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A life lost while fighting to survive

PORT COLBORNE, Ont. -- It could have been any one of us. It could have been one of our daughters, one of our sisters, the neighbor's kid with the million-watt smile. It could have been the smart girl in school, or the only child with the big house and the in-ground pool.

Life is not fair. Luck is fickle. The health and security we accept as birthright or blessing disappears in an instant. A drunken driver hits an intersection at the same time you do. A nagging headache turns out to be a tumor. The death of a child leads a mother to the bottle. The passing of a wife drops a husband into black despair.

They say that God doesn't put on us more than we can handle. Maybe He miscalculated with Cassey Cichocki.

They found her last week dead from "physical trauma," wrapped in a sheet and dumped in the underbrush near the Niagara Gorge. They buried her on a spring-like Thursday afternoon in her quiet home town. The Cassey who lived in a boarding house was a different Cassey than so many knew. She danced in strip clubs and was wrapped up in drugs. That was not the smart, fun kid from high school. That could not have been that same person.

Life blindsides us. You don't know when it is coming. People handle the blows in different ways. Some pick up a Bible, some grab a bottle. Some rage, others disappear into themselves. Cassey Cichocki found refuge and relief in strip clubs and drugs. It is dangerous ground. High school sweetheart in her teens, murder victim at 22.

A 33-year-old man was arrested. Police are looking into possible connections between her killing and the deaths of four other "sex trade" workers. Maybe there is something. Or maybe Cassey had nothing in common with their lives but a life that led her into the jaws of the beast.

She was not born bad, or sad, or reckless or hopeless. It's like the George Jones song, "Life Turned Her That Way." Life in fairy tales is buttercups and Prince Charmings. Life is no fairy tale. Cassey's father died when she was 7. A brother killed himself when she was 19. A cousin died in a fire. She lost a baby to sudden infant death syndrome. Luck ignored her. Fate turned its back. Life broke her spirit, and she never got the chance to make repairs.

Jessica Dooley walked out of Thursday's service, tears staining her black dress in grief for her childhood friend.

"She was really, really smart in high school," said Dooley, a polite young woman with her hair neatly pinned. "A really nice person, with a big heart."

Dooley went to college. Their paths hardly crossed. But she saw some of what Cassey took.

"She beared up so well, I didn't know how she could," she said. "I'd have been in pieces."

Cassey's luck didn't turn. She needed a break. She got broken.

When life breaks you, there is no knowing in what direction you will careen -- out of mind, out of control. You go into a place where you don't care anymore, having taken more than you can bear.

"It could happen to you, or me," said a family friend leaving the service, a middle-aged woman who did not want her name used. "A middle-class person, anyone, could fall into these circumstances. She lost a brother, she lost a child. It was a hard life, with a hard ending."

She pointed back to the funeral home.

"The priest [David Spengler] talked about hardship, what people face through no fault of their own," she said. "He talked about surviving life."

That is what life came down to for Cassey Cichocki. A fight for survival. At age 22.

I would not wish that on anyone. Not me, not you, not anyone. I wish it had been otherwise for the really smart girl in high school. The one with the big heart. The one who, if luck and fate fell differently, might have been any of us.


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