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A grandmother's love


The house was burning, smoke spiraled skyward, flames licking the cold late winter day, the sleet rushing to the ground did little more than keep the fire from completely engulfing the tired old house. In one of the bedrooms, a young woman lay in a puddle of blood that surrounded her still body. Her breathing had stopped several minutes before the fire was started in an attempt to cover up her murder. She had been viciously, fatally, beaten and then stabbed. She died never knowing the horrors that were to be committed against her niece, the little girl she had loved more than life itself.
The child lay beneath a dilapidated bed in an empty trailer down the street. She was shivering, bleeding, and blessedly unconscious after the man had tried to kill her. She was hemorrhaging from the wound made by a butter knife being shoved into her neck, just after she’d been slammed, repeatedly, against her aunt’s bedroom walls, so hard that part of her brain died. Deep furrowed marks illustrated how she had been forcefully pushed across the rotten wood of the sagging floor, and roaches scuttled across and around her body. Her auburn hair fanned out around her pale face. She made no sound, not even a whimper that would alert passerby to her presence. Her name was Amy, and she was only four years old.
The day had started out as each one that preceded it. Mary would wake up early, around five AM, and begin getting ready for her shift at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress. She would cook breakfast at six o’clock, and Amy would pad into the kitchen about fifteen minutes later, being awakened by the smell of the delicious food her aunt always prepared for her and Sean, her aunt's boyfriend.
Amy smiled as she ate, and Mary had a difficult time finishing her work preparations because she kept going over to Amy to kiss and tickle her. Amy would giggle and playfully push her hands away, all the time chortling, “More, more! Tickle me, Mommy!” She would raise one of his arms and say, “Tickle Amy right here, Mommy”, then try to cover it with her other hand so Mary would have to work harder to tickle her. All the while, she would giggle almost nonstop. It was a game they had played every since Mary had taken Amy to raise after her own sister had been killed in a car accident. Amy had only been one year old when she lost her mother. To Mary, Amy was her child, just as if she had given birth to her, herself. To Amy, this was her mother, never remembering the woman that had given birth to her.
At 6:45, Mary went in to wake Sean so he could take care of Amy and eat his own breakfast. Since he was out of work, they saved money on a babysitter for the little girl. But things were getting tight, financially, and Sean was going to have to get a job soon. They were sinking in a river of debt. The more they floundered, the worse Sean’s temperament became. He was getting surly, and more short-tempered with each week that passed. In fact, Mary was afraid she was going to have to ask him to move out. She didn’t want Amy exposed to Sean’s angry outbursts anymore. It was happening too frequently, and her first priority was keeping her baby healthy and happy.
This morning, as most mornings lately, Sean awoke in a bad mood. Mary saw it on his face the moment he opened his eyes. He didn’t speak to her, merely glared at her kiss to wake him. The look caused her to step back from the bed, and sigh.
“Sean, breakfast is ready. Amy is already eating, and yours is getting cold. I have to hurry or I’ll be late for work. I sure hope that old car starts and the roads aren’t too icy this morning. I put a load of laundry in the washer. Would you please throw that in the dryer later? I have to run! Bye honey. You and Amy have fun today.”
Sean’s only response was to sit up on the side of the bed and swing his long, muscular legs to the floor. He propped his elbows on his knees and dropped his head into his hands. He held up one hand to stop Mary from kissing him goodbye.
Mary rushed into the kitchen, kissed a grinning Amy one more time, told her to be a good girl and eat all her breakfast, then she ran for the car, sliding on the slick sidewalk in front of the house.
As the engine was idling, she stared at the home she shared with her child and Sean. It needed a coat of paint, badly, and she was trying to save enough money to buy new drapes. All those worries were undermined by her concern about Sean’s depression, or whatever it was that had him so angry. She sighed again as she pulled away from the hurtful silence of her home.
Sean shuffled into the kitchen, poured a cup of coffee and lit a cigarette. He only glanced at Amy as he opened the newspaper to the classified ads, in search of the elusive job that would raise him from the pit of poverty. He found an ad that looked interesting, and set his cup of coffee down. When he folded the page of the paper, he brushed against the cup setting too close to the edge of the table, spilling the hot liquid onto Amy’s bare legs.
Amy reacted instantly by screaming loudly. She jumped from her chair, knocking her plate to the floor. Wet scrambled eggs and buttered toast slid across the floor, adding to the mess of the coffee already there.
“Shut up, Stupid! God, all the hell you ever do is cry! I’m so sick of hearing you bawling. You’re a spoiled little brat, and your aunt’s a bitch that babies you to death.”
Instead of soothing the baby, his loud angry words frightened the child even more than the pain of the burn on both legs. She cried harder, louder, staring at Sean with wide eyes filled with tears. Her innocent, sweet face didn’t soften the anger bubbling up inside Sean.
Sean jerked Amy up by one arm, dragging her into the bedroom. He threw the child on the bed, then turned to find clean clothes to put on her. His violent actions scared Amy even more, and she began to sob from fright.
