‘There are good things that are coming’: Haunted by her father’s death, Houston senior persists, finds purpose

Tobias Mann – Winona Daily News
April 27, 2019

Six hard years after Vasa Johnson lost her father, her life — long tortured by grief and depression — was starting to look up.

As a junior, the bright Houston High School Above and Beyond recipient had earned early entrance into Minnesota State College-Southeast and was actively pursuing a degree in psychology. She wanted to help people get the care she was never afforded. For the first time in a long time, she was happy.

And then in an instant, Vasa’s world came crashing down around her; everything she’d been told about her father’s death had been a lie.

Sparked by a message on Facebook, Vasa’s suspicions were confirmed when she discovered her father’s medical examiner’s report in her mom’s safe.

Her father, Kevin Johnson — the pillar of her world and the last thread holding her family together — hadn’t died of a stroke, as she’d been told for years.

The reality was instead far grimmer, and though Vasa declined to elaborate on the specifics, the deceit and lies surrounding his death were just as earth-shattering for the teen.

“The world just turned backwards and started spinning,” she said. “I was angry and confused. I somehow knew that they were lying to me. I always knew there was something more, but I never pressed. I never asked questions.”

Vasa still remembers her father fondly. She remembers his passion for music and love for cooking. She remembers grocery shopping with him and how he always warmed up a difficult situation when things got tense.

There is also a lot she will never know about her father.

“I wish I would have known what he thought about the world or what he liked,” Vasa said. “I just knew what he liked because of what we did together.”

Her family wasn’t perfect, but they were happy. And until fifth grade, so was Vasa.

Then, days before her 11th birthday, all that changed when her father’s life came to an unexpected end.

“It was really, really difficult,” the Houston High School senior said over and over again, her voice taut. “My mom became desolate of any happiness.”

In the weeks that followed her father’s passing, Vasa’s family began to fall apart as her mother stopped eating and began to struggle with cigarettes and alcohol.

“My house was a hot box of cigarette smoke,” she said. “It became my personal hell.”

It hurt Vasa to see someone she loved in so much pain, but it hurt her more that she couldn’t go to her mother for comfort.

“Growing up was forced,” she said. “That happened the day that my dad died.”

At 11 years old, Vasa became more concerned with what she and her little sister were going to eat for dinner than how she was doing in school.

“I didn’t really care about school work at that point,” she said. “I had a lot bigger things to worry about than academics.”

With no one to turn to for help, Vasa began a period of her life punctuated by self-harm and isolation.

“I thought it (her father’s death) was because he was overweight. I remembered that he’d gone to the doctor and they told him he needed to change his lifestyle,” she said.

So Vasa stopped eating, cutting out meat from her diet and eventually becoming a vegetarian.

“I became anorexic,” she said. “I was trying not to become overweight.”

But no matter what she tried, nothing could drown out the pain.

“There was nothing that could get my mind off of it,” Vasa said.

But, with time Vasa slowly began to heal. By the time she’d started high school, things started to turn around.

She’d met a boy named Charles who’d helped her to stop hurting herself and she began to redirect her emotions into something more constructive, writing music, poetry and short stories. Even her relationship with her mother, while still tenuous, was getting better.

Vasa said she understood how difficult losing their father had been for her mother and that her mother knew how hard it had been for her.

“I still love my mother,” she said.

Houston counselor Chrystal Sobotta said she still remembers how angry Vasa was when they first met.

She said early on, Vasa struggled with balancing academics with her family responsibilities, but “as she got older and had an opportunity to become more independent, things started getting better for her.”

Today, Sobotta sees a strong young woman who has overcome her circumstances to become a role model to peers.

“I feel like she has become stronger as she has grown and is doing well despite all that has happened,” Sobotta said.

Now, a little over a year after she discovered the truth behind her father’s death, Vasa is back on track. Her grades have recovered and she’s once again looking forward to the future.

“I realized that if I keep going in the direction that I’m going, it’s just going to get worse,” she said. “There are good things that are coming and you can’t just focus on what’s happened in the past.”

While the pain of her father’s death still weighs heavy in Vasa’s heart, the last seven years have given her purpose.

“I want to help people,” she said. “I don’t want anyone to feel the way that I felt.”

She plans to return to Minnesota State College-Southeast in the fall to renew her journey into the field of psychology and hopes to eventually transfer to Winona State University to complete her studies.

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