o find her sister, Debra Russell Jaeger walks the trails at the Tribute Garden, at Isle View Park along the Niagara River in Tonawanda. While Jill Russell Cahill has a stone in a wall there carrying her name, Jaeger said the connection goes beyond chiseled letters to the feel and scent of each season at the place.
The garden, off River Road near the north Grand Island Bridge, is a short drive from where Jaeger and Jill shared a childhood bedroom in Tonawanda. Jill was “brilliant,” Jaeger said, the kind of person whose warmth and empathy drew in a legion of friends. She was raising two young children in Skaneateles, a lakefront community in Central New York where Jill ran a small gardening business. Jaeger and Jill – separated by two years in age – had every expectation they would someday be grandmothers together.
In April 1998, Jill paid a quick visit to her family in Tonawanda. At the time, she was legally separated from her husband, Jeff Cahill, and focused on what her life would be like in the future. Thirty-six hours after those goodbyes, Jaeger received a call. She would learn from investigators how Jill endured severe injuries when Cahill attacked her with a baseball bat.
Jaeger’s parents gained legal custody of the children, while their daughter began a long and difficult recovery. More than six months after the original assault, while Jill was still in treatment at Upstate University Hospital in Syracuse, Cahill entered the building disguised as a maintenance worker and fatally poisoned Jill, 41, with cyanide – a crime for which he would be convicted of murder.
Debra and her husband Bill, close already to Jill’s children, stepped in and brought them up. As for the Tribute Garden, Jaeger was involved as a volunteer in the early phases when a collective of survivors, agencies and advocates mapped out a plan, spearheaded by then-director Sawrie Becker of the Erie County Commission on the Status of Women, a project also involving support from county parks and the Niagara River Greenway. Jaeger and her relatives were among many families who made small donations in return for engraved stones honoring Western New Yorkers lost to domestic violence.
At a location described by sculptor Sarah Fonzi as “a gorgeous, serene nook,” Jaeger feels hope and consolation, rather than grief.
“Jill was an artist, and she loved creating gardens for people, and I know she would have loved it here,” Jaeger said.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, family members of those honored on the walls will gather with survivors, advocates, volunteers and civic officials for a masked and distanced ceremony marking the fifth anniversary of the garden’s creation, and serving as an early gateway to October’s Domestic Violence Awareness Month. Because of pandemic-related restrictions, anyone planning to be at the garden must RSVP, though chairperson Joelle Logue said the event will be livestreamed on the Tribute Garden Facebook page.
To Logue and other coordinators, Covid-19 only elevates the larger sense of mission. Since the start of the pandemic, calls for aid or information involving domestic violence have gone up sharply at 24-hour services like the Family Justice Center (558-SAFE), Crisis Services (834-3131) or the Erie County Domestic Violence hotline (862-4357).
“There’s been a huge spike,” said Karen King, who succeeded Becker as executive director of the Commission on the Status of Women. Caitlin Powalski, director of the advocacy department at Crisis Services, said her agency has seen an increase in overall calls, “but particularly those involving domestic violence.”
King said the biggest fear becomes situations where spouses, partners or children might be trapped at home with their abusers, yet reluctant to seek help because of “another level of anxiety” intertwined with uncertainty regarding the spread of Covid-19.
Making the decision to leave always involves tremendous courage, King said, and the risks in a pandemic “create an entirely new layer.”
At one point in the spring, calls at the Family Justice Center were up by 80%, said Mary Travers Murphy, executive director. She said staff members pivoted so crisis calls could be routed into their homes, while still providing survivors and their families with immediate alternatives, when needed, to on-site services.
Murphy also sees one sign of hope in the increase. A year ago, according to the Erie County District Attorney’s Office, the county recorded 14 homicides due to domestic violence, almost tripling the total from the year before and an increase Murphy describes as “unspeakable.” Advocates, responding to that surge, redoubled community efforts to educate people about calling for help if they see any sign or indication of abuse, calls that are a key to intervention – and thus saving lives.
This year, the DA’s Office has recorded one homicide due to domestic violence, and Murphy believes some of the increased volume in calls could be tied to education. Yet she joins with advocates who say the pandemic escalates the pressures and risks, sometimes isolating those threatened by abuse from the “friends and family or neighbors who might be able to sniff out trouble,” Murphy said.
Logue said Saturday’s gathering is also intended to raise awareness about the garden, maintained by such dedicated volunteer gardeners as Gerald Byrwa and Linda Mayer as a place of respite for survivors and their families – as well as for those who have lost someone to domestic violence.
The garden is “very gentle and peaceful,” said one survivor, a staff member at the Family Justice Center who will be among Saturday’s speakers and asked that her name be withheld. “Just having it here let’s us know that people care, because we don’t always get that a lot.”
Joy Kuebler, the landscape architect who designed the garden, said it invites visitors to pass through a sequence of breaks in the walls that serve as thresholds. Kuebler spoke with many survivors during the planning stage, and she said the truth that became overwhelmingly clear is how “life used to be one way, and on the other side of this experience it changed dramatically.”
The message – amplified by an elaborate metal trellis sculpted by Fonzi, meant to create the sense of an embrace – is that solace and beauty can exist on the other side of trauma. Domestic violence “is pervasive in every single corner of society,” Fonzi said, and this moment only intensifies the need for points of refuge.
“Everyone is totally affected by the pandemic and swept up by it,” she said, “but no one more than those affected by domestic violence and caught at home with their abusers.”
Jaeger’s volunteer role began at the Family Justice Center a few years after Jill Russell Cahill’s death. There is a sanctuary room in its downtown headquarters dedicated to Jill, and Jaeger hopes her family’s experience and understanding might help others find their way to safety.
Abuse, she said, comes in all forms – not only through physical violence, but in harsh words, condemnation and emotional control. Jaeger is conscious every day of the aching magnitude of her sister’s death, and she does everything she can to prevent that kind of ordeal from happening to someone else.
As for the Tribute Garden, she hopes someday you might find time to stop by. It is on the Greenway, far from the noise of the city. Going there immediately causes Jaeger to recall her sister as a young woman, when Isle View was a place where Jill would go casually to dream about the future with close friends, a destination of warmth, trust and privacy.
What the garden does so beautifully, really, is exactly the same thing.
“When I come here,” Jaeger said, “Jill is still at home.”