“A monster killed my baby"
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Billy Watkins is a lifelong Mississippian now in his 40th year of writing about the state’s people and places. He is a columnist and features writer for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson. A graduate of the University of Mississippi with a B.S. in Journalism, Watkins lives in the Jackson area with his wife. They have three children and two grandchildren.
As her daughter lay dying, Amy Hamilton Cardenal held her hand, brushed her hair, cleaned her nails, and played music by some of her favorite artists.
Jerry Lee Lewis. Van Morrison. Ben Harper. Loretta Lynn. Otis Redding. John Prine. Kris Kristofferson.
“I would look at her, and my vision would change,” Amy said. “I didn’t see a 29-year-old broken woman lying in that bed with a machine breathing for her. I saw my small child in a beautiful long white dress. I saw the little blue-eyed girl who was baptized when she was 3 years old, the little girl who was smart and loving and perfectly made by God’s hands.
“That’s how I will always see her. I know some people might remember her another way — as a drug addict who died of a heroin overdose. But that wasn’t a drug addict I buried last weekend.
“That was my baby.”
Skylar Summerhill’s obituary ran in the Nov. 8 edition of The Clarion-Ledger. It included a photo showing Skylar just as Amy remembered — in a flowing white dress at age 3.
Amy came up with the words in her head the night Skylar died. She put pen to paper the next morning.
She wrote of her blue eyes and blonde ringlets as a toddler. “Skylar was a precious promise, a child of God, and a possibility filled with potential.”
She didn’t dodge how Skylar died.
“As is the case with far too many, the disease of addiction destroyed Skylar’s body and spirit … Skylar leaves behind her shattered parents, Rico and Amy Cardenal and Wade and Dawn Summerhill; her devastated siblings, Savannah and Sam Summerhill …
“Our family encourages those of you struggling with addiction. We implore you to seek help and have hope for your loved one always. ‘He will wipe away every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning no more; crying no more; pain no more; for these things have gone away. Revelations 21:4.’ ”
I emailed the obituary’s online link to a friend in Senatobia, 52-year-old Mike Jernigan. During the week, Mike works as director of internal audit for Northwest Regional Center in Oxford, part of the state Department of Mental Health. Every weekend, he drives 300 miles round trip to serve as pastor of Farmhaven Baptist Church, 14 miles northeast of Canton.
I called him after he’d had a chance to read it.
“The devil has launched a war on the 20-something age group, and he is using heroin to do it,” Mike said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people who have contacted me who have a child in their mid-20s battling a drug addiction. And with a lot of them, it’s heroin, which I thought left with the 1960s.
“They start with (marijuana), and then switch to pain pills. When the medical community clamped down on those, they became harder to get and more expensive. Heroin is the alternative. It’s cheaper and easier to get.”
From 2000 through 2013, the number of drug poisoning deaths involving heroin quadrupled nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People ages 25 to 44 had the highest death rate.
In Mississippi, one death due to a heroin overdose was reported in each year from 2009 through 2011. The number increased to six in 2013. Thirteen died of a heroin overdose during the first six months of this year.
Mike and his wife, Dianna, learned the consequences of addiction in the most painful way possible: On Aug. 9, 2014, their 25-year-old son, T.J., died of a heroin overdose.
“He fought it hard,” Mike said. “We all did. He went to rehab several times. But to show you how powerful that stuff is, six days before T.J. died he asked me if I remembered a high school acquaintance of his. He said, ‘He overdosed on heroin and died last night. That’s scary. Dad, I’m done with it. I’m still addicted but I know I can’t play around with it.'”
Mike began to cry as he recalled his son’s words.
“I feel so sad for Skylar’s family,” he said. “They’re probably in shock. That’s what gets you through the funeral and the first few days. But I can tell you what they’re feeling. It feels like somebody kicked you, stomped you and beat you in the gut. Once you’re able to breathe again, you notice every breath you take because every one of them hurts.”
Mike and Dianna were introduced to that type of pain prior to T.J.'s death. On Feb, 28, 2007, their 21-year-old daughter, Jessica, was killed in a car accident.
“It hurt the same, and it still does,” Mike said. “There is no way to tell people how much I miss her. But Jessica’s death was an accident, and accidents happen. They’re part of life. But when T.J. died, there was such a feeling of defeat because we fought it, thought we had it beat, fought it again … it went on and on like that.
