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Father's Day without a hero dad: how a widow and her two daughters celebrate his memory

Father's Day without a hero dad: how a widow and her two daughters celebrate his memory
Ashley Iverson and baby daughter, Taylor, relax at their home in Escondido. (Nelvin C. Cepeda/San Diego Union Tribune)

Attending Palomar Fire Academy’s graduation ceremonies on May 31, 3-year-old Evie Iverson looked at the other families in the audience — and noticed how her family looked different.

“I don’t have a daddy,” Evie told her mother.

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Ashley Iverson’s response was immediate: “You have a daddy,” the widow said. “You will always have a daddy.”

Cal Fire engineer Cory Iverson died fighting the massive Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties Dec. 14. Since then, his family has lived through several painful milestones: March 22, Cory and Ashley’s wedding anniversary; April 29, the birth of the couple’s second child, Taylor; and Sunday.

“Father’s Day is another challenging one, one of the most challenging holidays,” said Ashley, 31. “Because of the girls. Yes, I lost my soul mate, lost my husband. But the girls — I can’t wrap my head around that one. They lost their daddy, their superhero daddy.”

A photo on the dining room wall of the family’s home in Escondido shows Cory in his firefighting gear. His urn sits on a mantle on the fireplace with a plaque that reads, “Cory D. Iverson, Child of God & Beautiful Son, Loving Husband, Father, & Brother.”

He’s here, Ashley constantly tells her daughters Taylor and Evie, the couple’s first born. He’s with you.

“I want my girls to know who their daddy is. Always,” she said. “We have conversations with him every day.”

Cory Iverson with his wife, Ashley, and daughter, Evie Iverson.
Cory Iverson with his wife, Ashley, and daughter, Evie Iverson. (Iverson Family)

The couple were married in 2014 and Ashley was pregnant with Taylor, their second child, when Cory was killed.

Both wanted children, and both hoped the first child would be a boy. The moment Evie was born, though, everyone noticed the deep bond between father and daughter.

“The love and joy he had when Evie was born was just an awesome thing,” said Cory’s brother, Luke Iverson. “He would help teach her how to walk, how to talk, just everything. He wanted her to succeed with everything, no matter how small.”

Once she learned to run, Evie would dash into her father’s arms, greeting him when he came home.

Last Father’s Day, Ashley posted on her Facebook page a photo from a family trip to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Cory is beaming at the camera while Evie gazes up at her daddy with an expression of adoration.

“We both agree,” Ashley wrote, “he's our moon, he's our stars, our hero, our everything.”

The last day Ashley spent with Cory, they had an appointment to learn their second child’s gender. Hearing this would be another girl, Cory was crestfallen.

“Babe,” he told Ashley, “I’m really sorry. I wasn’t ready for that.”

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In retrospect, Ashley wonders if Cory might have been too hard on a boy, pushing him to excel. “Having a girl,” she said, “it softens you.”

On Dec. 14, what Ashley calls “that terrible day,” Cory didn’t have his chain saw. On a rugged hill above Fillmore in Ventura County, he led four firefighters along a trail blazed by a bulldozer. Carrying 200 feet of hose and a scraping tool, Iverson attacked one spot fire, then another.

As he reached the second spot, it erupted, the report said. “At the same time, additional spot fires erupted along the dozer line west of the original spot fire.”

More fires sprang up, cutting off each line of escape. Cal Fire ordered helicopters and tankers to douse the flames around Cory, but it was too late.

The Thomas fire, which burned from Dec. 4 through Jan. 12, was the largest wildfire in California history. It burned 281,893 acres, consumed 1,063 structures and was responsible for two deaths: Virginia Pesola, 70, a Santa Paula resident who was found in a wrecked and charred car, and Iverson.

Three days after Cory’s death, a funeral procession traveled from the Ventura County Medical Center to El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley. Police escorts, a fleet of fire engines, thousands of spectators lined the route.

Ashley was buoyed by the support, but wondered how Cory would have responded to the signs praising him, the T-shirts with his name and image.

“He was very secure in his skin, but extremely humble,” she said.

At a Dec. 23 celebration of Cory’s life, Ashley appeared strong and composed, expressing admiration and sympathy for her husband’s fellow firefighters. “My heart,” she said, “is obliterated for you.”

Her own grief hit in waves. On several occasions, Evie told her mother that she didn’t want her to cry. Ashley reassured her daughter that it was OK, that it was natural to cry over the death of a loved one.

“Baby,” she said, “do you know what it means to die?”

“Yes,” Evie replied. “Daddy.”

“What happened when Daddy died?”

“He kept going.”

“With God?” Ashley asked.

“Yes.”

For Evie, early memories of Daddy are reinforced by photos of father and daughter together. Every night, she’s tucked into bed with two of these pictures.

Born months after Cory’s death, Taylor has no firsthand memories of the man, but Ashley is working to fill that gap. She engages Taylor’s attention with stories about Cory and by showing her the mementos around the house.

Taylor, herself, is a living reminder of the man.

“This one looks just like him,” Ashley said, cradling the napping infant. “There are times when I look at her profile — she’s a little female version of him.”

Over the last six months, Ashley has been stunned by the compassion of friends, family, even strangers. Every week, firefighters visit the house to take out the garbage, mow the lawn, run errands. Cecily Bauchmann, a friend, set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the family’s expenses. To date, pledges have topped $713,000.

On Christmas Eve, 6-year-old Bennett Mallory of San Luis Obispo set up a hot chocolate and gingerbread stand, pledging all proceeds to the Iverson family. In February, her parents drove Bennett to Escondido, where she hand-delivered $2,600 to Ashley.

“The overwhelming amount of love that I have felt is otherworldly,” the widow said. “It is simply something I never before felt worthy of and will simply never be able to repay.”

There are still tears, yet some of the worries have vanished.

After Cory’s death, for instance, Ashley fretted about the state of mind of this father and father-to-be. They hadn’t been able to settle on a name for the new baby. Ashley had suggested a few, and was strongly leaning toward Taylor.

Cory, though, seemed unsure.

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After tragedy struck, Ashley’s sorrows included the thought that Cory had never known his second daughter’s name. But on the day of the four-hour funeral procession, she met one of the firefighters who had been with Cory in the Thomas fire.

“We had talked about names,” Cory’s friend said, “all the time.”

“What do you mean?” Ashley said. “What is it?”

As he embarked on his final mission, there was no doubt in Cory Iverson’s mind. He told his partners about his beloved wife, Ashley; his cherished daughter, Evie; and the excitement he felt about his unborn baby.

That child’s name, he told everyone, would be Taylor.

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