Father recalls daughter’s brightness, charm
The first time Terry Bergman saw his daughter, Clarissa, he helped to pull her out of her mother's womb.
"The doctor told me to cut the umbilical cord, and then he told me to lift the baby out," he said. "I pulled her up and held her close. I couldn't stop crying -- I was so happy."
From her cesarean section birth to her unexpected death on Dec. 15, her father describes Clarissa Danielle Bergman as a bright, artistic person who was charismatic with her peers. She had many friends as a senior at Shawnee Mission Northwest and was talented in music, art and uplifting the spirits of others.
"She could read you," he said. "She could just walk up to you and understand how you were hurting."
The last time Bergman saw his daughter was on Thursday, Dec. 14. He dropped the 18-year-old Shawnee Mission Northwest senior off at school. Clarissa kissed him on the cheek and told him he didn't need to pick her up after school because she would be spending the night with her mother, Irene Findlay, in Shawnee. Clarissa's mother and father have been divorced for about 13 years.
"She would go back and forth between the two houses, and she understood the rules were different at each house," he said. "She was a daddy's girl."
On Dec. 15, Clarissa died. Although police continue to search for the cause of her death, they still don't have answers for Clarissa's family and friends. They know only that she must have disappeared around 4:30 a.m. on Friday and that her body was found at the bottom of a water-filled pool, underneath the lid, at a ranch in Lake Lotawana, Mo. Police found her about 4 p.m. Friday. She had been riding in the car with another 17-year-old female friend Thursday night, and police believe the car was involved in a hit-and-run accident. The Jackson County Coroner's office is awaiting the results of tests that could determine Clarissa's cause of death, although preliminary examinations have been completed and her body has been cremated, Mr. Bergman said.
Family and friends held a private and public visitation before the funeral on Dec. 21. Bergman said hundreds of fellow students, family members and teachers came to show their support.
"So many people, even retired teachers came up and had adoration of her," he said. "Teachers would say that although she didn't do well in the subject matter, she got other people thinking."
Mr. Bergman said last year, his daughter was caught with an older group of school friends at an after-prom party with alcohol. He said although Clarissa didn't have a drink in her hand, she entered a diversion program rather than face charges of a minor in possession.
"She wanted to do more than just ordinary community service," Mr. Bergman said. "So she made pottery bowls for the homeless. She was always trying to be different."
Clarissa had one older sister, 21-year-old Sarah Bergman. Sarah served a yearlong tour of duty as a diesel mechanic with the Army Reserves in Iraq. Sarah arrived home just before Thanksgiving, with only a few weeks to get re-acquainted with Clarissa before she died.
"I thought it was wonderful they could stay close," Mr. Bergman said. "After Sarah got back, she formed this Velcro bond with her. They loved each other dearly, and Clarissa thought her sister was the best person on the planet."
Bergman said Clarissa got along well with just about everyone -- her two older stepbrothers, students across all social groups at school and her two step-parents, Roger Findlay and Elizabeth Bergman.
The impact of Clarissa's life is evident on an Internet blog site. Several teens at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School use a site called Xanga.com for self-expression and online diaries. Clarissa's site reveals a young teen with a wild streak, proud of her Peruvian heritage, and how she valued friendship above all else. She writes about partying with friends, spending time with her boyfriend and her hopes to move in with her sister. According to one site, her boyfriend had even proposed and she had accepted. Clarissa's last entry on Dec. 12 was about her new cell phone and her community service project to make bowls for homeless at school. Many of Clarissa's fellow students have posted comments in her honor on her Internet blog.
One student wrote: "I don't honestly think I would have been able to even stand Algebra if it were not for talking to you. It's amazing to see how many lives a person can touch, and you've touched mine."
Another wrote: "You are truly one of the most amazing people I have ever met, and ever will meet. My deepest gratitude goes to David (Clarissa's boyfriend) to your family, and to the rest of us. You had such an impact on all of us."
Bergman said it was Clarissa's mother, Irene Findlay, who thought of arranging a scholarship fund in Clarissa Bergman's honor at Johnson County Community College. They had hoped Clarissa would go to JCCC and study art, but said she could have had any career with her talent of working with people.
Although Bergman said he has been estranged from his ex-wife for many years and had never visited their Shawnee home before Clarissa's death, he knew which room was hers.
"One wall was bright red, the other was watermelon," he said. "The colors were so vibrant. She loved warm colors and she thought fall leaf colors were an incredible wonder of God."
Police have not yet determined a cause of death, but Bergman said he hopes to get closure by visiting the site where Clarissa's body was found. He still wants to retrieve her school backpack, which is still in the car. He's also interested in a series of odd messages left on Clarissa's cell phone.
"She was far too positive and she would never have harmed herself," he said.
Lake Lotawana Police had no new information to release on Monday.