Dickinson State softball players remembered one year afer drownings
Tears slowly turned to smiles and, eventually, both gave way to laughter and lively chatter on Monday afternoon at a memorial honoring the one-year anniversary of the deaths of three Dickinson State softball players.
Hundreds of students, faculty and community members gathered at noon near DSU's International Flag Plaza for a short ceremony to honor Kyrstin Gemar, Ashley Neufeld and Afton Williamson. The three women drowned inside Gemar's Jeep a year ago Monday when they drove into a livestock pond northwest of Dickinson and were unable to escape the vehicle.
"It's hard for all of us, but I think we just think positive and think that if we're crying and sad and not joking around, the girls wouldn't really want that," said Nathalie Martinez, a DSU softball player who was Neufeld's roommate. "They'd want us to be smiling and joking around, just as if they were here with us.
"They were with us in spirit."
DSU President Dr. Richard McCallum and Student Senate President Jermaine Christie each spoke briefly before students released balloons.
The ceremony closed as DSU softball pitcher Charnel Zetsch led an impromptu and emotional prayer circle -- similar to those the team formed last year during prayer services while they awaited word of their teammates' fate -- and the softball team formed a tight circle before shouting "A.K.A! We play with 12!" and pointing to the sky.
Monday marked a day of closure for the DSU softball team and those close to them.
Gemar, 22, Neufeld, 21, and Williamson, 20, were last seen the night of Nov. 1, 2009, when they left Dickinson for a midnight stargazing trip on the outskirts of the city.
About 45 minutes later, Martinez received a frantic phone call from Neufeld's cell phone. She remembers hearing the girls screaming for help.
The next day, search attempts proved futile. Heartbreak began to set in over the next 36 hours as a community hoped and prayed for the safe return of the three missing women.
Zetsch said she felt the same anticipating in the pit of her stomach on Monday morning as she felt a year ago.
"I thought the day that this came was going to be terrible," she said.
Yet, less than an hour after the prayer service, Zetsch was smiling, hugging her teammates and laughing about the times she had with Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson.
"I've definitely grown up a lot, having to deal with something like this," Zetsch said.
Zetsch recalled last year's memorial ceremony at DSU's Stickney Auditorium, when she broke down in tears and embraced Lenny and Claire Gemar, Kyrstin's parents.
"I was so heartbroken, one of the weakest people," Zetsch said. "I was hunched over the Gemars, crying at the ceremony. I really think I've grown a lot. I've learned I can be strong for other kids who are upset about it."
Moving forward was a seemingly universal sentiment among DSU softball players at the ceremony.
Zetsch and DSU softball captain Sara Jane Webster said there are times even the most miniscule memories trigger tears.
Yet, they say through it all, the team is moving forward and embracing the memories they shared with Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson.
"I think everyone is just trying to take the best of the situation and live in their memory instead of sulk in it," said Webster, a NAIA All-America pitcher in her senior year. "They would want us to be happy and they would want us to be close just like we were with them. We're just trying to carry on our lives as best we can, just remembering them."
Neufelds attend memorial, honor daughter at home
Phil Neufeld, Ashley's father, said his family was uncertain how they wanted to spend this day.
Once a letter from DSU arrived, saying the school was planning a memorial for his daughter, he knew his family had to make the trip from Brandon, Manitoba.
As Neufeld embraced their daughter's coaches, teammates and friends on Monday, he knew his family had made the right choice.
"The strength that those girls have, you could see it," he said. "They're all crying through the surface, but listen to them now. There's lots of reminiscing. You can tell they're having some fun with it. I'm glad to see that.
"They've been awesome, and that's why we call them another piece of our family."
The Neufelds say they regularly speak with Ashley's friends and teammates through e-mails and Facebook. Phil Neufeld said he'll chat online or exchange e-mails with one of his daughter's friends almost daily.
"Keeping in touch with them has helped a lot," said Bev Neufeld, Ashley's mother.
The Neufelds have worked hard to make sure their daughter's memory lives on.
Last winter, a family friend invested in the sale of ResQMe tools, keychain-sized emergency devices designed to save the lives of those trapped in vehicles. They contain a blade to cut through seatbelts and a spring-loaded button capable of shattering windows.
