Amid sorrow, family learns to healSeptember 26, 2013
By JOSEPH FANELLI
Herald Sports Writer
On the first-year anniversary of Benton’s death, Katie Kluesner stayed home from school.
On the second, her mother, Lisa, insisted she go. Told her how important it was for her to keep going, keep living.
This year, come Oct. 3, Katie doesn’t know how they will commemorate the death of her big brother. In the past, the soccer team has helped.
Katie has been a four-year goalie for the Northeast Dubois soccer team, and her freshman year, the team members wore camouflage headbands and tape in memory of Benton. Green and black with “Benny” written across in safety-orange letters.
“It’s not easier, you just learn to cope with it,” Katie explains. “There’s not a day that something doesn’t remind me of him or dad. I think about them every day no matter whether it’s a song, or something in a book. ... Anything can remind you of him.”
Next Thursday will mark the three-year anniversary of Benton’s death. Katie started high school as a freshman in August 2010. Little more than a month later, Benton died in an ATV accident, the details of which are unclear.
Six months later, still reeling from the loss of her brother, her father, Terry, was killed in a motorcycle crash with similar unanswerable questions. Since then, Katie has dealt with the grief and agonizing questions in a process that has brought her closer to her mother, her faith and the sometimes awful truths of life. She’s been to the bottom, and today she is still trying to move forward.
Benton was a young-looking boy of 16 with a penchant for the outdoors and a little bit of mischief. Traci Wineinger, who’s been teaching agriculture at Dubois Middle School and Northeast Dubois High School for nine years, had Benton in class from seventh to 10th grade. A few months after the accident, she found one of his old tests lodged behind a file cabinet. Now it hangs on her chalkboard.
“Of all the kids that I’ve had,” she says with small laugh, tears in her eyes.
Traci describes Benton as “the class clown” in the best possible way. He was outspoken, but not hurtful. Loud, but not disruptive. Funny; he liked to do impressions in a high, squeaky voice that would get the classroom rolling.
“He was a big teddy bear,” She says and then stopped to clarify. “I mean a little teddy bear.” She laughed, using her hand to indicate his short stature.
“He would do anything for anybody.”
Traci spent time with Benton outside of school during a summer course and with FFA. She saw a talented, hard-working boy whose future was set. He’d be outdoors, working with large machinery like tractors and excavators, probably side by side with his dad. Terry ran an excavation business on the side, ripping up ponds and roads. Benton loved it. That was the future. Benton would go to school and then come home to work with Terry. Terry would run the machinery and when anything broke, Benton would fix it.
Benton had friends in and out of FFA. Those with only passing interest would come and be involved because of Benton. He was fun. He was loving. And when he died, one of the first things Traci noticed was a portion of the kids stopped coming. He had connected them and now the realization sank in: Benton’s not going to our meetings anymore. Benton’s not going on our trips.
When Benton died, Katie lost her best friend. He was her only sibling and just 20 months older. Wherever Benton was, Katie was close behind. They sometimes spent the entire day bickering back and forth as brothers and sisters often do, but then, come bedtime, Lisa had to yell at them to be quiet. They would lie in each other’s beds and talk, discussing their days.
“I would get so aggravated sometimes,” Lisa remembers with a smile. “We would be eating supper and then one of them would just start busting out laughing. And I’d be getting mad, like, ”˜C’mon, eat your supper.’ And then the other would just chime in. It was just a big giggling mess.”
“Ninety-nine percent of the time we were best friends,” Katie says. “If you were having a bad day, he could put a smile on anyone’s face. He would tell you jokes. He would tickle you, do any kind of little stuff to tick you off and make you laugh.”
Katie sits in the Northeast Dubois cafeteria, still dressed from head to toe in her soccer gear from practice. She’s trying to remember exactly.
On Oct. 3, 2010, Benton was found unconscious at a farm in Celestine, a place he routinely worked either checking the cattle fences or raking hay or mowing grass. He was found lying on the ground about 150 feet from a 1994 Yamaha Timberwolf four-wheeler. He had been riding on the ATV checking the fence that circles the farm. There were no traces of blood. The ATV was on all fours and in third gear.
When Katie speaks about it, it’s apparent she’s put considerable time into all the possibilities. How did he fall? Did he hit his head on the way off? On the handlebars? Was it the seat? The rack? Did the four-wheeler roll over him? Was he going up hill or down? Was he chased? Did an animal attack him? Or was he just messing around? He was an experienced rider, accidents happen, but what actually happened?
“Besides not having him, because we went everywhere together,” she begins. “Besides not having him there all the time to help me, to talk to me about stuff, that was definitely the hardest thing, just not knowing what happened and why it happened and why him out of all of these other people that do bad things.”
Katie is Catholic and she started to question God. She began asking her mother a lot of questions about heaven. They went to a priest. They went to counselors. Katie and Lisa buried themselves in work. For Katie, it was sports and her first horse, a Tennessee walking horse named Eddy. She grew quiet. She tortured herself with the questions. She clung to her mom and Lisa clung back. But they kept going, and while Katie and Lisa went one direction, Terry went another.
