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Rock stars: Grieving family finds therapy in painting rocks

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LE MARS, Iowa -- Seated at her family's dining room table, Katelynn Semple, 18, painted green spots onto a whitewashed beach rock.

"It's supposed to look like Yoshi (the anthropomorphic dinosaur) from (the video game) 'Super Smash Brothers,'" the Le Mars Community High School 12th grader explained. "But I think my green isn't quite the right shade of green."

"Nah, it looks good, Kate," dad David Semple said. "It looks like Yoshi to me."

David's rock, however, was a bit of a Jackson Pollock-esque mess.

"You're using way too much paint," Paula Semple said, critiquing her husband's artistic endeavor. "That's never gonna dry." 

"It'll dry," David said. "In a day or two, maybe."

The Semples weren't doing this art project as a family activity. Instead, they were painting rocks as a memorial.

Their son, Caleb Semple, an 18-year-old South Dakota State University English education freshman, was killed in a Dec. 1, 2017, car accident, outside of Rock Rapids, Iowa.

"People die when they're old or when they're sick," David, a Wells Enterprises, Inc. process control crew leader, said. "Caleb was gone in an instant. You can never prepare for something like that."

Indeed, grandmother Nettie Semple spent months trying to cope with Caleb's sudden death.

"When you're overcome with grief, you feel like you're sinking in quick sand," she said, shaking her head at the memory. "I felt the entire family was sinking in quicksand."

This is when Nettie recalled reading about a grieving family that started painting rocks to commemorate a loved one who wanted to travel.

"Caleb always wanted to travel and we began taking painted rocks, leaving them in locales we thought he'd enjoy," she explained.

While Nettie may have conceived the idea of painting rocks that bore her grandson's likeness, it was Paula who decided to create a "Caleb Semple 'ROCKS' Around the Globe" Facebook page, which has more than 630 followers.

"We started painting rocks almost as therapy," Paula, a "lunch lady" for the Le Mars Community Schools, said. "We'd hide rocks every time we traveled or we'd ask friends and family to hide rocks when they were away."

The back of each rock told Caleb's story as well as made a request.

"If you found one of Caleb's rock, we're asking you to photograph and post it on Facebook," Paula said. "That way, we can chart all of Caleb's travels."

So far, Caleb's rocks have been spotted inside New York's famed Grand Central Station, South America, even Singapore.

"My son wanted to travel," Paula said. "Now, he gets to do it in spirit."

It's been more than a year since Caleb Semple died, and his mom still gets emotional at times.

"You'll never get over the loss of a child," she said. "Things get easier but it never stops hurting."

Luckily, Paula is left with memories of a one-of-a-kind son, who loved his life, his family and his dog Bruce.

"Caleb had a great sense of humor and so much charisma," Paula said with a smile. "He could work your last nerve but his smile got him out of trouble."

David said his son's sense of humor came out of curiosity and intellect.

"Caleb was a member of the Calculus Club and his college's English club," David said. "I think Caleb knew he wanted to become a high school English teacher long before he actually attended high school." 

In fact, it was in high school where David said his son blossomed.

"That's when everything came together for Caleb," Paula said. "He found a circle of friends whom he adored, he discovered a love of video games and he started his sock collection."

Um ... his what collection?

"Caleb loved wearing crazy, knee-high socks, the crazier the better," David explained. "Nobody was more comfortable in their own skin than Caleb. He knew who he was and he was happy with that."

As her family continues to paint Caleb rocks, Paula Semple reached for a book that her son read from every Christmas.

"Right before his sister and their cousins would open presents, Caleb insisted on reading all of 'Twas the Night Before Christmas,'" she said with a laugh. "Did his family appreciate it? No. But that was Caleb. Everything was an adventure and everything was a performance."

That's even true today.

"I think Caleb would be thrilled with his globetrotting endeavors," Paula said. "He may be gone but he's still flying high."


Copyright 2018 The Sioux City Journal. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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