First Place Photojournalism II – Picture Story/Series
First Place Photojournalism II – Picture Story/Series
Western Kentucky University
Reagan Carter was a typical 12-year-old. She was popular, had friends and always had a smile on her face. Melanie Hack was a proud mother and Reagan meant the world to her. In the fall of 2014, a group of girls in her middle school began cyber-bullying Reagan making snide comments online. As the months went by the bullying became more aggressive, with intimidating looks and threatening gestures. After learning about the harassment Reagan was facing, Melanie approached the school principal and implored him to do something about the situation. Melanie says her concerns were brushed off every single time. Melanie, and Reagan’s father, Jimmy Carter, decided that it would be best to transfer Reagan to a different school district in January 2015. In mid-December, Melanie picked up Reagan from her last school ballgame and they returned home. Reagan took her things and went to her room. By 8:30 that night Reagan came to her mom requesting that she her to take her to the hospital. Concerned, Melanie asked what was wrong. Reagan confessed that she had taken an overdose of prescription cough suppressant pills that can cause a considerable decline in heart rate. Moments later Reagan collapsed and was pronounced brain dead on December 23, 2014. “I am tired of everyone hating me,” were her last words to her mother. Melanie recalls every second of that evening, constantly wondering if there was anything she could have done to save her daughter. “I still feel with every bit of my heart that she didn’t mean to die,” Melanie says, “because she thought her mama could save her. But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t save her.”
Melanie Hack, 38, embraces her younger daughter Zoey, 3, near Reagan’s grave at Monroe County Memorial Lawn in Tompkinsville, Kentucky. While other mother’s buy Christmas gifts for their children, Melanie buys ornaments and flowers to decorate her daughter’s grave.
Following Reagans death, Melanie made multiple copies of the photos and videos of her dead daughter to make sure she never loses a single memory. There is not even words to begin to describe what life is like without her, she says. There is not true joy. I am alive but I dont live.
Melanie, exhausted, rubs her face while her husband, Billy Hack, works on his laptop. Melanie says that her days are spent surviving rather than living. “It takes everything that I have to put one foot in front of the other to get up out of the bed. I think I have come to the realization that some days might be more tolerable than the others, but there will never be a good day.”
Melanies daily ritual is to stroke a photo of Reagan before going to bed. Melanie finds comfort in surrounding herself with images and tangible memories of Reagan throughout the house. She sprays her daughters favorite perfume, smells her clothes and looks over her cluttered yet empty room. Sometimes I think people inadvertently give me the impression, Why does she still talk about her so much? I talk about her constantly because to me thats the way I keep her alive; to talk about her.
Melanie visits Reagan’s grave religiously every Sunday morning and every other chance she gets to make sure that everything is perfect the way Reagan would like. “We are going to move her to another plot in the cemetery where I can lie next to her,” Melanie said. “This one next to her is taken.”
Melanie hugs her friend, Ronda Elam, after the screening of the movie A Girl Like Her, that shares the story of a bullying victim, hosted by Reagan's Voice Foundation at Clay County High School. Reagans Voice Foundation is a nonprofit organization that was established by Melanie and a few of her close friends after Reagan's death. The organization helps spread Reagans story and urges other victims of bullying to find a voice. As emotional as is it for Melanie to spread Reagans story through the organization, such meetings are cathartic as well, especially when hosted at schools.
Melanie finds love and support in her friends, whom she has known since school. Melanie and “the girls,” Apryl Roberts, Amy O’Neil and Melanie Bean-Jennings, try to meet up once every month to share their happiness and sorrows with each other. “These three girls have been my rock,” Melanie says. “I like to joke with them that what little sanity I have left is probably because of them.”
Zoey Hack was barely 1 when Reagan died. Today Melanie says that her only reason for living is to be able to be a good mother to Reagan’s sister. “What little happiness I feel is because of her,” Melanie says. “There are times that I look at Zoey and it takes my breath away because she’ll have a look on her face that looks so much like Reagan.” Melanie now lives in constant fear that Zoey might think that it is all right to end her life, without weighing the consequences of her decision.
Melanie likes to keep journals so that whenever an unexpected memory of Reagan strikes she has a platform to savor that memory forever. I write in a journal because that is all that I have left. I have 12 years of memories.
Sometimes I will go to the cemetery at night because it is so quiet, and peaceful. I can look up at the stars and I have to believe that she is up there, Melanie says. Sometimes a few car lights go off and on and I like to think that is her saying she knows that I am there. Hopefully she knows that I am there, that mama still comes.
Melanie breaks down in the arms of her husband as they empty out Reagans room to move to a new house. I think for my family and husband, theyve just had to watch me struggle through because they dont know what else to do either, Melanie says.
Melanie cries as she looks around Reagans room, just before leaving their old house for the last time. A long-term goal for Melanies family has been to move to a bigger house. Melanie and Reagan had always made plans about the new house, the kind of room she would have, colors of the wall and the furniture she wanted. Following Reagans death, Melanie did not want to move out their house where everything reminded her of her oldest child. Reagans room remained a sanctuary of what life looked like for the Hack family before her death. After three years, Melanie decided to make the move to a new home for a fresh start.
While packing the last of her daughter’s things, Melanie sits on the floor of Reagan’s room with a memory box from December 23, 2014. It consists of Reagan’s handprint in purple - her favorite color, a photograph of Reagan, a brush Melanie used to brush her daughter’s hair in the hospital, locks of Reagan’s hair and a couple of thank you pins from the hospital addressing Reagan’s organ donations.
Melanie and Bill take the remaining items out of Reagans room. The last thing to come out of their home was Melanies favorite picture of Reagan as a 10-year-old. In a fit of rage, Reagan had once crumpled the picture, which made her mother cry. Reagan, like other 12-year-olds, may do or say something without thinking about it first, Melanie says.
Melanie lies on Reagans bed one last time before the movers come to dismantle it to be moved to their new house in Cecelia, Kentucky. One of the things that I have clinged to was Reagans room, she says. Trying to keep it the same, walking by her door and even trying to convince myself that she was still in there or would be coming back. So to think about not having that is heartbreaking. Melanie is setting up a room for Reagan in her new house.