Sacia Flowers walks out of her morning communications class and into the April rain, which slides down her pale cheeks, down the ski jacket she’s never worn skiing.
Rain darkens her walnut-brown ponytail. Sacia doesn’t bother putting up the hood. Her hazel eyes focus on the brick path as she heads into a swarm of laughing students, her shoulders pinched from the bulging yellow backpack she’s loaded with textbooks.
She ducks inside Arntzen Hall at Western Washington University and orders a cup of chocolate frozen yogurt at the Freshëns kiosk. Her classmates are everywhere — chatting in the pizza line, eating lunch at cafe tables, warming up in comfy chairs beside a fireplace.
Sacia ignores them. She heads back into the rain to the biology building, up a flight of stairs, down a hallway, and stops in a study room with two tables, a few chairs and no people. She eats alone, working through folders and textbooks.
Sacia Flowers, at 19, has gone farther than anyone expected.
She’s fought for food, for order and for the brother and sister she raised, all to make something of herself and overcome a family history of drug abuse, poverty and crime.
In June she wrapped up her first year of college, where she has a full scholarship in WWU’s general honors program. The first in her family to seek a college education, Sacia often thought of dropping out, giving up on the future.
Nearly every day she cried and dreamed of how life would be easier if she were home in Marysville, working full-time and taking care of her family.
In a school of 13,777, she was, by choice, without a single friend to confide in.
She called her grandmother three times a day to hear her voice. Sharon Chism seemed healthy for a 61-year-old smoker, but she was experiencing dizzy spells, and Sacia worried.
Sacia couldn’t sleep at night without speaking to brother Levi and sister Laci, asking the 15-year-olds about their classes, their friends, their crushes — questions no one had bothered to ask her at that age.
And every night, though they didn’t know it, the people she loved helped her make a decision, to keep a promise she made to herself a lifetime ago.
“My whole life, I’ve been bombarded with images of what could be or what could happen if things go bad or what the consequences of bad decisions mean,” Sacia says. “I’ve seen all these bad ways things can turn out. I made up my mind from a very young age that just wasn’t going to be the way for me.”
As a college graduate she could pursue a master’s degree in science or psychology. Maybe she could study the gene that causes addiction and try to save others from her family’s type of suffering. Maybe, she prayed, she could inspire Levi and Laci to follow her example and stay clean.
“I want to do something to make a difference and leave the world a little brighter. I don’t want to walk through life without someone knowing I was here.”
The path was clear.
In the morning, she always went to class.
* * *
Sacia marches to Psychology 101. She joins a crowd of students waiting for the lecture doors to open, but trains her stormy eyes on the floor or on the white hallway walls.
Ten minutes later, the doors open and Sacia slides into an aisle seat in the sixth row.
A professor with a long gray ponytail and a Swedish accent steps behind a podium and starts the day’s lecture. It’s about long-term memory.
Why do siblings have different memories of the same childhood? she asks. How can a man remember his mother as perfect, while his sister remembers her as a deadbeat? How can the death of a mother affect her children?
“Loss of a parent when you’re very young is not very pleasant,” the professor says. “So you change that, so you get some strength from that rather than being scared by it.”
The room darkens. A documentary rolls over a screen. The narration begins.
“Why are some things so difficult to remember, while others seem impossible to forget? Remembering and forgetting, this time on ‘Discovering Psychology’ … ”
Sacia’s mind drifts. Her memories blend. Shapes disappear and leave emotions she can’t name. This is her childhood, a story she seldom shares.
She remembers waking up in the middle of the night, just 2 or 3 years old. Her nightgown is wet. So is her bed. She walks into the living room, calling for her mom. She’s not there.
Sacia instead finds a stranger, a man, dividing piles of little white rocks spread across the coffee table. The pearly white stones are like baby teeth and crumble when he touches them.
She runs back to her bed and stays up all night, kneeling on wet sheets, waiting for a mother who never comes.
Another day. Another memory. This one more disjointed.
She’s sitting with her mom and a man at a table in a Tacoma apartment. Her mom leans over a black velvet paint-by-numbers Pink Panther poster, and dips her brush in ash-gray paint.
Sacia knows the panther should be pink, but doesn’t know what to say, what a little girl can do, to save him before her mother has painted him gray, beyond help.
Loneliness, above all else, is what she remembers.
* * *
Sacia Flowers was born on Jan. 27, 1990, in Puyallup’s Good Samaritan Hospital, eight months after her mom was convicted of using cocaine. Again.
