Editor's note: This story was originally published on May 7, 2000
Nighttime in June. Karen and Will ride north on South Broadway, looking for lost children. Will sits at the wheel, neck bent forward. Karen sits beside him, one sneakered foot propped up on the minivan's dash. Karen is telling stories of then and now while peering into darkened alleys. Looking for runaway teens. Wary eyes looking out from the face of a girl. Hard to comprehend from those eyes that she is only 19 years old.
Karen Irene Countryman, once a lost child, now a finder of lost children.
She's partnered with Will for a year and a half, driving Wichita's streets. Thousands of Wichita kids know them by sight, the teen kid and tall Will Ellis, looking down from 6 feet 8. Teens all over town carry the cards they've passed out for the Street Outreach program run out of the Wichita Children's Home.
In danger? the cards say. Hungry? Runaway? Home-less? Abused? In a crisis? Help is just around the corner.
It wasn't long ago that Karen herself needed that home.
She's got a story to tell about that. And suddenly she's not keen on telling it. She's happier these days. But in the story, her Mom kills herself. In dark times since, Karen fights off the same impulses that had beckoned to Mom.
"I'm not sure I want the whole freakin' world to know," Karen says. "It hurts so much. What happened to me and (my brother) Jeremiah, what happened to my Mom, it hurts too much. And I don't know if I want to tell it."
The night ends. Months pass.
-- -- --
Snow is falling on the January day Karen agrees to tell her story. She says it should begin with her Mom, that other Karen Irene Countryman.
Mom used to call Karen "Reenie." A nickname they had devised together, Reenie derived from Irene. They thought they needed the nickname because it might confuse people to have two Karen Irenes in the world, two people with the same face, the same hair, the same build.
And nearly the same soul.
"Tell the story," she says. "Start with Mom, who hugged me to sleep every night for 13 years."
Begin with Valentine's Day 1994.
Mom bought the gun on Valentine's Day.
-- -- --
"Five years ago I was getting perfect grades and living a perfect life with a perfect Mom. It was like a fairy tale. I was so happy. . . .
"And I found out nothing is perfect. Ever."
-Karen Countryman, February 1999
In the afternoons, Reenie Countryman would get off the school bus and walk home to the smell of fresh pie. Apple or cherry or rhubarb. Sometimes Reenie could smell pie before she got to the back door. Smells of heaven after school. The clatter of pots and pans. Never a cake mix or Hamburger Helper in the house of Karen Irene Countryman. She made every meal from scratch.
So when Reenie pulled open the back door at 418 N. Spruce, the smell would float out like a wave. And she could smell the floral shampoo in Mom's hair when they hugged. How was school? Mom would ask. "It was so cool," Reenie would say. Reenie made A's, made Mom proud.
Reenie could see Mom looked tired. Mom cleaned other people's houses, baby-sat for ladies from church. Hard work, but she baked pies no matter how tired she was. And she'd get up early to make breakfast. Breakfasts of pancakes or pecan rolls, baked with pecans she and Reenie picked up in their own yard. At night there were heavenly suppers. Chicken casserole, lasagna or chicken-salad-with-celery sandwiches that Reenie and her brother Jeremiah liked so much.
And there was the chicken biscuit Mom would shape to look like the huge rose window over the front door of the First Baptist Church downtown. Mom and the kids attended First Baptist on Sundays and had family devotionals at home every night after supper, with Bible readings and stories by Christian writers, cheerful stories of God's unconditional love. Reenie loved the story of the prodigal son, the child who came home. During this devotional time no TV was allowed. "We need to be a family," Mom said.
Karen gave them music lessons every night, piano and violin. She taught Reenie to play "Winter Wonderland" on the violin. Reenie would later say she played OK, but everyone could see Jeremiah had a gift. He could play Mozart and Beethoven by ear. He was so good he played in church.
Mom wanted them to have everything she could give. Not long after, it would come back to Reenie how Mom wanted so bad to be good, to be perfect.
"Nothing is perfect. Ever."
-- -- --
Reenie wrote about life with Mom every night in her journal. Sometimes she wrote to herself, sometimes to God. Sometimes she pasted in pictures, and birthday or Valentine's Day cards from Mom. She'd kept up the journal since first grade, nearly since the day she learned to write. And it was in the pages of her journal - in clear handwriting that looked like a twin to Mom's - that Reenie would tell the story of how her childhood came to an end.
Feb. 13, 1994
"Today is Sunday," Reenie wrote.
"I didn't go to church because I was too tired, since last night I went to the Steve & Anne Chapman concert last night with my mom, her best friend from school & her stepdaughter, one of my friends from elementary school. It was pretty fun. . . . I think it meant a lot to my mom to see her old buddy & talk about 'old' times. It was also kinda neat to hear about their teen years. . . .
"About two days ago I started going out with (a new boyfriend). I really hope it works out this time. . . . Tomorrow is Valentine's Day. I don't know what to get (him). I don't wanna spend too much money. . . . We don't have too much money right now. Mom has spent a lot of money for the church and my room. Paint, curtains, bed ruffles, sheets, comforter, portable phone. . . . This weekend - in four days - we are "God willing" gonna paint and redo my room. I pray it works out and we do a good job. . . ."
