‘OPEN MY EYES TO MY OWN WORTH’ — (The Wilkes Barre Times Leader)

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The Wilkes Barre Times Leader,  (PA)

February 4, 1996

Author: MARK E. JONES TIMES LEADER STAFF WRITER

One time Judy Kester got depressed and asked her mother, if anything bad happens to me, who will take care of my cat?   Judy was like that. She hated to see suffering. All her life, she put other people’s concerns ahead of her own. That’s why no one — not even her family and friends — can fully grasp why Judy left home on a Monday morning, drove 13 miles to an icy graveyard and burned herself to death.

They found Judy lying on a narrow road in Pine Hill Cemetery, a bumpy patchwork of headstones and evergreens that jut from a Shickshinny hillside. It was almost 7:30 a.m. on Feb. 6, the coldest day of 1995.  She had removed her light-gray, hooded jacket, folded it and placed it on the snow. On top, she neatly stacked her gloves, wristwatch and glasses. Finally she rested.

Nestled below an arborvitae, the so-called tree-of-life, Judy could look down on West Butler Street’s rooftops as families prepared for another busy day in their busy lives.  Judy was scheduled to meet a therapist at 10 a.m. They were expected to talk about her depression. Instead Judy came to this familiar ground: a spot near her paternal grandparents’ tombstone and a cottage, just over the hill, where she had lived as a baby.

Judy poured gasoline over her body from a two-gallon plastic tank. Then lit a stick match. Only the soles of her feet were unburned.   She died about 18 hours later at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, nine days shy of her 37th birthday.  “The last time I talked with her on the phone, she had visited an elderly woman who liked to bake,” says older sister Debbie O’Keefe, 39, of Moscow, Pa. “So Judy had taken her flour and sugar and, I don’t know what else, chocolate chips maybe.”

That’s the Judy her family knew best: the kind, loving, gentle woman who would cross-stitch a blanket for anyone, even her doctor’s wife, who was expecting a baby.  Judy was a nurse. She adored babies, cuddled them, sang to them and relished her early jobs in hospital nurseries. She never married but yearned to start a family.

Born to a Baptist missionary couple, Judy was the fifth of eight children — David, James, Paul, Debbie, Peter, Samuel and Ruth.  At 9, Judy was baptized full-immersion style in a farm pond. She memorized hymns like most kids learn nursery rhymes. Her adult soprano voice was “gorgeous,” says a former duet partner. “When everyone was singing, Judy could sing an octave higher to harmonize.”   That’s the Judy her friends knew best: a jolly woman, always aiming to please, trying to fit in and yet wanting desperately to be noticed.

Judy prayed fervently for hundreds of people, even casual acquaintances, whose names she kept in a spiral notebook. Writing was her refuge. In a diary, she liberated emotions shared with nobody else. On paper only, she divulged her secret struggle with depression.   Depression is a medical disorder that affects an estimated 15 million Americans each year. Unlike “the blues,” which everyone experiences at times, clinical depression can last for months or years. It triggers physical symptoms, which might include fatigue or weight changes, and cripples a person’s ability to take pleasure in any activity.

Judy became a prisoner of depression, unable to leave her aluminum trailer in the rural Sweet Valley. When the phone rang, depression stopped her from answering. Many days it kept her from going to work. It gave her pains that doctors could not explain. It even prevented her from walking a few yards around a forsythia hedge to the farmhouse next door, the home of her parents, the Rev. Floyd Kester, 68, and Mrs. Evelyn Kester, 70.  “During depression Judy would go to her scripture and turn on her hymns, the good Christian music,” Mrs. Kester says, “to get her mind straightened out.” Song could give Judy temporary solace, not long-term relief.

Scientists have not yet unlocked the origin of depression. Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Douglas Jacobs says, “We believe it’s a biochemical malfunctioning in the brain that affects those centers that control mood, emotions,  thoughts and feelings.”   Years ago, people dismissed the “black cloud” as a character flaw, and families protected a depressed person as if the illness were a shameful secret.

Judy once confided to her mother that she had threatened suicide while on duty at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital, Kingston. No public records exist to confirm that. However, in a letter written to family and friends, Judy reflected on many physical problems — including a hyperactive adrenal gland, hiatal hernia, severe sleep apnea and arthritis — that troubled her that year. Unable to work, I found myself pleading with my doctor to do something for me or the next time he’d hear from me would be in the Obituary Column. My future looked bleak at best . . . Jack Kevorkian was becoming a hero in my thinking.

