'm imagining that I'm supposed to do something."
`WE CRIED ALL OVER LITTLE ROCK'
Kate has short hair, ruddy cheeks, endless energy and texts like a gunslinger. She wears silver pistol cufflinks and bellows "Hi" in two syllables, Southern style. Her family has been in Little Rock since 1850; it's where she and her husband, Jess, raised their two daughters and it's where she brought Madonna after busting her out of "hillbilly rehab."
"We had some hard times at first," Kate says. "Half the time she was on the floor sobbing. The whole thing is not being afraid to sit with someone in their pain."
Madonna's grief left little room for anything else. She couldn't keep track of time, couldn't make simple decisions, couldn't remember where she put her keys.
The haze was punctuated only by pain, which radiated through her bones and made her face feel like it would split under the force of her tears. She could not carry a conversation, could not read or write, could not watch television or listen to music.
"It was excruciating," Madonna says, rubbing her face with her hands. "It still can be, but not like those early days."
They decided Madonna would go everywhere with Kate, who, as a rare book dealer, letter press printer and certified appraiser, is always on the move. Madonna joined Kate's searches for rare and beautiful things, from museums to libraries, remote warehouses to dust-filled attics.
"We cried all over Little Rock," Kate says.
At the Askew house Madonna insisted on doing the laundry -- she relished the predictable and achievable nature of the task. In the evenings they sat in the living room and played cards for hours, slapping spades down on the square wooden table Jess made by hand. At night Madonna slept in their older daughter Anne's bedroom, curled up under a blue-and-white hand-stitched quilt with Queenie, the Askews' 14-year-old English setter, and a white-and-brown cat named Tibi.
This bedroom "saved my life," Madonna says as she stands crying in the doorway.
`LEFT ME LIKE THIS RAW CREATURE'
The first place Kate took Madonna was the Psychiatric Research Institute at the University of Arkansas. Madonna, a recovered alcoholic, has been taking anti-depressants for more than 10 years and had no problem seeking professional help for her grief. She didn't like the treatment she received at other mental health hospitals.
"The best they could do was give me a bunch of Benzos and hope for the best," she says.
PRI Director G. Richard Smith was the first person who was able to explain to Madonna what she was going through.
"This bond that exists between a mother and each one of her children -- that bond had basically been severed on Christmas morning," Madonna says, her hand drifting in front of her stomach as though cutting three ties. "He explained that severing that nerve had left me like this raw creature. And this year would be about, as best as I -- we -- could, putting together the nerves so the thinnest layer of skin could grow over."
Madonna collected the shattered pieces of her psyche through small epiphanies Kate describes as "awakenings." As winter gave way to spring, she found her smile.
The friends spent countless hours at Kate's letter press shop, a large room filled with heavy machinery and colorful artwork she shares with another printer. One evening they made a poster with the phrase "Sing your spring song" printed in bright blue letters.
They decided to share the message with Little Rock, and churned out dozens of copies as Jess sat on a stool playing guitar. Sometime before midnight they grabbed staple guns and drove around the city pinning posters to telephone poles. No spray paint cans were involved, but with Jess driving the getaway car and Kate yelling directions from the front seat it felt like they were being bad.
"That was really the first time that I had laughed," Madonna says as she looks at a copy of the poster in the print shop. "That I could really even remember laughing."
The next awakening was in April. Kate and Jess were having breakfast at the kitchen table when Madonna padded downstairs in pajamas and slippers, hair sticking out in all directions.
"She just stood in the room and said, `It's really weird that I'm living here with y'all, isn't it?'" Kate says, laughing loudly at the memory.
Kate found a rental house around the corner, a cozy ranch Madonna decorated in muted colors and antique furniture. The house is filled with people on a December evening, because Madonna makes friends fast and is rarely alone. Her shelves are filled with books and miniature porcelain statues grouped in threes. There are no visible photographs of her children.
"This is where I come to say `hi' to everybody," she says softly, bending slightly and opening a wooden cabinet in the living room corner.
Inside are dozens of photographs of her daughters -- playing, laughing, smiling. A snapshot of her mother cradling one of the newborn girls in the hospital. Another of her father and his long white beard. Rosary beads, a Buddhist statue, her mother's bracelet.
Madonna sniffs and reaches inside, her fingertips skimming the arrangement. She wipes her eyes and straightens, gently closing the solid wooden doors.
`I STILL WANT TO BE A GREAT MOM'
She wanted so badly to believe in the afterlife, a place where her daughters were happy and safe. The girls had been appearing to Madonna in dreams since the fire, delivering comforting messages of love and hope, but she discounted the visits as delusions until she read the book "Proof of Heaven" by Eben Alexander.
