A whisper in the breeze for 3 young lives taken

May 30, 2004|By DAN RODRICKS

EARLY yesterday morning, after the heat wave had broken, there was a breeze through Baltimore that made the big, shady maple trees in the clover-covered courtyard of the Samester Parkway Apartments quake. It made seven "We'll Miss You" balloons outside unit 7010 bounce against the pavement. It was an eerily peaceful breeze, accompanied by the rain-forest rattle of 17-year cicadas, like a moment in a novel of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

A candle did not have a chance in this breeze, which is why the 18 that were lighted during the prayer vigil the night before had died. The candles -some in votive glass and depicting Our Lady of Guadeloupe, "patroness of the Americas," and Divino Nino, the child Jesus exclaiming, "Yo Reinare (I Reign)" - formed a cross on the pavement by the door to the unit.

The breeze knocked the balloons against the stuffed animals people had left there - several teddy bears and puppies, a pink unicorn, a yellow Big Bird, and a lion cub. Someone had placed a Victorian doll, in pink-and-white satin, against the pile, which was arrayed with bouquets of daisies and carnations and roses, the kind you buy in supermarkets or from immigrants at busy intersections on weekends.

On Memorial Day, Americans bring flowers to cemeteries to decorate the graves of the departed; that's a tradition going back to the great and violent storm of the 19th century, the Civil War. In the America we know, the instinct is to almost immediately mark the places of death, along suburban highways and urban streets, especially when the victims are children. There seems to be a helplessness about it - all we can do, in the face of ghastly things that happen in our midst, is place a stuffed animal near a doorway, light a candle and say a prayer.

How many times have we seen these memorials now? We've seen them in the sad old rowhouse neighborhoods of Baltimore, marking where children died of abuse, neglect or from smoke and fire. We've seen them along chain-link fences and piled against lampposts, the places where stray bullets from the city's drug warfare killed children. I remember a stack of flowers by a barbershop near Hollins Market, where a bullet struck a 3-year-old getting his birthday haircut, and there was a pile of stuffed animals on a doorstep on Amity Street, in a strip of the bleakest poverty in West Baltimore, where three children had died in a fire in a house in which the electricity had been turned off.

But this is a different place of death in the city - at the end of a sidewalk in a shady, clover-covered courtyard of an Art Deco-style garden apartment complex listed on the National Register of Historic Places. One of the most unspeakable tragedies involving children - too gruesome for me to bring to words for readers of this newspaper again - occurred in a pleasant Northwest Baltimore neighborhood that is a living, breathing example of the best of America, where people of different races, nationalities and religions seem to co-exist peaceably, routinely, day in and day out.

Yesterday was perfect for a good walk along Park Heights Avenue. Jewish families headed for synagogue in the morning breeze. An African-American boy in a T-shirt and shorts skipped along the sidewalk behind a white man in a suit with a yarmulke on his head. People from Russia, the Caribbean and Mexico live here. They speak Spanish at Goldman's Kosher Bakery in the Fallstaff Shopping Center. In the Dunkin' Donuts, the people behind the counter speak with the accent of India, and many of the customers are African-American or Jewish. Yesterday morning, a man sat at a table drinking coffee and reading a Russian newspaper.

When a priest who spoke Spanish was needed for last rites for the children in the apartment Thursday night, it was Dennis Klemash, a Franciscan brother and ordained priest, who got the call. He came up Park Heights Avenue from St. Ambrose Roman Catholic Church, and he wept as he said the prayers for the children.

In Brother Dennis' church last evening, the pastor, Brother Mick Joyce, celebrated the 5 o'clock Mass and, this being Pentecost Sunday, he spoke of the power of the Holy Spirit to comfort the broken-hearted and discouraged, and those who wonder at times like these "whether God cares at all."

He spoke loudly, almost defiantly, from the pulpit of the beautiful stone church. "I believe now more than ever that the strong, gentle comforter is always with us," he said, repeating several times the plea, "Come Holy Spirit, come gentle comforter," what he called a prayer of Christian submission.

"How many in our neighborhood are crying this evening for comfort?" he asked. "Come Holy Spirit, come gentle comforter. ... When our faith grows weak and we wonder if God hears us ... we cry out, `Come Holy Spirit, come gentle comforter.' When the lives of innocent children are snuffed out for no reason, we cry out, `Come Holy Spirit, come gentle comforter.' "And then the priest quietly invoked the names of the children - Alexis, Lucero, Ricardo - and the names came off his lips like whispers in a breeze, and the people said, "Lord, hear our prayer."

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