Looking forward to taking her last final exam and graduating from California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH) last year, Keisha Keller put her baby boy down to sleep. A few hours later, all thoughts of the test and commencement vanished in the face of unthinkable tragedy after she found her child had passed away from Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
A year later, Keller will join her mother Cynthia Perry to graduate from CSUDH together on May 19, just three days after the one-year anniversary of the death of Keller’s baby, Legend Aurelius Jackson.
“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.”
Keller and her mother, both business administration majors, began attending CSUDH together in the fall of 2014. “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, whose concentration is human resources. “During our first semester at Cal State Dominguez Hills all of our classes were together. It was a lot of fun.”
As they progressed in their studies, the strength of their relationship and “friendship” always helped them support each other to achieve their academic goals, as it did May 16, 2016, when the close-knit mother and daughter faced the tragedy, and it was that bond that helped them stay strong and sustained them in the face of deep sorrow.
An Awkward Return
Keller returned to CSUDH to finish her degree the semester following Legend’s death, but it was an “awkward time” for her. Many parents who lose a child to SIDS experience some guilt, says Keller, but she soon realized the tragedy was out of her control.
“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.”
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.
“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.”