Some days, the grandmother still looks over her shoulder to see if the 3-year-old toddler is on her heels.
River Bates was always like that -- underfoot, wanting to be as close to an adult as he could. It's easy to think he's not too far behind, says his paternal grandmother, Linda Bates.
And it's still her instinct to look for the 5-year-old's flash of red hair at family gatherings.
Little Leland Bates was usually content to be off on his own, but ready to give his sweet smile to relatives who asked for it.
Sometimes it still seems like they're just around the corner -- just in the next room.
Last week marked one year since the Bradley County brothers died of extreme overheating after investigators say they were left in a searing hot car.
It's been a year of crippling grief and confusing anger. A year where children's birthday parties were sometimes too painful to bear. A year of tearful Christmas decorating. A year with grief-share classes, of tributes poured out onto a memorial Facebook page, and photos traded between family members.
The Bates family doesn't have to do much to keep the boys at the surface of their minds.
"It's just there. Every day, the memory of them," said Linda Bates. "Some of our family can talk about it, and some would just rather not."
The grief has changed, though, she said. It's not the same paralyzing weight. God has given her a peace, she said.
"I learned in my grief-share class that you need to turn your grief into gratitude for the ones you have left," Linda said. "I'm learning to do that."
The boys' mother, Tasha Bates, is due for trial next month. The 27-year-old has been charged with two counts of felony murder, aggravated child abuse and drug charges in connection with the boys' deaths. She has been in custody at the Bradley County Jail for nearly a year now with no bond.
Her immediate family and attorney have fiercely defended the mother, saying the entire story has yet to be told.
Last August following a Bates court appearance, her mother, Sandy Smith, said Tasha has struggled in jail and "talks about the boys all the time."
"They were her whole life ..." Smith said. "She would never do anything to hurt them."
Bradley County Assistant District Attorney Stephen Hatchett has said that meth found at Bates' house is a major factor in the case.
He has said Bates' actions showed "a level of neglect that's not there with an overworked mother who forgets her child."
Linda Bates said she is dreading the trial, but eager to get it over with. She wants justice for the boys, but also wants their mother to have a chance in the future to "make something of her life."
She also hopes that the publicity may prevent a similar situation from happening in another family.
"Maybe through this, a parent who is on drugs could look at River and Leland and realize that they don't want that to happen to their kids," she said. "If those boys could help change somebody's life ... that would be something good from this."
For the one-year anniversary of the boys' passing, Linda Bates went out and bought as many colorful balloons as she could fit into her car.
She and family members gathered at the rural cemetery where the boys have been laid to rest, and let the balloons sail into the evening sky.
The next day, the whole family gathered at the lake to celebrate as two of Linda's granddaughters turned 4 and 5 years old. There were banners and cake and little girl crowns.
It was the first happy birthday party in a long time.
Contact staff writer Kate Harrison at email@example.com or 423-757-6673.
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