She was Tamara Mattson’s fifth child. The oldest three were placed in foster care years before Sacia was born. Sacia’s not sure yet how many half-siblings she has on her father’s side. William Flowers was an out-of-work carpenter with Sacia’s wavy brown hair and a history of felony convictions his family blames on drugs.
Sacia was 4 when her mom had twins, Levi and Laci. Sacia and her 6-year-old sister Sherie were told to raise them. If they didn’t do a good job, they were told, they would all be taken away.
The family was always on the run — fearful of drug dealers who had been shorted, of the cops, of social workers. They moved a lot: Puyallup, Tacoma, Everett, Stanwood, Lake Stevens, sometimes before even having a place to live.
Every home their mother took them to was a cloud of chaos. The pungent smell of pot. The sweaty stench of people on crack. Slaps. Hunger, hungry babies crying. Strangers unconscious on the floor. Police. Broken glass. Missing school.
“People say, ‘Wasn’t that hard for you to deal with?’ but I didn’t know any different. I didn’t have a point of reference to know that’s not how normal people live. I thought most families did drugs. I thought most kids were left alone a lot.”
Sacia dreamed it could be better. At school there were rules and order, and right and wrong. At home, Sacia did what she could.
She made her bed every day from the time she was 6. The sheets were always perfectly smooth over her dirty mattress, and the comforter hung exactly alike on both sides.
“It made it feel like things were all right with the world.”
Everyone else in her family left their beds unmade — a tangle of dirty sheets Sacia couldn’t stomach.
She lined her shoes in a neat row in the closet, right behind her row of disheveled Barbie dolls, plastic farm animals and Big Bird.
Sherie knew how important order was to Sacia. She liked to make a show of plowing through the straight rows, throwing shoes and Barbies into the air, into the way they lived.
Sacia always rebuilt, one shoe at a time.
* * *
College was never really a question for her. She knew, for a long time, that it was the way to the kind of life she decided to have.
In the months before she left for college, Sacia was sharing a queen-size bed with her grandmother, a spiky-haired woman from a rough childhood who drives trucks for Snohomish County. Sacia knew that in the dorm she’d have her own space for the first time in her life.
Sure, she would have a roommate, a stranger who’d live in half the room.
The other half would be small, but it would be hers.
Her SpongeBob SquarePants sheets would be on the bed. Her books would sit on her bookshelf. Her pencils, pens and maybe a photo or two would be on her desk.
She was so excited to go to college, the first in her family to make it.
She worked for it.
While her oldest brother, and Sherie, who was in high school, battled their own drug and alcohol addictions, Sacia applied for scholarships and studied long into the night. She earned a Governors’ Scholarship for foster teens and dozens of other awards. She graduated from Marysville Arts and Technology High School in 2008 as salutatorian — second in a class of 67.
She prepared for college like she prepared for a tough test, studying from every angle.
She spent a sleepless summer night alone in a dorm room as part of an optional Western Washington University orientation. She went to workshops to learn how to adjust to college life. She dug up books with titles like “The Naked Roommate” and “The Girl’s Guide to College” and read every word. She studied how to engage in “positive confrontations” with roommates.
When the e-mail arrived with her roommate’s name and contact information, Sacia wrote the girl immediately. After two days of silence, Sacia called and introduced herself.
She was ready.
On the day Sacia moved to college, the sky over Bellingham opened up with a heavy rain.
She rode to school in a caravan, with her grandmother, her godmother, Sherie and the twins.
Together, they carried bags of clothes and boxes of books up to her room on an alcohol-free floor in Highland Hall. She picked it for that, and for the dorm’s extended quiet hours.
Inside her room she found one bed already made, a mini-fridge, a butterfly chair and a note: “Hey Sacia, Welcome to the room:) I can’t wait to meet you in person. Sorry about the mess. I promise everything will be neat and clean.”
It was signed with a heart.
Sacia set about unpacking. Her grandma wandered into the parking lot for a cigarette. Sherie and the twins peppered her with questions: Where did she want her toiletries? Where did she want her clothes? What about her folders?
She sniffed her mattress then went straight for the Febreze and Renuzit. She wanted to let her bed air out, but with all her things in bags on the floor, there was no way Sacia could wait.
“My brain hurts right now,” Sacia told them. “I feel like I just need to make my bed.”
So she did.
Then she stepped into the rain and hiked to a student mixer.
Young people in jeans and funky T-shirts were everywhere in the coffee house.
So were their parents, desperately hanging on.
