INA – A local teenager has taken one of the most difficult situations a young person can face and used it as a vehicle to a better future.
Ziegler-Royalton High School senior Elizabeth Harms, 17, is the winner of a Rend Lake College tuition waiver through an essay contest hosted by the Pinckneyville Foundation in conjunction with the Smithsonian Institution’s travelling exhibit, “Between the Fences.”
Harms’ entry, “The Childhood Triumph,” is a straight-forward essay about losing her father, Todd Harms, to cancer when he was 29. It is the third person omniscient account of watching the terrible disease take her loved one when she was only 9 years old.
“It wasn’t as hard as I though it would be,” she said of writing the story. “I guess it made me feel better after writing it.”
Her mother, Erica Abney, and stepfather, Dan Abney, came with her to the college when she accepted her award.
“I was very surprised she was able to write it and submit it as a short story,” her mother said. “I was thrilled to hear that she had won. She never showed me the short story. She did tell me that she submitted a short story for a possible tuition waiver and when I got the phone call I was ecstatic. I am still over the moon about it. I am very, very proud of her ... that she can do something when she sets her mind to it.”
The story starts with 9-year-old Elizabeth and her brother, Taylor – two happy kids who loved their father and enjoyed playing with friends in their “nice neighborhood.” It quickly turns to receiving news about his disease, numerous visits with doctors, and bonding with their father.
“She cried of course; her daddy was going to die and there was nothing that could be done,” Harms wrote. “Daddy would chaperon for fields-trips for Elizabeth and help her with homework. He bought the new Nintendo 64 and taught Taylor how to play the games. They all enjoyed spending time together and did it as much as they could before Daddy couldn’t spend anymore time with them.”
She talks about her father using a wheelchair to get around and an oxygen tank to breathe. Her mother had quit her job in order to take care of him at their home, “keeping Daddy as happy as possible.” Harms wrote about the delusional, often hallucinatory, state her father was in at the end-stages of the disease.
“... sometimes he would be Daddy, and others he wouldn’t,” she stated. “He would not know where he was or who the people around him were. Sometimes Mommy pretended to be Elizabeth because that is who Daddy thought he was talking to. It was a very sad and emotional time.”
Harms goes on about his finals days – falling asleep during her Baptismal ceremony and slipping into a coma a week later – and her tender memories of their last moment together.
“He was unable to communicate fully, but he was able to give his kids and his wife one last parting gift each. To Elizabeth, he gave the strongest hand squeeze he could when she asked if he loved her. To Taylor, Daddy gave his last hug. Lastly, to Mommy, he gave a kiss. That was the last time they got any response out of Daddy.”
The family gathers at their home, sitting in the garage where they tell stories and reminisce. Her aunt goes to see him before leaving for the night and “saw him take his last breath. She rushed back to tell Mommy and everyone else.”
Harms wrote about the funeral and their time at a summer church camp, when their agonizing grief finally gave way.
“It was fun, and it helped a lot,” she wrote of the church camp. “Elizabeth and Taylor met new friends, and Mommy got out of her depression.”
She also wrote about her mother meeting her stepfather.
“At first she was looking for a new friend but found much more,” the story reads. “That is how Mommy got through her hard time of losing her first husband. Elizabeth’s new dad helped her and Taylor get through the hard time by being there and raising them as his own children.
“The years passed until Elizabeth was almost all grown up,” she wrote. “She still thinks of her daddy, but is getting through life just fine.”
Harms will be the first in her family to attend college. She wants to go into veterinary medicine. Tibretta Reiman, general manager of the foundation that hosted the writing contest, said that is an accomplishment in itself.
“Before this, they really weren’t sure how she was going to be able to go to college,” Reiman said. “So, this is going to ... give her a good start.”
Interim Chair of Liberal Arts at RLC, Henry Leeck, said the college is proud to be a part of that. Leeck explained that English faculty members Peggy Davis, Joe Ervin, Rebecca Biggs, Rob Little and Barb Hampton judged the contest entries.
“This isn’t something that we are usually involved in ... partnering with someone outside the institution in a writing contest,” Leeck said. “It proved to be an excellent experience for us. Our name is out in the community, we are helping students and it is a nice recruitment tool for us.”
Between Fences is a traveling exhibition of the Smithsonian Institution, exploring the cultural history of fences and land use through a selection of artifacts, photographs and illustrations. Held at the Perry County Fairgrounds Exhibition Hall from Oct. 16 through Nov. 23, it was made possible in Pinckneyville by the Illinois Humanities Council. It was part of the Museum on Main Street Program – a program supported by the U.S. Congress and a collaboration of the Smithsonian Institution and the Federation of State Humanities Councils.
The local exhibits centered around Virginia Marmaduke; the first female crime reporter in Chicago, a resident of Perry County, Southern Illinois advocate and supporter of Southern Illinois at Carbondale and Du Quoin State Fair.
“We felt that the writing contest was a good fit to get Rend Lake College involved and since Virginia was a journalist,” Reiman said.