“He and I had some pretty open conversations about it. I said, ‘Son, you can’t tell me that is not a conscious decision to go buy drugs and inject it into your body.’ He said, ‘Dad, I’m telling you, it’s not a conscious choice. I’ve gotten in my car, driven to Memphis, bought it and injected it into my arm before I even knew what I was doing. I didn’t want to, I had to.’ ”
At the funeral, veteran Mississippi journalist Jim Prince, who was T.J.’s cousin, gave the eulogy. With Mike and Dianna’s approval, Prince informed those gathered that T.J. “struggled mightily with the demon of addiction. It’s nothing to be ashamed about. It was his particular struggle with sin."
“I knew friends of T.J.’s were there and struggling with the same thing,” Mike said. “We thought, ‘Maybe it can save one of them.’
“My church ministry has helped me get through it. Right after T.J. died, I had a number of people — mostly youth and young adults — that I had the honor of baptizing. That gave me a lot of comfort. No doubt, my faith strengthened me.”
T.J. came home from ninth-grade football practice at Olive Branch High School one afternoon so mad he was crying.
“I’ll never earn a starting position,” he said to his dad.
“Well, if you’re gonna come home crying about it, then just quit,” Mike told him, offering more of a challenge than advice.
“I ain’t quitting!” he responded.
T.J. started at offensive guard three straight seasons (2004-2006) in high school on a talent-laden Olive Branch team, which included former Mississippi State linebacker K.J. Wright — now with the NFL’s Seattle Seahawks — and linebacker Allen Walker, who started two seasons at Ole Miss.
Former Ole Miss coach Ed Orgeron told Mike: “If I could put T.J.’s heart in all of my players, we’d never lose a game.”
He also did well in the classroom. He became a talented guitarist.
"When I tell people that T.J. was the All-American kid, it’s not just a dad bragging,” Mike said. “When Fred Smith, CEO of FedEx, was looking at different high schools to enroll his son and visited Olive Branch, the administration got T.J. out of class to meet him. They considered him the model student."
Which drives home the point that drugs can invade the best hearts and minds. Even then, Mike and Dianna learned later, T.J. occasionally smoked pot with his friends.
He strived to be a journalist and attended Northwest Community College on a College Public Relations Association of Mississippi scholarship. He worked closely with the school’s public relations staff.
While studying at Northwest, T.J. wrote a story for the Delta Farm Press about Elvis Presley’s old John Deere tractor receiving a facelift in the school’s agricultural tech class. He went on to work for Prince at two weeklies — The Kemper County Messenger and The Neshoba Democrat.
“(T.J.) was an exceptional journalist,” Prince said in his eulogy, “and I say that not just because he is my second cousin, but because my colleagues in the Mississippi Press Association recognized him as so.”
But his interests took a turn. He moved to Memphis and worked for a graphics design company and later got a job as a sales representative for AES Outdoors, which specializes in the distribution of eyewear for hunters.
Slowly but surely, drugs were taking over his life.
“In 2012, he was struggling, you could tell,” Mike said. “But when I found out he was taking heroin, my heart about stopped. I knew we were fighting a terrible enemy.”
T.J. went to rehab twice in 2013 — once for four months — and moved back in with Mike, Dianna and his younger sister, Chloe, now 20.
One month out of rehab, heroin nearly took his life in July 2013. A friend found him unconscious and took him to a nearby fire station. Firefighters administered Naloxone, a heroin antidote, and shocked his heart back to beating.
“He had to call me from the hospital,” Mike said. “He straightened up for a little while and was doing pretty good. We were keeping up with his money, never allowed him to carry cash, and we took him everywhere he went. And T.J. wanted that. He wanted to get better.”
But in August 2014, he asked his parents if he could go to Oxford to visit friends for the weekend. “He said he felt worthless never being able to go anywhere,” Mike said. “Me and Dianna went back and forth about whether to let him go. But you can’t keep a grown man caged up his whole life. So we let him go, and he left that Friday.”
Saturday morning, Chloe looked out the window and asked her parents, “What is that police officer doing in the front of our house?”
Mike froze and said a silent prayer. “God, please let him be in jail.”
Skylar’s love of music was equaled only by her love for animals. Sometimes she combined the two. She was always picking up strays, whether it was a puppy or a snapping turtle.