The sale of the tools -- emblazoned with the logo of Neufeld's memorial fund -- are used to help promote softball initiatives in Ashley Neufeld's name in Brandon.
"To save a life, that was the whole goal behind it," Phil Neufeld said.
Ashley Neufeld's memory is living on in a variety of ways.
In Brandon, a memorial fund established in her name is contributing to the construction of a new four-diamond softball complex expected to be completed by 2012. The featured diamond will be named in Ashley's honor, Phil Neufeld said.
"You work hard for things like that, too," Bev Neufeld said.
Williamson's mother still coping with loss of daughter
Lizz Williamson spends a lot of time beneath a large oak tree in her backyard in Decatur, Tenn. Beneath the tree, a cross and a stone serve as a memorial to her daughter, Afton Williamson.
It has been a year since she lost her daughter, and Lizz says every day has had its own set of difficulties.
"I just take it one day at a time," she said.
At the time of her death, Afton had only been enrolled at DSU for a little more than two months.
The highly touted transfer pitcher from Riverside (Calif.) Community College with an excellent reputation in the classroom was excelling in every possible area, coaches and teammates said.
"I hadn't seen her that happy in along time," said Lizz Williamson, who visited Afton to celebrate her 20th birthday only two weeks before her death.
Her daughter's happiness was Lizz Williamson's pleasure.
Now, a woman who lost her husband 10 years before her youngest daughter endures daily heartache.
"For all of us, it (Monday) is just a marker of time," Lizz Williamson said, "but the pain is just as real as it was a year ago, and just as deep."
Lizz Williamson said she keeps Afton's ashes in her home. The Williamson family had discussed their wishes following Howard Williamson's death when Afton was 10 years old. Then, Lizz Williamson said, she first began to learn that her daughter preferred cremation over burial.
Williamson said the decision was reinforced after she found papers Afton had written for a class indicating she wanted to have her ashes scattered at a certain spot when she died.
One day, Lizz Williamson said, her family will scatter Afton's ashes. But that moment, she said, is one they are not yet emotionally prepared to face.
"It's still very difficult," she said.
Gemars receive emotional lift from softball community
Thousands of miles away from Dickinson in suburban San Diego, the Gemar family grieved and remembered their daughter Monday evening alongside friends and family at an intimate candlelight vigil held at the Claremont girls softball field, where Kyrstin Gemar grew up playing.
The Claremont, Calif., softball community held a similar vigil following Kyrstin's death, Lenny said.
While they continue to keep in touch with their daughter's friends in Dickinson, the Gemars say the San Diego softball community has been essential in helping them cope with their daughter's death.
"Everybody sticks together because you rely on each other," Lenny Gemar said. "That's how a lot of people get their sense of community in a county that has 4 million people in it."
Claire Gemar added she enjoys speaking with those who knew Kyrstin and listening to their stories about her.
"It's like having group therapy without actually going to one," Claire Gemar said with a hint of laughter.
On a picturesque Sunday afternoon, the Gemars visited their daughter's gravesite near the Pacific Ocean like they do every month.
They put Reese's peanut butter cups and Kit-Kat bars on Krystin's headstone -- "so she could have some candy for Halloween," Lenny Gemar said -- and found that an earlier visitor had placed a Claremont softball hat there as well.
"We'll talk to Kyrstin like she's here, like she can hear us," Claire Gemar said. "We talk about what's been happening, what's been going on, messages that we've gotten from her friends, we'll pass those on to her. We'll include her in our conversations.
"Sometimes we'll just sit here quietly and remember and think about her."
Players: Everything is 'going to be OK'
A DSU baseball player put his arm around Martinez to comfort her as she talked about Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson with her teammates and friends.
The past year has been "an emotional rollercoaster," she said, but she hangs in there, knowing every day will be better than the last.
In the year that has passed without Gemar, Neufeld and Williamson, DSU softball players have found ways to honor their teammates.
They all keep pictures and mementos within an arm's reach. Many got tattoos. Nearly every player has a game-day ritual to honor "A.K.A."
"Time heels everything and I think that's true," Webster said. "Not a day goes by where I don't think any of us don't think of them every second."
But if Monday was any indication, while the memories are almost certain to never fade, the pain endured by a team and embraced by a community is fading.
"It's going to be OK," Martinez said. "All of us have really realized it is going to be OK."