For my dance partner, riding buddy, and best friend. Placing this here so we always remember.
For any old day, it would be difficult for one to recount what they were doing, what they were wearing, what they had to eat or what the weather was like. But for the loved ones of sophomores Ariel Backstrom and Brianna Hyche, Thursday, Jan. 28 was not just any old day.
“I put things together and found out at lunch. I was on the phone with Brianna's mom and I just burst into tears alongside her other close friends. They announced the passenger later that day, and I lost it,” sophomore Jer’Howard Paige said.
On a bright, sunny January day that sat right at the tail end of a winter warm front, students sitting in class began to catch wind of a fatal three-vehicle collision on Rice Mine Loop through social media and breaking news reports. It was later revealed that one of the cars was a 2004 Mazda 6, the same car that Hyche picked up Backstrom in every morning before school.
“They’re the last people I'd ever see something like this happening to,” sophomore and close friend Emmie Barnett said.
While traveling their normal route, Hyche rounded a curve and “lost control of the wheel,” according to a Tuscaloosa News article published later that day. The car was dislodged into oncoming traffic and suffered a direct impact to the passenger’s side, “leaving both girls unconscious.” They were taken to DCH, where Hyche was transported to UAB hospital to be treated for injuries
Backstrom was pronounced dead just nine days before her 16th birthday.
“Whenever we hear about tragedies in the news, we never think it's going to be about someone so close to us - until it is. Realizing that is just about the worst feeling in the world. I read the texts and the news reports probably 20-plus times, but I still didn't think it was right,” sophomore and close friend Nour Akl said. “I thought it was just a coincidence and that I was going to see Ariel and Brianna in the halls after class. No amount of guidance counselors or pamphlets really prepare you for the loss of such a beautiful soul and friend.”
Barnett said she wished others would understand that closure is something that does not come quickly or easily.
“Grief can hit you at the most inappropriate or inconvenient times,” she said.
For Paige, losing his friend is an everyday battle.
“It is still a struggle,” he said. “A piece of my heart was taken away. There are days where I want to cry, but I know Ariel wouldn't want me to. I tell myself that she's here with me everyday, and I know she is. She understood me more than anyone... I really miss her.”
Though hurt and grieving alongside them, Akl urges her friends to keep their heads up.
“I don't know man,” she said. “It really hurts without her here, and I miss her ten minute long snapchat stories every morning. But I know she's happier where she is... Ariel was quite literally the life of the party and I know for a fact that she wouldn't want us sad for her, since she's up there with the best right now.”
Like Akl, the rest of Backstrom’s friends cling on to their memories.
Sophomore Kaya Wilkinson was Backstrom’s best friend. The two met in the Rock Quarry Middle School band, where Backstrom had just taken up clarinet.
“One day I brought up to her that I was going to start taking baton twirling lessons and she was all like, ‘Cool, me too! Where are you going to take from?’” Wilkinson said. “And it turned out that our moms had signed us up with the same instructor.”
By their freshman year of high school, the two would join Northridge’s majorette line, joined at the hip and even closer than ever. A photograph taken a year later shows the two friends on the field together, side by side with their batons mid-toss, frozen in time and reflecting off of the Friday night sky. Backstrom quickly posted the photo, captioning it, “And in that moment, we were infinite.”
“Ariel.. she could make anyone laugh at any time,” Wilkinson said. “She pushed me and many others to strive and make bigger and better accomplishments in our lives. She was a great role model. She was kind to everyone, was very intelligent and had confidence. And we can’t forget - she always slayed.”
Barnett said that she finds it easier to cope when she “focuses on what was instead of what could've been.”
It was just a normal, hot, muggy day, and Barnett, Paige and Wilkinson decided to cool off with Backstrom in her neighborhood pool, where the gymnast-turned-majorette tasked Barnett with recording what she had been practicing all summer. Backstrom flipped into the water with calculated precision, flexing her legs into perfect form. She was always camera-ready, but what happened later was not so graceful, Barnett said.
“When we tried to leave, the gates locked us in… I can see her now trying to jump them.... And then she got stuck! I remember her yelling...” she said, laughing. “When we were finally able to escape and go back to her house, we tried to get Chinese food delivered. But the bill was 80 dollars, so Ariel screamed and hung up.”
Paige shared a similar memory of a not-so-agile Backstrom, a girl whose “goofy, fun-loving” spirit had quickly made her “become his whole world” despite the short amount of time that he knew her.
“My favorite memory of Ariel was when we were at [senior, close friend and majorette Sarah Stephens’] old house, and we were going to the creek behind there,” he said. “And like, we had no way of crossing over but by walking on a log…”
One might guess what happened next.
“And so Ariel was trying to walk over it, and she thought things were going good... And then she fell on the log and was like ‘OH MY GOSH!!!’”
Paige stifled back a laugh, but he couldn’t hold it in.
“And I fell to the ground laughing, and I was like ‘Nope! I'm not going over the log. I'm just going to walk through the water.’”
Senior and former majorette Dajah Benson agreed that Backstrom was indeed “very goofy,” but she was also “unique, smart and selfless.”
“Ariel didn't have a judgmental bone in her. I could always talk to her about anything,” she said. “Even if she was having a bad day, she always put on a brave face… She had a way of bringing people together.”
And that’s exactly what brought Backstrom and Hyche together; their shared sense of humor and compassion for others is something that their friends said will live on through Backstrom’s legacy.
“[Brianna and Ariel] are both so, so funny, so I'm sure [when they were] together it was a riot,” Barnett said.
Paige described Hyche as his “twin,” explaining that the two are often mistaken for siblings.
“My favorite memory of Brianna was when we were at play rehearsal and this girl was supposed to read the line, ‘When I look in the mirror, I don't see beauty at all.’ But instead she said, ‘When I look in the mirror, I don't see booty at all.’ We fell out laughing!” he said, his cheeks sore from chuckling.
Paige said that their independent spirits made Hyche and Backstrom friends that he could lean on.
“Brianna is a strong, intelligent young woman and she taught me how to never let anyone take away who I am... Ariel lived a beautiful, strong life… she taught me to appreciate the small things and the people around us… she told me my purpose here is something special, so I will find it and live by it,” he said. “Every day I live, it's for these two special girls in my life. I love them with all my heart and will do anything for them.
“Live life while you still have it people. Because every time you breathe, someone is taking their last breath. So stop hating each other and learn to love! Can we be more like Brianna? Can we live more like Ariel? Yes we can people. Never forget that.”
Stephanie Backstrom, Ariel’s mother, will most certainly never forget that. The outpouring of love from Backstrom’s friends and classmates, along with the memories that they hold so dearly, have shown her what it means to live like her daughter.
“That’s what me and her father are trying to do right now,” she said. “We’re trying our best to live like Ariel."
Stephanie stood in the family room, now dotted with flower bouquets from local bands, schools, churches and the like, and smiled as she remembered the girl that they were for.
There are no words, Stephanie said, that could describe how she felt about her daughter. There was nothing, no novel she could write, that could ever explain the connection, the relationship that she had with her “best friend” and her “one true love.”
But a single word written on Backstrom’s mirror did the talking for her.
“...Ariel,” she found her words, “...Ariel was flawless…”
“ I feel so blessed to have been honored by God for the last 15 years with an angel. I miss her with all my heart. She brought me joy every day,” she continued. “Nothing will ever replace the love, the friendship, and the care that she showed for me every day. I’m so happy to know that she is in a much better place…. But I will always miss her from the bottom of my heart.”