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For parents, the worry that never leaves

John Kass

March 13, 2013

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If you're a parent, there are certain fears you can't put to words when you learn of children being killed.

Like those four teenagers in Will County, their car skidding off the road into a swollen creek, the parents calling and texting for hours without getting a response.

Or like the 6-month-old baby girl on the South Side, bullets piercing her body as her father changed her diaper in a van.

Whether you feel sorrow for the Will County parents suffering the crash, or a mixture of sorrow and anger for the South Side family because the baby's father may have put his own child at risk, the worry remains.

If you're a parent.

You hurt for the other children, but immediately your mind flashes to your own. You pick up the phone and call your wife and ask about the kids. She says they're fine.

She pauses, having heard something in your voice. You can hear the same thing in hers, and a silence grows on the phone, an envelope forming around the unspoken.

If you're a parent, you've had conversations like that.

If you don't have children, you can't come close to understanding. I'm not trying to hurt anyone's feelings by saying that. It isn't your fault. It just is.

I'm sure there were similar calls from moms to dads when the news rushed out that four Will County teenagers had been killed, Cheyenne Fender, 17, Cody Carter, 15, Matt Bailey, 14, Micalah Sembach, 15.

"She was supposed to be home at 5," said Jeana Andrus, described as a close friend of the Sembach family. "When she didn't come home, everybody knew that something prevented her from coming home."

And in those horrible hours is when parents must begin desperately hoping that the children spent the afternoon partying in the woods or engaging in forbidden games, wishing anything and everything. Except that one thing that is irreparable.

I wasn't in Will County on Tuesday. I spent the afternoon on the South Side, on the spot where 6-month-old Jonylah Watkins was shot. But later, I studied a Tribune photo of a Will County father. His eyes were red. His face was empty, as if the bones behind it were gone.

By afternoon there were shrines out along the banks of the killer creek and a universe away, on the 6500 block of South Maryland on the South Side.

The shrines give people something to do. We in the news business vulture around them, taking notes, shooting pictures, greedily collecting details as friends of the dead place their flowers and crosses and teddy bears and use markers to scribble messages.

The teddy bears will lump up with the spring rains. The balloons will fly off or shrivel or be attacked by cats. The wind will rip at the crosses. The poster board messages will fade.

But that unspeakable thing that parents fear won't fade. Ever. It is a hole, a negative space, where the sun can't go.

Out on the South Side, women and young girls decorated the shrine. They ran tape around a tree to wrap the balloon strings. It screamed off the roll in the wind as shaky hands wound it around the bark. The women did this. The young men stood off to the side as the death ritual was observed.

When the infant was shot on Monday, police brass put out little information except that the father of Jonylah Watkins had gang ties.

And that fact served City Hall's political purpose. It placed the death into the ghetto box where official Chicago puts so many murders, politically isolating the violence from wealthy parts of town. Thus primed, reporters asked Mayor Rahm Emanuel about the father's ties to gangs.

The mayor accepted it as if it were some precious gift.

"The child is truly innocent," Emanuel said slowly, spacing the words for emphasis, planting himself rhetorically on the side of the angels, "and that's my focus. I'll leave the law enforcement side to the law enforcement side."

Across the city, at the makeshift shrine for Jonylah, broken glass from the shooting was still on the mud of the parkway. Mary Young, Jonylah's grandmother, demanded that someone come forward. I asked her: Doesn't the father know who shot him and his daughter?

"Yes, he knows," she said.

Then why won't he talk to police?

"If you want to know that, then you should talk to the police," she said angrily. "You asked me a question about my grandbaby. Then you asked me a question about her father. If you want to know that, then you need to go to the hospital and ask him that question."

That's for detectives and lawyers and City Hall. And the question that parents want answered? It's this:

If you think there's a target on your back, why would you dare endanger your baby by being anywhere near her?

When your kids are born, most of us — obviously not all, but most — become different people. Scientists might explain it all away as a chemical reaction induced by pheromones.

But if you're a parent, you know you've been changed. It isn't about you anymore. It's never about you.

It's about them, the kids. Always. And you worry about them from the minute they leave your sight until they come home. And then you worry some more, as they sleep. You're a parent.

jskass@tribune.com

Twitter @John_Kass