Cynthia Perry and her daughter, Keisha Keller began attending California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) together as business administration majors in the fall of 2014. As they progressed in their studies, the strength of their relationship and “friendship” always helped them support each other to achieve their academic goals, and on May 16, 2016, when the close-knit mother and daughter faced unthinkable tragedy, their bond is what helped them stay strong, sustaining them in the face of deep sorrow.
Keller had gone to bed the night before, anticipating taking her last final exam the next day. She was excited about the prospect of donning a cap and gown later that week during the College of Business Administration and Public Policy’s commencement ceremony, then returning home a proud Toro alumna.
However, none of that happened, and all thoughts of graduation disappeared the next morning when Keller found that her 6-week-old baby boy, Legend Aurelius Jackson, had passed away during the night from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
“I felt helpless when my baby passed, but I didn’t feel hopeless. It was very hard right after (he passed), but I knew I had to continue—I didn’t want my baby’s passing to be in vain,” said Keller, an entrepreneur major and computer science minor. “I’m very rooted in God, and I knew that he would see me through, and I knew I had things to live for, like my family. I feel that they draw some of their strength from me.
“With their support—my husband, Lance Jackson, our 9-year-old son, Lance II, and my mother [Perry]—I bounced back as quickly as I could,” added Keller, who will now graduate this spring, a year later, on May 19 from CSUDH alongside her mother. “I wanted to honor and celebrate the life of my son, and to make sure all memories about him are positive.”
Through Thick and Thin
When they transferred to CSUDH from Los Angeles Harbor College, both daughter Keller and mother Perry, whose concentration is in human resources, started taking most of their courses together, but eventually parted ways academically when they began taking more courses in their individual majors.
“I remember when I started getting excited about my classes in community college and my older daughter [Keller] said ‘I think it would be good to go back to school, too. So she did,” said Perry. “During our first semester at Cal State Dominguez Hills all of our classes were together. It was a lot of fun.”
Keller found out she was pregnant with her second child, Legend, near the end of summer school 2015, and was ready to hit the books hard when the fall semester began. At mid-spring 2016, Perry began driving her “very pregnant” daughter to school.
I felt helpless when my baby passed, but I didn’t feel hopeless.
“My last class was on a Thursday, and I was induced that Saturday. Then I came back to finish up my classes before taking off a week, which was followed by spring break. So I had two weeks off before I returned to take my finals,” said Keller. “I finished them all except the one I was going to take the day my baby passed. So I got only one incomplete. My professors were really there for me.”
Keller lives with her mother, and Perry was there when Legend passed away. She stepped up, “like any grandmother would,” the days and weeks that followed her grandson’s passing.
Like Keller, Perry wants everyone to have only positive thoughts about Legend. She recalls returning from the hospital that day and the family going into Legend’s bedroom, where a photo of Keller’s husband with his arms around both Perry and Keller hangs. He told them all “everything is going to be okay.”
“My son-in-law means the world to me,” said Perry, who admits she didn’t cope with Legend’s death as well as her daughter. “I’m a mother, too, and it’s so important for everyone in my life to be okay. I felt so helpless and was troubled thinking about how we can move on—we had so many dreams. We were just so blessed to have him. He was a new chapter in our lives.”
“But now we’re in a new chapter,” Keller quickly added. Her mom nodded in agreement.
A Difficult Return
Many parents who lose a child to SIDS experience some guilt, says Keller.
“After it (SIDS) happened to me I found out it happened to two people at my church, but they had never said anything before that. You do experience some shame because you’re the parent. You wonder ‘Why wasn’t I paying more attention, why was I sleeping?’ which doesn’t really make sense. I quickly realized it was out of my control.”
Keller returned to CSUDH to finish her degree the semester following Legend’s death, but it was an “awkward time” for her.
“At that point I was taking classes with the same students each semester, so they knew I had been pregnant. I really didn’t want them to ask, ‘How’s the baby?’ So I avoided people, sat in the back of class and didn’t talk much. I just wasn’t ready. The first time someone did ask I froze. I didn’t know what to say,” said Keller. “The following semester I began taking classes online and finished my degree that way. That’s also when I took the courses to earn my minor in computer science.”
Class of 2017
Graduating together is another way for Keller and Perry to mark Legend’s life in a positive way, and they both look forward to what comes next.
Keller already has her own cosmetology business and would like to expand it after graduation, and her experience with SIDS has sparked her interest in non-profit work. Perry is interested in teaching at the college level, working with freshman in particular to assist them in developing their academic plans and dreams.
When they walk in commencement exercise May 19, it won’t be the only celebration that week. On May 16, they plan to mark the anniversary of the passing of their baby boy with a celebration of his life. After commencement, Keller will host a neighborhood “Legend’s Lemonade Stand” May 27 in Long Beach to raise funds for SIDS research. People may also donate online.
“I’m so proud of my daughter,” says Perry. “She’s a woman of integrity, virtue; a real woman of her word. She’s very strong. Stronger than I am. As a parent, you always want your children to better than you are, and she is.”
When asked what has made her so strong, Keller pointed at her mother.
“She did, of course,” she says.