The holiday season can be a time for joyful family gatherings. But I recently spoke with a father and daughter in Huntingdon who are struggling with loss this year. This story is part of WPSU’s “Speaking Grief” project.
Two energetic little schnauzers greet me at the door as I arrive at Jon Smith’s house in Huntingdon.
Twenty-seven-year-old Natasha Smith of Tyrone is at her dad’s house to help him decorate. It will be their first Christmas without Jon’s daughter and Natasha’s sister. Twenty-nine-year-old Deseray Smith passed away in April of this year, when she was hit by a car in Florida.
Natasha remembers Deseray as only a sister can.
“She was a pain in the ass,” Natasha says, through her tears, and the three of us burst out laughing. “We spent a lot of time together. We would do everything together. We had a lot of girls nights. Just very close. We’ve been through a lot together.”
I ask Natasha what she and Deseray did on girls nights. She doesn’t miss a beat.
“Margaritas,” Natasha says, and we laugh again. “We’d go get Mexican food.”
Deseray had served in the Marine Corps, and her father, Jon Smith, remembers her as both tough and kind.
“She was, as I always tell her, one unique cat,” Jon says. “She was a marine before she was a Marine. Growing up, she was a very tough kid. Very physical. Very demanding. Pretty headstrong.”
He pauses for a moment.
“She loved helping people,” he says. “She did. That’s why she went into the Marine Corps.”
Jon says Deseray was a sports nut, too. She even wanted to be a pro wrestler. A love of wrestling was something they shared.
“She wanted to be one of the first female pro wrestlers from Pennsylvania to be a champion,” says Jon, who did some pro wrestling himself in the past.
He pauses again here, his words laden with memories and meaning.
“And she would do anything for anybody at all. It doesn’t matter what it was. And even when she left, we knew that she was going to be very special when she graduated to be a personal trainer, and that’s why she went to Florida. And she wanted to come back and help everybody,” Jon says.
But Deseray never came back. She was hit by a car as she was walking toward her first day of class in Florida. She was in a coma at first. Jon and Natasha Smith flew to Florida right away.
“And we got to see her, and it didn’t look like her,” Natasha describes the scene, although it clearly hurts to get the words out. “She had towels over her head. But we talked to her. She was on life support. And they said that overnight, her brain function just kind of lessened and lessened. And there was, when we got there, no function in her brain.”
The Smiths had to make the decision to disconnect Deseray from life support. Jon Smith takes up the story.
“There was Natasha, myself, and Tasha’s mom was there, and Tasha’s stepdad. And we looked at each other and knew," Jon says. "And after we made that decision, a lady came back who works with organ donation and they said she did have an organ donor card. So we know that she would want that. And we knew that in order to facilitate Deseray’s wishes, we had to make the decision there, and we did.”
Jon’s voice becomes quiet, almost a whisper, as he speaks of letting his daughter go. But it regains strength and purpose as he tells how Deseray’s wish to be an organ donor saved the lives of others.
“We’re proud to say that she saved the lives of four total strangers," Jon says. "We got our first letter about a month and a half ago from a woman in Florida who was the first recipient of her lungs. And she sent us a letter saying our daughter was an angel, because she saved her life.”
Jon and Natasha have both signed-up to be organ donors. And they’re channeling their grief to help others through the Deseray Smith Foundation.
“And the reason that we started the foundation is to help people that are going through emotional emergencies. Now it’s not just if a family member passes,” Jon explains.
Jon says people can also contact the foundation if they’re depressed, have a drug or alcohol issue, or are worried about a family member who does.
“I’d like to help people get those references as much as I can,” Jon says. We’re going to be a referral service. We’re not counselors. But what we do is we assist people getting the help that they need, so they don’t get to the point where I was: almost going over the top emotionally.”
Jon and Natasha Smith are facing their first Christmas without Deseray. Natasha says the first Thanksgiving without her was difficult.
“It was awkward,” she says. “It just wasn’t the same. It didn’t feel right to have it without her.”
Jon nudges Natasha to tell me about what Deseray would make for Thanksgiving.
“Yeah, she made green bean casserole every Thanksgiving,” Natasha says. “And it was my favorite. I would always get her to make it for me. And I tried to make it this year, just for her. It still wasn’t the same. But we at least got through that part.”
Jon says there was a remarkable event on Thanksgiving that helped to change his perspective. It has to do with Deseray’s favorite Thanksgiving snack: the deviled eggs he always made for her.
“And we toasted to those who are no longer with us,” Jon says. "Then we made some comment about the deviled eggs. The door blew open. The door blew open, and everybody was just sort of shocked, going, 'Wow, this is crazy!' And that changed me just a little bit at that time. Because I was so angry with God about allowing this beautiful individual to pass at such a young age, when she didn’t hurt anybody. At that point I knew that was sort of Deseray’s soul telling me, and everybody else, you know, ‘Dad, I’m here.’ Very similar to a few months earlier I had my dog and we was outside.”
Jon says he took his shnauzer, Max, for a ride in his SUV.
“I was yelling at God,” Jon says, “Asking him, 'Why could you allow such a beautiful person to pass at such a young age?' And I said, 'Does Deseray know what we’re doing right here? Does she know that we was at her hospital bed? Is she OK?'”
He felt that an answer came when he started the car.
“And the old SUV just has an AM/FM radio. As soon as I started the car, the song, ‘Desiree’ came on from Neil Diamond," Jon says. "And that was the first time I thought maybe there’s a glimmer that there is Deseray, up wherever Heaven is, looking down on us.”
He imagines what Deseray might have wanted to say to him that day.
“'And you know what, Dad, it’s OK to mourn. If you didn’t mourn me, you wouldn’t have loved me. But now I’m in a safer place where there’s no pain. I’m in a peaceful place now. So don’t mourn for me for a long time. It’s time to take the next step, because baby sister needs you. So get it together, and let’s do this together,’” Jon says.
We’ll check in with Jon and Natasha Smith again in a few months, as their journey through grief continues. This story is part of the Speaking Grief project at WPSU.
You can contact the Deseray Smith Foundation here.