Hidden pain and invisible heroes

Zach Wiita

Every so often, I find myself reminded that I live in a world full of unperceived tragedy. I hear about an acquaintance from high school who died in a car crash, or I hear that a friend’s relative has just ended an abusive relationship. Maybe I happen to cross an abandoned cat along a wintery highway, or maybe I see a neighbor abusing his dog. I find myself all too sadly realizing the casual cruelty that fills our lives and the pain our society is all too keen to ignore in favor of frivolity.

But every now and then, I’m also reminded of the world’s invisible heroes.

My first encounter with hidden pain and heroism came at an early age when I learned of a good friend’s family history while in kindergarten. His grandmother had been abandoned by her first husband in the early ’60s after having three children. She later re-married, but her second husband became a violently abusive alcoholic after the wedding.

His grandmother had always described it as the worst mistake of her life, but she eventually managed to find a way to get a divorce – not yet common in our town in those days – and keep her children safe from him. My friend’s family lived with the effects of that abuse for years, but all of them found their way in the world, thanks to the efforts of his grandmother – who is, to this day, one of the kindest, most giving souls I have ever met.

As I grew older, I learned that the struggles we do not see and the triumphs we never hear about can be all the more painful for adults. Many of us know loved ones who have suffered from depression or have dealt with attempted or successful suicides in our lives.

I’ve seen both. A close friend in high school very nearly managed to kill herself twice before we graduated. Just this break, an acquaintance from my home town’s community theatre, one of the nicest actors I have ever shared the stage with, committed suicide four days before Christmas.

His calling hours were a harrowing affair. I was not close to him, but the sadness and the pain permeated the air. This young man’s pain was so profound that he could not perceive his own future. I found myself all the more grateful for my old high school friend’s survival and in admiration of her defeat of her demons in years since.

So it was like a punch to the gut to be reminded of another kind of hidden tragedy and unacknowledged heroism here at Kent State this Friday.

Dr. Gertrude Steuernagel is one of the kindest, most engaging instructors you will ever find at Kent State. She always has a good attitude and an interesting story to tell that links with the lesson of the day. She was found beaten in her home one week ago, apparently by her severely autistic son, Sky, and as of this writing is still in serious condition at Akron City Hospital.

Dr. Steuernagel often talked about her son in class and mentioned the challenges of raising an autistic child. It wasn’t until seeing the news report of her assault that I read her heartbreaking columns in the Stater about the difficulties of raising Sky. Imagine never being able to have a conversation with your own son because of such a severe condition. She, like many others, has wrestled with pain that goes mostly unseen by the outside world.

Yet Dr. Steuernagel has managed to raise her son for 18 years while holding down a successful academic career here at KSU – writing articles in academic journals, co-writing textbooks, and teaching some of the best and most thought-provoking classes you’ll ever find. She’s served the cause of women’s rights and she’s helped steer the futures of hundreds of students in her years at Kent. She has successfully faced these challenges, without letting the pressure break her spirit.

I wish Dr. Steuernagel a speedy recovery and look forward to speaking to her again soon. I wish nothing but the best for her and her family and hope this challenge, too, can be faced. And I have faith that she and her son will come through this. Our lives are full of invisible heroes, you see, and Dr. Steuernagel is one of them.

Zach Wiita is a senior political science and theatre studies major and a columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].