By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
A few days after her husband, Sgt. James Altizer died, Tanya Altizer said her daughter Courtney was having a crisis of faith. Courtney was 9 at the time, and on May 8, 2008, she had sung at her daddy’s funeral service. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
Fifty-one days later on June 29, 2008, Crystal Darago Hodges, lost her battle with cancer. Crystal was the wife of Bluefield Fire Chief Anthony “Tony” Hodges. She was a much-respected nurse in the Cardiology Department of Bluefield Regional Medical Center.
Hodges touched the lives of hundreds — thousands — of people she served as a nurse and the health care professionals she worked with. Her death was a huge blow to her family, her co-workers and her patients. Many of the people in Crystal’s world were probably asking God the same questions that Courtney Altizer was asking her mom.
Many people called Courtney’s dad, “Bubba.” Sgt. James Howard Altizer was a big fellow from McDowell County who never turned away from a fight and always reached out to help people in need.
On the outside, Sgt. Altizer was an individual who appeared to be bigger than life. But on the inside, his heart purred like a kitten around those he loved. He worked a lot of night shifts during the 12 years he served with the Bluefield, Va., Police Department, so there wasn’t anything unusual when he received a call to shower up and come out early on May 6, 2008. At the moment, no one knew he would suddenly be answering a higher call that night before he left home.
Crystal and Tony Hodges had time to consider the cancer that claimed her life. Knowing that life is no longer infinite can be a horrible thing. Lifetime plans change to day-to-day exercises, and bucket lists don’t mean a thing. In the end, it’s the little things that matter. One more smooch, one more exchange of glances, one more moment to hold hands. When that ended for Crystal on June 29, 2008, Tony sank into a place of darkness that was evident to all who knew him.
The very public funeral services for both James Altizer and Crystal Hodges were full of touching moments and heart-wrenching sorrow. James was 37, and Crystal was 34. There was no intersection of the two separate life circles. Tony Hodges worked a regular shift at the Central Fire Station in Bluefield so one of the firefighters who knew Sgt. Altizer could attend the service. Other than that, everything else was different. The stiff upper lips of several lawmen quivered at the sound of pipers playing at Sgt. Altizer’s service. Tears were shed when Crystal Hodges was laid to rest.
A few days after her husband’s funeral service, Tanya Altizer returned to her job at the Vision Center in the Bluefield, Va., Walmart, but things were different. After a year of struggling to find peace, she decided that she had to do something to ease the pain. In 2009, she and Courtney moved to North Carolina in search of a new start. After about a year in exile, both Courtney and Tanya knew it wasn’t working out, so they returned to their home in Bluefield, Va., where, at least, Courtney had a group of school friends who she knew.
Without a lot of fanfare, Chief Hodges retired from the ranks of the Bluefield Fire Department and took on a new job of selling life insurance. His mother, Laura Hodge, 86, still lives at the family home at Windmill Gap, and like the good son that he is, Tony continued his on-going commitment to help his mom with everything she needs help with. Although he tried to put on a happy face for his friends, his smile was never strong enough to camouflage the pain he was suffering.
Before she left for North Carolina, Tanya Altizer had a chance encounter with Tony Hodges, at a store. It was not an earth-shattering moment. Tanya even had to remind Tony about it during the interview for this story. But to understand the significance of that encounter, it is important to understand how much of a role that faith and the power of God has always played in each of their lives.
Every night when Sgt. Altizer went to work, Tanya knew it could be his last. Every shift that Tony worked, Crystal Hodges likely felt the same way. Neither Tony Hodges or Tanya Altizer can say more than one or two sentences without somehow praising the “Almighty God,” that continues to bless their lives. Both said: “If you just let God take care of it,” several times during the 90-minute interview.
After Tanya and Courtney came back home, she saw Tony shopping at her Walmart. She went over and talked to him, and both felt as though they had known each other for a long time. When Tanya asked if she could call him sometime, Tony said yes. No numbers were exchanged, so Tanya called Tony’s home number and left a message on his answering machine. She waited three days, and Tony didn’t call. Finally, the phone rang and it was him.
