Keisha Keller ended the worst year of her life with exceptional finesse, taking home a hard-earned diploma from Cal State Dominguez Hills’ largest commencement ceremonies ever on Friday.
She initially was due to graduate a year ago, but she awoke on the day of finals to find her newborn baby boy a victim of sudden infant death syndrome.
It was a devastating blow that brought her world dangerously close to the brink of chaos and misery.
She had already struggled to finish classes with high marks while being pregnant, a wife, and a mother to her 9-year-old son.
To bear the death of her 5-week-old, Legend Aurelius Jackson, she turned to her lifelong faith in God.
“I don’t know how Keisha was holding up,” said her mother, Cynthia Perry. “The first day of Legend’s passing, she said, ‘Mom, I’m standing on God’s word.’
“I asked her to come sit down. She said, ‘No mom. I have to stand on God’s word. I have to stand on his promises.’ ”
Keller, 33, had decided to get her college degree shortly after her mother enrolled in Los Angeles Harbor College in 2012. The two live together in Long Beach, near other members of their close-knit family.
They helped each other with schoolwork, meals and transportation. In 2014, they transferred together to Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson. Both pursued business-related degrees, with Keller focusing on entrepreneurship and Perry pursuing human resources management.
Keller’s pregnancy was an unexpected blessing that came in her last year of school. She and her husband had tried for years to have another baby. It made the school year especially challenging, as she balanced her studies with heartburn, weight gain and fatigue.
But, she persisted — even turning her classroom chair, with a front-facing attached desk, to the side so she could fit comfortably.
She attended classes until two days before giving birth and returned to school after only a two-week break. Determined to move forward with her studies, she bore the daily struggle because she was excited about building her own business as her family grew.
On April 20, the day of finals, she awoke surprisingly refreshed.
“I woke up early but I was well-rested — and I knew I shouldn’t have been,” Keller said. Legend usually woke her about every two hours.
She rushed to his side. He wasn’t cold, but he wasn’t warm either.
Her screams woke her mother.
“It just ate my belly up when I heard” her screams, Perry said. “When I saw her and the baby, I was on autopilot. Just so helpless. So paralyzed. My youngest son heard me screaming. We were trying to revive the baby.”
The next few weeks were a minute-to-minute struggle.
“I felt let down, but I knew I still needed God,” Keller said. “It’s like athletic training — you don’t give up when it’s time for battle.”
When it was time to get dressed and ready for the day, she imagined she was putting on her battle gear.
“I felt like I had died and was starting new,” Keller said. “I knew I had to want to fight for my restoration, that it’s not going to just come.”
And she faced the crushing grief in manageable portions.
“God gives you little doses because, if he put it all on you at once, you wouldn’t be able to bear it. Day to day, it gets easier. I don’t feel like crying all day. I didn’t feel like I was going to break down,” she said.
“It’s based on my faith in God. Because of him I’m strong. I’m going to turn my tragedy into a triumph.”
‘FAITH TOOK TIME’
The next semester, Keller decided to add a second minor in computer science to her degree. She wanted to keep busy, but it was difficult to face questions from classmates about her baby.
“I tried to ignore people and sit in the back of the class,” she said. “The first time somebody asked me, I froze and ran into the classroom. I didn’t know what to say.”
But she knew that God had a plan.
“I knew something good would come of this,” she said. “I said, ‘God you have to keep me or I’m going to go crazy.’ ”
Perry was in awe of her daughter’s strength. More than two decades ago, the mother of four struggled with cocaine addition and temporarily left her family to go to rehab.
When she returned home, she devoted herself to her family and work. All of her children attended college, with Keller being last.
But the loss of her infant grandson seemed an even greater obstacle.
“I wanted to feel God’s love, but I felt let down,” Perry said. “Faith took time. I prayed and praised the Lord with everything in me until it felt real, so I could feel his presence. I was trying to be her strength, but I was a hot mess.”
On Friday, the mother and daughter wore graduation caps decorated with photos of Legend and the words, “When life gives you lemons, be legendary,” and “Rest in Heaven.”
The university held two commencement ceremonies at the StubHub Center’s soccer stadium for its class of 4,500 graduates.
For Keller, taking hold of her degree was like a breath of fresh air.
“It’s been obstacle after obstacle,” she said. “I’m proud of myself — that I was able to do this. This is not a new life. I had to jump back in a journey I was already in.
“I’m in my right mind, and not bitter. If the devil has your mind, he’s got you. My reflecting on that day wasn’t going to bring him back. I can’t be focused on the whys. I have to give it to God because I couldn’t take this, it’s too much to bear. I’m helpless, but I’m not hopeless.”