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Jim Kenyon: Fifteen Candles

There was homemade macaroni and cheese for dinner, with hot dogs mixed in. Just the way Ashley liked it. Chocolate cake smothered in vanilla frosting, Ashley’s favorite combination, and ice cream rounded out the meal.

When it came time to blow out the candles on the cake, Tanya DeMond, sat alone at the dining room table. A half dozen or so other family members stood by. Tanya rubbed her eyes and took a deep breath.

Her daughter would have turned 15 last Wednesday.

But on June 7, a few days shy of finishing her freshman year of high school, Ashley DeMond killed herself inside the family’s apartment in White River Junction. For her parents, Tanya and Kelly, or her teenage siblings, Jimmy, 16, and Jessica, 12, there’s no such thing as an easy day any longer. But they knew last Wednesday would be among the toughest so far.

Ashley seemed so much to be looking forward to her 15th birthday. She’d be old enough to find a summer job and get her learner’s permit to drive. She had talked with her dad about giving her driving lessons. Ashley pointed out to her younger sister that it wouldn’t be long before she could drive her to friends’ houses and to go swimming.

Kelly and Tanya talked it over with their children. What should they do for Ashley’s birthday? They decided on a small family gathering. They’d have Ashley’s favorite mac and cheese, right down to the Cabot sharp cheddar, and cake. They’d play music and blow up balloons, too.

“We want to remember the good times,” said Tanya.

Since their daughter’s death, Kelly and Tanya have not taken the customary path that many families follow when dealing with a suicide. In the obituary that appeared online and in this newspaper, they acknowledged that Ashley had died by suicide. Ann Duckless, a suicide prevention specialist for a Concord-based nonprofit organization, told me shortly after Ashley’s death that it’s rare for families to talk publicly about “the elephant in the room” as the DeMonds have done.

In a story I wrote in late June, the couple talked candidly about their daughter’s struggle with depression and bipolar disorder. When I sat down with them again a couple of days ago, the DeMonds said they want to continue shedding light on a topic that many people think is taboo.

“Ashley had a mental illness and she was being treated for it,” said Kelly. “Mental illness is a serious problem, but it’s OK to talk about it. It’s not a disease that’s contagious. It doesn’t have to be swept under a rug.”

Ashley’s mental illness was diagnosed when she was in elementary school. The years, before and after, were filled with trying times. The family moved around a lot. They lived in a campground and took up temporary residence at the Haven, the homeless shelter in Hartford.

During the last year their fortunes had improved. Kelly found steady work as a school bus driver. They landed an apartment at Northwoods, a modern complex for low-income families in White River Junction.

Ashley was making strides at school. She made the honor roll and embraced an opportunity to sing a solo at Hartford High’s spring talent show. On Wednesday, Ashley’s family watched a three-minute video of her performing Stand Out, a song by Keke Palmer, a young pop star, at the show.

Ashley’s straight brown hair fell onto the shoulders of the black cocktail dress that her parents had bought her for the occasion. “She had a beautiful voice,” said her grandmother Judy Clock. “She sang like a bird.”

The family has started a music scholarship in Ashley’s honor at Hartford High. The scholarship, which in six weeks has attracted more than $1,000 in private donations, will benefit students who plan to study music in college.

The day after the birthday gathering, Kelly and Tanya visited Hartford Cemetery to pick out Ashley’s burial plot, which an anonymous donor is paying for. Kelly’s co-workers at Butler’s Bus Service also spearheaded a fundraising drive to cover funeral costs. “To know that it’s all set, that’s a big relief,” said Kelly.

While wanting to do whatever they can to keep their daughter’s “spirit alive,” Kelly and Tanya are balancing the needs of their two youngest children. They’ve encouraged Jimmy, who stands more than 6 feet tall and weighs 280 pounds, to keep training for Hartford High’s upcoming football season.

Last week, Tanya drove Jessica to the Hartford Library, just outside of downtown White River Junction, where Ashley was a volunteer. “I’m looking to do something that my sister liked to do,” Jessica told Anne Dempsey, the library’s director.

After school, Ashley would walk to the library, where she re-shelved books. She quickly became a favorite volunteer of some library workers, said Dempsey. “I like that girl, she’s got spunk,” one of them told Dempsey.

“Ashley liked to keep busy,” said her stepsister, Kelley, 20. “It was her way of not having to think about the things that weren’t going right in her life.”

Kelley, who has the same first name as her father but with a different spelling, is a frequent visitor to the DeMonds’ apartment. This summer, she’s been taking Jessica for swims, just as Ashley had done. “Jessica and her were swimming buddies,” said Kelley. “I know that I can’t replace Ashley, but I want to be there for (Jessica) as much as I can be.”

After finishing cake and ice cream on Wednesday evening, each family member put a felt-tipped pen to a balloon. “The world isn’t the same without Ashley,” wrote Jimmy.

Outside, Ashley’s parents, siblings and grandparents released the half-dozen balloons. They watched as the balloons floated over the apartment building’s rooftop before disappearing into the darkening sky.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.

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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Hartford — The music, country and pop, mostly, was almost always playing in the tiny bedroom on the apartment’s second floor. It was as if Garth Brooks, Carrie Underwood and Selena Gomez lived in that room. Or at least, it sounded that way. Occasionally, neighbors in the Northwoods apartment complex, which sits on a hill above downtown White River Junction, …