As most of us check our grocery lists and stuff turkeys on Thanksgiving eve, Karen Perry will be hiking two miles to the top of Superstition Mountain to lay her hands upon a memorial etched with the faces of her three children. It has been four years since 9-year-old Morgan, 8-year-old Logan, 6-year-old Luke and their father were killed, along with two others, when their plane crashed into the mountainside six minutes after takeoff.
It will be Perry’s eighth journey to what she considers their grave. The first was on Morgan’s 10th birthday, three months after the accident. An arduous trek in the best of situations, it was an important first step toward acceptance and healing.
“There’s one tree up there,” Perry says. “In all this charred destruction, it was completely unscathed. It’s beautiful.” Karen and her best friend, Eve, promptly named it “The Tree of Life” and hung butterflies from it because Morgan loved them.
“Morgan was an old soul,” Perry says, recounting memories of her daughter. “She was strong and had a funny sense of humor. Though severe epilepsy had left her with limited speech, she loved to sing and could sing any song from the radio from beginning to end.”
Her son Logan was “smart, mischievous and loved the movies,” she says. “He was pure joy.”
And little Luke “was sweet to the bone. Even at 6 years old, he had a passion for photography. He loved to photograph hands and feet and ceiling fans in creative ways,” Perry says. “The morning of the accident, he took over 1,000 photos of himself and left them for me.”
Finding light in the darkness
An accomplished aviator, twice a breast cancer survivor and a devoted single mother of three children—two with special needs—Perry was no stranger to difficult terrain. In the aftermath of this horrific tragedy, she struggled to find meaning and purpose.
“I don’t think it gets easier,” she says, reflecting on the grieving process. “The passing of time lessens the harshness and the shock, but I still have days where the darkness creeps in. I try to look at the beautiful aspects and the beautiful things that have come from it, but the pain doesn’t lessen.”
Perry is the type of person who seeks the light. “I had a lot of questions about why I was left behind,” she says. “I guess I’m not done yet. I’m supposed to fulfill something, but I don’t know, yet, what that is. I go with my heart. If I see something I can do that I know will make a difference, I do it.”
She started by creating a free afterschool program for local children. The nonprofit, 3 Wings of Life, operates out of Gold Canyon Community Church. Working with a themed curriculum, she and other volunteers provide a safe and loving space for children to gather, play and receive homework help. Recently, the program expanded to include free equine therapy to qualified applicants.
Sharing her story
Perry also teamed up with award-winning and critically acclaimed local author Landon J. Napoleon to share her story in a new book released this month. “Angels Three: The Karen Perry Story” takes us deep inside the world of aviation, the challenges of parenting children with special needs and the indescribable pain of every parent’s worst fear come true.
She embraced the book project after posting a blog, “Memoirs of a Grieving Mother” on her Facebook page in 2012. Meant as an exercise to process her grief and answer questions from the public, the site garnered more than 30,000 hits the first week. She was shocked by—and unprepared for—the outpouring of support from readers who thanked her for sharing her journey and inspiring them to find strength in their own trials.
Though she has returned to her job as a flight attendant for Delta Air Lines, Perry remains a committed mother. “Nothing separates a mother from her child,” she says. “Not distance—not even death.”
She will continue to honor her children and keep their memory alive.
“Any parent who has lost a child will tell you their biggest fear is that their child will be forgotten,” she says. “I want my kids to be remembered.”
Meet Karen Perry
Karen Perry and Landon J. Napoleon are scheduled to speak at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 2 at Changing Hands Bookstore in Tempe. Learn more at changinghands.com.