Boxes were piled up by the front door, almost to the ceiling. Each of them contained memories of their mother, including a large picture frame she had received for Christmas.
In the frame, which read “Family,” Ashley and Brandon Holbrooks had included photo memories of the Santa Monica pier, prom, horseplay and the family dog.
Their mom, Tracy, died two days later.
On this Friday, the day before her funeral, the teens finished moving from their upstairs apartment to one downstairs where their step-grandfather lives.
The Holbrooks have long struggled to make ends meet, but the teens say their strong family ties always managed to transcend any obstacle. But when Tracy Holbrooks died, possibly of an asthma attack, the lives of Ashley Holbrooks, 18, and her 15-year-old brother, Brandon, were upended.
“It was just nothing I could imagine. It was terrifying. We had so many thoughts running through our heads. What could have caused this? We were freaking out,” Ashley Holbrooks said, sitting next to her step-grandfather as he wiped tears from his face.
Their estranged father committed suicide three years ago, and their step-grandfather is a lung cancer survivor. Although he's in remission, Thor Sundby, 68, said they have to prepare for the possibility that he might die before Brandon becomes an adult.
“I don't want him to become a ward of the state,” Sundby said.
Ashley Holbrooks wants to become her brother's guardian, but the Hoover High School senior doesn't know if she has the financial standing go through the adoption process.
Michael Weston, a California Department of Social Services spokesman, said although she'd have to go through the same adoption process as others, including home studies and background checks, there are ways to waive fees.
But getting an attorney to help guide them is expensive, said Sundby, who works as a light bulb salesman in Burbank.
In their step-grandfather's two-bedroom apartment, Ashley Holbrooks has one room.
Brandon has a makeshift bedroom near the kitchen. He has a twin bed, a map of the United States on the wall and three fat goldfish. They were survivors from an original batch of 16 that once lived in a kiddie pool on the patio.
He and his sister had to give away their 5-foot-long iguana, six rabbits and rat when they moved in with Sundby.
Their mother loved animals, especially wolves. They reminded her of strength, of family.
Her pictures of wolves are packed in a box, but soon they'll dot the walls of the small apartment in Glendale's Grandview neighborhood.
The move on Friday was a bit of a homecoming for the siblings. For 13 years, the Holbrooks lived in the two-bedroom apartment with Sundby — he had one room and the children and their mother shared another with two twin beds.
Tracy Holbrooks would sleep with a blanket and pillow on the floor.
“She always had us ahead of her,” Ashley Holbrooks said.
For the past three years, the trio had their own apartment upstairs.
They mostly lived on Social Security income of $2,400 that the children collected monthly after their father died. About two-thirds of it — $1,625 — went to the rent.
Tracy Holbrooks didn't work, preferring to take care of her family. She never went anywhere without a coupon.
On Dec. 27, her children found her gasping for air. She couldn't breathe. Her asthma medication wasn't working.
Brandon ran downstairs to grab Sundby's breathing apparatus that he shared with his daughter.
It didn't help.
They called 911. Meanwhile, Ashley Holbrooks tried CPR.
Her mother was turning blue.
The ambulance took her to Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, where she was born. The medical staff was able to get her stable when Sundby walked in the hospital room.
“I held her hand. I said ‘Baby, you can get through this,'” he said, but then her oxygen levels dropped.
Doctors and nurses tried to resuscitate her, but to no avail. She was 50 years old.
There was still a week left of winter break, but that was all the siblings got before going back to school. Although it was hard, the routine of classes and homework helped them cope.
But then the bills came, and they could no longer keep the apartment..
Ashley Holbrooks doesn't know if she can afford college. She's considering the Air Force or a career nursing college, but she doesn't want to leave her brother.
When Tracy Holbrooks was cremated, her children looked at ornate urns that cost hundreds of dollars, but they bought a plastic model for $35 instead. Their mother would have been upset if they splurged — not that they had the money to.
But Ashley Holbrooks said she plans to make two urns in her ceramics class, so she and Brandon can each have a part of their mother with them. She plans to decorate the urn with tulips, her mother's favorite flower, or images of the ocean, her favorite place.
“That was her serene place. It was her escape.”
Keller Williams Realty and Glendale Sunrise Rotary Club are raising money for the family. Donations may be sent to Keller Williams Realty, 889 Americana Way, Suite 408, Glendale, Attention: Keith Sorem. Make checks payable to Glendale Sunrise Rotary with “ITF HB Family” in the note section.
--Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times