Bills add to family grief

June 18, 2000|By Jamie Smith Hopkins | Jamie Smith Hopkins,SUN STAFF

Still reeling from the death of their son, a popular boy everyone called "Byrd," the Wichainaraphong family is faced with more distress: His medical expenses and funeral have put them thousands of dollars in debt.

For his parents - hard workers who have sacrificed to bring their children to the United States and send them to Howard County schools - it is another crushing blow.

Tanun Wichainaraphong, a sixth-grader at Burleigh Manor Middle School in Ellicott City, died in April after a friend showing off a rifle accidentally shot him in the head.

The pain is sharp for his parents, Thanutkit and Yaowalak Wichainaraphong, who came to Howard County from Thailand seven years ago and sent for their three children in 1997.

Because they speak little English, Byrd's parents asked Thaniya Chareonvaravut, Thanutkit's sister, to speak for them. On a recent morning, she sat with Byrd's mother in the Ellicott City dry cleaning shop where the family works, remembering a 13-year-old boy they were sure would have a bright future.

"He was a really good boy," she said. "I'm really upset. It's just a waste. I don't understand why it happens like this."

It is too much for the parents. Thanutkit Wichainaraphong can't believe Byrd isn't coming back. He calls to the child, tells him to come to dinner.

Everything - their house, their quiet Fairways neighborhood filled with Byrd's many friends - reminds the parents of their son.

Thursday, they attended a private memorial ceremony organized by classmates, parents and teachers from Burleigh Manor Middle School. Yesterday, the Wichainaraphongs returned to Thailand - for how long, they don't know.

They will visit Yaowalak Wichainaraphong's parents, who cared for Byrd and his younger brothers during the first four years the couple lived in the United States, working and saving money.

They will bring Byrd's ashes and participate in a Buddhist ceremony that will give his grandparents peace of mind, Chareonvaravut said.

She hopes that will help ease her brother's pain, too. "Maybe he'll feel better," she said.

The Wichainaraphongs have eight relatives living in Howard County, attracted to America by the promise of opportunity. Getting by in an unfamiliar land hasn't been easy, Chareonvaravut said.

A close-knit family, they've supported each other, helping the newest immigrants and sending money to relatives in Thailand. The Wichainaraphongs stayed with Chareonvaravut until they saved enough to buy their own house about two years ago, just up the street from her home.

It's expensive to live in Howard County, and especially so in the Centennial High School district, but the Wichainaraphongs chose it for their children. The schools impressed them; they worked 70 and 80 hours a week so their sons could attend.

As for Byrd - he was smart, a fast learner, his family and teachers agree. He picked up English quickly and earned good grades.

He was especially well-liked. Even before he could speak the language, classmates were drawn to his lively personality and smile.

"When I think of Byrd, I think of a burst of sunshine," said Emily Ecker, who teaches English for speakers of other languages at Manor Woods Elementary School and worked with Byrd while he was a pupil there.

Chareonvaravut imagined her nephew in the military, since he was so strong. Relatives helped him, "groomed him" for school and taught him to assist his parents, she said.

Chareonvaravut remembered how he couldn't wait to come to the United States. But his time here, she said, was "not too long."

After the sudden death of a child, families typically have feelings of guilt, said Susan Scarvalone, a senior clinical social worker with the Johns Hopkins Children's Center who works with families who have lost children. They replay the incident in their minds and think of what their child's future could have been, she said.

"It's not untypical to feel deep sadness and despair one year, two years later," she said.

For two days after being shot, Byrd hung on. Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital operated on the youth but could not save him.

Now his parents, faced with bills upon bills, don't know what to do. The medical charges are still coming in, and the Wichainaraphongs are unsure of the total cost, but the funeral expenses alone are about $8,000, the family said.

"They have to spend money for these things that are not their fault," Chareonvaravut said. "They cannot afford it."

Welfare is not an option, she said. The family members want to work; they do not like the idea of seeking assistance or appearing greedy.

But the fact remains: "They need some help," she said.

The family may have some options it isn't aware of, Scarvalone said. Hospitals and funeral homes often have staff members who can work out financial difficulties with a family, she said.

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