As tragic a year as this has been for Frank and Terri Lewis, they still believe their family is especially blessed this Thanksgiving. That they feel this way says as much about the Lewises as about the enduring power of families -- even in their darkest moments.
Last year, Frank and Terri had a typical Thanksgiving. Dallas Cowboys football on television. Turkey and mashed potatoes and spinach casserole on the table. And of course, family: Frank's sister, her boyfriend and their two small boys, Ryan and Brandon.
But the boys' parents will be missing this year. Their mother, Nancy Klotz, 26, was killed in August. Their father, Charles Hicks III, is in the Baltimore City Detention Center, awaiting trial for first-degree murder in her death.
Ryan, 3, and Brandon, who turns 2 next month, will be back, because they have been living with their aunt and uncle since the night of the slaying. Yesterday, a Baltimore Circuit Court judge made this emergency arrangement official: Thanksgiving will be the Lewises' first full day as custodians of their nephews.
"I hope these babies are going to be here every Thanksgiving from now on," says Frank Lewis. "And we are thankful that these children are in good health. We'll be thankful that we're a family. We've got to be better than we are, stronger than we are now."
There is no doubt that this has been the most difficult year since the Lewises were married in Brooklyn United Methodist Church 10 years ago. The loss of Nancy was only part of it. The sacrifices that they required of themselves and their own children -- Rebecca, 17, and Justin, 9 -- sometimes seemed nearly as hard.
Rebecca delayed college a year to help with baby-sitting and moved in with her grandmother to free space for the boys. Justin gave up his treasured room upstairs for new quarters in the basement. Terri, 36, quit her full-time job to take care of Ryan and Brandon.
And Frank, 35, tempered an aggressive personality that more than once has put him in harm's way.
"This has been terrible, but it has brought the family together," says Terri Lewis. "And it has made me and Frank a little closer."
All the while, from his jail cell, Hicks has contested the Lewises' attempts to get custody of his children.
"Unfortunately, cases like this are no longer uncommon," says Jann Jackson, executive director of Advocates for Children and Youth. "We have seen a growing number of families and relatives of victims stepping forward to care for children, and in many cases they have to fight legal fights."
Frank was 9 years older than his only sibling, Nancy. The two played baseball and football outside their Formstone rowhouse at 131 W. Clement St. in South Baltimore.
When Frank and Terri got married and moved to Curtis Bay, Nancy stayed in the neighborhood. She married a man named Ken Klotz, but they separated. It was "Buck" Hicks who gave her what she most wanted -- children.
"The children were her life," says Terri Lewis. "They were just about all she had."
But the relationship with Hicks, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was strained. The tension seemed to escalate after she moved back to 131 W. Clement St. to help her father with the bills. Neighbors remember two things about Nancy: her friendly baby boys who loved to play with the cocker spaniels next door and the loud, occasionally violent, fights she had with Hicks.
On Super Bowl Sunday this year, Hicks beat Nancy severely while in his car, according to court documents. As a condition of his sentence, he sought counseling through a probation officer and the House of Ruth, the records show.
Hicks missed some House of Ruth sessions, and his probation officer scheduled an appointment with him for the end of August. But on Aug. 15, Nancy called the House of Ruth to report that Hicks was attacking her, the records say.
Late on the afternoon of Aug. 16, police called to 131 W. Clement found Nancy stabbed to death with a hunting knife. Hicks was charged with murder a few days later.
First, the children
The killing was on a Friday. Frank and Terri were on their way to the supermarket when the call came. Frank's first reaction was anger. Terri's first thought was of the children, who were home at the time.
"There was never any doubt we would take them in," says Terri. "And I wouldn't have it any other way. It's hard enough what happened that day. They needed to be with family."
Justin's baby clothes had been given away long ago, so they made do with what police let them take from 131 W. Clement. At first, the boys slept in the Lewises' bed. Even after they moved to a different room and a bunk bed donated by their grandfather, the boys still woke up at night, crying.
So Terri quit her job in an optometrist's office.
"I knew the boys needed me, and I realized I wouldn't be able to take off the time I needed," she says. "I would eventually have cheated the kids, or lost my job."
In a way, the change in Frank was even greater.