Embraced in life, grieved in death

Neighbors miss drowned playmate whom they loved for his quirks, charm and pranks

June 08, 2006|By SUMATHI REDDY | SUMATHI REDDY,SUN REPORTER

Just seven years into his life, Tyji Chester was already a force in the 1300 block of Harlem Ave.

The teenage boys on the corner high-fived him, calling him Tyji-mon after his favorite cartoon, Pokemon.

The older girls on the block joked that he was their "beau," always flashing them his charming yet mischievous smile.

And his parents and relatives called him "Do," as he was always doing something.

Diagnosed as autistic, he might have been developmentally slower than other 7-year-olds, but Tyji made up for it in every other way, a little boy who managed to maneuver himself in a world that didn't always make sense.

"Tyji had a disability, but it didn't slow him down at all. It only made him stronger," said Harriet Cox, 39, his mother.

"If he knew how to swim I think he would have done a good job, but my son didn't know how to swim at all. He loved water. He's seen water. And like normal kids when they see a pool, they want to get into a pool."

Tyji drowned in a city swimming pool in West Baltimore on Tuesday afternoon.

A second-grader at Lafayette Elementary School, he and several other children wandered outside of the school during lunch, said his father, Thomas Chester, 39.

Tyji scaled the 10-foot fence of a nearby pool with the help of three other children and jumped into it, said Chester. He was pulled from the Central Rosemont pool by a teacher shortly after noon and pronounced dead at St. Agnes Hospital at 1:33 p.m., according to authorities.

Tyji had a teacher assigned to him and one other pupil, in addition to an aide who was supposed to be with him at all times, said Chester.

But yesterday neither Chester nor Cox wanted to blame anyone. They met with school officials for several hours and left with nothing but praise for the support that the teachers and school have given them.

Instead of blaming people, they say they are seeking a full account of what happened that afternoon.

"Right now we're not pointing any fingers," Chester said. "We're just trying to make sense of it."

Standing outside in the 1300 block of Harlem Ave. yesterday, friends and neighbors came to console Tyji's family and talk about the brief but full life of the 7-year-old.

Father and mother showed off the tattoos they have of Tyji's name.

And they flipped through his pictures. Tyji and his father dressed in identical light-blue jerseys and white sweatbands in identical poses. Tyji in his diaper with a camouflage baseball hat and shirt on. Tyji smiling devilishly, covered in baby powder. Tyji holding up his first homework assignment.

Tyji had the communication skills of a 5-year-old but he was improving every day, his family and friends said.

He couldn't fully express himself and had just started using full phrases and learning to read.

And yet Tyji managed to express himself and communicate through other means, whether it was belting out a rap song, quoting lines from his favorite cartoons or mimicking the latest dance moves.

"I'm going ghost" is a line from the cartoon Danny Phantom, which he would say when he was leaving.

"Hey video game, come on out," he said when his cousin wouldn't let him play on the PlayStation.

He was a quirky and spunky boy who loved toy cars and chomping on ice and wearing his worn-out flip-flops, even in the winter. He had an unusual dexterity with computers and electronics and taught himself to fix his own meals.

And he was a ham, always mugging for the camera and playing tricks on his mother, like switching her boiled eggs with raw ones.

"Tyji was very intelligent," said Cox. "You only gotta show him once, and he'll figure it out. He'll figure it out on his own, even."

Chester, who is a DJ, said his son could hook up his equipment on his own. "Every hip-hop song, he knew," said Chester. "My son could put a record on. He knew what he was doing."

His family even had a jacket made for him that said "Original 25 Cent," after one of his favorite rappers, 50 Cent.

Tyji played word games with his aunt, Olivia Cross, 40. "I had to match his words," she said. "He was always laughing and smiling and playing with you."

Yesterday, Tyji's family went through two folders of pictures and letters that their son's classmates had given them, written in childlike manner. There were pictures of angels and portraits of Tyji.

"Sorry your son in heaven," says one. "But Tajie sees you you can talk to him."

"We miss Tajie soso much," says another.

"Dear Tyji, We is going to miss you ... . It is hard losing a friend. Only if I was there."

"I am sorry that you died but you can do whatever you want now," reads another.

Cox laughed at some of the messages. She said she knows her son might be in a better place now, but it doesn't give her much comfort.

All she can remember is him bounding up the stairs of the bus at 8:54 a.m. Tuesday.

"He got on the bus. I blew him a kiss. He did the peace sign and I did it back. And that was it."

"I think he's in a better place but there's no better place than being at home with his mom," she added. "I want him here with me."

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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