What ifs? Could haves. Should haves. Maybe if? Redo. Best I could. My best. Regrets. Never give up. Tough love. Soft love. A living hell on earth.
These phrases mingle and muddle in the mind of Debbie Wall this day. You never want to outlive your children. She has, her only two. Of course not your grandchild.
But she has.
Three premature deaths; two daughters and one grandson. Shannon, 16, six years ago, basically in her arms of encephalitis.
The other daughter, Ashley, 29, just a few weeks ago. Ashley's 5-month-old son died in his crib six years ago, almost a month before Shannon.
Debbie said Ashley "never really did get over her son and her sister's deaths."
Neither has this now orphaned mother. Today she visits all three graves that share a plot, wobbles to her knees and tries to shake the fog that clouds her mind and shrouds her heart.
"Ashley died of toxicity of drugs," said this grieving mother. "There was a combination of drugs in her system."
Who can endure this?
Who can function and put one foot in front of another and face reality with any sort of modicum of sanity? Debbie knows her eldest daughter Ashley Selby's story has been splashed across local media since she died on Aug. 8. But, she said, it's been the fast-read story, not the complete book.
The short version: A young mother reached out for help on social media... she received help but couldn't get into a facility in time.
"I am asking for information, for anything that may get me back on my feet so I can get back my children and my family..." Ashley wrote on social media a short time before she died.
On Aug. 8, Ashley was at a local hotel with friends and woke up unable to breath. She was rushed to Stonecrest Medical Center where she was later put on a ventilator. Her parents, Debbie and Mike, had to make the excruciating decision to turn off the ventilator.
"How do we say turn it off," Debbie whispered. "A beautiful, young, 29-year-old woman?"
Ashley leaves two children behind, in the home of Debbie, who has helped raise them for years. Maddison is 11 and Sydney is 8. Maddison has called Debbie "momma" for years, a result of her mom's troublesome - at times, vagabond - life addicted to drugs.
Ashley's mom knows the people who wrote about this terrible ending of her daughter don't know the real situation, just the superficial. The true story is sad... sadly real, she said. The true grit behind it is in your face, and trespasses on a personal family drama and a wider, between the cracks, chasm in addiction care need.
Life got in the way for Ashley
When Ashley was "about 8 or 9" she broke a bone and was given morphine.
"For some insane reason," Debbie said. "In my mind, I think somehow that's how she got started."
Debbie said her daughter dabbled in drugs most of her life.
"We she lost Mike (her infant son) and Shannon I think that was the turning point," this mom said. "I think drugs were her way to cope. Like, 'when I do this it doesn't hurt anymore' type mentality. She couldn't even go to the cemetery."
Ashley had a job when she died. The night before the hospital called Debbie at her work and said, "We have your daughter, you better get out here," she talked to Ashley.
"I was begging her," Debbie said. "She said she was trying to get into a program but had to go through detox first. She was excited about it. It was going to be some days before she could get into a year-and-a-half-long program."
Ashley told her mom she had errands to do and wanted to gather up her clothes.
"I told her don't worry about clothes," Debbie said.
She said Ashley made $10 an hour, insurance would be $120 a month and "she had two daughters she wanted to take care of."
"She was hopeful," said Debbie. "I said we would come get her and asked 'Where are you!'"
They lost phone contact. Ashley's boyfriend tried to call her dozens of times and so did some friends. Ashley never answered.
The last time Debbie and Mike saw their daughter she was "attached to tubes."
"It took us to our knees, it was surreal."
Debbie sat with her, talked and held her hand.
"I'll never know if she heard me," Debbie said.
When they made the decision to turn the machine off, Debbie's only thought was, "Her son and sister were waiting in heaven for her," Debbie said. "I can just imagine their reunion. That's the only comfort I have. We weren't ready to let her go."
Strangers reached out to help
For years these parents worried about Ashley.
"When she took drugs, it made her where she couldn't breathe," said Debbie. "My fears were always she would overdose or suffocate to death."
When Ashley reached out on social media, people responded immediately with suggestions and ideas, even rides to where she needed to be. Mental health professionals say it takes time to get into a program, to get a "bed."
"I do blame the system in ways," Debbie said quietly. "They could not get her in. Someone from social media even paid a taxi to a place, but from what I understand, she was told there was no bed, and had to detox first. I feel when an addict makes a decision to finally get help, just put a bed in the hallway, don't let them leave because they may never come back."
The first hard decision
Debbie said it was terrifically hard to tell Ashley to leave her house some months ago. Her daughter was working at Sportswear Promotion in Mt. Juliet, on second shift. This enabled her to watch Maddison and Sydney at times while Debbie worked. Debbie said Ashley had used drugs in the house and passed out in a locked bathroom.
"The little 8 year old saw her momma on the floor through the crack of the door and thought she was dead," Debbie said quietly.
When paramedics arrived and put Ashley in an ambulance, a detective told the young girls their mom wasn't dead.
"This is when I made the decision that Ashley had to leave the house. That was July 18," said Debbie. "Yes, it was tough love. The hardest kind. I could not let her do this to her children."
Debbie has had full custody of Sydney for four-and-a-half years and Maddison for nine years.
"I had to do it for the little girls," she said in tears.
Debbie feels Ashley always blamed herself for her infant's death.
"It was when Shannon was in the hospital," Debbie recalled. "She said she couldn't understand why her baby was sleeping so late. She blamed herself because she put an extra blanket in his bed and he got wrapped up in it. She thought she killed her son. She never openly talked about it after that. She just started medicating herself. The whole thing is just so, so sad."
Debbie silently wonders all the time if maybe the fact her son's birthday was coming up, and "maybe that is why she relapsed."
Family left with the pain
Up until she died, Debbie would meet with her daughter and do mom and daughter things, like eat at Panera Bread.
"We did stuff together, we were very close," she said.
Both girls know their mom is gone. The oldest at first was "upset and angry" and questioned why could something like this happen.
Debbie said they both know last summer was their best summer ever.
"They did things like go to the zoo," Debbie recalled. "They went to Panama City, and I went, too. They are good memories we all hold onto."
Ashley grew up close with her cousin Kayla Holbert who is now struggling to deal with what happened to Ashley.
"One of the things I will miss most about my cousin Ashley is her ability to make me smile or laugh at any given time when she would walk in," said Kayla, who performed recitals with Ashley while they were young. "It didn't matter how sad I was about something, she would always help and make me smile."
Kayla said Ashley was more like a sister than a cousin.
"Especially after her sister Shannon passed. She came around a lot when she was clean and well, and she treated my kids so great. She was just so full of life! She will forever be in my thoughts and prayers, and I'm thankful for the many, many memories I got to make with her."
No one to blame
Last December, Ashley was arrested for shoplifting. But, she cleaned herself up, "got clean." Until July, when she passed out on her mom's bathroom floor.
Debbie said she feels the system didn't work for Ashley, and, she gets angry and asks why wasn't her daughter arrested for using drugs when she was found in the bathroom.
"If arrested, maybe she would be alive?" Debbie wonders aloud.
She's just trying to wrap her head around it all and said she lives in a fog. She said she can't allow herself to die from grief because her granddaughters need her. She takes them out to Cedar Grove Cemetery often.
"They talk to their mom there, I don't know what they say," she said. "They bring little toys for their brother."
They put a bench by the gravestones and sometimes bring folding chairs.
"Sometimes I fuss at God," Debbie said slowly. "I'm sorry I do that, but God has a thick skin. I don't know why He took my babies, but I know there is a reason."