Gray, low skies hover above us, and a blustery wind cools the late August afternoon in Fairview Park Cemetery. The woman beside me, Olivia Segura, imagines her daughter Ashley in the grave at her feet. Her bones so cold. Ashley never liked the cold. Cold weather made her legs ache, even as a girl. Olivia supposes she is OK now. That where she is she does not feel cold.
The wind tugs at Olivia’s dark hair, tied loosely into a fraying ponytail. Her baggy, black striped sweatshirt flaps against her body. Olivia is 48. She is not tall and neither am I, and the expanse of graves unfolding around us, with their huge black tombstones seemingly trying to defy the limits of mortality, makes the two of us smaller and renders us more insignificant among so many absent.
Olivia’s daughter lies beneath a trim marble tombstone with her name, (Ashley Sietsema), the date of her birth (September 1987) and death (Nov. 12, 2007), her rank in the Illinois Army Reserves (Army health care specialist and ambulance driver, 708th Medical Company) and where she served (Persian Gulf).
I saw photos of Ashley in newspaper clips online. She was wearing her green uniform. Her short hair was combed back behind her ears. A broad grin opened her face, her eyes alight and smiling.
Ashley died in a car accident while conducting a routine medical transfer of a patient from Camp Buehring to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait. Her family fell apart. Her stepfather, Alberto Segura, tried to drink his grief away. Her brother Kyle locked himself in his room. Her mother doped herself with sleeping pills.
It took another crisis, the 2009 arrest of Alberto, an undocumented immigrant, to pull the family together. Olivia and Kyle successfully worked for his release. Afterward, Olivia returned to college and earned a bachelor of arts. She formed the Ashley Project to champion families of veterans killed in the line of duty. Among other things, she began advocating for deported veterans. Kyle graduated from high school and began working to help support the family and save money for college.
Alberto, however, had few options. He was free but unable to work because his felony drug conviction and repeated arrests for driving under the influence made him ineligible for citizenship. Olivia and Kyle moved forward. Alberto stayed behind.
“We were happy but stressed,” Olivia said. “It was too hard for me to be the main provider. I’m not a lazy person, but I was not meant to be the main provider. I was with Alberto but alone because he couldn’t contribute.”
Something had to give. Eventually, something did. Alberto began drinking again, and the family collapsed once more. Not the same way as before, although there was certainly drama, but in the small bruises collected on the way down, refracting all the now familiar anguish that had followed Ashley’s death and had never fully been reconciled.
I heard about Alberto and Olivia while reporting a book on the U.S. government’s practice of deporting undocumented military veterans. He had met Olivia on the deported veterans Facebook page. I became intrigued by Alberto’s story. It was different from the other deported veteran stories I had covered. This time, a veteran wasn’t the one without papers but the vet’s stepfather.
I looked up the Seguras on Facebook. A photo of Alberto showed a large, 46-year-old man with a thick head of black hair combed back off his forehead. He had a grin that filled the photo. I called the Seguras and spoke to Alberto in July. He was softspoken but eager to discuss his situation. We agreed to talk again at the end of the month to arrange a meeting.
Two weeks later, I reached Olivia instead of Alberto. She told me police had arrested him for driving under the influence. He was facing four to 15 years in jail. Olivia didn’t know if his case would be flagged by federal authorities for removal proceedings and referred to immigration court.
His drinking made her furious, but the possibility of his deportation angered her more. Punish him, yes. Get him help, yes.
“But deport?” she said. “No. Ashley died for this country. That should mean something.”
Here in the cemetery, her anger has been weakened by uncertainty.
“I don’t know what will happen,” she says.
She speaks to Ashley, tells her what’s going on. She assumes Ashley knows. In death, Ashley has become her guardian angel, Olivia says. She promises Ashley she will help Alberto. Ashley had no relationship with her biological father, who abandoned her and Olivia when Ashley was a toddler. Alberto was the only father she knew. She called him by his name but they were very close. She was daddy’s girl.
Olivia shakes her head and lets out a long breath. Alberto is stuck. He has boxed himself into a corner. She doesn’t know how to get him out and get on with her life, too. She misses Ashley and struggles these many years later to cope with her grief. Olivia needs to end this. She can’t take any more crises, any more pain. She feels as if she has failed somehow. She believes in marriage. In sickness and in health, through good times and bad. A husband shouldn’t be left alone. They deserve a full commitment. But she feels she has given everything she has to Alberto. Since Ashley died, she has borne an incredible weight. She wants to shed that weight. “I’m going to leave him,” Olivia tells me. “I’m tired of living like this.”
Repeating her vow to Ashley, Olivia says she will help Alberto once more. Beyond that, she won’t promise.