In the same letter, dated July 20, 1993, Judy praised the Lord for lifting her from the depths of depression and destruction. She thanked her mother, siblings and many Christian friends (who) . . . reached out to me with the love that only comes from God.    Overall, it was an uplifting letter: Judy was glorifying the Lord for helping her to conquer a problem. That was the message Judy’s friends and family interpreted. It fit her image.   “We didn’t have (depression) in our background,” says younger brother Peter Kester, 36, of Burke, Va. “We really didn’t have any experience with it. So we didn’t know what signs to look for.”

In late 1995, the high-profile depression case of Alma Powell, wife of retired Gen. Colin Powell, focused attention on the truth.   For most people, depression is an illness that can be treated effectively with medicines or talk therapy. Nearly 50 percent of depressed people, however, never seek help. Some “bounce back.” Others, like Judy, begin a slow, barely detectable spiral into darkness.

At Judy’s memorial service, she was referred to as a “sweet and quiet soul.” Mrs. Kester used the phrase “Saint Judith,” implying that her daughter was a believer in the Lord. But the title applied in many ways.   Judy invited strangers to church and contributed her extra cash to foreign missionaries and WRGN, a Christian-format radio station in Sweet Valley. At Christmas, instead of exchanging names, Judy bought gifts for all her brothers, sisters, nieces and nephews.  “She was a sweet person, quiet, unassuming, lovely,” says Mary Bodek, 52, a friend and nurse. “Not in the physical sense but in the real sense.”

Judy never walked into a home empty-handed. She took food, homemade crafts or Balderdash, her favorite board game. Eventually the family would be seated at a kitchen table, swapping stories and laughing. Judy loved to laugh.   Until the depression got her.

By January 1995, it had returned. Judy tried to get help. She began taking an antidepressant called Zoloft.  She asked church members for prayer. On the final weekend of her life, she called a Christian therapist at Cornerstone Family Counseling in Williamsport.

“Judy had told me two years before that she would never kill herself, she would never do that to me and Dad,” Mrs. Kester says. “I was living on that promise.”   A six-word suicide note that police found and later gave to the Kester family offered some comfort, but no explanation.   Experts contend that, after a suicide, it is folly to ask what provoked it, to look for a single reason, a Suicide Spark. “There isn’t one cause of suicide,” Jacobs says. Instead, the final act is usually preceded by a series of personal losses or failures. Those losses can seem overwhelming to a person whose mind is altered by an underlying condition: schizophrenia, drug abuse or depression.

Any of those conditions can begin to fester at a very young age.   Born during a blizzard, on Sunday, Feb. 16, 1958, Judy was given the nickname “little snowball.” The snow was so deep, Mrs. Kester says, well-wishers couldn’t visit the baby at Wilkes-Barre General Hospital for a week.

They carried Judy home to a two-story Shickshinny cottage near her grandparents’ house on Furnace Street. Six months later, the Kester clan was packing its bags. They were bound for Africa. Sailing into an adventure Judy would never forget.

Rev. Kester had been assigned to a Baptist post in the Belgian Congo, now Zaire. In those days — the late 1950s — Congo’s political climate broiled with the intensity of savanna heat.

On July 1, 1960, the nation exploded in a military coup. “Anarchy is the only way to describe it,” Rev. Kester says. He and his wife fled with six kids in tow.

Today as Rev. and Mrs. Kester recount this story from the comfort of their wood-paneled living room on Bethel Hill Road, it becomes apparent their yin-yang personalities make a perfect whole.

Rev. Kester has a sturdy build. He keeps active as a traveling minister and a volunteer medic with the Fairmount Township Fire Company. He wears his emotions like his chalky-white hair, neat and close. “We didn’t know that Belgian paratroopers had dropped,” he says, matter of factly. “They stopped me. I was looking down the barrel of a gun.”

Mrs. Kester’s warm, fleshy face radiates forgiveness. She visits a Luzerne County prison each month to lead a Bible study. And she polishes her husband’s refugee story by adding soft details: how Judy, with her blond, curly hair and Shirley Temple smile danced at the airport, entertaining grim-faced soldiers; and how, on the eve of her 35th birthday, Mrs. Kester spoke to her husband over a propeller’s drone. “Well, happy birthday to me,’ ” she said, her hand cupped to his ear. “I don’t know where we’re going, but happy birthday.”

