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Toni Dickison's family shares memories in the midst of grief

Monday, December 6, 2004

Though overwhelmed with grief and shock at the murder of Toni Dickison, members of the teenager's family are mingling laughter with their tears as they remember the joy she brought to so many in her life of only 18 years.

Mixed in with the questions they have and the sense their lives have been irreparably fractured, Toni's aunts Virgie and Nan, 21-year-old cousin Shontanna and 16-year-old sister Gigi told The Brazil Times they also feel pity. Not for themselves, but for those who will never experience the way Toni's smile drew people to her like a beacon.

"When she was on, she shone like a star," Virgie said of her willowy blue-eyed niece whose smile seemed to illuminate her entire face. "She had a radiance about her. She was just beautiful. And somebody out there took it away from her."

"If you saw Toni, you wanted to know her," Nan said. "People were drawn to her. Her looks were stunning to begin with, but you've heard about people lighting up a room when they walk in? She was light. She was medicine. Even when she did something stupid and you were really mad at her, she would have you rolling on the floor with one comment."

"Toni had her problems, but she was a teenager," Virgie said. "She was very opinionated. She was a Dickison. A lot of us are that way. She was beginning to be independent. She was beginning to wander. She'd been lost for a while and she was starting to find her way back."

No matter the background or lifestyle, Toni's cousins explained, she would always accept people for who they were.

"She had such a sense of who she was," Nan said. "She was confident and content in her own skin. That's why she was so accepting of others. She'd come to terms with her own life."

Even though she was aware of her own beauty, she would go out of her way to make comments to make others feel better about themselves, she added. She also had a knack for using humor to help friends and relatives assess their problems from different angles.

"She was loyal almost to a fault," Nan said. "If Toni was on your side, she would fight for you. If she thought they were right, she'd defend them, no questions asked. She was very strong-willed, there's no doubt about that."

Flipping through albums of Toni's snapshots, Nan, Gigi and Shontanna laughed as they shared memories, from Toni's elaborate schemes to convince the family to allow her and her cousins to attend a Backstreet Boys concert, to the inchworm, an uncoordinated dance she'd embraced as her own, to the eating habits that earned her the nickname "human garbage disposal," to her ability to laugh at herself until everyone else laughed with her. They recalled Toni's giant blue hat, won at a carnival and worn everywhere, and her habit of sporting fuzzy blue slippers wherever she went. They were the same slippers, Gigi said, that led her to believe the body found in a private pond was that of her older sister. The family plans to include a pair in Toni's casket.

A multi-talented young woman, Toni had dreamt of being a model since her early teens, Nan said. The family often joked about how she was too beautiful to be one of them, and laughingly remembered her habit of swiping their cosmetics, unable to resist making it obvious later by fluttering her eyelids to display her "new" eyeshadow. But there was much more to her than her striking looks.

She was also an athlete who participated in track and basketball, and was a gifted singer, dancer and artist. Nan said the Dickisons plan to display Toni's drawings at the viewing. She loved hair and makeup and was good at teaching people how to do things, Gigi added, and once considered being a choreographer. She loved children and animals, especially horses, and as a little girl said she wanted to be a "peterinarian," Virgie explained. Several packets of college brochures and applications were also found among her belongings.

"She couldn't decide what to do, because she wanted to do everything," Shontanna said. "She wanted to have her hand in everything."

"Anything my sister set her mind to, she excelled at. She did everything 110 percent," Gigi said.

One of Toni's teachers, Joanna Connors, Family and Consumer Sciences Dept. Chair at Northview High School, remembers her former student as a girl who exhibited an endless supply of enthusiasm for her textiles and fashion technology course. She would come in each day excited, bursting with innovative ideas, and seemed to love to sew.

"Toni was curious about the world of fashion and was enthusiastic, creative and talented in garment construction," she said. "I just really enjoyed Toni in that class."

Listening to religious music and immersing herself in everyday tasks are helping Virgie cope with what has happened. The rest of the family is doing much of the same, she said, although her brother Ken, Toni's father, is at a loss.

"As long as I don't think about anything, I'm fine. Until I think of something she said, or something she'll never say again. It's devastating, just devastating. You keep on living life and praying a lot and holding on to everybody else a lot and that's it."

Grasping the reality of what has happened has been difficult. Toni had been living on her own in an apartment in Terre Haute for several months, and Gigi explained that although her sister was not living in the Brazil area with the rest of the family, she knew the family could always count on Toni to be there if she was needed. In the weeks preceding Toni's death, Gigi said, she spent a lot of time visiting with her sister at her apartment. She didn't know the Sunday evening prior to the discovery of Toni's body would be the last time she saw her sister alive.

"It's real enough to make us sad, but not real enough to be real yet," Nan said, with Gigi and Shontanna nodding in agreement. "She was murdered. She didn't die instantly, like in a car accident, where you know why it happened. We don't know. That's what's killing us. We don't know who or why. We may never know. Even if this person is caught and goes to trial, we may never know. I feel like there's an element of closure that's going to be denied us."

If there's something her niece could have shared with others, that she may have wanted people to know, it could have been to be more cautious in their acceptance of people. She would encourage parents to be involved in their children's lives, perhaps tell them not to stop talking just because the child is angry, and to be more discriminating when choosing friends, Nan said. "The first thing she would want people to know is she truly loved her family. We believe Toni wouldn't want people to forget. She would want to know who did this, but not want people to be steeped in sadness. She went out of her way to make anyone who was sad 'unsad.' She would act like a blooming idiot to make you laugh if you were sad. She would want people to learn from what has happened to her. I think she would want people to learn that not everyone was good. For every good person you know, there's a bad person you don't know."

"She loved her family, she loved her friends, she loved life," Virgie said. "Tell (readers) I just wish they would watch their babies. Just tell them to do that. Always know who your children are with and what they are doing. I don't ever want anyone to have to go through this."

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