It’s been almost four years since David Lee Small, in the early stages of divorce proceedings, set fire to his family’s Van Alstyne home, killing his two children — Reagan, 9, and Grant, 8 — himself and their two dogs.
Nothing of the house remains now, not even a slab. Everything is gone and life, as the saying goes, moves on. But what of those closest to this tragedy who are left behind — especially the children’s mother, Karen Sparks, 41, who has struggled to find purpose and hope ever since?
Some answers to that question will soon be known, as Sparks’ upcoming book, “The 11-Year Burn — A Mother’s Memoir,” is slated for completion in November and will detail her ongoing journey back from despair and her plans for a productive future. With the book, Sparks also aims to honor the lives of Grant and Reagan and raise awareness about domestic violence.
While Sparks’ path from Nov. 1, 2015 to the present was anything but easy, she now appears poised to carry on — and try to help others. The book, which is a collaborative effort by Sparks and her sister, Kori Sparks, 45, will use as its story arc the intense 90-day residential therapy program Karen Sparks completed last year in Tennessee.
Karen Sparks and Kori Sparks now live together in Melissa. They sat down recently at Cardinals Stadium to discuss the book. It’s here that their father, Duke Sparks, has his office as director of Athletic Operations and Community Partnerships for the Melissa Independent School District.
“It’s a message of hope,” Karen Sparks said. “The fact is it’s a choice. I have a choice to either cave and never do anything about any of this and just wither away — like sometimes I want to because I’m so tired and exhausted — or I keep fighting. There are many of us, I think, that try to be light in this dark world. I’m praying that this will be just another spark to ignite the fire in me. … I can’t do this alone, I know that. I think I thought I could, probably a couple of years ago. But there’s no way.”
‘I’ve learned to speak up’
The book will tell “everything,” Karen Sparks said.
“This is not of me,” she said. “This is very humbling. This is about God. This is about Reagan and Grant. I’m being very vulnerable and open and real. … I’ve learned I have a voice and to speak up for myself. I want people to know that they can do the same thing.”
Karen Sparks’ bottom line: Before she’s through, her children will not have died in vain — and perhaps others can be saved.
Her battle for relative normalcy is hardly over. Certain places and certain times of the year can still bring deep sorrow and panic. The first day of school last month was particularly tough, she said.
Through it all, Karen and her family, including mom Sue Sparks, have found strength in their Christian faith. A lot of her journey, Karen Sparks said, has involved taking a step in faith.
“I don’t know if I’d ever truly done that,” she said.
While she had pondered a book for some time, the ultimate inspiration came from On High, as noted by Duke Sparks at a recent Melissa football scrimmage.
“On May 5, 2019, I was in my quiet time,” he said. “And the Lord spoke to me as clearly as I’m speaking to you. He said, ‘Write the book. It’s the key. I’ll take care of it.’”
Duke told his daughters of his experience and, with that impetus, the sisters began writing in July.
“It is going to change lives,” Duke Sparks said. “It’s going to save babies’ lives. I truly believe that.”
Kori Sparks, with a teaching background and years of working in film production in California, has lent her creative writing skills to the effort.
“When I came back from California (in 2012), she was not all there,” Kori Sparks said of her sister. “But she was a great mother. She had no self-esteem. She was just quiet. She was still fun every now and again but she was the typical abused spouse. She was being controlled.”
Karen has only recently seen the full investigation report, including forensics data and post-fire photos of Grant and Reagan on the floor of the home’s master bathroom with Small and the dogs. Much of the information she’s gleaned will appear in the book — and some will be shared here.
“We looked like the All-American normal family from the outside,” Karen Sparks said.
By October 2015, Karen had moved in with her parents in Allen and filed for divorce. Two weeks after being served papers, over the Halloween weekend, Small had his first unaccompanied visit with Reagan and Grant. Karen Sparks would never see her children alive again.
Duke Sparks was to pick up the children on Sunday. The first chapter of the book describes in detail what followed — the frantic call from a neighbor telling Karen the house was on fire; Karen’s call to her father asking if he had gotten the kids yet; Duke dashing to the house to learn the awful truth; and his call back to Karen, when he didn’t have to say a word.
Duke Sparks would tell family members, “Do not let Karen come.”
“I wasn’t a part of that day,” Karen Sparks said. “I wasn’t on-site, I was protected. … I didn’t see (Grant and Reagan) until eight days later in caskets, when they were embalmed. That’s like a shell, that’s not my kids. I felt robbed all over again.”
Precious things from Karen’s childhood — and from Reagan and Grant — that were stored in the garage were also destroyed.
