Her life was far too short, the loss to her family too sad to imagine. But what we hope for Lara Punches is that there is a special place in heaven where animals and the people who love them go, and that she’s making new friends there and finding old friends as well.
Many of our readers and friends know Lara’s mother, Martha Punches, as that wonderful, upbeat, helpful soul in charge of Ellora’s Cave/Cerridwen Press customer service. Several of our authors were so moved by the heartbreaking story of Lara’s death, they decided to honor her memory by donating to her family a portion of the proceeds from books dedicated to Lara. Those books begin releasing this month.
Everyone who knows Martha loves her. And everyone who knows Martha knows that Lara was the apple of her eye. She was crazy about that girl. Never pretended her daughter was perfect, just enjoyed her company immensely and delighted in watching the wonder that was Lara unfold.
When Lara went off to Fort Wayne to study to become a veterinary technician, Martha was excited for her. Lara loved animals and was pursuing her passion, doing what she had wanted to do since she was in eighth grade. The school was an hour’s drive from home, far enough so she could be independent but close enough that Martha and Lara’s dad, Paul, could still see her often.
Lara was close to her parents and kept in touch by text, email and phone frequently while she was away. “Sometimes it would just be a one-word text, ‘hi’,” Martha said in a recent WANE TV interview. Lara and Martha had been emailing back and forth on the evening of January 22 while Lara studied for a test and Martha worked. Around 10:30 Lara called to say goodnight before going to bed.
A few hours later, around 5 a.m., Lara called again. Her apartment complex was on fire and she and her two roommates were trapped in their second-floor bathroom. All Martha and Paul could do was try to help her calm down and pray rescue workers would get through to them in time. They were on the phone with her until she lost consciousness from smoke inhalation.
When the firefighters arrived, they launched a heroic rescue effort. By the time they reached the second floor, the blaze was so advanced that the floor was already beginning to fall in and the ceiling was engulfed in flames. Lara and her roommates were taken immediately to the hospital.
Jennifer Spurgeon, 19, died the next day. Renee Patton, 18, died two days after that. There was hope for several agonizing days that Lara might pull through. Many, many people prayed for her, from devout Christians to those who were a little rusty in the talking-to-God department. But the damage to her brain was too severe. She died on February 12. She was 19 years old.
The tragedy of Lara’s death might have destroyed a lesser woman, but Martha’s strength, courage and faith through the ordeal have inspired the people who know her, even as we ache for her. She finds some comfort in the fact that Lara chose to be an organ-and-tissue donor and that parts of her will live on and might help up to 100 people. And Martha hopes that people who hear Lara’s story will understand the dangers of smoke inhalation and be moved to install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
She also tries to focus on the good stuff in Lara’s life. “She had a lot of dreams,” said Martha. “She also had a good life and good friends who loved her.” Shortly after Lara’s death, a friend of hers visited Martha and Paul and they found a text message in the inbox on Lara’s old cell phone. As the friend read it out loud, Martha felt as if Lara was speaking directly to them all. Part of the message said, “What would you do if your best friend died tomorrow and you never got to tell them how you felt? So, I just wanted to say, even if I never talk to you again in my life, you are special to me and you have made a difference in my life. I look up to you and respect you and truly cherish you…” Martha said in a message to her colleagues, “I don’t know who sent that to her but in my heart of hearts, I can almost believe she sent it to us.”
Acceptance, says Martha, has been the hardest part. “I keep thinking she’s going to walk through the door.” Again it is her faith that gets her through. “She knew she was a child of God and that she would go to be with him when she died. It just happened so much sooner than we ever thought it would. Someday I’ll see her again. … I’ll cherish that day when it comes.”
A portion of royalties from the following books will be donated to the Punches family in Lara’s honor:
Best Friends Forever by Kate Douglas (released June 17)
Honey by Ari Thatcher (released June 19)
Sweet Buns by Marilu Mann (releases June 26)
Phantom Affair by Katherine Kingston (releases July 3)
Stray Lovers by Dalton Diaz (releases August 21)
Marry Me, Marietta by Cindy Spencer Pape (releases September 8)
These books do not yet have release dates scheduled:
A Little White Lie by Mackenzie McKade
Nightwalker’s Pet by Cricket Starr
Giggles by Gabby by Ashlyn Chase
Just Being Neighborly by Kaenar Langford
No Regrets by Joanna Wylde
Tuesday Afternoons by Brynn Paulin
This dedication will accompany each book:
This story is lovingly dedicated to the memory of a lovely young lady.
Lara Anne Punches
10/4/1989 to 2/12/2009
You touched the hearts of more people in your short 19 years on earth than you could have ever imagined possible.
For those wishing to make a donation in Lara’s memory, the family has suggested the Defiance County Humane Society or First Presbyterian Church in Paulding, Ohio. You can sign the guest book and leave memories at www.defiancefuneralhome.com.
To see Martha’s full television interview, visit WANE.com.