Why is my sister picking me up from school at 2:30 in the afternoon? Why is she crying? What happened? Questions buzzed through junior AJ Jackson-West’s mind as he stood in the office of Center Middle School, confused. One minute he was sitting in class, laughing with his friends on a normal on a day afternoon, but in what seemed like seconds, his whole world would change. He fell to the ground when he heard the devastating words come from his sister’s mouth.
“Your brother Ashton got shot, he’s dead.”
A state of shock fell over Jackson-West right away. His brother was dead. How could this have happened?
Every day for the next two years, he missed his brother more and more. It was when he was 16 that he decided to inscribe his brothers life into his skin permanently.
He inked a mural into his skin in honor of his brother so that he will never forget. Upon his right forearm, Jackson-West has a permanent marking of a cross with “Ashton” boldly inscribed across with the date of his death: April 23, 2013. The cross floats on a sky of fluffy ink clouds, drawn by himself.
“All of my life I always wanted a tattoo,” Jackson-West said. “I would always be drawing on myself, and when my brother died, I knew I had to put something on my body to remember him by.”
His brother was 21 years old when he was shot and killed in a neighborhood near 32nd and South Benton Blvd. The age gap between the two was seven years, but they were very close in every other way.
“We used to play football all the time,” Jackson-West said. “He is the one who got me into football.”
Jackson-West still plays football, although passing the ball to his teammates at Shawnee Mission East instead of his brother at home. When he sees the ink on his arm, memories of throwing the football, drawing, laughing and telling jokes to one another come flooding in. He only thinks of the happy times that they shared.
However, Jackson-West didn’t always see the tattoo as a happy thing. It took a long time to be able to only think positive thoughts, and ignore the horrible ones.
For Jackson-West, middle school was tough enough as it was–he was trying to juggle school work as well as hardships at home. Being 14 and having to live through an experience that most will never be able to understand made things much more difficult. He had to learn how to battle the onset of depression because of it, and could not bring himself to come to school for two weeks.
When he returned, teachers and counselors tried to to help him. He didn’t want to talk to anybody—no one could understand the pain of a brother being taken away in such a sudden way.
“I always hate when people say ‘I’m sorry,’” Jackson-West said. “What were they sorry for? They didn’t do it.”
After news of his brother’s death spread around the community, he was approached by two different women, claiming that the baby they held was the child of his brother. After blood tests, it was confirmed that Jackson West had two new nieces—and that is how he found the silver lining in his brother’s death.
“I saw them, and I told myself that I had to be there for them,” Jackson-West said. “I want them to have this and I want to be there for them in their life, just as their daddy would.”
The two girls never had the chance to meet their real dad; his life was taken two months before theirs began. Jackson-West smiled as he called them his babies. He pointed to his tattoo, at two names floating in the clouds beneath his brother’s name: Aria and Ariona. His two nieces became a part of him just as much as his brother did the day he got that tattoo. He lives everyday walking in his brother’s footsteps, and gives his brother’s children the love they will never receive from their dad.