It has been a year since a deadly Christmas Day blaze destroyed Madonna Badger's Connecticut home and took the lives of her children and parents, and now the mourning mother is opening up about how she fell apart in the wake of the tragedy.
"I remember coiling up into a little ball, and I looked at the nurse," the fashion executive told the Stamford Advocate about the nightmarish moment that the doctors revealed the bad news. "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."
As RadarOnline.com previously reported, a fire sparked by yule log embers in the century-old Connecticut house killed Lily, 10; her 7-year-old twin sisters Sarah and Grace; and their grandparents Lomer and Pauline Johnson. All of the victims died from smoke inhalation, except for Lomer, who fell through the roof during a heroic effort to rescue his granddaughters.
Badger revealed how she somehow kept it together in the initial aftermath for the triple funeral of her little girls at St. Thomas Church in Manhattan, followed by a memorial in her Kentucky hometown for her parents, but then she emotionally disintegrated. Her hair turned grey and fell out in clumps, then she waved a fistful of pills in the air and threatened to swallow them, reported the Advocate.
"I told everyone I was going to kill myself," she said. "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."
Instead of ultimately giving in to the grief and joining her fallen family, the New York business woman packed her bags and went to Little Rock, Arkansas, in February to stay with Vanderbilt University friend, Kate Anderson Askew.
"Can I come stay with you?" she asked her college pal from the early 1980s, who welcomed her with open arms under the condition that she promised not to try 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?"
While Badger thought about getting away from it all forever, her bubbly girlfriend had other ideas and surrounded her with her Southern family after busting her out of "hillbilly rehab."
"We had some hard times at first," Kate explained. "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. She could not carry on a conversation, could not read or write, could not watch television or listen to music, as the emotional pain radiated through her bones and made her face feel like it would split under the force of her tears.
"It was excruciating," Madonna said. "It still can be, but not like those early days."
Rather than risk leaving her alone, the pair decided that Madonna would go everywhere with Kate, who as a rare book appraiser is always on the move and looking for new literary finds from museums, libraries or dusty attics. "We cried all over Little Rock," said Askew.
Madonna's glamourous life in Connecticut and New York City was replaced with doing laundry, playing cards, and finding comfort sleeping in Kate's 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.
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A recovered alcoholic and long-time user of antidepressants, Madonna didn't like the treatment she received from mental health hospitals until she went to the Psychiatric Research Institute at the University of Arkansas.
"The best they could do was give me a bunch of Benzos and hope for the best," said Badger, who was eventually helped by PRI Director G. Richard Smith.
"This bond that exists between a mother and each one of her children - that bond had basically been severed on Christmas morning," Madonna said. "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.
She eventually got the strength to move out into a rental around the corner from Kate, where she has filled the cozy ranch house with antiques, books, porcelain statues but no visible photos of her children.
"This is where I come to say 'hi' to everybody," she said, revealing a wooden cabinet in the living room that contains dozens of photographs of her daughters playing, laughing and smiling, along with snapshots of her parents.
"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," said Madonna, who wears three bracelets on her wrist to remind her of her daughters. "I want to be the best person I can be, even if that means not laying down - not giving up."
She is still holding onto her love for her girls, but the budding relationship with boyfriend Michael Borcina is over. "There's nothing there," she said about the contractor, whom her ex-husband, Matthew Badger, holds responsible for the fire.
After escaping Christmas at an orphanage in Thailand, the new year is destined to be a new start for Badger, who is keeping her house in Little Rock, for now, but has rented a loft in Brooklyn and plans to start working again in January. 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, reported the Stamford Advocate.
"Santa Claus and retail signs and gift wrap and Christmas lights just doesn't do it for me right now. I don't know if it ever will," she revealed.