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Thursday April 9th, 2020 9:47PM

Home renovation bittersweet occasion for Parkland widow

By The Associated Press
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HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — Debbi Hixon was a bundle of nerves waiting to see the 10-day makeover that had transformed her home. She wasn't concerned about the new kitchen counters or paint colors; the Parkland shooting widow was worried the fancy new decor would wipe away memories of her husband.

Athletic director Chris Hixon was one of 17 people killed on Valentine's Day two years ago at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the largest school shooting in U.S. history. The 49-year-old military veteran was gunned down while trying to run back into the building to save the students he loved so dearly, his wife said during an interview with The Associated Press on Friday.

“He's still part of our family and I didn't want it to feel like he's not here anymore,” she said of the home renovation, completed in a whirlwind 10 days for the show “Military Makeover.”

The couple had been saving for a big kitchen renovation before Chris Hixon was killed. Plumbers, painters, landscapers and electricians from the community were among the hundreds of volunteers who helped the “Military Makeover” crews with the home renovation. The 10-week TV show aired its first episode Friday morning.

Post-renovation, wood floors shine and the bright, open new kitchen features modern countertops and a breakfast nook with a cozy, oversize bench for family gatherings.

But the master bedroom remains painted in the unconventional brick-red color that Chris randomly saw driving down the street one day and insisted upon. The focal point of the room are three shelves that serve as a memorial to Chris. His black athletic director shirt is framed on the top and there are photos of him, along with drawings others did of him after he died.

“That's my favorite picture of him," she said, pointing to one. “It looks like he's looking at me. It's alive.”

There are other elements of the home that have not changed, and Chris' presence can still be felt everywhere, as if he could walk through the door at any moment. His maroon school jacket hangs casually in a front hallway with several other clothes. The pool bar he built out of wooden pallets two weeks before the shooting remains untouched.

Married 28 years when Chris Hixon was killed in 2018, early on the couple struggled during their long separation while he was stationed in Iraq with the Navy for six months. But it only deepened their love, she said.

He often surprised her by sending flowers, roses especially, and was constantly buying her jewelry, even though she scolded him, saying they couldn't afford it. She baked brownies in care packages and they exchanged lengthy letters that one of the crew members found in the attic during the home makeover.

When the youngest of their two sons was born, they faced near tragedy: Corey was born 24 years ago with severe bleeding on his brain and without the left side of his heart. He underwent nine open heart surgeries before he was 8 years old. He was also born with Kabuki Syndrome, an extremely rare genetic disorder with some similarities to Down Syndrome.

But the couple soldiered on, surrounded by a close-knit extended family and strong ties to their school and church. Chris Hixon was always inviting people over to the house for impromptu dinners without telling her, Debbi Hixon said, and before she knew it the tiny South Florida home that she had grown up in as a girl was filled with more than a dozen people.

“That was what Chris did. He brought people together," she said. “He made you feel like you were part of his family."

At school, Chris Hixon was known for helping maintenance crews set up before and after wrestling matches and for volunteering for just about everything. Debbi Hixon also worked at the school as a marine science teacher.

Every night before bed, Debbi Hixon said, she listens to the few voicemails from her husband that she saved on her phone.

"Of course he's talking about sports in all of them," she said, laughing, noting that he was always coming or going from a school event. Each one of the messages, though, ended with the same simple phrase: “I love you.”

On Valentines Day 2018, the couple was rushing to get out the door, but son Corey insisted they stop and open presents. If he hadn't, Debbi Hixon said, she never would have opened the card Chris gave her. It would have been too painful.

Chris' signature from the Valentine is now tattooed on her wrist with a cardinal, a symbol that appears throughout the home in trinkets and drawings. Every time the family sees one, it feels like a sign that he's watching them.

"It's like standing in quicksand and you keep trying to move out of it and something keeps pulling you back in," she said of the last two years, wiping away tears. “We are grieving in such a public arena."

Dixon is trying to use that platform to make changes. She recently decided to run for a seat on the county school board and has become active in the debate about making schools safer.

Debbi Hixon and her oldest son, Tom, watched the gut-wrenching school surveillance video of Chris' last moments. It confirmed what they knew: He fought until the very last moment trying to protect his students.

But she still thinks some of his greatest victories were during the mundane, everyday moments of life, as father and husband.

“I don't want people to forget that he was a hero every day, not just that day," she said.

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