Part two of a three-part column that won the Illinois Press Association award for best columnist in June. The columns originally ran last summer in our sister publication, the Austin Weekly News:
The evening I learned of my sister's death, I had plans to go to dinner with friends — two single (divorced) women with similar life challenges. It was to be a celebration of my recent promotion, one friend's recent success in graduate school, and the other's recent recovery from a life-threatening illness.
Having friends who support my desire to grow in my personal life and my career has been something I have sought out — a blessing I'm grateful for — as this wasn't a priority for discussion while I was growing up. This was to be a special night for us.
When I got the call from my father that my sister had died, I tried to put the news on the back burner. As a single mother, I've learned the art of compartmentalizing my emotions. I sent a text to my friends to say that I might be late for dinner — my sister was found dead. I needed a little extra time to figure things out — to get a grip. I thought I needed 30 minutes.
I know now that I was in shock. But at the time, I really thought I could put this piece of news in the proper drawer, close it, and deal with it the next day. I'm grateful that my friends set me straight. They insisted on canceling the dinner, insisted that I "deal with this," insisted that I talk to my son, Paxton, about what had happened. Truly, I needed time to process this news. What I didn't know was that I was about to go into a deep stage of mourning, a journey of reflection and critical self-evaluation, an exploration into my own spirituality and mental health beyond anything I had ever known.
This journey has taken me to places I never expected.
As the associate publisher of the Austin Weekly News, I want to include you in this story. For I have learned that not everything is as it seems. Truth seeking, tolerance and forgiveness are ideas we can apply to our community as a whole. We live in a time of struggle and strife, and my job gives me the opportunity and privilege to lend a voice, even when it's the voice of honest sadness. This much is true — the last 10 years of my sister's life indicated a troubled past — a strong history of mental health crisis and drug addiction. But I've discovered there is so much more here than meets the eye. Death by drowning — surely, this is not how my sister's story ends.
My sister's name was Sandy. Born Cassandra Lynn Ferencak. When she married, she became Cassandra Lynn Ferencak Schumacher. When I watched the news report of her death, at least four televised reports via Internet, she was referred to simply as Schumacher. I saw the video of her hotel, with multiple emergency vehicles swarming the parking lot. I saw the paramedic walking out of the hotel, accompanied by a hotel employee.
They were smiling, grinning, embarrassed. Was it really so funny? Funny they had performed CPR on my sister? Funny she had died? "Schumacher, found face down in the pool, pronounced dead at UK." I surmised from the news reports that she had died in a compromising way — a disgrace — an ugly end to years of struggles with addiction.
I saw a man, a father, interviewed, discussing how he wished he could have protected his family from this sight. I later heard a report that a bottle of vodka was floating in the pool by Sandy's side. As I watched these reports, I wanted to scream, "This is not my sister! This is not real!"
Keep in my mind when my father first told me my sister had drowned at her hotel, I assumed she had died in a bath tub. I assumed this was her choice. Surely, she had committed suicide. This notion that she died in a swimming pool took me by surprise.
This much I had known for many years: My sister suffered from bi-polar disorder, alcohol addiction, and had suffered several hard emotional losses in her lifetime. I don't know why I was surprised by the drama in the details of her death because drama had been an ongoing theme in her life.
I last spoke to my sister four months before she died. I was driving in my car with my son Paxton when my phone rang on our way to a West Garfield Park Community Stakeholders meeting. A community meeting for a drug-free West Side. Sandy was crying; I assumed she was drunk. She said to me that it was the 14th anniversary of her daughter's death — what would have been her daughter's 14th birthday (she gave birth to her daughter at 21 weeks, her daughter died within 30 minutes of birth. This tragedy has been the cornerstone of my sister's troubles ever since).
Sandy, in tears, asked if she could renew a relationship with me and Paxton.
I was frustrated by her slurred words. I was harsh; told her to get a grip, to pick her-self up, to see her therapist and to call us when she was truly able to have a functional relationship with us — to call me when she could call without being drunk. We had experienced 10 years of similar phone calls. She hung up on me.
Then a few minutes later, she called me back. This time, in a childlike voice, she asked if we could please be together again as a family. My heart ached for her, but I held my ground and told her to get help. I've had so many trying times with my sister, and by now I had moved to a "tough-love philosophy:" I believed tough love was the only way to move forward.
My journey has provided many answers. But not the answer. I may never know if my sister died by accident, died by her own hand, or died by foul play. But this I know: I will continue to seek the truth. I will tell Sandy's story. Mental health and addiction affects our families as often as a common cold. We have to talk about this — we can't put it on the back burner.
My relationship with my sister was often strained. But I loved my sister. And I miss her deeply. I miss the potential of what we could have had. When I went to Kentucky to investigate her death, one of the first things I did was search her trash (five bags of trash) for clues. I found a multi-page essay Sandy had written about hope, just six months before she was found dead. Here are a few paragraphs from her essay:
"I have come a long way in turning things over to God and not taking them back. I am learning that it is all right to not know all the answers. I need to pray, 'Let it be,' and stop thinking so much. I have learned to be selective in my battles — peace is better than being right. I must be willing to let go of the life I had planned so as to have the life that is waiting for me. I am learning every day that incredible change happens in my life when I decide to take control of what I do have power over instead of craving control of what I do not. God has something better for me. … I just have to wait.
"By far, the biggest change I have experienced since coming to Phase is self-acceptance and self-love. I have come to believe that I am a truly beautiful woman who is worth a life of sobriety. My inner beauty needs no make-up. I am good enough, just the way I am. If I don't love myself, I will always be chasing people who don't love me either. I don't need to change so people will like me; people don't have to like me. But as long as I am myself, the right people will love me.
"Nobody's perfect. I might not be the woman with the perfect body, but I no longer pretend to be someone I'm not. I've gotten pretty damn good at just being me. When I look back on my life, I see pain, mistakes, and heartache. When I look in the mirror, I see strength, lessons learned, and pride in myself. I have learned that it never has been about becoming a new person, but of becoming the person I was meant to be, already was, and didn't know how to be.
"I have learned that I am my problem and also my solution. Understanding this is my first step toward acceptance, and only with acceptance can I ever have recovery. I have accepted that I can't continue my journey alone, and I have learned that I don't have to. Above all else, I have learned that at any given moment, I have the power to say, 'This is not how the story is going to end.'"
Cassandra Lynn Ferencak Schumacher
Answer Book 2019
To view the full print edition of the Wednesday Journal 2019 Answer Book, please click here.
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