Sacia, nearly swallowed up in an enormous Lake Chelan Lifeguard sweatshirt, sat alone on a couch during the mixer reading “Introduction to Viking Life.”
Her classmates kept starting conversations with Laci, then 14, in mascara and a Western sweatshirt, believing she was the college freshman.
Sacia met one of her professors and talked about how she wasn’t there for other students. She was there for her education.
Later, at a student workshop, Sacia asked the upperclassmen about buying books and required classes.
Other freshmen wanted to know where to go dancing, where to work out. “I’m not a druggie,” one boy said. “But if you guys have done drugs, are they good here?”
Sacia shook her head, recognizing a wasted opportunity.
As the sky grew darker, Sacia stood outside her room and said goodbye to her family.
“OK, Babe,” Chism said, cupping Sacia’s chin in her hand. “I think we’re going to let you go, so that you will call once in a while. I love you. I’m proud of you. I’m so proud of you.
“It’s happy tears. Proud tears. God, you’re a big young woman.”
She hugged Sherie, Levi and Laci. Her eyes started to water.
“You guys are going to make Sacia cry,” her godmother admonished.
Chism shook her head. “She’s tougher than you are.”
With that, Sacia’s family walked away.
Sacia stood alone outside her room, taking deep breaths, composing herself.
Inside, her new roommate chatted with her mother. They stole sympathetic glances at Sacia through the cracked door.
Sacia wiped her cheeks on her sleeve and walked inside, alone.
Watching her roommate unpack with her mom, Sacia thought of her parents and all they missed.
* * *
Sacia was just 9 months old when her father was found with a rope around his neck in the family’s rented Tacoma home.
The coroner ruled Bill Flowers’ death a suicide, but the death certificate described it as suspicious. The family believes he was murdered by drug dealers looking for Sacia’s mom.
After his death, Tamara Mattson started disappearing for hours, then days.
After the twins were born, it was normal for Sacia to wake up to their cries and find her mom missing. Sherie and Sacia, 6 and 4, changed diapers, poured milk into bottles, fed babies and rocked them to sleep.
The girls skipped school to run their household.
Hungry, Sacia would open cabinet after cabinet, belly rumbling. Sometimes all she’d find were Little Debbie Star Crunch cookies and Ding Dongs. That’s what her mom feasted on when she was coming down from a high. Sacia fed herself and the twins, and they’d live off chocolate for days.
Other times, dinner would be mayonnaise spread on bread.
At 5, she taught herself to use the stove, to cook the boxes of macaroni and cheese she’d find, or to scramble a few eggs.
When there was nothing to eat, Sherie and Sacia rifled through drawers for food stamps. If they found some, they’d walk to a convenience store for milk and Hostess cakes.
When Mattson was home, so were drugs, alcohol and different men.
On a blistering summer day when Sacia was 7, she ran inside, exhausted from shooting hoops, and opened the fridge. She found a tall glass of orange juice, gulped half, and handed the rest to Sherie.
The juice burned down Sacia’s throat, into her stomach. She leaned over the sink, heaving and sobbing.
Her mom walked over and stroked the girl’s hair as she vomited vodka and orange juice.
“I’m sorry, baby,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry.”
Over the years, Sherie started stealing sips of her mom’s liquor. Sacia never partook.
“I wasn’t like Sacia,” Sherie said. “I wasn’t the good kid. I just wanted to not feel what I was feeling, so I abused just to make it go away. Sacia was different.”
Sometimes Sacia would call her grandma, her little voice sounding so scared.
“Mom-mom’s gone,” she’d whimper.
Chism would drive by and drop bags of food at the family’s door. She thought about turning her daughter in for child abuse, but feared her complaints wouldn’t be taken seriously, and that Mattson would retaliate by beating the children or hiding them from her.
“When my daughter was using, children were like that little red fire engine Johnny has that sits in the corner and never gets played with,” Chism said. “And then another kid comes over to play and it’s, ‘Put that down! It’s mine!’ My little girl was like that.”
On July 2, 1999, Sacia, Sherie, Levi and Laci had been home alone for days when police pounded on their door. The children hid, terrified, but the banging continued. Eventually, Sherie let the police in and they asked where their mom was.
The children didn’t know.
The police called Chism to come and take the children. Sacia grabbed some clothes and followed her grandma into the night. She believed her mom would be there in the morning to pick her up.
Mattson never came. Months would pass and she would stop for a short visit, then be gone again.
Chism became their foster mother.
Four years later, on Dec. 9, Sacia was drying dishes after dinner, excited about the Christmas tree twinkling in her grandma’s living room. She heard a reporter on TV announce that a woman’s body was found on Camano Island.
