Smoke and Mirrors


Photo by Caylea Erickson

Grace Vance

[dropcap style=”flat” size=”5″ class=”A”]A [/dropcap]crowd stands together in the silence of the cemetery, some sobbing and others holding back tears. It was a blustery day on Oct. 29; a cool wind swept through as a solemn folding of the flag ceremony commences.
Among the crowd stands junior Jesseca Alexander and her family, grieving from the pain of loss. To the rest of the world, this is the sorrowful death of a veteran, but for her, this is the beginning of a long and detrimental journey. No longer would she spend visits playing Solitaire with her grandfather. Never again would she hear him ask the same question each visit, ‘Do you have any boyfriends yet?’
Walking away from the cemetery, Alexander took one last look at the burial site of her grandfather. Nothing could replace the time she spent with him. Now all that was left of him besides her memories were the bouquets of flowers left by loved ones and a tombstone labeled with his name: ‘Bill Kirk, 1935-2013’.[/vc_column_inner]Untitled-1[/vc_column_inner]The tragedy leading up to his death all began eight weeks before his funeral when doctors diagnosed Kirk with leukemia, which was “pretty advanced at that point.” They performed a blood transfusion in an attempt to replenish his lack of white blood cells and planned for other treatments like radiation.
Looking back at times before he was diagnosed, Alexander can recall memories of his unique personality and loving spirit.
“He was not very outgoing or loud, but he was always very offhandedly funny and always a good hugger. He was just a quiet little grandpa,” Alexander said. “I think the worst part was [that] it was really [unexpected. It was] eight weeks from when he was diagnosed to when he passed away so it was really, really quick for all of us.”
Before doctors could start further treatments, Kirk contracted pneumonia and became very sick. Because of the fragile state he was in, Alexander’s family had to move him between multiple hospitals, from Belton Research hospital located in Belton, Mo., to hospice care, where Alexander and her family visited frequently.
“There is this one time that always sticks with me, we went to see him, and it was the first time for me since he was diagnosed,” Alexander said. “He couldn’t talk much and when he did he was pretty out of it. It was [very] startling to see him in such a bad state and it really caused me to face the truth that he was extremely sick.”
Although her mother and the rest of the family knew about the details of Kirk’s medical care and how he was doing, Alexander and her sister did not get told about how severe the situation was. Instead, she had a false feeling of security that her grandfather was going to move past this health problem.
“[My family] really didn’t tell me and my sister all of what was going on or how serious it was or the treatments he was getting,” Alexander said. “I think [that] was a blessing and a curse because it was better before he died [that] I didn’t think it was as bad, but after he died it hit me really hard not knowing it was going to happen as quick as it did.”
Even though Alexander wasn’t fully informed about the state her grandfather was in or the treatment he was receiving, she knew he was very sick and it was “just a matter of time before he passed away.”
While she was dealing with the stress of family issues, Alexander’s mom spent hours at Kirk’s bedside. The two were very close throughout all of her mother’s life; she went to college two hours away from her father. Every weekend he would visit to do her laundry, and everyday they would talk on the phone to catch up. Given the time they spent together, Alexander’s mother took it hard when the blow of his death finally hit her.
“After he passed away, she did not come out of her room [very often] for eight or nine months and stayed in there [and] didn’t eat a lot. It was unusual at first to see her in such a weird state, to have your mom crying in your arms instead of the other way around,” Alexander said. “It was very weird for us as a family, but my dad explained to us what all was going on and why she felt so horrible about it, so my dad was a really big supporter [for the family.]”
On the day that Kirk died, Alexander’s family excused her from school to attend his funeral. Similar to her, they were all mourning and feeling the pain of losing a part of their family. The following week, though, Alexander went back to school. At the time she attended West Middle School, formerly West Junior High School. She had to step back into her normal routine and act as if everything was fine, and while for some this might have been scary, for her it was a way to get away from the continuous sadness that had engulfed her household.
“It was better for me to go back to school to have a break from it because my house was kind of focused on [his death] so it was a relief to get back to something I knew [and] that I was good at. It was definitely a good escape to stop thinking about all of that,” Alexander said. “Just as long as nobody asked me what was going on I was fine. I just tried to keep an ‘all right’ attitude and not focus on it while I was at school.”
For freshman Ruth Wu, school also became a safe haven from the trauma unfolding in her home in 2013 when her parents divorced while she was in eighth grade. A month after her parents’ split, Wu, already heavy with the news of their separation, learned her mother had the possibility of developing uterine cancer.
From a young age Wu had lived without her father, but on occasion he would visit. Although she was born in the United States, she lived in China for a year and a half when she was a toddler but moved back to the U.S. at the age of four where she still lives now. In the years after the move her mother was constantly busy with work, causing Wu to spend little time with her while her father continued to live in China.
Even though most of her childhood was spent with her grandmother, she said the divorce still made her feel distanced from her parents. Despite her relationship with her parents, the separation meant independence at an early age.
“I was always pretty independent, even before [the divorce], but my emotions became a lot more unstable and I kind of withdrew from people. I’ve become actually just a lot more… solemn in general,” Wu said. “It made me become a lot more grown up. I was always more mature beyond my age but even more so now.”
About a year before all of these overwhelming events occurred one after the other, Wu visited her family in China for two months. When she returned — standing deep in the depths of her oncoming depression — she found herself alone. All of her friends had grown closer together and further from her. Now depressed, Wu battled her biggest nightmares without support.