Kyle Segura sits across from me in the breakfast nook of the Segura house. Ashley had painted the walls orange and yellow. Three mixed-breed dogs of varying sizes scramble around our feet rocking the table, their nails clackety-clacking against the hardwood floor. Kyle wears black glasses. He folds his hands on the table and looks at me intently. I ask him questions, and he considers his words for moments at a time before he speaks. Then he talks in a calm, measured way without hesitation. He tells me he visits the cemetery from time to time. Not as much as his mother but every now and then. He was 13 when Ashley died. Her death made him grow up real fast. He gets along better with people older than him than he does friends his own age. He is 22 but thinks like a 30-year-old, he says. He should be partying, but he can’t because his 40-year-old dad did and is now in jail.
“I’d be a really strict judge,” Kyle says.
He doesn’t want to see his father deported but if he were a judge he’d throw the book at him. Kyle feels a fury that competes with his love for his father. He gets it, his father got stressed out again. But if drinking put him in jail before, why do it again? Hit a punching bag to get your frustrations out. “Do you see why I don’t hang out with people my own age?” Kyle asks me. “How can they understand? How can anyone?”
Kyle’s voice remains steady, his anger dialed back almost immediately to a controlled simmer. He opposed his mother’s decision to help his father this time. How could they afford a lawyer? Kyle works a factory job and gets to work at 5 a.m. He helps his mother pay the mortgage. He should be in college, but instead he has to do this because his father could not work, drank and is now in jail.
Like his mother, Kyle speaks to Ashley when he visits her grave. He says, I miss you. I don’t know what to do. Give me a sign. She probably does, but Kyle doesn’t see it. That sucks. He walks into her bedroom to talk to her. Then he stops himself. Oh, wait you’re not here. Kyle has experienced other losses: A friend died of cancer, and another friend––his closest–––killed himself. When he skateboards, he thinks, Look what I am doing, dude. You see this? And then it’s like, Oh, he’s dead, too.
Sometimes he feels that the closer he gets to people, the worse their lives will be. He spends a lot of time alone.
Olivia grew up in Unidad Rosario, a neighborhood of Mexico City. The white house had a living room, kitchen, dining room and a patio. Three bedrooms took up the second floor. A one-car garage stood attached to the house.
Olivia was the oldest of three children. She remembers her father taking her skydiving. She did it to please him. He had wanted boys, not girls. He always brought this up with Olivia’s mother. Oh, yeah, you didn’t give me boys. He wanted his girls to be tough. He was so proud of her when she jumped. Olivia saw a lot of cute boys at the airfield. She liked the speed, the rush just before the chute opened, and then the calm of floating in air as she maneuvered the chute. She jumped about eleven times before she broke her right leg. She was in a cast for three months and never jumped again. These days, she doesn’t like taking risks. Life is too important, she explains.
Her father, an electrician, also volunteered with the Red Cross and would take Olivia with him. She would see all these people from around the world who worked with him. They spoke about other countries they had worked in. She wanted to be like them. Well-traveled, worldly and learned.
In 1985, her father’s brother-in-law offered him a position at a Chicago tire company, and he accepted. He told his family they would move to the United States for five years so he could earn enough money to send his daughters to college.
Olivia, 15 at the time, had no desire to leave Mexico. She didn’t speak English. She knew no one in Chicago. She asked to stay in Mexico City with her grandmother, but her father refused. He didn’t think Olivia’s grandmother was strong enough to supervise a rebellious teenager. In those days, children were raised not to talk back to their parents, but Olivia was opinionated. She questioned everything.
Equipped with visitor visas, the family moved to Chicago in February. They lived with an aunt on the North Side. But they wanted their own place so they didn’t feel like guests so Olivia’s father rented a one-bedroom basement apartment. It was not like their Mexico home. Olivia’s mother turned the pantry into a second bedroom so they’d all have a place to sleep. Olivia missed having her own room and hanging out with her friends. She made new ones at Wells High School, but she had no time to hang out with them because her father pushed her to find a job. She found part-time work in a small clinic and earned $40 a week. She turned her meager salary over to her mother.
In 1986, Olivia walked past a basketball court on Milwaukee Avenue. A young man called her over. He was also from Mexico, and they got to talking. They had been dating for about a year when, in March 1987, Olivia became pregnant. They decided to marry. Olivia’s father escorted her down the aisle. He told her her husband was no good. Walk away, he said. But she refused. She was in love. Her father didn’t talk to her for six months.
Ashley was born in September. The marriage did not last. In 1990, Olivia’s husband left her for another woman. Her family had moved back to Mexico, so Olivia took Ashley to live there for a while, but she did not stay long. She had become a legal U.S. resident. Chicago was home now. She held out the hope that she and her husband would get back together. She returned to Chicago and saw him a few times, but he did not want to be with her.