The plane landed in Accra, Ghana. One day later, Judy tumbled from a window ledge and banged her head on the concrete patio. A doctor who examined the 2-year-old pronounced her unfit to fly: a mild concussion. The Kesters would stay.  Decades later, Judy and sister Debbie, born only 13 months apart, would fondly reflect on growing up in Ghana. It was the best of times, a sub-Saharan version of Swiss Family Robinson.

Judy climbed dowa-dowa trees to get the sweet-tasting powder trapped in its bean pods. Debbie laughed at a pet baboon, picking at her freckles as if they were bugs. The girls, often mistaken for twins, scampered on a dirt path from their group home to a two-room, tin-roofed school.

The Kester kids were about 450 miles away from their parents’ home during the school year, in the remote village of Wa. They were supervised by “house parents.”   This world, so far from America, was beautiful and innocent. And dangerous.  One day the kids were exploring rocky terrain, looking for a suitable bush to be their Christmas tree. “I saw a lizard go into the grass,” says older brother David Kester, 44, of Adamstown, Md. “And I told Jim to poke a stick in and chase it out.”

“What came out was a python’s head — about four or five inches across.” The boys yelled. The girls huddled and broke into hymns, Debbie says, “because we didn’t know what else to do.”

The snake’s skin, more than 8-feet long, came to America with the Kesters in July 1967. Rev. Kester was being evacuated for medical reasons: back and chest pains.   The kids barely had time to tell Africa goodbye. “I climbed the tallest tree I could find,” says older brother Paul Kester, 40, of Kingsley, Pa. “I still have a view in my mind of the mission . . . and of crying.”

While in an African hospital, waiting to be shipped stateside, Judy’s father saw reports of race riots in America’s city’s. He immediately felt “called to serve.”   We’re interested in souls, whether in Congo or Ghana or USA , he wrote in the Kesters’ Kronikle, a family newsletter. But we’re especially burdened for the neglected souls, the unreached souls, the unwanted ones!

Rev. Kester moved his family from rural Luzerne County to suburban Washington, D.C. in June 1969. His first church services were in the family’s basement, 7116 Poplar Ave., Takoma Park, Md.  For Judy, it was a radical change in a radical era. While some girls chanted “burn the bra,” Judy and Debbie wore skirts to school. “We didn’t know the fads, the music, the clothes, all that stuff,” says Debbie. “It was culture shock.”

The Kesters’ home became a haven for travelers, troubled kids, the poor. “An open-door policy,” says Samuel Kester, 33, of Rochester Hills, Mich. “We had people coming through all the time.”   Money was tight. Judy ate a packed lunch, usually one of Mrs. Kester’s special sandwiches: ground hot dogs, relish and mayonnaise. Yet their home was rich in ways that bankers can’t calculate: nights ’round the piano, swapping stories, always singing and doing God’s work.   At age 12, while babysitting, Judy “led” a next-door neighbor to the Lord. She quickly mailed a letter to her father who was supervising a summer camp in Pennsylvania. This is the first soul that I’ve led to the Lord, Judy wrote. And for goodness sake not the last!

Judy’s depression, she later decided, began when she was a teenager.   “(She) was a bit more sensitive about things,” Peter says. “I’d tend to walk on eggshells around her, the way she reacted to a problem. To some extent, she would . . . blow it out of proportion.”   She chastised brothers and sisters who broke family rules. By all accounts, she was a “goody-goody.” As Judy walked home one day, she found a $20 bill near the driveway. She asked a neighbor if it was his. He swiftly claimed it.

“When (Judy) told me, I was dumbfounded,” Samuel says. ” `Why’d you go ask him? Of course he’s going to say yes.’ That was her character, just thinking about the other person and not herself.”   By high school, Judy’s blond curls were gone. She had glasses and long, straight dark hair.   Her teenage “crushes” were on preachers’ sons she met at Rocky Spring Bible Camp in Dillsburg, Pa. Judy worked as a counselor there and babysat for camp directors Marvin and Barbara Wegner.   “I noticed right away that Judy wasn’t the average teenager,” says Barbara Wegner, now 48. “There was something very special about her. It was like she was always looking at life through God’s eyes.”   Judy is pictured twice in the 1975 yearbook of Montgomery Blair High School, Silver Spring, Md. Once in a senior portrait. Once in an impromptu shot of her tending to kids at child development class.   Her commencement pamphlet lists some 560 graduates. Judy underlined those she knew well: 59 girls and 54 boys. Next to some names she wrote “friend.” Others “friendly.” Some “Christian friend.”