In 2012, she brought home a red-nosed pit bull for her mom and named it “Eleanor Rigby” — borrowing the title of the Beatles’ classic.
“If you listen to the words of that song, it’s about being alone, dying alone … Skylar pictured that happening to Rigby if she hadn’t brought that dog home,” Amy said.
Skylar had a driving work ethic. She worked at Rapids on the Reservoir, the now defunct water park, when she was 15. Got a job at Lenny’s Sub Shop in Brandon at age 16 and worked there after school, weekends and summers.
At 18, she did odd jobs for a local veterinarian, cleaning kennels and mopping floors. She eventually went to work at All Creatures in Madison and “fell in love with all the vet tech stuff,” Amy said..
All the while, she was using drugs.
“Skylar said later it started when she was 15. She and some friends took a few pain pills from a home medicine cabinet,” Amy said. “She told me, ’The minute I took that pill, I always wanted that feeling again. I felt completely at peace.’
“The hard thing to understand is why Skylar became an addict and another girl who took a pill that night never had a drug problem and is now married with kids and leading a happy life. I believe it’s something physiological. It’s the hand you’re dealt.”
Skylar entered treatment at an out-patient rehab center in early 2007.
“She was still able to work,” Amy said. “She went to meetings nearly every night. We had family night meetings. But even with that kind of support, she couldn’t maintain her sobriety. So we put her in an in-patient rehab facility in Columbus — the Columbus Recovery Center. It was a great place with counselors who really cared. But, again, she couldn’t stop using.
“And it was like that pretty much the rest of the way. Skylar’s journey was all over the place. It seemed like things were either very calm or we were in the middle of a hurricane.”
Amy believes her longest stretch of sobriety was in 2012 and part of 2013. Skylar worked at a vet office in Columbus and her sister, Savannah, attended Mississippi University for Women.
“But in the summer of 2013, she started dating someone, and all of a sudden we didn’t talk as much. Addicts walk in chaos,” Amy said. “One minute, they’re talking to you all the time. The next, you can’t get in touch with them and nobody’s heard from them.
“We all tried. I did. Her daddy did. He and I divorced in 2008 but he was a wonderful father to her.”
Skylar’s “favorite person in the world,” tried as well, Amy said, referring to her mom, Jaynee Hamilton. Skylar called her “Nonnie.”
“If she wouldn’t listen to Nonnie, she wouldn’t listen to anyone,” Amy said.
In the summer of 2014, in the same period of time when T.J. died, life dealt Amy Cardenal a devastating one-two punch.
Her mom and best friend, Jaynee, was diagnosed in June with an aggressive and fatal form of brain cancer. She moved in with Amy.
In August, Amy received a phone call from Skylar’s boyfriend.
“He said that he found Skylar in the driveway of the place they were living,” Amy said. “He said she was being airlifted to Tupelo with a traumatic brain injury. She survived, but it affected her logic, memory and compassion. She wasn’t able to work. Sometimes she couldn’t separate reality from fantasy.
“And to this day I don’t know how she was injured.”
While Skylar recovered at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, Amy, director of a preschool at Lakeside Presbyterian Church in Brandon, fixed up the guest room. “I told her she could come home and help me take care of Nonnie. I told her we would heal our relationship and she could start a new life.’ She tried for a while, but before long she went back to her boyfriend.”
Amy’s mom died Nov. 2, 2014.
Nearly a year to the day, the call came about Skylar’s overdose.
“I was still crying for my mother and I get the news Skylar has overdosed and fighting for her life,” said Amy. “And I was a newlywed. Well, I guess I still am. Rico and I married in October.
“He’s been a rock. He has told me over and over, ‘A day at a time. I will help you through this.’ ”
For the first six mornings following Skylar’s death, Amy awoke to what her mind said was a normal world.
“But a millisecond later, reality would hit me like a train,” she said.
On a sunny, breezy fall afternoon, Amy sat in a double rocker that she used to share with her mom. Wind chimes she gave her mom for Mother’s Day one year deliver a comforting sound.
“I forgot to tell you that Skylar liked to garden and cook,” she said. “And she wanted to be a mother. I believe more than anything she wanted to be a mom.”
Tears fell down her face as she looked up to see birds flying over. One broke formation, and then another, and another, until they formed a clear pattern of the letter ‘s.’
“God is telling me that Skylar is OK,” Amy said. “God is good.”
Published in The Clarion Ledger, November 16, 2015
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