Almanac: Divergent paths wind back together

Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part story about the lives of Soldotna twins, Kristy (Lancaster) Leslie and Jennifer Dene Lancaster-Jackson. Last week, part one explored the twins’ childhood, including becoming the first twins born in Central Peninsula General Hospital, and surviving the tragic accident that took the lives of their mother and older sister. This week, part two focuses on the twins as adults — and the divergent lives they have chosen to live.

By Clark Fair

Photo by Clark Fair, Redoubt Reporter. Jennifer Dene Lancaster-Jackson (left) and Kristy (Lancaster) Leslie pose for a photo recently.

Redoubt Reporter

Kristy and Jennifer Lancaster began life only 15 minutes apart and seemed early on to do nearly everything in tandem. They were typically photographed together, they were dressed alike (Kristy often in blue, Jennifer in green) and they attended public school together — usually in separate classrooms to make it easier for teachers to tell them apart.

Once, when they were in fourth grade, they swapped classrooms on April Fool’s Day, but when Kristy’s teacher, Mr. Dover, sent Jennifer to the chalkboard and noticed a scar on her hand where Kristy had no scar, he promptly spilled the beans to Jennifer’s teacher, Ms. Jelacic, who was none too pleased at having been fooled.

And it was easy to confuse the two — both with full heads of brunette hair that fell past their shoulders, with green eyes set in oval faces, and with the same lean body type — one always within 5 pounds and half an inch of the other.

As they grew, they even exhibited some of the same behavior, good and bad: Both began smoking cigarettes before they were teenagers. Paradoxically, both also enjoyed running and participated in cross country in the years before high school. While Jennifer also played softball for several years, Kristy focused more on running, participating in the junior Mount Marathon race in 1986, 1987 and 1989, and finishing fifth overall in her final attempt.

Photos courtesy of Jennifer Dene Lancaster-Jackson and Kristy (Lancaster) Leslie. Jennifer Lancaster, above, and Kristy Lancaster in their senior pictures.

Both girls also began working at about age 13 or 14. And both moved in with boyfriends during their senior year of high school.

However — despite their many similarities — by May 1992, when they crossed the stage in the Skyview High School gymnasium to collect their diplomas, they had begun to exhibit important differences, as well.

Jennifer, who had enjoyed watching her truck-driver father perform maintenance on the family snowmachines and three-wheelers, decided that she wanted to work on engines, too. Seven months after leaving high school, she enrolled in diesel mechanics at AVTEC in Seward and in 1993 became only the third female in the school’s then-24-year history to graduate from that program.

“My teacher there said I was mechanically inclined,” she said. “I think it was just in me, I do. It was something I went for. I got all straight A’s. I rebuilt three engines. I enjoyed it.”

Afterward, she worked for a few months at Buddy’s Garage off Kalifornsky Beach Road, but then returned to her previous job as a maid at the King Salmon Motel until just before the birth of her daughter, Jessica, in January 1995.

Jennifer’s boyfriend at the time was Jon Jackson, a 1986 graduate of Kenai Central High School and Jennifer’s husband today. They had gotten together when Jennifer was 19 and married when she was 27, just after the birth of their second child, Jacob.

Kristy continued to work and to live with the boyfriend she had moved in with during high school. Like Jennifer and Jon, Kristy and her boyfriend would live together for many years before getting married, and would also produce two children — in this case two boys.

But a dark side also began to emerge in Kristy. Even as she worked at various jobs — Sizzler and Save-U-More, among others — she began a dangerous slide into alcohol and substance abuse that would frequently land her name in the newspaper’s police and court reports, and would result in numerous arrests, nine overdoses, six long stints in treatment programs, lost trust among family and friends, and eventually a broken marriage and the loss of custody of her sons.

After her first son was born, she said that she suffered from postpartum depression and began to cope by popping pills.

“I don’t like to blame it there,” Kristy said. “I mean, I’m a big girl. I made my own choice. But I had postpartum, and I started getting hooked on pills to begin with, and then it was just a ripple effect. I started blacking out, breaking the law, 86’d from every doctor’s office. I was doing those oxys (Oxycontin), buying those off the street, shooting those up. I was living in jails and treatment.”