Olivia met Alberto in 1992 at Morton College in Chicago. The two of them had agreed to help move a mutual acquaintance. Alberto had on jeans and a T-shirt. A smile lit up his face. At first, Olivia didn’t like him. He was always looking at her. Why aren’t you picking up the sofa and taking it through this door? he asked her. Because, stupid, she said, it won’t fit. He laughed and after a while she could not help but laugh, too. Afterward, they shared a pizza.
Olivia told Alberto about her failed marriage. He talked about his family. He was born in Mexico and had four brothers and a sister. His father died when he was 8, and he dropped out of school to work and support the family. He sold ice cream. He worked in the public markets. He walked to the garbage dumps and sold what he found: discarded clothes, shoes, anything. His mother never remarried. She did not want to risk taking on a man who might be abusive to children not his own. She and Alberto’s brothers worked, too, and Alberto rarely saw them. In high school, he worked in a slaughterhouse. He told Olivia how he carried large slabs of beef over his shoulders throughout the day.
Alberto married at 18, but his wife died in childbirth. She was an only child, and his mother-in-law blamed him for her death. Alberto drank a lot after the loss of his wife and traveled aimlessly around Mexico. He had a brother in Chicago. At loose ends and still grieving, he left his baby with his in-laws and moved to the States in 1989.
Olivia and Alberto began dating. He was very nice, she says. He’d buy presents for Ashley. He worked in shipping and receiving and helped Olivia with money. She wonders now if she was in love or just kind of. Was she just lonely?
They were not yet married when she became pregnant with Kyle. Olivia thought, I’m not ready to have another baby. She worried the baby would not have a future and decided to have an abortion, but Alberto stopped her. He met her outside the clinic. That is my son, he told her. I won’t have any son or daughter of mine killed. He assured Olivia everything would work out. The baby would have a future. He would provide. Olivia relented. She let Alberto take charge. Kyle was born in 1994.
Kyle remembers the days his father would come home from whatever construction job he had, just some random day, and say, C’mon, we’re going on vacation. He waved away any argument from Kyle’s mother. New York City, Disneyland, the amusement park in Cedar Point, Ohio. Kyle loved these breaks. It was sweet to cut out of school for a few days. He’d grab his video game bag and was the first one ready to leave.
Kyle didn’t think of Ashley as a stepsister. Looking back, he thinks she didn’t care for him all that much at first. Seven years separated them. He had that annoying little brother thing going on. He wanted to hang with her and her older friends. His mother and father were always working, so she had little choice but to watch him. When Kyle was a kid, Ashley worked at Jeepers!, a Chuck E Cheese sort of place. He accompanied her to work, and she gave him tokens for arcade games.
As he got older, Ashley told him to get involved in sports. She liked basketball, hockey, skateboarding. Kyle liked skateboarding but thought hockey was too violent.
Alberto didn’t treat her like a stepdaughter, Kyle recalls. They were close. When Kyle wanted to do something, he asked his mother, but Ashley would always ask Alberto. Sometimes Kyle did, too. When he got in trouble at school for not doing his homework, he called his father. So this is what happened, he would say to Alberto. Would you tell the teacher it’s not my fault? OK, Alberto said. No trouble. You can make it up. Don’t do it again.
His father was laid-back. In those days, Kyle never saw him drink.
In 1997, Alberto and Olivia married. They left Chicago and bought a house in Melrose Park, a suburb. Olivia hoped to go back to school, but the need to work and support two children took precedence. Alberto always had a job in those days. Yard work, construction, something. He did his part, Olivia says.
He used to drink casually at parties. Nothing to cause Olivia concern. He never got into trouble until 2004 when Maywood police pulled him over for driving under the influence. They also found $20 worth of cocaine in his possession. Olivia found out about the coke when she attended his trial. Alberto had said he had been busted for drinking only. He hadn’t mentioned drugs. Afterward he told her he had hung out with the wrong kind of people at a construction job. Try this, they told him. He did, and he liked it.
Alberto pleaded guilty. He was sentenced to six months of house arrest and wore an electronic ankle bracelet. Olivia’s disappointment turned to mistrust. She held all their cash, including his paychecks and credit cards. She put gas in their cars herself so he would have no need to handle money for even the slightest task. She maintained tight control over their lives until Ashley died. Alberto didn’t object, Olivia says, but he didn’t like it. It’s like you’re watching me all the time, he told her.
Despite the tension in their marriage, the Seguras continued as a family. Every Friday the four of them drove to the mall to select videos to rent for the weekend. They’d usually pick four movies and then stop and order Chinese food.
In 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Ashley enrolled in her high school’s ROTC program. Three years later she asked her parents if she could enlist in the Illinois National Guard. Since she was only 16, she needed her parents’ approval. Olivia refused to give it. Why join the Guard? We can send you to college, she told her daughter. You don’t need the extra money.
Ashley wanted to be a nurse and perhaps later study to be a doctor. The Guard’s medical corps would give her great experience, she’d said. Ashley always wanted to help people, Olivia says. She taught Bible study to kids at Sunday school, and she was like a mother to Kyle. She was very mature. Olivia thought she would make a great nurse, a great doctor. But she still did not want her to join the Guard.