Chism remembers saying, “I hope that’s not my Tammy.”
Those words terrified Sacia.
The next morning, she awoke to the sound of weeping.
Her grandma was right.
Tamara Mattson was murdered, her body found by a man walking his dog on a trail in Cama Beach State Park.
At the age of 13, Sacia was an orphan.
Sacia knew she wouldn’t drink at college, or ever.
Her family believes she was born addicted to drugs, and she fears that even a taste of alcohol could steal her future from her.
“I’m above that. I wasn’t aware that so many people would be interested in that kind of thing, but it turns out at least half — maybe a majority — of students are, which is very surprising to me. It tastes like crap. It makes you feel like crap.”
She didn’t drink a sip of alcohol during her entire freshman year. She was appalled by stories of other freshmen celebrating their 19th birthdays getting drunk in Vancouver, B.C., where the legal drinking age is 19.
Her 19th birthday was spent at home, happily, with her grandma and a vanilla cake.
She didn’t go to parties or hang out with people. Sacia spent every single weekend at home with her grandma and the twins, whom she thinks of as her own.
She lost too much in life to be able to bear letting go of them.
“Sacia was more there for us than anyone else,” Laci said. “She raised us, and I think she felt like she had to.”
Sometimes at Western, Sacia longed for companionship — as she ate alone, huddled over a textbook, or watched episodes of “House” in her dorm room.
Developing friends takes energy, and time, and trust — and Sacia didn’t feel ready to give up any of that.
“To be honest, I feel a little bit lost in myself, and I need to find myself before I help other people. In my life right now, making those deep relationships seems like another responsibility, another commitment — and I just don’t want to deal with it right now.”
Sacia poured herself into schoolwork, earning A’s and B’s.
Since grade school, Sacia’s studying has taken her away from her problems. She believes her work is her way out. She’s never had time for students who goof off in class or worry more about fitting in than science.
In middle school, kids sensed Sacia’s difference.
They bullied her, making fun of her short hair and good grades. They threw food at her. During gym class, they hid her school clothes while she exercised.
Sacia learned that if she tried to defend herself, their attacks worsened, so, mostly, she took their abuse without a fight.
Her only friend came to her in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s books.
She was Harry Potter’s age and they were stuck in similar situations.
Both were orphaned, their parents murdered. Both were picked on. Both dreamed that they’d wake up one day and realize their misfortune was all a mistake.
When she was 16, Sacia gathered her courage and decided to write to her favorite author.
“Being picked on most of my life, I never had many friends due to my own insecurities and fear of loss, but through the most difficult times in my life, Harry was my best friend when I needed him most and he lent me his world in which to escape my own grief and hurt, and for this I thank you from the deepest part of my heart,” Sacia typed. “To me, it’s like Harry and I grew up together. I have grown a lot emotionally over the years and am now sixteen (as is Harry). Thank you so very much for lending me your hero and his world. He is my hero, and you are my heroine.
“I do not expect a reply…”
She signed it “Sacia (Say-sha) Flowers.”
A few weeks later Sacia came home and find an envelope, marked “private and confidential,” and stamped Royal Mail, Scotland. Inside was a letter embossed with a golden barn owl. It was from Rowling.
“Dear Sacia (beautiful name, I’ve never heard it before),
Thank you so much for your incredible letter; incredible, because you do indeed sound phenomenally like Harry, in your physical resemblance and in your life experience. I cannot tell you how moved I was by what you wrote, nor how sorry I am to hear about your parents. What a terrible loss.
“I know what it is like to be picked on, as it happened to me, too, throughout my adolescence. I can only wish that you have the same experience that I did, and become happier and more secure the older you get. Being a teenager can be completely horrible, and many of the most successful people I know felt the same way. I think the problem is that adolescence, though often misrepresented as a time of rebellion and unconventionality, actually requires everybody to conform if they aspire to popularity — or at least to ‘rebel’ while wearing the ‘right’ clothes! You’re now standing on the threshold of a very different phase in your life, one where you are much more likely to find kindred spirits, and much less likely to be subject to the pressures of your earlier teenage years.”
She signed it “With lots of love, J.K. Rowling (Jo to you!)”
That letter was a turning point in Sacia’s life.
By then, she was a junior at Marysville Arts and Technology High School with straight A’s and teachers like Katherine Jordan who believed in her and encouraged her to push for college. By the time Sacia graduated, Jordan said, “it wasn’t, ‘Oh. I think she’ll be successful.’ I knew she would be successful.”