“I think something inside Terry just broke,” Lisa explains. “His life as he knew it was over. His plans, his dreams; that was the one thing I tried to put in his head was, ”˜You still have a daughter.’”
“I really believed my dad wasn’t his self,” Katie added. “When it happened, that wasn’t him.
Something happened inside of him that you just can’t describe, and it was like something snapped and he just kind of forgot what he was doing.”
Terry, after working at Reynolds Inc. — a water and sewer systems construction company — as a project superintendent for 26 years, stopped going altogether. He began drinking. Katie and Lisa left their home. Just a month after Benton died, Lisa and Terry separated and three months after that, she filed for divorce.
Eventually, there was progress. Near May 2011, around the time he died, Terry began to show up to Katie and Lisa’s new house more frequently to mow the yard or fix up things around the home. Lisa remembers going to a shrimp barbecue about two weeks before Terry’s motorcycle crash and seeing the definite signs of change. Others saw it, too. He finally seemed to be on the upswing.
Katie was working at one of her job’s Arnie’s Tavern the day of his accident. It was a Friday the 13th and she says she had a strange feeling all day, as if something was just wrong. When her mom walked in with her sunglasses on, Katie knew immediately.
“I see my mom and my heart just dropped. She hadn’t even said a word yet and I knew what happened,” Katie said. “I just knew it was my dad. It couldn’t be anyone else but my dad.”
A senior banquet was set for that night and Lisa and Terry were going to award the first Benton Kluesner Memorial Scholarship, which they funded from donations at his funeral. Terry was driving back to his home on his Honda motorcycle to clean up beforehand. Based on the police report, Terry’s bike was heading east and began to skid while making a turn along the road. He lost control and crossed the double line, first hitting a drainage culvert and then the driveway of a nearby residence.
“I would just sit around and let it eat at me,” Katie says. “There was a probably a good two months where I just wasn’t feeling like doing anything. I would ride my horses and take care of my horses, but you were down. You were depressed. You didn’t have a life.
“You felt like your life is just slipping out of your hands and you can’t grab it.”
“You’re not past the first one,” Lisa said, referring to the death of her son. “It took me a lot of different routes. At some points in my life, I would say, ”˜At least he’s with Benton,’ because Terry had such a hard time. He just couldn’t do it. But at the same time... Why now? Why now when Terry was getting so much better? I don’t know. I have to know in my heart they’re together.”
Faith has been one of the aspects that has kept Katie and Lisa sane. Not just faith in God and in heaven — a chance to see them again — but faith in each other. Sadness turns to confusion.
Confusion turns to anger. Katie was mad. She was mad at Terry for the way he handled Benton’s death. She was mad at God for taking them both. So again, she leaned on her mother, and Lisa leaned back. They talked about it constantly. When one was having a bad day, it was the other’s job to hear her out, ask what’s wrong, suggest a walk, or a drive or some ice cream.
“If it wasn’t for my mom, I wouldn’t be half the person I am right now,” Katie says. “If it hadn’t been for her it would have been 100 times harder. She was somebody to talk to, somebody to cry with, just somebody to talk to about how your day was.”
Katie and Lisa still talk about it constantly. Lisa says they have to for their own health. They’ve tried to continue living. To continue to love and remember their brother and son and father and husband. Some days that means prayer or visiting the grave site or looking at the accident reports, but most days that means just being, moving forward. Lisa is getting remarried in November and Katie will graduate in May. At one point, Katie was hellbent on leaving Dubois for Wyoming or Montana, somewhere far away. But those thoughts have left. She’ll attend college somewhere closer, probably in Evansville, to remain close to her mother and boyfriend and pets.
“Just because their lives ended doesn’t mean mine ended,” Katie says. “You still have to go and make something of yourself. ... Benton was going to make something of himself and I want to make something of myself. They have made me push myself to want to be a better person.”
She doesn’t want pity. Neither does Lisa. They want peace and a person to talk to, and hearing others recall stories about Benton make them smile. The pain is still there, will always be there, but both recognize the dangers of lingering. Lisa looks at her daughter and talks about strength and courage. She says Katie has been through more than any 18-year-old should have to endure, but to give up would be worse than anything.
“Like every parent, I just hope for the best for her,” Lisa said. “She’s been scarred. She knows what it’s like to lose. ... I hope she doesn’t take that for granted. I want her to live, live, to love deeply, and do all of the thing we did. Create the memories. Thank God we had the memories.”
The days are sometimes difficult, but Katie says the last thing Benton and Terry would want is for them to give up. They were both happy people. Katie and Lisa saw their family cut in half from four to two, but they have strengthened that bond with more love for each other and the memory of those they cared for.
After so much pain, it can only get better.
“You either fell off a mountain or you went up,” Katie says. “You either went down and stayed down or you went down and you realized, ”˜Hey, I’m going down. I need to go up.”
Contact Joseph Fanelli at firstname.lastname@example.org
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