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After the sentencing Paul and Esther fought bitterly over her perceived betrayal of the church and Pam, their children siding with their father. One evening, after taking a verbal beating from her youngest, Stephen, Esther retreated to her car, parked in the garage—and she thought, "I wonder what it would be like to just turn this key on and end my life."

Paul pressed Esther to reconcile with Brother Frank, but she refused. "I'm not going back to a church that destroyed my family," she told him. Any reconciliation, she knew, would mean subjecting herself to public humiliation. "I wasn't about to get up and repent and say, 'I've sinned before God and I ask for your forgiveness'; I was not going to do that. Because I. Did. Nothing. Wrong. I know I told the truth." After one particularly vicious fight, Paul left the house for good—nine months before their 50th wedding anniversary.

At first Esther hoped the separation was temporary, a cooling-off period while they attended counseling. After all, how could a deep, decades-long marriage end this way? But Paul was intractable. "I may have left you physically, but you left me spiritually," he told Esther, who couldn't believe Paul would let the church trump their marriage. (Through a spokesman, Brother Frank stated: "The church feels very strongly that what happened between Paul and Esther is a matter between them.")

After eight months of separation and several fruitless therapy sessions, Esther filed for divorce. She weighed less than 100 pounds at the time, having dropped 15, and went on medication for severe depression. Pariah to her family, outcast to the church, she didn't have much left to lose. But what she couldn't have anticipated was how much she stood to gain: Amid the incalculable fallout, Esther—who'd followed the rules for so long, and married the only man she'd ever dated—found her strength and what she refers to now as an "awesome purpose." "I won't abandon Timmy," Esther says, her delicate jaw set tight. "I'm the only one he has."

Last year Esther bough a two-story condominium across town. Making a decision of that magnitude on her own—along with learning such basic life skills as how to balance a checkbook or prepare decent meals for one—had been unthinkable for her just a few years earlier. "I never shed a tear," she says of the day she moved out.

For months, she couldn't display photographs of the other grandchildren in her new home; she hasn't spent time with them in two years. But recently the pictures have come back out. Her World's Best Grandma refrigerator magnet is still stowed away, as are Tim's belongings, under a dustcover in the basement: his clothes, books, and his father's lieutenant's cap.

Supporting herself now, Esther has a part-time job working in member services at the local YMCA. And she enjoys a bit of a social life with friends from the new, more lenient church she has joined. Parishioners have taken her to the symphony and out to dinner. Not long ago, she even went to a bar for the first time in her life, after her 50th high school reunion, where she toasted the class with a glass of soda pop.

Every other month, Esther heads up to the state prison in Dannemora, New York, near the Quebec border, to visit Tim. The ride is about ten hours round-trip, and her late son-in-law's firefighter buddies often give her a lift. But now that she's bought herself a GPS, she can drive up with a friend and stay overnight at a motel near the prison, which means a two-day visit with her grandson. When she arrives, she greets Tim in a cavernous visiting room and sits across from him at a long wooden table, where they talk about the strange turn their lives have taken.

Most of the time, Tim tells her he is doing fine. He regularly attends church services in the prison chapel and takes a computer-aided-design class. He hopes to earn a college degree, but he doubts he'll bother with his original major, civil engineering, since he'd need a license to work in the field. Exuding an eerie innocence—so difficult to reconcile with his deadly outburst four years ago—Tim quietly notes, "They're certainly not going to let someone like me with this type of a felony build a bridge that thousands of people are going to be crossing over daily."

Between visits, Tim and Esther talk on the phone. And while the old Tim spoke in monosyllables, now he loves to converse, and has grown more affectionate as well. "He can hug me now. And he kisses me now," Esther says. For her part, though homosexuality used to be something she viewed with church-prescribed disapproval, in recent years she has worked hard to better understand her grandson—for instance, watching the 2009 Lifetime movie Prayers for Bobby, with Sigourney Weaver, in which a mother's attempts to turn her son away from homosexuality drive him to suicide. "He is what he is, and I need to love him the way he is," she says simply.

Sometimes the most carefully wrought plans crumble the quickest—Esther wasn't supposed to end up like this, alone and estranged from her family. And yet, improbably, she seems almost peaceful. But is she happy?

"It's a mix," she says. "I'm happy about being able to, hopefully, move on. But the sorrow is there, the pain is there, of the losses. Multiple losses..." She looks away, her voice trailing off.

When she talks about Tim's eventual release from prison, she brightens. If all goes well, he'll get out in June 2019, six months before her 80th birthday. And she will be there for him.

"How many times I've said, 'Lord, why are you keeping me here?' Why is God keeping me here, with all that I've had to endure?" Esther says. Her voice goes from plaintive to soft—almost a whisper. "I know why now."

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