This Mother’s Day, Crystal VanValkenburg seeks solitude.
In recent years, that’s meant a camping trip at the Lawrenceville Hunt Club, fishing on quiet bubbling rivers or geocaching with her boyfriend.
VanValkenburg, 40, is a mother, but she spends her holiday mostly alone.
“I just try not to think about it being Mother’s Day,” VanValkenburg said. “On Christmas and major holidays, I just do something relaxing.”
It will be three years on June 29 since VanValkenburg last saw her 18-year-old son, Austin Baxley. The teenager was shot and left along the edge of Crawford Road in York County late on June 30, 2016.
His body was found the following day.
Three people accused in connection with the homicide are still going through the court process. One man, 23-year-old Julian Rios, pleaded guilty to first-degree murder last year. Another man, Antionne Hinton, pleaded guilty to accessory after the fact in a homicide in January.
Amina Washington, 26, is also charged with first-degree murder in connection with Baxley’s death. her case is scheduled for a jury trial in late October.
While VanValkenburg is still grieving — and the criminal cases connected with her son’s death are still underway — she is finding ways to make peace and get stronger.
Even on difficult holidays.
“To somebody that just lost a child: You don’t lose all hope afterward,” she said.
Stronger than ever
In three short years, VanValkenburg’s life has turned into a dream — but, at first, that dream was a nightmare.
Baxley’s body was found just two days after VanValkenburg left Virginia to return to her then-home in Michigan. In the wake of her son’s death, VanValkenburg faced countless therapy sessions and hours of courtroom appearances. There has been little testimony, as both convictions so far have ended in plea deals.
She moved back to Virginia soon after Baxley’s death.
“By him passing, it forced me to do things that I don’t believe I ever would’ve had the courage or strength to do,” she said.
VanValkenburg now works as an office manager at an architectural firm in Great Bridge, and has been entrusted with a wealth of responsibility as the current CEO transitions to retirement.
She has also moved with her boyfriend from a small studio apartment to a three-bedroom house in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The home gives her additional space and stability so she can eventually buy a home of her own.
The couple also adopted a “perfect” dog, Olivia.
The new home also leaves plenty of space for her other son, Billy, 10, to visit.
VanValkenburg and her husband are separated, and she decided it was best for Billy to live with his father in Michigan while she set her life back on track. Billy will not be able to travel to Virginia to be with his mother on Sunday’s holiday, but he will call or text her, she said.
Billy is “excelling” there, she said, but her new home in Elizabeth City includes a bedroom he can call his own. He will spend six weeks with her this summer, as well as some holidays.
“I sat there the other night crying because … I have the best boyfriend, great boss, great best friend, I got the best dog,” she said. “How am I doing this, that I’m getting everyone and everything in my life that I need?”
VanValkenburg has found closure in some ways, whether it’s taking selfies with Billy at Baxley’s grave or taking on additional responsibilities at work.
Part of finding closure has involved expelling negativity from her life.
“Life is short,” she said. “He [Austin] only got 18 years, so I need to make sure I do things that are right for me.”
VanValkenburg is a chronic worrier, and usually sees the glass half-empty. Her boss, the CEO at her job, has been a critical component in changing that for the better.
“She’s taught me a lot about how I like to look negatively on everything because of what happened to me,” VanValkenburg said. “It’s made a tremendous difference in the way I look at things.”
For VanValkenburg, some of the toughest challenges have been times when she needed help, but struggled asking for it.
“My anxiety probably tripled after Austin died,” she said. “I’m trying to set my environment now,” she said. “If I know this causes me anxiety, I find something to do in the background to lessen it. That’s helped me tremendously.”
Even her ex-husband, who doesn’t see her often because he lives in Michigan, has noticed a difference.
“He told me this past Christmas ‘I don’t know what you’re doing but keep it up, because you look the best you have in two years,’” VanValkenburg said. “He can even see it in my appearance.”
While her son is no longer with her in person, she said his spirit and memory remains a strong factor in VanValkenburg’s outlook.
“He always wanted me to be happy — he said it multiple times,” she said. “I think — I believe he’s helping orchestrate this.”