“Everyone calls me on my cell phone, so when I saw there was a message on the answering machine, I thought it was from my sister, and I knew I was going to see her soon, so I didn’t pick it up right away,” Hodges said. “Now, I wish I had.”
“We talked three and a half hours that night,” Altizer said. “We could share so many things that I couldn’t share with anyone else. So many things that happened to him also happened to me — even down to where I found James and where he found Crystal. Those were things that I couldn’t talk to anyone else about.”
It wasn’t just a big deal for Tanya and Tony. Courtney, now 13, connected instantly with Tony, and even more instantly with Tony’s 20-year-old daughter, Ariel Hodges. “They’re just like sisters and best friends,” Altizer said.
“I don’t feel like I’d be nowhere without God,” Hodges said. “You’ve got to put that in the article you’re writing. I think God has got His hand in it. We’re different people, but it’s like we were meant to be together.”
“It’s funny, how God blesses you,” Altizer said. “My daughter absolutely loves Tony. She said: ‘Mommy, I don’t think you could have found a better man for me and you.’
“Ariel spends about every day with Courtney,” Tony Hodges said. “You don’t think any differently about the ones you loved ... the ones that are gone. We just feel that we’ve been blessed.”
“We both just want to thank the whole community for being so wonderful to me and Tony both during our whole ordeal,” Altizer said.
Tommy Walker served with James Altizer on the Bluefield, Va. police department. He painted a painting of James and Courtney cuddled up together as they were both sleeping, and gave it to the family.
“It’s a wonderful painting,” Tanya Altizer said. “Tony was at the house when Tommy brought it, and I thought Tony was going to cry. Tony can never replace James. I can never replace Crystal. It’s all weird, but then I think that everyone is weird in their own way.”
Their relationship blossomed quickly, and in time, they started talking about getting married. They shared the idea with friends who responded favorably and so they went through the process of asking the Reverend Tony Reed to conduct the service at Maple View Church of Christ this morning. A couple of months ago, they sent out invitations, and took it from there.
“You can’t look at life as being over when you lose somebody,” Hodges said. “I was at a low point in my life that I thought would never end, but anyone who knows the Lord, knows He can make a way.”
“Some people will sit back nitpick about anything you do,” Altizer said. Hodges picked up the thought and completed it.
“We’ve really grown,” Hodges said. “God plants a seed and watches it grow.” They do a lot of that — completing each other’s thoughts. It’s more than finishing sentences. It’s a way of complementing one another.
“We’re including all of our family members in the wedding,” Altizer said. The family members involved in the ceremony include: Courtney Altizer will be maid of honor; Ariel Hodges and Nancy Hodges along with Tanya’s sisters, Jamie and Christy and her double first cousin, Misty will be attendants. Tony’s brother, Dennis Hodges, will serve as best man while Tony Hodges Jr., and Robert Hodges will be groom’s men. Altizer’s nieces, Chloe (flower girl), Natalie (ring bearer), Brooke and Brittany (ushers) and Matthew Casey Brice will be part of the wedding party.
“Dad’s walking me down the aisle,” Altizer said of her father, James Wright. Her mother, Peggy Wright, as well as Laura Hodges will also be part of the wedding ceremony. “There probably won’t be anyone in the church except for the wedding party, but that will be OK.
“I hope ... for me ... I hope that someone who is going through what we went through what we went through, that they can see that life can go on,” Tanya Altizer said.
“It’s all about glorifying God,” Hodges said. “When things go wrong, people want to blame God for everything, but they almost never praise him when things turn out right.”
Tanya and Tony don’t have any immediate plans for a honeymoon. “The girls (Courtney and Ariel) want to go somewhere, but we’ve already gone on two outings this summer,” Altizer said. “Maybe we’ll go somewhere in the next couple of months.”
Tonya and Tony will still be living in separate homes for a time. “I have to keep the house in Bluefield, Va., for Courtney to stay in school here and Tony stays with his mom at Windmill Gap,” Altizer said. “Weird, huh?”
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com