WALLA WALLA, Wash. -- On June 17, 1996, Darold and Barbara Bigger received the kind of news every parent hopes they'll never hear: their 25-year-old daughter, Shannon, had been killed in her apartment the night before. She had moved from Walla Walla, Washington to Takoma Park, Maryland near Washington, D.C. less than a year earlier.
Bigger's killer, Antonio Robinson, was caught days later with several of her belongings, including a Gemeinhardt flute, one she worked very hard to be able to afford.
"This was a long time ago, but it was a few hundred dollars," Barbara Bigger remembers, "That was a lot of money, but she managed to get it together."
Shannon was an outgoing, talkative girl whose flute playing really took off in college at then Walla Walla College. After her death, the family brought the flute back home and it stayed in Darold and Barbara's bedroom, unopened for more than two decades.
"I could not bring myself to look inside the case," Barbara Bigger said, "It sat for 22 years in one spot in our bedroom."
The couple expected one of their grandkids to take up the instrument at some point, but that never formulated. There never was an opportunity to pass it on. That was until early December, 2018 when they heard about an instrument drive for kids at Paradise Adventist Academy.
Heidi Wiggers, whose son attends Rogue Valley Adventist Academy, put together the instrument drive through the school, planning to present the instruments to students at a basketball game between the two teams on Saturday, December 15. Her other son goes to Walla Walla University, where Darold has worked for decades. She is also Barbara's third cousin.
One of the families benefitting from the drive had moved into town just weeks before the most devastating wildfire in California's history.
"We just felt God saying, 'I want you there. I need you in Paradise,'" Delinda Hamilton said as her husband interviewed for a pastor job in Paradise, California.
When he got the job, the family moved west from Colorado and began their new life. Three weeks after they moved, the Camp Fire hit.
"It was chaotic. We had a total of nine minutes to evacuate," Ashley Hamilton, Delinda's youngest daughter recalled.
The music loving family was able to save three of their instruments, but Delinda lost her flute in the fire. She played the instrument in high school and with Ashley adding flute to the list of instruments she was playing, the plan was for her to play her mom's flute. When the family's house burned to the ground, that dream seemed like just that.
That is until the Bigger family got involved.
"I thought immediately, 'This is what we need to do,'" Barbara Bigger said.
"This is it. Barbara's the one who initiated that discussion with me after hearing Heidi describe what she was working on," Darold Bigger said.
The couple discussed donating the flute for the drive. Quickly, they decided it was time. Barbara looked inside the case for the first time in 22 years before handing it over to Heidi. Just like that, it was gone. Her daughter's flute had been given away.
"Their whole life has been disrupted and I know that feeling," Barbara Bigger said, "If we could help alleviate some of that loss, it was just the right thing to do."
At Paradise Adventist's joint concert with Chico Adventist, which Ashley Hamilton sang in, but did not play an instrument in, she was surprised with her new flute. She opened the case and was blown away.
"Thank you so much. It's beautiful," Ashley Hamilton exclaimed in wonder as she started to put the flute together. Her mother, Delinda, was floored by the gesture as well.
"It's a privilege to be on the receiving end of something so precious," Delinda Hamilton said, "I really do pray that Ashley would be able to bless people with that. I am just so grateful they were willing to share something like that."
"I almost sense that it's holy, just to be careful with it in every way."
Even after holding onto it for 22 years, the Bigger family has no second thoughts.
"There's something in the human spirit that resonates with giving away what has once been ours," Darold Bigger said.
In fact, Darold and Barbara agree that Shannon would have loved to be the one donating the instrument herself. Now, it starts a new chapter, a healing tool for a girl and a family whose lives have been turned upside down.
"I'll have it for the rest of my life and it'll bring me back memories of this time," Ashley Hamilton predicts, "It'll cover up a lot of the bad memories."
"These kids have highs and lows, they have bad days and good days," Delinda Hamilton said, "To be able to open up a case and recognize that someone loves them, someone was willing to give the very best that they had to them, I think that's soothing."
Two familes that are tied together by tragedy, are now sharing one common thread to help both heal.
"There's going to be a special connection to that place," Darold Bigger said.
"I'm really overwhelmed to have such an amazing flute," Ashley Hamilton said.
And the simple story of a flute and its decades-long journey reminds us that often, our darkest days are often followed by our finest hours.
"Tragedies don't need to end in tragedy," Darold Bigger said, "But out of those tragedies, we can discover things about ourselves."
Ashley thinks the flute is the perfect instrument to provide an escape as she, her family, and her town begin to rebuild.
"It just sounds really pretty and peaceful. I think we all need a little peace in this chaotic time."