Sacia even made a few friends with girls her own age. They went for ice cream and had slumber parties. The month before graduation, Sacia stunned her family by putting on an emerald green, off-the-shoulder gown and going to prom, radiant.
* * *
Sacia hoped to make some friends at college. She thought she would thrive with independence, finally on her own.
Instead, she missed her family and worried about them.
“Whether they’re clean and sober or not — they are my family. And they’re my family no matter what. I’ll always love them and I’ll always want them to know I’ll be there for them.”
Chism relies on Sacia to help rear the twins. Sacia gives them advice and hands out discipline. She talks to their teachers, and if she needs to, grounds them, takes away their iPods or cuts off their Internet access.
She helps take care of the house. Tends the yard. Baby-sits her nieces. Listens. Gets the twins from school. Cooks dinner many nights. Fixes broken things, bookshelves and cars and toys.
Sacia expected to feel relief by being away.
In her dorm, the intense sense of loss and worry surprised her.
“I think because I didn’t have the nuclear family, so to speak, I clung to my younger brother and sister. I guess I need them as much as they need me — maybe more. I’ve raised them since they were babies, so they’re basically my kids. I’ve loved them like they’re my own kids. I guess it’s hard for anybody else to understand who hasn’t experienced what I’ve experienced. It’s like I’m a mother who’s left her kids when they’re teenagers.”
Sacia’s teachers and mentors urged her to try to find herself at school, on her own, but she feared that in doing so she’d lose the little family she had left.
And how, she wondered, could she figure out who she was supposed to be, when so much of her identity was buried in graveyards, or in memories too painful to share with her new classmates?
Sacia never told anyone at Western that her parents were dead.
Every day there are little things that trigger memories.
The thud of a jump rope brings her back to an Everett playground. During Tamara Mattson’s brief streaks of sobriety, she loved to play with her girls. She taught her daughter to hop over the rope and swish it over her head, then back down again with a smack.
The smell of students’ pot and booze-soaked breath carries Sacia to dingy apartments and the memory of her mom unconscious.
The sight of a parent and a child walking hand-in-hand makes Sacia ache for a love she never had, a love she’s spent a lifetime longing for.
And as the first day of her sophomore year approaches this Wednesday, Sacia remembers the exhaustion she felt on the first day of second grade. She spent the night before crammed in her mom’s car with her siblings, riding to scary houses and street corners in search of drugs.
This is how she feels at the start of every school year.
She imagines her parents gazing down at her from heaven, or wherever they are. She pictures them with feathered hair and Led Zeppelin T-shirts, chanting “rock on.” She believes they are proud of her, in their own way.
It has to be.
She thinks of them as she looks toward what she could be. They are where she began. Their mistakes and their history are in her. Their ghosts run through her blood.
Other than her brothers and sisters and a few grainy photos, Sacia doesn’t have much to hold on to from her parents.
She has her dad’s Flintstone feet, flat as a sheet of paper, and the sense of compassion he apparently had when he wasn’t on drugs.
She has her mom’s thumbs, short and stubby, and her cravings for sugar and salt.
She has two death certificates.
She has a history of sadness. She has an acute understanding of how things can end if you fall off course.
When that happens, everyone has to make decisions.
Sacia made hers. She was going back to school this Wednesday to start her sophomore year.
Then, last Tuesday, Sacia learned that her grandmother needs surgery to prevent an aneurysm from bleeding into her brain.
In two weeks, a Seattle neurosurgeon is scheduled to clip the aneurysm.
Sacia will be there — and she wants to be by her grandma’s side as she recovers in bed for two weeks. Someone needs to take care of the twins, pick up Chism’s prescriptions and make dinner.
Sacia decided, almost instantly, that person will be her.
College will wait, for now. Still, she insists, she will keep her promise.
Her grandmother should be back at work in a few months. And in January, Sacia swears she will be back at Western for winter quarter. To make up for missing fall quarter, she plans to take classes at Western next summer.
“I made a promise to myself and kind of secretly to my family that college was something I was going to do. It’s always been something I was going to do and nothing will prevent me from doing college. College is going to happen one way or another. It’s something I’m going to do no matter what. I may have to take my own approach, but I will do it.”
Sacia knows people may doubt she will go back to school, but she also knows she is strong.
Her promise has gotten her though terrible times before. It’s her hope, a yearning deeper than anything, to be more than what she was given, to be what she always knew she could become.
It keeps her going, still.
Kaitlin Manry: 425-339-3292, firstname.lastname@example.org.