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Father who lost family finds solace in faith, sons organ donations

DENNIS HUSPENI and CARY LEIDER VOGRIN
The Gazette

COLORADO SPRINGS ” Three lives. That was what Don Rifkin thought about as he flew toward Colorado Springs to be with his dying son.

Hours earlier, he’d learned his family was gone. His wife, Julie, and 12-year-old son, Gabriel, were dead. Machines were keeping 13-year-old Nathan alive.

Awash in unimaginable grief, the father needed to know his son’s organs could be donated to save other people’s lives.

“Please, at least three lives, at least three,” he prayed. Forty-eight hours earlier, Friday, April 22, Don Rifkin was wrapping up his workweek in Columbia, S.C.

In Colorado Springs, Julie Rifkin, his wife of about 18 years, called one of her co-workers at The Navigators. Nathan was at a sleepover at a friend’s house; Gabriel was home.

Julie told her friend she was “extremely depressed” about her layoff ” her last day was to be April 27.

She threatened to kill herself. Her friend urged her to think of her boys. Julie replied that she wanted to take them with her, according to the 911 call the friend made.

Police and an ambulance went to the family’s Village Seven home that night. Paramedics took her to Memorial Hospital. She was evaluated and released.

The next day, Julie bought a .38-caliber handgun from a pawnshop. That night, she shot the boys in the head as they slept, then went to her bed and put the gun to her head.

Don was getting ready for church when he got a call from police. Nathan was in the hospital, he was told. He’d been shot. The officer asked Don questions.

“Is there someone with you?” “No,” Don told them. “Can you get someone with you?” No, again. “Do you have a cell phone?” the officer asked. “No, but my wife does.”

That’s when the officer brought up Julie and Gabriel.

“By that time, I’m on my knees. The phone’s next to the bed, and I’m on my knees crying. “At some point they said, ‘You need to get here.

He’s not expected to live through the night.”‘ Don remembers driving and praying ” “patience, patience, patience” ” and trying to get to the airport safely.

At the airport in Charlotte, N.C., he called Memorial Hospital from a pay phone. A chaplain took a phone to Nathan’s bedside and held it to the boy’s ear.

Don told his firstborn that he loved him, that he was sorry, that he was a great kid, that he was strong.

“You’ve done your best,” he said, “and I said goodbye.”

in March 2003. Don, like thousands of other tech workers in the Springs, was laid off. He sent resumes across the globe.An offer came seven months later, but it was temporary computer work in another state.

Don got a one-bedroom apartment in South Carolina and sent much of his paycheck home to his family. He tried to talk with his sons almost every night, often helping them with their homework.

“We tried not to disrupt the kids’ lives too much,” he said.

The separation, though, was difficult.

“It put a strain on the marriage,” he said. He and Julie would talk about things that needed fixing around the house, but not really about what needed fixing in the relationship.

In recent months, the family was making plans to move to South Carolina, where Don’s job had become permanent.

Still, Julie had reservations.

“She really wasn’t motivated to pull up roots and head to South Carolina. Her comment to me was she liked being in charge.”

Don began looking at schools and neighborhoods. He was saving vacation time to return to Colorado Springs and get the house packed up.

“I knew I had to save up my leave. I didn’t know it would be for this.”

April 24 and held his hand, he knew the boy was already gone. He noted the wispy hairs on Nathan’s chin, the peach fuzz.

“He was so healthy. He had shot up so many inches in the last year. Around his age, my dad took me to get my first suit. That’s one of the things I was looking forward to.

“All the other things I was looking forward to ” I’m letting go of them one by one. They go out with the tears.”

He’s staying only temporarily at his home on Delighted Circle. As he spoke this week, his brother and sister helped pack up his sons’ bedrooms. Gabriel’s upstairs room still contained 19 plastic bins filled with MatchBox and Hot Wheels cars. Two bumper stickers were attached to the wall above his TV set.

One said: “Heaven Bound.”

The other said: “Why worry? God’s in Control.”

In Nathan’s room downstairs, several elaborate sets of Bionicle toys had been assembled on his dresser.

Don looks around the home and sees stories of how the house and the family grew as one ” “an enormous stockpile of poignant memories.”

“What you think may be themes or colors ” I see events. I look around and I feel events and hear them. All that has to be brushed away gently.”

Gabriel left a gift ” his voice, on a tiny tape recorder.

“I’ve got my son’s voice saying ‘Dad.”‘ There’s one other sentence on the tape, but it’s partially garbled. “I don’t know what the last two words are, but I don’t care. It’s his voice.”

about his wife’s mental health history ” whether she had a diagnosis or was on medication.

He did say she seemed distressed over the loss of her job.

“You could hear it in her voice,” he said. “She said, ‘Pray for me.’ I knew it was bothering her, because that’s not something she usually says.”

Were there signs?

“Oh yeah ” 20/20 vision. Did I put them together? No.”

He wouldn’t discuss the controversy surrounding his wife’s release from Memorial Hospital. The pastor of a church the Rifkins used to attend has criticized the hospital for not detaining Julie for further treatment.

Don met with a real estate agent Thursday but said he doesn’t know whether he’ll sell or rent the house. He’s going back to his job at Palmetto GBA in South Carolina.

“I have a job. I have to make a living,” he said.

He relies on his relationship with God to help him cope.

“At night, when I’m going to lie down, I can either lie down and let thoughts run through my head or I can kneel and let the thoughts run through my head and talk to him. And I talk. Every night, I tell him what a blessing this family’s been.”

Nathan also left his father a gift ” the comfort of knowing his boy saved others with his heart, liver, pancreas and kidneys.

In the end, Don and his son affected more than three lives.

Five people received Nathan’s organs, and others will receive his corneas, according to Donor Alliance.

“Nathan saved five lives and gave sight to two people,” Don Rifkin said. “I am so proud of him.”


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