Rehab was effective intermittently — a few months here, nearly two years there. Then she would begin drinking again and the drugs would follow. At her worst, Kristy indulged in cocaine and even crystal meth. She also stole money, even from friends and family members, to buy more drugs. She raided their medicine cabinets and their hidden stashes of medication.

Meanwhile, Jennifer was dealing with a crisis of her own — the fear that nearly two decades of smoking was killing her, and that she could not stop. In May 2003, she received inspiration in the form of tragedy: An older friend from the neighborhood was diagnosed with lung cancer and given three months to live. On June 26 of that year, she quit cigarettes cold turkey, and last weekend marked her seventh year of being nicotine-free.

“But I gained weight,” Jennifer said. “I gained so much — heavier than being pregnant with the kids.”

Jennifer poses with her children, Jessica, 15, and Jacob, 9, after the conclusion of last week’s Mayor’s Midnight Sun Marathon in Anchorage.

She didn’t like the extra weight but believed that putting on the pounds was just the price she had to pay in order to stay smoke-free.

Then one day in January 2006, as Jennifer watched her children swim at the Soldotna High School pool, another mother approached her with the suggestion that they start swimming, too. At first Jennifer dreaded the thought. To begin with, she didn’t know how to swim, and she loathed the image of herself in a swimsuit. But the other mother was persistent and talked her into it.

She donned a “huge” suit and some flippers and entered the water, telling herself that somehow she was never going to look like this again. Soon she was taking private swimming lessons from a girl who baby-sat her children. The swimming began to slim her down, and she decided to return to running.

Now, only four years later, she runs three marathons a year, as well as several other shorter races, and she weighs 60 pounds less than she did before those first tentative steps into the pool.

While Jennifer was triumphing physically, however, the bad times continued for Kristy. Fresh after completing 17½ months of rehab, she suffered an accident on Feb. 25, 2004, that nearly required an amputation of her leg. As she attempted to dig in and turn her Ski-Doo 800 back uphill after high-marking in the mountains south of Crescent Lake, her lower left leg was caught beneath the track. The force shattered her ankle and 6 inches of her tibia, fractured her heel and snapped her fibula in half.

It took several hours to get her out of the mountains and back into town, where she at first refused to go to the hospital until her friend (and now husband) Alan Leslie could no longer stand her “whining and screaming,” she said. A week later, an orthopedic surgeon installed a rod and seven screws in her leg, and she spent much of the next eight months in a wheelchair.

Kristy Leslie poses alongside her small garden. She also has a small greenhouse, and she produces lettuce, radishes and several types of peppers, among other foods for her table.

She used a cane for a while, but found walking difficult and painful. A second doctor pressed her into more intensive physical therapy and later removed the hardware. She responded well and soon began to walk normally, but her sobriety was ending along with her lengthy convalescence. She began drinking again and moved on to drugs again.

As recently as April 4, 2009, she was arrested on charges of criminal mischief, but since April 20, 2009, she has been clean and sober. And she intends, finally, to stay that way. On the line is her health, her freedom, and perhaps partial custody of her sons.

“I pray that I am (able to stay clean),” she said. “Time will tell. But I believe I am. I think I’ve used all my nine lives up. I really do. I think if I break the law again or do anything else, there’ll be no other chance.”

Today Kristy believes that her life has renewed meaning. She has her writing (which functions mostly as a catharsis these days); her home and her husband; her garden and her houseplants; cooking and canning and giving away her prize-winning jams and jellies; and sponsoring and counseling others who are wrestling with the devil of addiction.

“I’m not where I could be,” Kristy said. “I have my ups and downs, but I am going to get there. It’s OK to be in my own skin today.”

Jennifer, meanwhile, also appreciates her own healthier lifestyle.

“I’m a self-motivated person in everything I do. What keeps me going, though, are the goals I set, the little goals,” she said. “Now I am a very open and outgoing person that inspires people in everything I do. And I only got this outgoing because of the life I lead now. It brought me out of a shell, I guess. I enjoy very much inspiring others and motivating them.

“I believe there is a reason we survived the accident, and we as survivors need to find purpose and meaning in life.”

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2 Comments

Filed under Almanac

2 responses to “Almanac: Divergent paths wind back together

  1. Kristy Leslie

    Great work, Mr. Fair!

  2. L. Woodard

    Kristy, I’m so darn proud of you woman!! Drop me a line or two and lets get back in touch.

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