Yesterday morning, I came across the story of Takeimi Rao, the 14 year old girl who was found dead after a night of drinking at a slumber party in her own home, before I even got out of bed. As I read the story, all I could think of was the horror her mother must be going through, losing her daughter in the blink of an eye over something that could have easily have happened to any young teenager. I thought of her friends, who couldn’t possibly have known the outcome when they experimented with alcohol the night before. And I thought of my own daughter, now 13 years old, and the fear gripped me over the fact that I could easily lose her the same way.
Any of us could lose our teenager this way.
It was fortunate that my daughter needed to be driven to a friend’s house yesterday morning, so she was up early and sat next to me in the car as we drove. I shared with her the story of Takeimi. It was shocking to her knowing that someone so young was suddenly gone, a real in-your-face brush with mortality. At this point, we had no idea what the girls had experimented with. It sounded like alcohol, but there was speculation that it may have been something worse. At any rate, I took the opportunity to talk with my daughter about the dangers of experimenting with unknown substances, and with mass amounts of alcohol.
I have talked to DQ and her brother many times before about drugs and alcohol. They have witnessed the effects firsthand as their father struggles with addiction. They know the choice of abstaining from alcohol by several family members who have given it up completely upon realization they lacked self-control. And they know that alcohol isn’t evil when it is enjoyed properly and in moderation. I have chosen to not make alcohol a mystery to them by always being open with them when I do enjoy a drink, and even allowing them to taste a sip when they ask.
And I thought about my own youth, when I was around the same age as these girls, mere days away from leaving the 9th grade.
One of my friends brought a water bottle to school, and passed it around to a bunch of us. We weren’t in the dark about what was in that bottle – pure vodka. It looked like water, making it easy to drink without any teacher knowing what was going on. And we all took sips, nervously giggling as we passed it around. The liquid burned going down. It tasted gross but it gave a warm feeling as it traveled to the pit of our stomachs. At that age, it was unclear how much it would take to get us drunk. And I seriously doubt any of us even drank enough to get to that point. At least I didn’t. But it felt good to be a part of something secret and so grown-up. That is, until one of the teachers discovered what was going on and gathered up every girl thought to be in on it. I was missed in that gathering, and escaped punishment. The other girls took the heat and were suspended the first week of our sophomore year.
The whole event was without incident. No one died, or even got sick. But easily, it could have been different. A young teenager who is unfamiliar with alcohol can easily think that all alcohols are the same. If you can drink a bottle of beer, why can’t you drink the same amount of vodka in one sitting?
All day yesterday, I sat at my desk as the whole newsroom gathered information about Takeimi and the events surrounding her untimely death. As the day wore on, it became apparent that she died from either alcohol poisoning or from choking on her own vomit. The mood around here was somber as several reporters pitched in to gather enough information about what happened. I read several comments from readers and from those who were a part of the story that revealed negative feelings about reporters being intrusive, and wondering why they couldn’t just leave those involved alone. But the truth is, this story became way more than a job. Many of us here are parents, and the news of a young girl dying so tragically hit all of us to the core. I know I was consumed by it all day, and my thoughts centered on all three of my kids – DQ, Taz, and Mr. W’s teenage son. Telling Takeimi’s story was way more than a news article to the reporters who covered her story. It was sending a message of awareness to both parents and teens. And it’s probable that many families, including ours, sat down for a discussion about experimentation with drugs or alcohol with their teens and preteens after reading about Takeimi.
If any time a news story is vital, this is it.
I picked up my daughter after work from her friend’s house. When I got there, I was still reeling from a day of hearing morbid details about Takeimi’s demise. And without apology, I talked with DQ and her two friends as the grandmother stood by.
“Don’t drink,” I told them firmly after I explained exactly how Takeimi had died. “But if you do, it only takes this much,” and I pinched my fingers a half inch apart, “to get you drunk.” DQ’s friends looked at each other amused.
“I can’t believe she just told us how to get drunk!” one of the kids laughed.
“No, I’m telling you not to drink,” I corrected him. “And you shouldn’t. But I’m also telling you this because drinking too much can actually kill you.”
Who knows if any of this sunk in? Truth is, it takes more than one conversation to get a message across to a teenager. But even when they don’t want to talk about it, we should. Takeimi was not a bad girl with an alcohol problem. She was a young teenager who wanted to have fun with her friends. And now she is gone.