A girl named Sharon wrote in Judy’s yearbook: Thank you for all the help you have given me this year . . . The only regret I have is that we didn’t get to know each other better.   The thing Judy desired most of all, Rev. Kester says, “was to be married and have a family.” She never would have a baby. Instead, she had thousands by becoming a nurse.   It was a laboriously slow process. Judy couldn’t afford to be a full-time nursing student. Instead she nabbed a few credits each year at Montgomery County Community College, in Takoma Park, while working as an aide in a nearby nursing home. In frustration, Judy would tell her mother, “Sometimes I don’t think I’ll ever get through this.”

But she did. Family friend Marcia Plummer, now 51, attended Judy’s nursing school graduation in May 1982 with some hesitation. “We were afraid Judy might be offended if we made a big deal out of it,” Plummer says. “When they called her name, we stood up, whistled and held up a sign that said ` Yeah, Judy! Congratulations!’ ”    Judy turned, stared at them . . . and smiled.

Her first registered-nursing job was in the neonatal nursery of Holy Cross Hospital, Silver Spring, Md. “Every patient she gave her total self to,” says Debbie. “If they wanted to talk, she would sit and listen.”   Supervisors scorned her habit. “At Holy Cross she got a bad review once for spending too much time with the patients,” Peter says. “It was frustrating for Judy. She knew it’s what they needed. But she was told not to do it.”  Judy resigned from Holy Cross in July 1989. Her resume lists the reason: Relocation to Pennsylvania.   Earlier Judy’s parents had moved from Maryland to a Sweet Valley property known by the family as “the pond.” Judy rented a trailer from them. Out her window, she could see the water where she had been baptized.   Judy landed a job at Nesbitt Memorial Hospital. Again, she was plagued by work-related stress. “Judy wasn’t an aggressive person at all,” says a former co-worker. “Somebody on the timid side can get walked all over.”

Supervisors assigned her less work in the nursery with babies, more in the postpartum unit with women.   Judy’s health declined. She was always drowsy. Her back hurt. At 5 feet 3 inches tall, she became obese. Her weight fluctuated between 200 and 300 pounds. Finally Judy crashed.   Her reason for leaving Nesbitt Hospital: Position was eliminated during hospital merger; unable (physically) to accept alternative position offered.

She was unemployed from December 1992 to April 1993. Judy’s idle time was either spent in her parents’ farmhouse, cooking and letter writing, or alone in her trailer.   Judy’s home, white with red trim, had a bumper sticker on the door that read “Prayer: Don’t leave home without it.” Cats were pictured on her wall calendar and welcome mat. On a small corner shelf, sat two comical white dolls — a doctor and nurse — and Judy’s medical dictionary.

In diaries and notebooks found in the trailer, Judy confided her worst feelings.   “If she had only opened up more to me,” her mother says.   Judy’s letter of July 20, 1993 partially credits her family and the members of a local church with buoying her spirits. A dear, sweet lady at Reyburn Bible Church has gotten me involved in the music ministry, Judy wrote, singing solos, trios, cantatas and playing the clarinet!

That same month, she officially joined Reyburn Bible Church outside Shickshinny. Unless pain kept her in bed, Judy attended the 9 a.m. Sunday service, 10:05 a.m. Sunday school, the 7 o’clock evening service and Wednesday night’s Bible study. “Quite frankly, I wish a lot of people were as devoted to being here as she was,” says the Rev. C. Glenn Neely, 44.

During an annual Christmas nativity, Judy took her spot among the cast of characters: Mary, Joseph, shepherds, live goats and cows. Neely doesn’t remember Judy’s role but says, “I think she was probably an angel.”   In Judy’s spiral notebook, she listed her top heartaches:   financial problems singleness obesity health problems fatal attractions / secret sins inferiority complex.   Dear God, she would pray each day. You have chosen me as your Child, I ask that you open my eyes today to my own worth. It was a request that Judy couldn’t wait to be answered.

By April 1993, she took a new job. This one was at the opposite end of the life cycle, in an elder care center.   She had the night shift. Exhausted, Judy would sometimes fall asleep while driving, sending her blue Ford Escort careening off the road. “That poor car, it took a beating,” Mrs. Kester says.   None of the accidents was life threatening. In fact, Judy’s major auto problem was running out of gas. She got a plastic tank, kept in the car trunk for emergencies.

