COZAD — Three-year-old Rhakenna Aden was snuggled up with her mom and two older brothers watching a movie on the morning of Jan. 6 when a pair of angel wings hanging behind her parents’ bed clattered to the floor.
The noise startled her family members, but Rhakenna didn’t move.
“That’s never happened before, ever. It scared the boys and me because it was loud when it hit the floor,” said Tasia Aden, Rhakenna’s mother.
Tasia noticed Rhakenna’s eyes were rolled back and she wasn’t responding.
When Tasia got up, Rhakenna started seizing. Tasia and Rhakenna’s father, Jamion, rushed her to the hospital, and the seizure lasted for 40 minutes.
Rhakenna was hospitalized for two days.
Sign up for Kearney Hub daily news updates
She was seen by a pediatrician in Kearney and later released from the hospital. Rhakenna had an appointment for an EKG and MRI the following week, which had to be pushed back two weeks.
On Jan. 23 — a week before her appointment — Rhakenna passed away in the middle of the night.
Since that day, wings and feathers have continued to play a significant role in the Aden family’s journey to healing.
They chose to honor Rhakenna’s memory through Rhakenna’s Wings, a project in their hometown of Cozad featuring wings painted on businesses and buildings around the town.
When Rhakenna was still a baby, Tasia drew a feather and the Biblical verse Psalms 91:4 on a chalkboard above her and Jamion’s bed.
The verse reads, “He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.”
“I don’t know why that stuck so much that I put it above our bed,” Tasia said. “It feels like that’s how God and Rhakenna know how to send us messages because that was such a powerful verse for us enough to put above our bed. We put wings on our wall, and now we are constantly getting feathers and wings in ways to let us know she is with us.”
Since Rhakenna’s passing, the Adens have found feathers in surprising places.
When they find a feather, they collect it and place it in a jar on their kitchen counter.
This summer, the family took a trip to Oregon. They were walking along Hug Point Beach one morning, just a few hours after the tide had receded, when Jamion called over Tasia to an opening to a cave.
“We go up and along this cave opening there is a lily laying there, and there is a feather wrapped around the stem. There was still wet sand in the lily, and the feather was wet wrapped around (the stem) but it was pristine,” Tasia said.
A lily just happened to be the type of flower etched on Rhakenna’s headstone.
“Oh my gosh, that was such a big one,” Tasia said.
On Rhakenna’s birthday last month, Tasia was driving home with their boys, Rugor and Rider, when a short distance from their home they saw a feather swirling in front of their car.
“It rotated in front of our windshield, but it didn’t keep falling. It just kept rotating in a spiral right in front of the windshield,” Tasia said. “It just started to float up, and it went over the car. We just sat there for a minute because I think we were in such shock.”
After pulling in the driveway, Tasia decided to look on top of the car for the feather knowing it was unlikely to be there. But sure enough, the feather was resting on the car’s roof.
“There is just so many things. There are a lot of moments with feathers,” Tasia said.
Tasia’s mom, Cathy Pflaster of Cozad, is a lover of art and enjoys bringing new ideas and projects to town. She wanted to bring a wings art project to Cozad last year, but the idea fell through. After Rhakenna passed away, Cathy knew the project fell through the previous year because it was meant to honor Rhakenna.
“That’s why we started calling them Rhakenna’s Wings,” Tasia explained.
The Adens reached out to Grand Island artist Karen Neppl, who had begun a local version of the Global Angel Wings Project that started in 2012 in Los Angeles by artist Colette Miller. Neppl, owner of Studio K Art Gallery, began Wings Across the Heartland in Grand Island.
The Adens originally planned to do wings for only their three children. During a particularly difficult day, Tasia was cleaning out a dresser in their home and talking to God and Rhakenna when a poem from her uncle’s funeral fell out of the drawer. The poem, Epitaph by Merritt Malloy, speaks about when someone dies to give what is left of them away to children, and although people die, love never does.
It became clear at that time to the Adens to share the wings project with others who want to honor someone or to simply have a set of wings.
Since Neppl began painting the wings in Cozad this summer, 15 of 32 sponsored wings have been completed. One of the requirements the Adens asked of people sponsoring a set of Rhakenna’s Wings is to include leopard print somewhere in the design. Rhakenna loved cats, and one of her favorite stuffed animals was a leopard.
The three-year-old’s personality shines through in her vibrant wings painted on a brick wall of City Barber Shop in downtown Cozad. The wings are short enough that they would fit Rhakenna if she stood in front of them.
She adored her big brothers, and her wings are nestled between their wings. The colorful wings feature leopard print on each tip and mermaid scales. Jamion and Tasia called Rhakenna their mermaid baby because she was born en-caul — still inside her amniotic sac — and she loved being in the water. The wings are topped with a unicorn halo.
Tasia said the wings project provides healing not only for their family but for others.
Tasia said Trent and Elsie Hosick, along with their three children, designed a set of wings in memory of their daughter, Alicyn Grace, who would have been 11 this year.
“They decided to sit at the kitchen table and design Ali’s wings together,” Tasia said. “They sat at that table and laughed about stories and creating it together. (Elsie) said that was the most healing night they had in a long time.”
Once all the wings are finished, the Adens plan to create a map for people to travel around town to see all the wings. It’s been fun for the family to see the variations of Rhakenna’s Wings. They especially love to see people enjoying them and taking photos with the wings. They share images of the wings on their Facebook page, Rhakenna’s Wings, and they encourage visitors to use #RhakennasWings if they share photos on social media.
Since her passing, Jamion and Tasia continue to see the ways Rhakenna is helping their family and many others.
“It’s really hard as a mom of a three-year-old to say it was her time, but I feel like this is her story and this is also ours that we are owning,” said Tasia. “I feel like she did so much for our family in her short time, that that’s what she was meant to do. It’s hard to say and hard for others to hear. She has brought our families so close through this all.”