Alberto, however, supported Ashley. Olivia argued with him, but Alberto would not back down. We need to support her, he said. She’ll do it anyway when she’s 18. We are here to support our daughter. We don’t want to make a decision now we’ll regret later. Olivia relented. Ashley joined the Guard in 2004.
After she graduated high school, Ashley enrolled in Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. The Seguras decided to move to the university town so the family could stay together. Ashley picked the house, a two-story home in a cul-de-sac. A large living room overlooked a fenced backyard. When Alberto and Olivia retired, they told Ashley they would leave the house to her.
In March 2007 and three months before her deployment, Ashley married Max Sietsema, whom she had dated in high school. Olivia opposed the marriage. She did not want Ashley to make the same mistakes she had and have children before she established a career. She thought Ashley, 19 at the time, was too young. She should finish college first. But Alberto insisted they both attend the wedding.
You’ll regret it if you don’t for the rest of your life, he told her.
Kyle hated to leave Melrose Park for DeKalb. DeKalb was a backward little town out of a horror movie, he thought. The house Ashley liked reminded him of a library. Ashley bribed him. She promised to give him a video game, Pokédex from Pokémon, if he promised not to create a fuss. Kyle agreed. I’ll bring the game, Ashley said. Kyle was 11 or 12 at the time.
He remembers the night she first spoke to their parents about joining the Guard. They were finishing dinner. Ashley assured their mother, I’ll be a medic. I won’t go to war. I won’t be in the front lines. Kyle didn’t think much of it. Maybe he was too young to understand, he says now. He was just a kid. He looked at it like she was taking a vacation. She’d be gone and then she’d be back by Thanksgiving maybe, Christmas for sure and their lives would resume like she had never left.
His mother mother’s face paled as Ashley talked about going to Kuwait. Casual. Like she was wondering aloud what she’d have for dessert. Kyle assumes now that deep inside her nerves were wound tight. Whose wouldn’t be? But she held her chin up. Proud, calm, ready. Alberto said nothing. Kyle’s mother turned to him, but he avoided her look.
The Seguras would drop Ashley off for training in North Lake, Illinois, on weekends. Kyle saw the barracks and the people running exercises. He thought the Guard looked pretty cool.
Ashley would talk about the training when she came home. She told him about all the exercises they had to do. Climbing over walls, all the running. She got into it. She liked challenges. Sometimes she was so tired Kyle had a hard time understanding her.
Ashley became more demanding of herself after she enlisted with the Guard, Kyle says. Stricter. She would still laugh and joke and be laid back, but she took on more of a leadership role in the house. She would cook dinner for Kyle and not wait for their parents to come home from work.
Kyle liked her husband, Max. Max became an older brother to him. In the summer, he’d invite Kyle along to Taste of Chicago, a weekend-long outdoor jamboree of some of the city’s best restaurants.
Hey, what do you think if me and Max get married? Ashley asked him.
Cool, Kyle said.
Kyle knew his mother didn’t approve but his father did. His father was always very supportive, very proud of Ashley.
When Ashley deployed, Kyle asked her not to go. Why can’t you stay home, go to school, get married, get pregnant, and call it quits? If everyone stayed home and got pregnant we would not be a free country, she told him.
Ashley left for Kuwait on June 15, 2007. Olivia had lunch with her the day before at an Olive Garden restaurant. On the way, she stopped to buy Ashley two blouses as a going-away gift, and she was late. Ashley looked annoyed. She hated tardiness. She was always 15 minutes early to everything.
“You’re late,” she said.
“Here’s your present. For over there since you can’t be here for your birthday.”
Ashley smiled then and hugged Olivia.
“It’s OK you’re late this time,” she said.
Ashley called weekly from Kuwait. She said how different everything was there. How women wore clothes that covered their faces and bodies. How the people prayed at certain times of the day. Sometimes, Ashley had to get off the phone so she would not be talking while people attended mosque. She liked the food. The most popular dish was “Machboos,” chicken, beef or fish over a specially spiced rice. The weather was something else, Ashley said. Very hot.
On the morning of Nov. 11, 2007, Olivia and Alberto got up as usual and made breakfast. They sat together at the kitchen table. The day was cold but sunny.
“Oh, my God,” Olivia said. “Christmas is coming soon. I can’t wait to see what Ashley brings me.”
“Instead of waiting, you should worry about her coming home safe,” Alberto snapped. (“For no reason,” Olivia says now. “Like he sensed something.”)
“Stupid gifts,” he shouted.
“Yes, you’re right,” Olivia said and dropped the subject.
They said nothing further and finished their coffee. Olivia went to the supermarket. She was putting groceries away when she heard someone knocking. She opened the front door and two Army Reserve officers introduced themselves. One of them asked if she had any health problems. Bad heart? Blood pressure?