“He burned my whole life to the ground,” Karen said.
Karen said, the investigation revealed how Small had doused the home’s interior with gasoline and other accelerants.
Most all the house was gutted — except where Reagan and Grant were found. Autopsies showed smoke inhalation as the cause of death.
“The roof was still over them and my kids were beautiful,” Karen Sparks said. “They were whole and they didn’t suffer. They were laying as if they were laying in their beds. … This would be a whole nother ballgame if I knew my kids burned alive. I don’t know if I’d be here.”
Questions remain, though, that may never be answered. How did Small get the kids into that room? How were they made to stay? No drugs were found in their bodies, they weren’t bound and no one had been shot.
“The only person that knows the answer to all of this is David Small,” Karen said. “No fireman, investigator or anybody I spoke with could give me the exact answer.”
Running on empty
Karen continued to stay with her parents for 18 months after the tragedy. During this time, she threw herself into distance running — and boxing.
“I took her to Title Boxing in Allen,” Kori Sparks said. “I just dropped her off and said, ‘Here she is. Let her rage.’ … She just always seemed like she was strong. She rarely would show us her pain.”
“She ran, she boxed, she did everything,” Duke Sparks said. “But it was running from the grief and the tragedy. … It was her way of fighting through it, because she’s a coach’s kid. She didn’t know but one way to do it.”
In May 2017, Karen Sparks got an apartment in McKinney and started work as a part-time receptionist in her cousin’s salon.
“She gave me a chance,” Karen Sparks said. “I was gaining my independence back and trying to find who I was again. I had no idea.”
But by fall, near the two year anniversary of her children’s deaths, Karen’s brave front started to crack — and family members quickly noticed.
“We watched her run out of her physical and mental strength on her own,” Kori Sparks said. “She was depressed, she was suicidal. We were very concerned.”
Looking back, Karen Sparks said she felt as though she had no identity. She had been a mom. She should be dropping her kids off at football practice or the gym. The family began researching residential treatment facilities and presented the idea to Karen.
“She felt betrayed by all of us,” Kori Sparks said. “It was, like, ‘How dare we?’ Once again, we’re ‘meddling’ when she’s trying to heal.”
“I wasn’t totally against it,” Karen Sparks said, but added that she didn’t really think it was necessary. “I had a time frame of when I wanted to go. Then a series of things happened and Dad said, ‘I cannot sit back any longer and watch this. You are going at this time, this date.’ He just had to put his foot down.”
Duke Sparks drove Karen to the highly-recommended facility in Tennessee that they’d chosen — a 10-hour trip, and the two said they didn’t speak for about the first eight hours.
“She was very angry,” Duke Sparks said. “It’s like I was taking her to prison. … We had a little ice-breaker after dinner and started talking.”
She entered the doors of the facility on May 21, 2018.
The program there specialized in post-trauma treatment — any trauma, from childhood to adult — and at first, Karen Sparks was not on board.
“I would think, ‘Why am I even here? I’m not an addict. No one understands,’” she said.
After difficult starts and stops, as detailed in the book, Karen Sparks began to see some light.
“I learned the ‘little Ts’ and ‘big Ts’: little trauma, big trauma,” she said. “All those little ones can be a major one in your life. … You can get in the pit, but don’t stay there. Don’t let circumstances take you under and keep you under. Keep going. Everyone has a purpose.”
“She did the work,” Kori Sparks said. “There are people that don’t do it, but she did the work.”
Karen even went back for a week this year to meet with other grieving parents. Sitting one-on-one with mothers who’ve lost a child is now something else she wants to do with her life.
“I have met other moms like me around the U.S. and we connect through Facebook,” Karen Sparks said. “It’s crazy because just when you think you’re the only one out there, it’s happened to someone else — and you reach out and it’s like that domino effect. I’m thankful that I’m not the only one feeling like I’m drowning all alone.”
The book will conclude with the “race” Karen Sparks wants to run now — even if it’s just getting up each day and pressing on.
“You don’t win,” Kori Sparks said. “It’s a loss for the rest of your life. But you can rise every day and say, ‘I have victory because I’m able to share the love of my kids and help the people I can.’ … To sit here and listen to her now, this is the sister I always knew. To hear her speaking and have a voice — she didn’t have that.”
“Their legacy will live on,” Karen Sparks said of Reagan and Grant. “I’m the advocate, I’m the messenger. … If something happens to me, or if I choose to quit, then they die a second death — and I’m not going to have that. I can’t.
For excerpts from “The 11-Year Burn” and more information, visit karenasparks.com.