Skylar Lenox, 14, hasn't recently visited the cemetery where her father, John, is buried. "It's just a plot," said Lenox, an award-winning platform diver and president of Adat Ari El's United Synagogue Youth chapter.
The home-schooled ninth-grader finds more meaning in lighting a yahrtzeit candle in memory of her father and in a Los Angeles Marathon relay to benefit Our House -- a nonprofit organization whose grief support groups have helped Skylar and her mother, Marsha, to heal.
On Sunday, Lenox will be one of some 32 Our House children, ages 5 to 14, who will each undertake one mile in memory of a loved one -- the only relay race allowed in the 26.2-mile marathon. Skylar, who has participated in two other marathons since John unexpectedly died in 1996, will run the last mile of the course with two other girls and an adult chaperone. "It will be a real milestone for me," said Lenox, now a teen facilitator at Our House. "It will show how far I've come since the night my father died, and the difference I've made in my life and in the lives of other people."
It will also be an opportunity to remember her father, a tall, blond, strapping producer ("Splash," "Lucy and Desi") who spent a lot of time with his only child. Skylar grew up visiting him on the set of his television movies, where he always found her work as an extra. At home, she accompanied him on long bike rides and listened to him play Chopin or Bach on the family's Steinway grand piano. Every Saturday night during the summer, the family attended the Hollywood Bowl.
Then, one morning when Skylar was 5, John, a Texas-born non-Jew, felt a tightness in his chest. After he was rushed to the hospital, the family learned that he had suffered a mild heart attack. But Skylar wasn't worried. The doctors said his prognosis was good.
Five years later, however, the unfathomable occurred. Marsha, who is Jewish, awakened at 3:45 a.m. on July 23, 1996 -- John's 50th birthday -- to find her husband absent from bed. She found him in the game room. "He was lying on the floor, and he was cold," Marsha recalled. "I checked his breathing and his pulse, but his fingertips and his face were already black. I was in shock."
Marsha awakened Skylar to break the news. "I knew intuitively what had happened, even before my mom said anything" Skylar recalled. Some time later, the 9-year-old stood in a daze in the front yard. "I remember the paramedics not wanting to talk to me," she said. "They wouldn't look me in the eye."
At John's funeral at Forest Lawn, Skylar played with her friends; his death wouldn't sink in for 10 months. While Marsha intensely grieved ("There were days I couldn't get out of bed," she said.) Skylar resisted therapy and seemed to be living on automatic pilot.
The dam broke around June of the following year. "I started to become really emotional, but I didn't know why," Skylar recalled. "Every little thing would trigger me to cry or to behave erratically. I was really confused." Marsha's private therapist had prepared her for Skylar's delayed breakdown: "It's not uncommon for children to wait to see that their remaining parent will be OK before they let themselves grieve," said Marsha, a 45-year-old writer.
Mother and daughter turned to Our House, founded in 1993 by grief specialist Jo-Ann Lautman, who previously ran support groups at Stephen S.Wise Temple. Not long after Skylar's intake appointment, she attended her first group session, where she sat in a circle of beanbag chairs and passed the "talking stick" with six other children and two adult group leaders. Over the next year and a half, the children talked about their feelings, drew pictures of their loved ones, wrote down memories, played word games and discussed relationships with peers. "It was a safe haven," Skylar recalled. "It was a place to talk about things that your friends don't understand or may not want to hear. It helped me to realize that what I was going through was normal, that it wasn't bad, that it was part of a process."
"Most kids our age don't have the sense that something terrible can happen," she said. "They feel fearless. But we at Our House really know that life doesn't go on forever."
After attending her support group for 18 months, Skylar decided she wanted to give something back to Our House. Last year, she became a teen facilitator for the organization, helping two adults lead a support group for 8- and 9-year-olds. "The children can look at me and see that things do get better," Skylar said. "It means a lot to me when they say, 'Thank you for being there.'"
Recently, Skylar and her mother moved back into the Van Nuys home they had left the night John died. Still difficult is the depression that descends upon Skylar every June, the month before the anniversary of John's death. "I've learned not to create obstacles for it," she said. "I just let it come."
Running in the marathon has helped. "It's a way for me to honor my father," Skylar said. "And it's a way to raise money for Our House, so other children like me don't have to feel alone."
For information about Our House, call (310) 475-0299. Our House representatives Lauren Schneider and Fredda Wasserman will be panelists Wed., March 7, at 7:45 at a Bureau of Jewish Education talk by Rabbi Naomi Levy. Call (323) 761-8605 for information.