“No,” Olivia said. “Is this about Ashley? Did she get in an accident?”
“You need to sit down.”
Olivia shouted for Alberto.
“She did have an accident,” one of the officers said. “We’re here to notify you. She died. We don’t have any more details.”
Olivia started shaking. Then she got angry. She threw a vase filled with flowers. She broke down in tears. She doesn’t remember what Alberto was doing.
“I want my daughter back!” she cried.
A week later, Ashley’s body arrived at DeKalb Taylor Municipal Airport. Men and women holding flags lined the streets of DeKalb as the hearse passed. More people Olivia did not know filled the church, including the governor. Ashley was the second Illinois reservist to die in the Iraq War that year.
In the days that followed Ashley’s funeral, Olivia took pills to sleep and Alberto drank. Olivia stayed in bed days on end. She had dreams. Ashley would come to her and ask about Max, her husband. He is OK, Olivia told her. Did soldiers come to the house from the Guard? Yes, Olivia told her. She told Ashley to follow the light.
When Olivia awoke, she cried. She felt an inconsolable grief. She felt like she was dying. She took more pills and slept again.
Olivia blamed Alberto for Ashley’s death. It’s your fault, she told him. You made me sign the enlistment papers. Why did you allow her to enlist? Olivia wanted to destroy Alberto. You’re a killer, she said. She hit him, slapped him. He never struck back, she says.
She and Alberto stopped talking to one another. Every time a car came by the house they would watch it pass, hoping it might turn into their driveway. Maybe it would be the Army coming by to tell them they had made a mistake.
One afternoon, Olivia stopped at a Walmart and the cashier asked her, Do you have children? Yes, Olivia said. A daughter. She’s studying to be a nurse and then a doctor. When she got home, she broke down.
Alberto was piling up the DUIs. Three in March 2008 alone. He got into fights at work and lost a landscaping job. In January 2009, Alberto argued with Kyle and left the house. He didn’t come back. Olivia thought he had left her. She no longer cared. She didn’t ask about him, didn’t look for him.
But her situation and depression continued to worsen. A short time after his arrest, Olivia had gallbladder surgery, brought on, she said, by stress. Then Kyle suffered appendicitis. Olivia’s health insurance did not cover all the medical costs, and she sunk deeply into debt. What more can happen? Her despondency reached a point where she considered suicide by giving herself and Kyle a lethal amount of her sleeping pills.
“Do you want to sleep forever?” she asked Kyle one night. They sat in the living room on a brown leather couch so worn Olivia covered it with a blanket to conceal the holes. The evening sky had darkened to tar, and lights from houses shined in isolated patches. Olivia could hear traffic outside, distant and vague, until she heard nothing at all but the sound of her own voice.
“Do you want us to die?” he asked her.
The bluntness of the question stopped her. She had reached a point where she wanted to be happy again and not always feeling awful, but she did not want to die.
“No, no,” she said. “Go to bed, and we’ll wake up tomorrow.”
In March 2009, she received a call from the wife of an inmate at Cook County Jail. She told Olivia she got her name from her husband who knew Alberto.
“Your husband’s in prison,” she told Olivia. “He’s depressed. He wants to end his life.”
Olivia began crying.
“You don’t know what he’s done. It is his fault my daughter died.”
“I’m sorry you feel that way,” the woman said. “But you have to take some responsibility. You can’t go on fighting all the time. I know from my husband that he loves you and your son.”
Olivia visited Alberto the next day. He told her he had left the house and driven into Chicago. He had nowhere to stay. He parked the car and slept on the street. He had a bottle of vodka. He had not shut off the ignition, and police saw the car running and took him in.
Alberto’s plight brought Olivia back to life. No one is separating my family, she tells me she thought at the time. They took my daughter. They won’t take my husband.
She hired a lawyer. She wrote to politicians and explained Ashley’s death and how it had affected the family. When someone joins the military, we all join, she wrote. We can’t sleep. We worry. When they die, we die with them.
She also prayed to Ashley. Why did you leave me? she asked her daughter. Do you know how painful this is? I wish you hadn’t joined the military. I’ll make a deal with you. I’ll never ask you why you didn’t come home again. I’ll forgive you. All I’m asking you now is to please bring your father home.
Alberto served a year in prison. On Jan. 5, 2010, after he completed his sentence, he was transferred to McHenry County Adult Correctional Facility, an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility. Immigration Judge Craig M. Zerbe closed the case without deporting Alberto six days later “for humanitarian considerations” because of Ashley’s death. However, Alberto’s release did not resolve his status. He remained undocumented. At the time of his release, employers had access to E-Verify, an Internet-based system that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the States. Alberto would no longer be able to find work unless it was under the table.
yle remembers accompanying his parents to O’Hare in June 2007 to drop off Ashley for her deployment. He saw so many soldiers, men and women. He thought, Man, this is serious.
