A withered funeral wreath on the front porch of the South Buffalo home is the first clue that the world inside is upside down.
The ring of dried-out pine sprigs, with "We love you Mommy" in gold letters on a fading red ribbon, has been there since September, when Melissa "Missy" Ueblacker died at 25 after contracting viral meningitis -- leaving her autistic children Angelina, 4, and Thomas, 3, in her family's hands.
Those hands belong to Melissa's parents, Tom and Debbie, and her sisters, Jennifer Conta and Molly Overhoff. And they are more than full.
Some people claim to work 2 4/7 -- round-the-clock every day of the week -- but "this is like 7 8/1 4," said a weary Tom Ueblacker, a former mechanic living on disability retirement.
"It just seems impossible," his wife said, tears welling up as she sat on the living room floor struggling to contain a squirming Angie. Tommy, meanwhile, breaks away to hide behind a fireplace around the corner.
Debbie Ueblacker left a department store sales job to nurture the grandchildren and, with her husband, drive them to endless appointments with doctors and therapists.
Angie uttered her first words at 9 months and seemed normal at 18 months before undergoing same-day surgery for hip dysplasia and hearing problems, the grandparents said. Suddenly, everything changed.
"It was like turning off a light switch," Debbie Ueblacker said.
The girl was diagnosed with autism, a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication and repetitive behavior. Signs typically emerge before age 3.
Angie is now considered completely autistic and may even be regressing, doctors say.
The sadness was compounded nine months after Missy, a single mom living with her parents, gave birth to Tommy. He, too, began exhibiting signs of autism, repeatedly spinning objects in front of eyes and slapping himself.
Unlike his sister, Tommy is considered 30 percent autistic and has shown some progress at Buffalo Hearing & Speech Center. "He can count to 10," his aunt Jennifer said.
Missy left her nursing home job to care for the children, and while she was in charge, the situation was manageable, Tom Ueblacker said. "We were normal grandparents -- the ones the kids played with. She kept them in line," he said.
Then came the cruelest blow.
One September morning, Missy -- who despite dropping from about 150 pounds before her first pregnancy to below 100, was "perfectly healthy," according to Jennifer -- awoke with a severe headache. Two days later, symptoms worsening, she went to the Mercy Hospital emergency room.
Scans and blood work failed to detect the underlying meningitis, and she went home. After suffering a grand mal seizure the next day, she was rushed back to Mercy, where a spinal tap finally produced the correct diagnosis, Jennifer said.
By then Missy's brain was infected, and she died from complications nine days later.
Ever since, Tom and Debbie Ueblacker have shuttled their autistic grandchildren to and from Buffalo Hearing & Speech five days a week while struggling to feed, clothe, change and bathe them. Jennifer -- who has two children, Kaylee, 10, and Joshua, 8 -- and Molly -- who has Brionna, 10 -- pitch in as often as possible.
Though insurance covers most of Angie's and Tommy's medical and therapeutic treatment, it does not cover their basic needs, which the grandparents must pay out-of-pocket from their meager income.
Autism Speaks, a national advocacy group, is asking iconic buildings around the world to observe today's third annual United Nations World Autism Awareness Day, kicking off Autism Awareness Month, by turning their lights blue. The organization said participants will include Chicago's Willis (formerly Sears) and Wrigley towers, the Empire State Building and the New York Stock Exchange in New York City and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum in Cleveland. Stores and boutiques nationwide will show blue candles and lights in their windows today and Friday for awareness.
A benefit for the Ueblackers, "Melissa's Angels: Helping Autistic Children," will be held from 1 to 7 p.m. April 11 in the Buffalo Irish Center, 245 Abbott Road. Stone House Band, Gregg Sansone and Soundwave DJs will entertain.
Sponsored by Legacy Health Care, the event will include food and beverages and auctions. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Call 773-7038 or visit www.melissasangels.org.