filmmaker + multimedia journalist

Existing

Music composed and produced by Chris Thomas.

Existing

On the Verge online magazine (Missouri Journalism School) | Jan. 15, 2009
shot, edited and produced by Mo Scarpelli.

NOTE: On the Verge was discontinued in 2011. This was the story published as is in 2009.

“I do not exist.”
Like a brand or a stamp, the words stand out in bold type on Jonathan McDowell’s right arm every time his t-shirt sleeve creeps up the tricep enough to show them.

The phrase is more than a cryptic reminder. It’s a family motto. To McDowell and his newborn’s mother, Danni Turner, it sums up what holds their new and unexpected family together.
________

“She did find out she was pregnant while we weren’t together,” recalls McDowell, sitting in a rocking chair on his front porch in Columbia. “We’d broken up but we were still physical together because we still connected.”

Turner, 20 at the time, experienced scares before, so she didn’t quite believe her first positive pregnancy test. But after taking several more, she shakily sent her father a text message to tell him the news.

“He said he told my mom on her lunch break – he said, ‘You’re going to be a grandma,’ and she put her hands on the wall like she was about to fall over and she started crying,” explained Turner. “She called me, telling me this was not what she wanted for me.”

McDowell got a different reaction from his family. His 16-year-old brother Stevie was excited to have a fourth nephew, his mother offered support and encouragement.

But the initial shock soon settled into a gritty realization for the couple. Not only did they face a myriad of unknown challenges, but they also began to see that they couldn’t afford to avoid their relationship struggles anymore.

“We both sat down and talked – ‘we’ve got nine months until this baby’s here and let’s work on us for these nine months,’” explains McDowell. The baby was an important element for the relationship, he says, but they knew it couldn’t be the catalyst.

To Turner, this meant forgiving problems that started right after McDowell’s father died in a sudden forestry accident back in his hometown, Carollton, Missouri. Since news of the baby, Turner says McDowell seemed to become “a completely different person,” not just for the baby’s sake, but for their new family.

As for Turner, a new life was growing inside of her; she had some changes to make as well.

“I was actually out of control with partying, I was drinking all the time,” Turner describes herself before the pregnancy. “When I first met Jon, I thought, ‘this guy’s uptight, he needs to chill out.’ But now, I can’t think of anything good that ever came out of that stuff – ever.”
She stopped drinking and smoking abruptly and started meeting with a doctor covered by Medicaid for checkups.

“A lot of people just stopped hanging out because I used to be the place that everyone came to party every weekend and now I had to stop,” says Turner. “A lot of people fell off the face of the earth, just stopped talking to me.”

Turner still went to shows and even made a couple of new, younger friends who weren’t into partying. But changes were hard, she says, especially when McDowell’s friends stood by his side. Those friends, most of which belong to the local music scene of his band, LetLions, rose to the occasion as baby news got around. Several offered to babysit, others gave money or baby food to help out.

Watching many of her friendships fade away, Turner realized that she was changing, she was growing, but there was no reason to be discouraged.

“It’s just crazy how much you have to change,” says Turner. “But I’m not down about it, I think it’s well worth it.”

She touches Lua’s lips, who lets out a small murmur.

“And I love it.”

_________

A little more than a month after the mid-September afternoon of Lua McDowell’s birth, a shy, skinny boy with eyes like her father showed up at her house.

It was her Uncle Stevie. The 16-year-old moved in with Jonathan McDowell and Turner when his family back in Carrollton changed dramatically. Stevie and Jon’s mother remarried several months after their father passed and, feeling alienated and at odds with the new step-father, Stevie decided to move to Columbia.

Jon savors the chance to have his little brother around more, especially amid the chaos of taking care of Lua, working to provide financially for his new family, and anything else life may throw his way.

“It’s as good for me as it is him, that he’s here,” says Jon. “He’s a good example for Lua and even a good example of a big brother for me. I learn a lot from him, even though he’s the youngest.”

Jon remembers Stevie’s resilience following their father’s unexpected death last summer.

“Talk about strong; my brother was fifteen when it happened,” Jon says. “I don’t know how he did it, even being 21, it was the hardest thing of my life. What he realizes is that he wasn’t the only one to lose somebody close to him, and he’s willing to help out wherever he can.”

Stevie walks to Hickman High School every morning and watches Lua at home often when he’s needed. Along with forming a bond with his niece, Stevie has also become one of Turner’s good friends.

To this family, forming connections is more than just about getting along or getting by. It makes someone who they are.

“It’s something I take from my dad,” says Jon. “I’d heard him say that as long as we were alive, and living our lives that he would always be alive. It’s the idea that you as your own person don’t exist without the relationships you make, without the people you touch, whether it be good or bad.”

If they ever forget it, Jon says their tattoos – “I do not exist,” and “we exist” – will remind them.

“Without Danni and Stevie – they make me the person I am, they make me stronger and let me know what I need to do,” says Jon. “Without them, I’m just… nobody, really. That’s what you have to do – you have to make connections with people. That’s what makes you who you are.”

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