During Ashley’s deployment, Kyle got in trouble at school for being late. His mom grounded him. She also told Ashley. What’s going through your head, Kyle? Ashley chided him in an email. I know how hard it is to deal with school and mom, but don’t back talk. Do well. Get out there. Go to college. It’s a tough world. Use your mind.
Ashley would call him from Kuwait on Skype. She’d ask him what he was up to. Nothing much, he’d say. Probably watch the Bears game. He was taking guitar lessons, and he jammed some punk music he learned from a Blink 182 album for her. Ashley told him she couldn’t wait to be home for Christmas.
Kyle’s aunt was visiting the morning the two army reservists came to the house. Kyle was running late to class as usual. He didn’t hear what the soldiers said but he heard his mother shout, “Not my daughter!” and then he saw her drop to the floor. Kyle’s aunt grabbed him. I’m so sorry, she told him. Kyle didn’t understand. He said, Please tell me nothing bad happened. Why’s mom crying?
His father tried to hold Kyle’s mother, but he was crying, too. The soldiers stayed about an hour trying to calm them. His father sent Kyle to his room. This is a rough time, we have to be strong, his father told him. It’s OK to cry. No one told him directly, but he knew Ashley had died. He didn’t understand how he should feel. He had not known anyone who had died.
Kyle stayed in his room. So many people began dropping by the house. He hated it. He had no desire to see anyone. He didn’t attend school for a week. At the Ronan-Moore-Finch Funeral home, he saw the open casket, Ashley’s body wrapped in white. People approached Kyle. Sorry for your loss. The same thing over and over again. Sorry for your loss. Sorry for your loss.
At the church service, the priest asked if anyone wanted to say a few words. Kyle wanted to get up but couldn’t. He was so angry. He wanted to say, You all know Ashley. We lost an amazing person. She always put others before herself. She was my best friend. A mother to me, too. He wanted to say how much her death sucked.
Kyle returned to school a week later. He didn’t speak to anyone. He didn’t want to be there. He didn’t want to be home, either. His mother would be doped up on sleeping pills, his father drunk. He tried to keep his mind busy, do things like ice skating. He would stay out late. Sometimes, he wouldn’t come home before 9 or 10 at night. His parents didn’t acknowledge him. No one cooked. Kyle retreated to his room, forgotten.
One January afternoon in 2009, Kyle came home from school. His father sat drunk on the couch. Kyle flipped out. Ashley had been dead more than two years, and he was just tired of being treated as if he didn’t exist, as if he had died, too.
“I’m here,” he shouted at his father. “I’m sick of being ignored. You and mom don’t care. You only think of Ashley. If you want to drink, go to a bar. You might as well leave.”
His father didn’t say anything, Kyle says. He took it all in and then stood up and walked out. Kyle blames himself for his arrest. If he hadn’t mouthed off, none of that would have happened.
He noticed a change come over his mother. She stopped taking sleeping pills. She told Kyle she’d take care of the situation. She’d visit his father in prison. You stay here, she said. Clean the house. She left, and he wondered if she would come back.
When she returned home hours later, Olivia told Kyle, This is what we’ll do. I need you to do this. She gave him a list. Get supportive letters for your father, look around the house for anything that shows how long he has been in Illinois. Find photos of the family. Find papers documenting Ashly’s service.
Kyle did what she asked. She didn’t say anything about not being there for him after Ashley died. That bothered him. But he felt good to see his mother back to normal. He had had no mother for more than a year.
“Your father will come home,” she told him.
Alberto tried to change his life after his release from detention, Olivia says. He didn’t drink. He looked for work but was unable to hold a job because of status. The family fell behind in their bills. When Alberto did find a job, every dime went into delinquent bills. And then the employer would find out Alberto was not a citizen and fire him. Alberto tried to make jewelry to earn money. He sold a little but not much. He was always chasing something. The Seguras were always trying to catch up.
“I can’t support the family by myself,” Olivia told Alberto.
“What else can I do?” he would say. “I’m not getting a job without this pardon. I feel useless no matter what I try to do.”
“As long as you don’t drink, you’ll be OK,” Olivia told him.
Desperate, Alberto and Olivia sought a pardon from then Governor Pat Quinn for Alberto’s drug conviction and DUIs. Friends and some politicians wrote letters on his behalf. They heard nothing.
Olivia continued to dream about Ashley. In one, she recalled a conversation they had in 2006 a year before she deployed.
“Why don’t you finish college?” Ashley had asked her.
“Why? Because I can’t afford it.”
“You gave me everything and put yourself in second place.”
Do you think I’m smart enough to go back to school now?”
“You can do anything you want.”
“Well, it will have to wait.”
“When I become a doctor, I’ll pay for you to go to the university.”