Reenie wrote more. Of boys and friends. How she and Mom played tennis that night and vowed to play every day. She wrote of her sadness that brothers Jeremiah, 17, and Nathan, 19, had moved out, Nathan to his own place, Jeremiah to the streets; he'd run away.
"I love them all. I miss them so much."
There was a suggestion that mother and daughter might move from Wichita to Kansas City. Touches of sadness in the words of a 13-year-old girl. And at the end of the note to God for this day, there was this:
"Please help me and my Mom! Pray her peranoi to stop."
Mom was depressed. She wasn't sleeping. Reenie knew this because Reenie slept with Mom every night, the sheets warm and smelling sweet even when Mom wasn't in them. Mom would hold her at night and sing songs of Jesus and God's love. And sometimes in light shining dimly on the bedroom wall, Reenie could see the shadow of Mom's lips moving as she sang the songs that floated Reenie to sleep.
But for the last month, Mom was sticking plugs in her ears to block out noise. The noises crept in anyway and stole sleep. And Mom had ulcers. Felt bad all the time. She threw up at mealtimes.
The counselors who were treating her depression had changed her medication two weeks before, but Mom seemed worse.
-- -- --
Valentine's Day 1994
"Why aren't you here?"
Reenie was writing to God again, at the end of a long day.
"My life is really messed up! I need some security!"
Reenie had gone to school that morning looking forward to the afternoon. Mom always celebrated every holiday with Reenie, no matter what. Mom had promised tonight they'd go out, just the two of them. They'd play tennis again, go out to eat.
At school, Reenie got flowers: a rose and two carnations from her new beau, a carnation from a girlfriend. But Reenie said she felt crazy all day. She argued with her math teacher over a bad grade.
"I handled a lot of things wrong!"
Mom looked tired when Reenie saw her after school.
"We'll go out," Mom said. Tennis again. Dinner at a downtown restaurant, just the two of them.
But first they ran an errand.
Mom drove to a pawn shop, down at Oliver and Pawnee.
"What are we doing here?" Reenie wanted to know.
"I'm going to buy a gun," Mom said.
"For our protection," Mom said.
Mom told her to stay in the car.
When Mom came out, she had a box. Inside it was a gun and a box of bullets.
Reenie felt sick. She argued.
"Why do we need this?"
"For our protection," Mom said.
In the journal that night, Reenie wrote to God about the rose and the carnations, and the boyfriend, how she'd "cussed out" her math teacher and complained to her mother that the food was "gross" when they went out to eat.
She'd wanted to believe Mom about that gun, but part of her didn't believe her and didn't know what to do about that. She felt trapped.
"I handled a lot of things wrong!"
"My life is really messed up! I need some security! I don't know about my mom. She is scaring me! We need your guidance! Why aren't you here?
-- -- --
Feb. 15, 1994
There is no journal entry for this day. But there are vivid memories.
Warm breezes and sunshine, like those days years before, when Reenie was a little girl, Mom pulling her in the little red wagon with Jeremiah and Nathan trotting along behind.
"The day was so beautiful," she said. Or at least the weather was. Clear skies and a high of 59. When Mom dropped her off at school, Reenie felt an almost unbearable tension in the car.
"It wasn't the same as it usually was where you give Mom a hug and a kiss. I told her I loved her. I don't remember what she said."
Reenie spent most of the day on in-school suspension for bad behavior.
"Just a totally crazy day."
But after school, on the bus home, her spirits lifted.
"I got off the bus. I was so looking forward to being home and smelling Mom's home-cooked food, the pies and whatever else she might be cooking.''
She walked to the back door, calling out, "Mommy, I am home."
Back door locked. Weird.
Around to the front.
Weird. Maybe Mom went to the counselor again. Is her car here? Yes.
Reenie Countryman had lived a life without locks. The back door was always open when she came home, and though her Mom was very shy, Mom had taught Reenie to unlock her heart, to Mom, to God, to her journal; to be open and trusting of everyone - friends, teachers, ladies from church, black kids in the neighborhood who called her Ivory, even strangers.
Most of all, Reenie trusted Mom. With good reason. Mom took good care of her. Mom never lied.
"Protection," her Mom had said. "We need the gun for our protection."
Reenie pulled out her key and unlocked the front door. Her cats, Babushka and Biscuit, darted past her legs and ran outside.
Reenie walked in, went through the living room.
She found Mom on the dining room floor.
The gun lay beside her.
"She had shot herself in the middle of the chest. There was a dark black hole there."
Reenie grabbed her mom. The body felt cold and stiff.
Reenie screamed one word.
-- -- --
Later that night, inside the Wichita Children's Home, staff member Risa Rehmert heard the metallic pop of the front door unlocking.
The doors are locked from the inside, to keep people out rather than keep the children in.
Risa heard the pop, then the sound of many feet. She asked another staff member: What's this?
"A 13-year-old girl.
"Found her mother dead."
The group walked into a conference room.
Minutes later, Risa walked by the conference room door. She glanced in.
"And I felt my heart crawl right up into my throat."
In the room, a little girl.
"Uniforms, all around her," Risa said. "Police uniforms. A chaplain. Staff people from the Children's Home.
"A room full of strangers all around her.
"And the little girl sitting there.