“I felt really sad because it felt like people were walking out of my life one by one and it was hard for me because I’m a people person,” Wu said. “If you put me in a room without [anyone] for a long time, I will probably die [of] loneliness. Being alone is actually one of my biggest fears, [and given that, everything] had a pretty drastic impact on my life.”
Currently more than 45 percent of U.S. marriages result in divorce and about 40 percent of children will experience and remember the divorce, with 80 percent of those children under the care of their biological mother, according to Dartmouth Undergraduate Journal of Science.
To drown out the anguish of her loneliness, she made school her biggest priority. She spends most of her time doing chores for her house and volunteering for RBRO, all the while studying and doing homework for her schedule that consists of solely honors classes.
“I’m kind of piling work on myself to make me forget,” Wu said. “It’s not a good way to fix it and I know it always comes back when I try to forget it because [my experience] was unforgettable, but I think that’s what’s happening right now.”
Even though she loaded school work on herself to try to forget the unforgettable, there was no way of escaping the thoughts that rippled through her mind. Every day Wu still struggled with finding self confidence. With everything in her life shifting before her eyes, she had a hard time figuring out where to turn. When she was first going through the initial difficult times after her parents’ divorce, she turned to a friend and expressed what she was going through, but this cry for help turned into an emotional lockdown, making Wu keep her sadness to herself.
“When I was little, I actually told not a very close friend of mine the things I was going through and she completely freaked out,” Wu said. “[I figured my burden] was too heavy for other people to bear so maybe I’ll just help them by keeping my story to myself. I didn’t want to weigh anybody down with my problems.”
Despite this internal struggle, she allowed herself to heal through hearing other people’s stories and coming to terms with her own. When looking for activities to join, Wu noticed an informational booth outside the cafeteria called Ladies P.A.S.S., or Ladies Promoting and Advocating Sisterhood and Service, a group which focuses on leadership skills, self-esteem and positive communication for teenage women by doing activities like counseling, volunteering and fundraising. Since signing up in Oct. 2014, she said the organization has helped her tremendously with facing her depression.
“I really like the counseling sessions. Those times were what changed and touched me the most and the words really hit home,” Wu said. “We did this activity about what you see in you and what other people see in you that helped. We talked about self image, and it literally moved me to tears.”
Janice Brooks, a counselor in Ladies P.A.S.S., helped her to heal by being a listening ear for her, but also sharing her story.
“I’ve only had two sessions with Ms. Brooks but it helped me heal because her story and life struggles mirrored mine exactly. It has helped knowing somebody had gone through the same thing but more than just that because I know a lot of people have gone through worse than me,” Wu said. “She was able to tell me how she healed and got out of the spot I’m in. In sympathizing with other people I [feel] that my story is less painful. When I see what other people have gone through, I think [that] my life hasn’t actually been that bad and I can see the silver lining in all of life’s clouds.”
Along with learning other people’s stories and becoming aware that she wasn’t fighting her battles alone, Wu found comfort in time itself and becoming used to the idea of change.
“You get used to it, you kind of get desensitized. At first I wasn’t even that shocked because I hardly saw [my dad], but afterwards you kind of get used to it,” Wu said. “[It’s] kind of like ‘Yeah, I had a parent who almost got cancer, yes my parents are divorced.’ I’ve been separated [from them] all my life. So what’s the big deal? You get used to it in the sense that the fact doesn’t shock you as much anymore so it doesn’t affect you as much. You move on to different things.”
While Wu found comfort in the mere essence of time, Alexander yearned for closure from the sudden death that had struck her family. Instead of finding help in the form school activities, she found healing from a close friend, junior Jodie Bappe.
“I think definitely one of the major factors [helping me heal] is just family and friends. I had a really great friend then and she let me know that it was okay to be sad and it was okay to have these feelings,” Alexander said. “She allowed me to get them out because at the time I was very reserved, I was like a stone wall. I didn’t want to show any emotions. She let me know it was okay to feel these things and I was able to express them to her and that [helped] me to get them out of my system and say what I was thinking.”
Bappe listened to her, and gave her advice about how to handle different situations, shifting Alexander’s view on her grandfather’s death from a sorrowful moment to a loving recollection of the times they spent together.
“She went through old pictures [of my grandpa] with me and helped me look at those, and instead of grieving, she helped me pick out happy memories,” Alexander said. “She really helped me transition from being sad and mourning to celebrating his life.”
Although Alexander and Wu’s experiences with healing was very different, there is one thing is common: the mending process is a continuous battle. In the end, however, all hearts are faced toward the future; they are remembering the past to grow from struggles and looking forward to all of life’s possibilities.
“Time is definitely a big part of healing, but for me, it’s mostly just getting used to it,” Wu said. “Time makes you numb to circumstances, less aware of the pain, and time [to think and] move on knowing reality and looking [forward from] the past.”
By Grace Vance[/vc_column_inner][/vc_row_inner][TS_VCSC_Icon_Flat_Button button_style=”ts-color-button-emerald-flat” button_align=”center” button_width=”100″ button_height=”50″ button_text=”Previous” button_change=”true” button_color=”#ffffff” font_size=”18″ icon=”ts-awesome-chevron-left” icon_change=”true” icon_color=”#ffffff” tooltip_html=”false” tooltip_position=”ts-simptip-position-top” tooltipster_offsetx=”0″ tooltipster_offsety=”0″ margin_top=”20″ margin_bottom=”20″ link=”|title:Marking%20Time|”]This article is the first in a series. Select “Next” to view the next article in the series, or “Previous” to view the preceding article.