Andrea Cortes loved nothing more than being an aunt to her nieces, 11-year-old Elli, 7-year-old Adilynn, 5-year-old Emma and 2-year-old Anniston.
But the Nebraska college student’s “whole life fell apart” in October 2016 when her four nieces, along with their parents—Andy’s sister, Michelle Speer, and brother-in-law, Mike Speer—died in a house fire just yards away from Andy’s window.
While living with her sister’s family on their farm last fall, Andy was staying in a cottage house behind the garage.
On the night of October 19, the 24-year-old looked out her window to see her sister’s house completely engulfed in flames.
“Nobody ever realizes that something like this could happen to them,” Andy says, recalling the moments when she dialed 911 and made every attempt to get inside the house to save her family. The fire’s thick smoke made it impossible for her to do anything.
All six of the Speer family members reportedly died of smoke inhalation.
Andy says life hasn’t been the same ever since.
“Our family has always been super close. My sister was my best friend and my rock, and she and Mike allowed me to be a part of raising my nieces—I had a special bond with each of them.”
Grieving the loss of each family member has proven to be understandably difficult for Andy. But she’s found some solace in a memorial tattoo she got in her nieces’ honor.
“To me, tattoos are an expression of your life and your passions, and it just felt right to have them on my body permanently.”
Down her left arm are the names of the three oldest girls in each of their own handwriting from school work.
Screenshot: Omaha World Herald
At first, Andy wasn’t sure what to add to her arm in Anniston’s memory, since the youngest Speer was two and hadn’t yet learned to write her name.
That’s when Andy remembered a photo her sister once sent to her.
“My sister had been working from home one day and was on a conference call when Anniston tried to get her attention by saying, ‘Mommy, Mommy, Mommy,’ over and over again.”
While Michelle had been preoccupied with the conference call, Anniston had been creating a masterpiece on the WALL with markers.
When she discovered what her daughter had been up to, Michelle sent the photo to Andy with the story of Anniston’s artwork.
It was the marker drawing that made the grieving aunt’s tattoo complete.
“I think it has helped me with the healing process to have these tattoos on my arm—I get to tell their story, share my memories with people, and keep them alive in a sense.”
Andy says she struggles daily to be strong “while dealing with such a huge hole” in her life. But having their memories on her arm makes it a little bit easier to find the strength to get her through the day.