GRAND FORKS, N.D. (AP) – Genia Wilkie was in the hospital recovering from a seizure when a 14-year-old boy was brought into the room next to hers. It was her son.
Jayden Wilkie had been in a freak accident at his home. Efforts to revive him failed.
The Wilkies have been coping with Jayden’s death while Genia (pronounced JEEN’-ah) recovers from high-risk brain surgery. She and her husband, Michael, and their children have found support from people in Grand Forks, Devils Lake, Tokio, St. Michael and other reservation towns.
“So many people,” Genia told the Grand Forks Herald. “I was so surprised so many cared about us, here in Grand Forks and in the tribe. I need to thank them.”
Genia was 16 and Michael (Mickey) Wilkie was 17, when they met while attending an Upward Bound program at the University of North Dakota in 1992. They were married in 1998.
She is Sioux. He is Chippewa, from the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation.
“There’s been a lot of teasing,” she said, smiling at Mickey. “Our people used to be enemies.”
June 3 was the anniversary of Genia’s father’s death in 1980. It also was the date of her son’s death.
“Jayden was worried about me. He didn’t want me to have the surgery. He thought the risks were too much. It was a hard choice, but I couldn’t go on with the seizures and headaches,” she told the Herald.
Jayden’s death was ruled an accidental strangulation.
“We had bunk beds in that room, and he was making a hammock,” his mother said. “I don’t exactly know what happened, but maybe he slipped.”
Her 8-year-old son, Koldyn, found Jayden.
“He called 911 and then ran to the neighbors for help. They brought him here,” Genia said, referring to Altru Hospital in Grand Forks. I was in room 5. Jayden was in room 6.”
Her brain tumor was diagnosed last year. People in Devils Lake organized a fundraiser to send Genia and her husband to Phoenix for surgery in July.
Jayden’s body was taken to the Spirit Lake Sioux Reservation and buried after a traditional American Indian ceremony attended by some 400 people, including tribal elders and Jayden’s eighth-grade classmates, football teammates, teachers and others from Valley Middle School in Grand Forks.
The tribe arranged for Jayden’s traditional funeral, providing lodging and meals, traditional singers, an all-night vigil and a feast with Indian tacos, his favorite food.
At the funeral, Jayden was given his Indian name, Bluebird Boy. People sent glass and porcelain bluebirds, now in the Wilkie home.
“Everybody stepped up,” Mickey said. “We didn’t need to ask for help.”
Cards sent to the family fill a shoebox.
“I know teachers aren’t supposed to have favorites, but Jayden definitely was one of mine,” a teacher at Lake Agassiz Elementary wrote. “I will always remember his infectious smile, his willingness to learn and his sense of mischief.”
Genia said she worried that Koldyn and Nevada might withdraw after their brother’s death, but their teachers have helped them. “They’re doing fine,” she said.
“I feel so respected by the school and everyone there. When we came back from Phoenix, we had to move; I couldn’t stay in that house where it happened,” she said. “But we decided it’s best we stay in Grand Forks.”
Genia said she has been seizure and headache free since her July 23 surgery, though healing will take months more.
Jayden would have arrived at Grand Forks Central this fall, and he probably would have tried out for football. He wanted to attend UND and play football there, his mother said. He supported the Fighting Sioux nickname and so does she, she said.
“I am a Valley Royal football player,” Jayden wrote in an essay at the end of middle school. “Ever since I was young, I wanted to be a football player. It’s something I enjoy doing every chance I get.
“Our coaches tell us to get a very good education and not to give up on anything. School is important because I hope to go to college someday, and that would be good because not that many people in my family made it to college.”
Genia said her son wanted to be a doctor, perhaps so he could cure her seizures.
“I felt that he was there with me in Phoenix,” she said. “He was my little angel.”
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