She switched jobs in 1994, joining the 75-person staff of Bonham Nursing Center near Stillwater. She was her own night supervisor, assigned to a newly opened wing. The commute was short. She seemed happy.   As owner James Bonham and Judy walked the corridor one day, she abruptly stopped and pointed. “There was a Bible verse on the bulletin board,” Bonham says. “(Judy) said, `When I came in (the first day) and saw that I knew I came to the right place.’    “And I said, you surely did.”

At home, however, Judy was becoming increasingly troubled. “Even with my mother around, I don’t think (Judy) could unload all her thoughts,” says older brother James Kester, 41, of Frankfort, Ind. “As a married person, you have the advantage of being able to unload. You just don’t have that as a single person.”   Judy, still bothered by pains, feared she had cancer. She stewed privately each time a Bonham Nursing Home patient died. “A lot of times when Judy was depressed, she would pour her heart out to me,” says Sandra Michael, 50, a church friend and singing partner. “She called me a couple times late, late at night. That scared me.”

Judy began reading self-help books: “How to Win Over Depression” and “Happiness is a Choice.” She complained that her phone rang but when she answered, no one would talk. She referred to it as “the mystery caller.”  “(Judy) was calling out for help quite often,” Mrs. Kester says. “Whether we didn’t realize the seriousness of it, or what, maybe the helplessness of not knowing how to handle the situation.”   Days before her death, Judy phoned a therapist. Her journal entry read: When I got off the phone I was so thrilled, I said YES! Thank you Lord! There’s hope down the road.

But by Sunday night, Judy was distraught. Her mother prayed with her, reassured her. Tomorrow they would go to Williamsport together to get help.  It was a sleepless night. Sometime after feeding her cat, Judy slipped out of the trailer.   At 7:26 a.m. Monday, Shickshinny’s police chief got a complaint: a carcass blocking the road.   Probably a dead deer, thought Larry Williams. He grabbed a coat, prepared for a numbing cold and headed up to the old cottage by the cemetery. “As I got a little closer,” Williams says, “I could tell it was too big for a deer.”

He knelt by Judy, waiting for an ambulance.   “With that type of trauma,” a medic later said, “there’s not much you can do.” From Berwick Hospital, Judy was airlifted to Lehigh Valley Hospital’s burn unit.   Meanwhile, Mrs. Kester was on the telephone trying to reach her daughter. She left a message on the answering machine: Judy, let me know when you’re ready to go. Shall I drive, or do you want to?

Rev. Kester checked the thermometer — minus 9 degrees. He walked into the living room where a police scanner squawked. “It just didn’t make sense,” he said later, “that there would be a burn victim at Pine Hill Cemetery on the coldest morning of the year.”   The Kesters got the call at 8:30 a.m.   It began to snow as Rev. and Mrs. Kester rode toward Judy’s bedside in Allentown. Looking into the whiteness, Mrs. Kester remarked how similar this was to the blizzard of ’58 — the day of Judy’s birth.

Burn center nurses encouraged the Kester family to talk to Judy. Her pulse changed at the sound of familiar voices, they said. Debbie and younger sister Ruth Campbell, 31, of Silver Spring, Md., decided to sing the duet “In the Garden.”    They stumbled on lyrics and began giggling. Instantly, they were both horrified. The next moment, they realized: It’s what Judy would do. And so they laughed one last time with their beloved sister.   Doctors would later explain that Judy’s injuries were “basically unsurvivable.” They advised removing life support. “We were all in agreement that she would be much happier where she was headed,” Ruth says. “And there was really no hope.”

Judy was pronounced dead at 12:45 a.m. Tuesday, Feb. 7.    Rev. and Mrs. Kester embraced. One was overheard to say, “Our little snowball is dead.”   On the day of Judy’s memorial service, the thermometer crept toward 40 degrees. The snow in Pine Hill Cemetery melted and ran down Furnace Street.   Mourners entering Shickshinny’s Bible Baptist Church took care not to get their feet wet. Inside, the spirit was upbeat. “We sang songs of victory,” says Brenda Yaple, 35, one of Judy’s closest friends and a Bonham Nursing Center worker. “(Judy’s) family, I think, comforted us more than we comforted them. You could see that they hurt, but there was a peace about them.”

The Kesters found strength that day, as they do today, by knowing Judy believed in the Lord. It was an unwavering faith, one that Judy expressed even in her six-word suicide note:  Safe in the arms of Jesus.   “That’s our only consolation,” Mrs. Kester says. “Even though her body is buried, her soul and spirit are with the Lord.  “That’s what gives us hope,” she says, “so we can live through these days.”

Record Number:  9909143386