Alexander is a Duke and Harvard-educated neurosurgeon who nearly died in 2008 after contracting a rare form of meningitis. The illness put him in a coma for seven days, during which he says he experienced a voyage through the afterlife. He awoke with the certainty that life goes on after death and that love is the most powerful force in the universe.
"Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything," Alexander wrote in the book, which was published in October. "This is the reality of realities."
Alexander's story resonated with Madonna, and his background provided the credibility she craved. She knows now, she says, that her children are indeed with her -- happy and safe.
Madonna wears three bracelets on her wrist, one for each of her girls. Grace gave her the beaded bracelet on Christmas Eve, and Madonna was wearing it when she escaped the fire. Two leather bracelets symbolize Lily and Sarah.
"Now that they're not here with me physically, but here with me spiritually and every other way, I still want to be a great mom," Madonna says. "I want to be the best person I can be, even if that means not laying down -- not giving up."
This is why she has filed an intent-to-sue notice against the city of Stamford, which she alleges improperly tore down her house and removed the debris without her permission the day after the fire. Madonna has questions about the fire, and says she needs answers to properly honor her family.
`WHAT SAVES US ALL, IS LOVE'
Why did she survive?
Love, Madonna says as she washes lettuce in P. Allen Smith's kitchen. She met the PBS television host after moving to Little Rock and has visited his expansive farm and gardens several times over the past year. She's there one evening earlier this month, preparing dinner with the people who saved her life.
"I do believe that the only legacy that my children will ever leave is their love," she says. "They're not going to write a masterpiece or a symphony. This is really it. What saves you, what saves us all, is love."
It's why she's decided to roll The Other 364 foundation -- created in the days after the fire to receive the outpouring of sympathy and donations -- into her former husband's nonprofit. Matthew's program, the LilySarahGraceFund, raises money to support artistic learning in underfunded classrooms.
Matthew, who awoke to a knock on his New York apartment door from two Stamford policemen last Dec. 25, is in Panama for Christmas. He didn't talk to Madonna for a while after the funeral, which she understands.
"I mean can you imagine how he must have felt?" she says. "How he feels?"
They talk now, and Madonna says she's proud of the work he's done to support the creative outlet their daughters loved. Fundraising isn't Madonna's forte; she plans to honor the girls by spreading love as best she can.
The budding romance between her and Borcina ended after the fire. They didn't talk for a long time after the funeral, she says, but saw each other briefly over the summer.
"There's nothing there," is all she says about the relationship.
`She's going to give a lot of people hope'
Madonna's attitude changes with the time zone. Her Kentucky drawl dissipates in Manhattan, where she slips easily into her persona as a Fifth Avenue advertising executive. She talks quicker and sharper as she sits in her office's conference room in front of her laptop.
This was her last awakening, the realization that she still owns Badger & Winters. She started the company 18 years ago, and it has continued in her absence under the care of her longtime employees.
She is keeping her house in Little Rock, for now, but has rented a loft in Brooklyn and plans to start working again in January. Jess and Kate's younger daughter, Mary Read, will live with her for a while, to keep her company, help her settle in and keep track of her keys.
Madonna hears of other parents' heartbreak. The Long Island couple whose children died when the boat they were watching Fourth of July fireworks on capsized in Oyster Bay. Marina Krim in Manhattan, who came home to find two of her children stabbed to death by the nanny. Badger says she hopes every grieving parent can find the kind of love and support she found in Little Rock.
"I would say to that person it won't get better for a really long time; and even then it's not really better," she says. "There's no fast way out, but come sit with me and I'll talk with you for as long as you need."
This is why Madonna decided to step in front of television cameras earlier this month. Kate and Jess come with her to Manhattan, watching from the wings as she sits for interviews with Matt Lauer at NBC and Piers Morgan on CNN.
"She was amazing," Jess says as he sits in the green room at Time Warner studios. "She's going to give a lot of people hope."
Madonna is spending Christmas in Thailand. She flew over Dec. 7 with several suitcases of her daughters' toys, collected from her garage after the fire. She plans to donate them to at-risk girls at an orphanage.
"Santa Claus and retail signs and gift wrap and Christmas lights just doesn't do it for me right now," Madonna says. "I don't know if it ever will."
A few weeks later the news of the shooting massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown reaches Thailand. Twenty children, some the same age as her twins, killed in their classrooms just an hour up the road from Stamford 10 days before Christmas Eve. Madonna's heart breaks for their parents.
"I know they will scream out thousands and thousands of times that they want their children back," Badger writes on Facebook. "The most powerful words anyone said to me was `I LOVE YOU.' And that was all I needed to hear. I love you all and pray for you all."
Kate.King@scni.com; 203-964-2263; http://twitter.com/kcarliniking