When she woke up, Olivia asked herself, What am I doing with my life? I need to do something for Ashley.
She enrolled in DeVry University in Chicago and graduated in 2012 with a degree in information technology.
Despite the pressures of work and school, Olivia continued to advocate for Alberto. In 2015, she met the recently elected Illinois governor, Bruce Rauner, at a prayer breakfast for Gold Star mothers. He gave a short talk and then moved among the tables. Olivia told him about Alberto and gave him a letter requesting a pardon. The governor, she says, smiled and said he’d do what he could. He gave her letter to an aide.
A year later, in June 2016, Alberto’s request for a pardon was denied. He started drinking. Little by little, not every day, Olivia says. They began seeing a priest every Friday for couples counseling. The priest suggested Alberto attend meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Olivia stayed active. She became involved with deported veterans after her pastor told her about the issue. When they are removed, their families are left behind the same as if they had died, her pastor said.
In July 2016, Olivia flew to San Diego and crossed the border into Tijuana for a rally on behalf of deported veterans. She held a sign: Stop deporting veterans. She met with Hector Barajas, a local advocate. She told him about Ashley. When a veteran goes through a hard time it is my hard time, she said, because Ashley was a veteran. Ashley believed in the slogan “No Man Left Behind.” Olivia thought someone should say no families left behind, too. She said her husband, the stepfather of a veteran, needed help. He should be given a chance on behalf of his daughter’s service. He should be allowed to become a citizen.
While she was away, Alberto lost a factory job. He had lied to get it. He said he was in the process of getting his paperwork. When it didn’t come through, he was fired. He had hoped to work there a long time. Olivia noticed he was upset when she spoke to him by phone, but he would not say why. He did not pick her up at Midway Airport like he had promised when she returned to Chicago. He was not in the house when she finally made it home after paying a cab driver $200 for the two-hour drive from the airport to DeKalb. The next morning, she learned he had been arrested for drunken driving.
When his father didn’t come home, Kyle suspected the worst. He checked county jails online. What’s between Dekalb and Chicago? he asked himself. Kane County. He clicked on the county’s web page and typed his father’s name.
Shit, I don’t want to do this again, Kyle said to himself when his father’s name came up. We’re just getting out of debt. I don’t want to do this whole save-my-dad thing again.
Kyle has visited his father in jail. He talked to him on the phone, too. His father has apologized to him. He told Kyle he understood if Olivia wanted to leave him. This time, he said, he wanted to quit drinking. He didn’t want to end up alone, dying alone. As much as Kyle wants to be angry with him, he can’t. His father is his father, but Kyle doesn’t quite know what to do. Maybe jail would be good for him. Maybe he would get the help he needs.
Kyle wishes Ashley were here. He would tell her, if you were alive none of this would be happening. But she’s not here so what’s the point? He wishes she would see him graduate college. See him get married when the time comes if it does. But she won’t be here. Sucks.
A reservist was with Ashley when she died. He came by house one time, Kyle says. A guy named Velez. He found Kyle on Myspace. I was in Ashley’s unit, he wrote. I was there the day she died. Can I meet you guys? He and his wife and child drove over. He gave the family $500 to help them out. He said he would always be there for them. He broke down. He blamed himself. He should have been the one driving, he said, but he was tired. Oh, let me drive, Ashley told him. She died right away. She didn’t suffer. He closed her eyes and that was that. He started shaking and crying louder. He hugged Kyle’s mother. He asked forgiveness.
“Don’t blame yourself,” she told him.
“I blame myself,” he said.
Kyle held him.
“Things happen because they do,” he said.
He never heard from Velez again.
Ashley’s husband Max also fell out of touch. He came by once in 2008 to pick up a car Ashley owned. He didn’t want to see Kyle’s mother. She reminded him too much of Ashley. Kyle has not seen him since.
Olivia visits Alberto in jail for the 30 minutes allowed. They look at each other, divided by glass. It’s like seeing him through a computer, she says. He has told her he doesn’t know why he does what he does. He recognizes he made a mistake. He says he knows he has an alcohol problem. The police report said he took a Breathalyzer test. He was four times over the legal limit. He yelled, Fuck off, puto, at the police when they arrested him. I’ll kill you when I get out, he said.
His lawyer read the police report. He told Olivia he did not know how much help he could provide. The breathalyzer results hurt his case. Swearing and threatening police officers hurts his case. Being undocumented hurts his case. Worst case scenario he could be sentenced to four to 15 years in jail. He might also be deported.
Alberto asked Olivia to move to Mexico should he be removed from the country. She told him she would not do that. This is my country now, she said. I’ve been here since I was fifteen. My life is here. Kyle is here. Ashley is here. I can’t leave her behind.
Kyle hopes his father doesn’t face deportation again. He hopes he gets out of prison in a couple of years. This is all about saving him from himself, Kyle says. If he doesn’t get deported it would be such a huge relief.
