ST. LOUIS – Annmarie Klein knows she's blessed to have survived the tornado that leveled her family's central Illinois home, and she understands most of the things they lost -- the Jacuzzi, 60-inch TVs, diamond jewelry, the convertible and other vehicles -- can be replaced.
That's not true for a mint green box that contained three cards -- to her, "the most important thing in my house."
The cards swept away by the Nov. 17 twister that ripped through Washington, Ill., were personalized by Klein's brother, Paul McLaughlin, with notes for each of his three children before his 2005 death from colon cancer at age 39.
Klein said her brother, a suburban Boston resident who fought cancer for six years, entrusted her to give the cards in sealed envelopes to his kids someday "so that when he was gone they could still remember their dad."
"I feel like I let him down," an anguished Klein said through tears this week. "I'd do anything to find those cards."
The search has consumed her since the storm bowled into her Tazewell County town. The separation she's experiencing doesn't surprise Bill Benson, administrator of a Facebook group page set up to rejoin folks in the county with property that was whirled away.
"These storms typically have tops of thousands of feet, so theoretically things could be lofted up to that height and carried," said Benson, a photojournalist from Missouri's Lake of the Ozarks area. "I'm sure as farmers go to work their fields next spring, things will continue to be recovered unless they're buried beneath topsoil."
Klein would rather not wait that long, already frayed by the ordeal that began the Sunday she saw the tornado zeroing in on her home and raced with her husband and children to a basement safe room.
"The kids were screaming. We were screaming," she said. As the parents shielded the kids, "we just prayed as a family."
Seconds later, there was silence and sunlight. The Kleins, some still in their pajamas, emerged through their walkout basement and found their home destroyed, the twister having hurled a pickup truck through the living room where the family had been just moments earlier.
"There was that feeling of emptiness, the kind that comes when the kids look at you with faces of complete fear," said Klein, 41.
A couple of days later, while holed up in her family's hotel room, she suddenly remembered the cards her brother gave her. They had been individually wrapped in plastic and tucked inside the box.
The cards were sealed in neon pink and yellow envelopes. Each was designated for one of McLaughlin's children -- Brendan, Cameron and Erin, who are now ages 10 to 18.
"My brother told me, before dying, to give those cards to his kids when the time is right -- their 18th birthday, 21st birthday, the day they got married," Klein said. "I hadn't really decided when the right time was."
Even without the cards, it's unlikely McLaughlin's kids would ever forget their dad, a man who poured himself into raising funds for children's charities, particularly those benefiting kids with cancer.
McLaughlin, who worked as a Fidelity Investments software analyst, was a skilled hockey player and mentored his children in sports. Not long before his death, McLaughlin got a surprise visit from NHL Hall of Famer and former Boston Bruins player Ray Bourque at the McLaughlin family's Rockland, Mass., home.
Bourque played hockey in the street with McLaughlin's kids as their dad, weakened by cancer, played goalie in a chair.
"I'm lucky," Boston Herald columnist Mike Barnicle quoted McLaughlin as saying in chronicling the day. "I've had a wonderful life, a beautiful family, three great kids, my own home."
It was a bright spot for the family's life, and now Klein wants to find those cards to ensure that McLaughlin's children have something more from their father to hold dear.
Strangers have joined her search.
While helping with Washington's tornado cleanup, Illinois Wesleyan University women's golf coach Kathy Niepagen spotted Klein desperately searching her property, looking for the cards.
"I felt so bad for this lady. She had such despair in her eyes, and she didn't care about anything else," Niepagen recently recalled. "I just gave her a hug, walked away and said, `Let's see what we can do."'
Niepagen turned to Facebook, posting on the Benson-run "Tazewell County Document & Photograph Recovery" group page an appeal for anyone "from Washington to Chicago" to be on the lookout for the cards. More than 25,000 Facebook users, some as far away as North Carolina, had shared Niepagen's posting on their pages as of Wednesday.
Klein said she just revealed to her brother's widow this week that the cards are missing. She said her sister-in-law told her she understood and forgave her.
"I believe we're going to find them," said Klein, who's Catholic and said she prays to Saint Anthony, the finder of lost things. "I have faith."