These days, he feels OK around his mother. It wasn’t long ago when Kyle would have said, Hell no, I don’t want to be around her. She doesn’t care about me. He says he understands now that she was not ignoring him. She just didn’t know how to deal with Ashley’s death. He doesn’t blame her. God forbid, should the same thing happen to him, he wouldn’t know how to cope with the loss of a child either. His mother looks at him from time to time and, I’m sorry. Sorry for everything.
It’s OK, Kyle tells her. He asks nothing from her. He has forgiven her. He has forgiven his father, too, and Ashley for leaving them.
Kyle wants to attend college. He wants to minor in film and major in law. He doesn’t want to waste time. Ashley never did. She was always productive. But look what happened to her. Kyle doesn’t know what life holds. He could die at any time. His mother and father could, too. He might be left alone again.
In the cemetery, grass rustles at the base of Ashley’s tombstone, stirred by wind. Sparrows rise and fall in its currents, and larger birds take shelter in trees. Olivia stands with her hands in her pockets. She tells Ashley about an undocumented Iraq War veteran facing deportation. Special Forces. Came home, got in trouble with drugs and was sentenced to prison. As soon as he is released he will be moved to an immigration detention center. He has post-traumatic stress disorder. Olivia has become his advocate.
She also has a new job with Nestle. Clerical work. Fourteen dollars an hour. Not as much as she’d like. She is not guaranteed 40 hours a week. She doesn’t get sick days or holidays. She has a bachelor of arts. Someone with her skills should do better, she says. Maybe it’s her Mexican accent that holds her back, she tells Ashley. Maybe her age. Maybe because she’s a woman.
Olivia worries about Kyle. She demands a lot from him. She needs him to help pay the bills. She needs him to hang out with her. She hates to be alone. She needs him as a son and so much more. She asks a lot of him. She feels she has failed him.
“We don’t like to talk about Ashley, do we?” she said to him one afternoon.
“You don’t, Mom,” he said.
She often thinks about that afternoon and what Kyle told her. You don’t, Mom. Olivia has yet to adjust to life without her daughter. She told Alberto, If we stay together we can’t go back to the way it was after Ashley died.
After her daughter’s death, friends stopped talking to Olivia, she tells me. She thinks now she made them uncomfortable. They didn’t want to hear her sadness. She didn’t chase after them. She stopped seeing her cousin. Her cousin has children. It pained Olivia to see them. It was too hard to lose a daughter and then see other families with all the things she had wanted for her children. She blames herself sometimes for her loneliness. She cut people off.
She won’t cut Alberto off, but she doesn’t know if she’ll stay with him. He has to resolve his status, Olivia says. He has to seek treatment for his alcoholism. He has to become a working part of the family again. When she remembers the good times before Ashley’s death, the spur-of-the-moment vacations, the movies they watched together Friday nights, she doesn’t want to leave him. He is the father of her son. He loved Ashley as his own. He is a good father.
“Ashley died for her country,” Olivia says. “That should count for something.”
Turning to me, she asks what I think. I shrug, shake my head, bite my lower lip and feel a nagging doubt. She has some difficult decisions to make. I don’t know if I accept her reasoning that Alberto should not be deported because he was the stepfather of a veteran. Alberto was given a break once and blew it. However, I don’t see what deporting him would accomplish other than breaking up a family already coming apart. We like winners, those individuals who triumph over adversity. Losers are simply discards, especially a guy driving under the influence who is lucky he hasn’t killed someone already. And there is his wife standing beside me, a fighter, resilient in her way yet lost and beaten down under burdens she can barely withstand, and who sought escape through pills and may now seek escape through divorce. The truth is that most everyone on Earth is a little of both good and bad, strong and weak, remarkable and flawed. We judge them and too often don’t ask how they got that way.
Alberto has to accept responsibility but so do we. We send people to war without thinking about the consequences to the families they leave behind and the ramifications of a father or mother, son or daughter not returning home alive. After all the yellow ribbons have faded and rotted off trees and lampposts, after all the flag waving, when their grief remains unabated, when they behave in ways that violate the heroic, stoic images we have of a dead soldier’s family, when calling the dead “patriots” does not provide comfort, what then do we say to the those left behind?
Olivia faces the grave a moment longer. She tells Ashley she hopes for good things. She wants her heart to jump with joy again. She wants to move out of the shadow of her grief and Alberto’s troubles.
The wind picks up. Olivia lets out a long breath. Hunched against the wind and the flat, gray sky bearing down. A diminutive figure beside the grave of her daughter. If Kyle is home, he and Olivia will eat dinner together. Maybe rent a movie, order Chinese food. Sounds good. Like old times.
“Goodbye,” she tells Ashley.
She does not look back. She steps slowly through the damp grass and walks alone to her car and considers the evening ahead. She hopes Kyle will be waiting for her.