“I’m not going to tell you again, girl! Shut that up or I’ll give you something to really cry about! You hear me, you brat?”
Amy buried her wet face in the pillow where her mother lay her head, and cried in huge gulping sobs. Sean’s loud, angry words did nothing more than make her more frantic.
Sean leaned over the bed and slapped Amy’s bottom, the sound echoing around the room. The sting of the blow wasn’t as harsh as the fear that Amy felt. She began to scream.
Sean picked the girl up, slapping her face, over and over. As he hit the little face, he would scream at the child to shut up. Amy was unable to do so.
The screaming grew louder till Sean thought he would lose his mind if it didn’t stop. He doubled up his fist and hammered the little girl in the face, breaking her nose.
Momentarily, pain caused Amy to stop crying. It was difficult to cry when the shocked pain overshadowed everything else in the world. Then the numbness began to rapidly fade, and Amy began to scream, even louder than before.
Sean threw the little girl back onto the mattress, where she landed on her stomach. While her face was shoved into the quilt her grandmother had made, Sean pummeled Amy’s back with huge, cruel fists. Her breath knocked from her lungs, Amy gasped for breath. Sean then picked up the girl and threw her across the room with all his strength.
When Amy’s broken body fell to the floor next to the shattered portrait of herself and Mary, Sean picked her up, and slammed the small child against the wall, again and again, until Amy could no longer cry or even moan.
Throughout the day, Sean watched television, turning his attention from the flickering images on the screen only when Amy would move or groan. He would heave a heavy sigh, as if this was a distasteful job he must endure, then pick the girl up from the littered floor, to once again throw her against the wall that was now blood-splattered.
At 3:30, Mary arrived home. The first thing she noticed was the breakfast dishes still on the kitchen table, food all over the floor and the wet clothes still in the washer.
“Sean? What happened in here? Why is there such a mess? Why didn’t you at least do the dishes? And I had hoped you would empty the washer.”
There was no reply, and the house was quiet as a tomb.
“Sean?” concern now lined her face.
“Amy?”
With a deep sense of forboding, Mary walked into the bedroom where she heard the tinny sounds of the TV.
Her eyes widened when she saw the room was in total disarray. She saw Sean sitting on the side of the bed, much in the same position he had been in when she had left for work. She then saw the dented sheetrock splattered with blood.
“Amy? Sean! Where’s my baby?”
When she saw the tiny body lying motionless on the floor, Mary screamed.
She ran across the room, and knelt in the broken glass to touch her child’s shattered face. A sorrowful moan passed her lips when she saw the injuries that had been inflicted on her baby. With a mother’s rage, she turned on the one person she knew had done this.
“You bastard! You did this! You hurt my baby! I’ll kill you!”
She jumped on the bed, not taking time to walk around it, and began to claw at Sean’s back with her fingernails. She punched him, bit his ears, and kicked him as hard as her slender legs would allow. As she was venting terrorized anger at her baby’s condition, Sean was hitting her with his fists, but she was too angry to notice.
It was only when Sean grabbed a butter knife he had been using to adjust the television set and stabbed her in the face, did she stop fighting him. But even though she was still, he stabbed her over two dozen times, not stopping until his arm grew tired from the force of the blows.
As if she felt her mother’s death, Amy moaned and moved, trying to rise from the floor. Sean strolled across the bloody room, and nonchalantly kicked the already broken ribs. When Amy opened her mouth to scream, Sean shoved the gore-speckled knife into the girl’s throat. Amy stopped moving.
Disgusted with the very sight of the little girl, Sean folded the ragged carpet remnant that Amy lay on over the still little body. He lifted her into his arms and walked out the back door of the house.
Unmindful of the bitter cold, Sean casually walked across the brown grass to the crumbling trailer down the street that had been abandoned for over a year. The rusty door hung open, and this is where he threw the body he carried. He was so tired from physical exertion; he didn’t get the carpet-laden bundle far enough into the filthy opening so he knelt on the crumbling floor, and shoved Amy further into the darkness.
Sean then strolled back into the hellacious scene he had created. As he stood staring at Mary’s dead body, he was thinking of a way to avoid being charged with double homicide.
He opened the back door and picked up a can partially filled with gasoline he used for the lawnmower. He took it into the bedroom and drizzled the liquid over Mary’s body and as much of the bedroom furniture as he could before the gas was depleted. He grabbed a few things from the dresser, stood at the open door of the room, lit a match, and threw it in.
Sean stood for a few seconds, watching the blue flames eat at the mattress, the faded drapes, then finally Mary’s clothing. Secure in the belief that it would be ruled an accident, Sean walked out the front door while the smoke alarm shrilled in the kitchen.
He was glad to see no smoke coming from the house as he pulled from the driveway. He drove down the street at a sedate rate of speed, not wanting to alert the neighbors too soon by his haste.
It would be another five minutes before a call went in to the 911 operator, reporting a fire. No, the caller didn’t know if anyone was home. The car wasn’t in the driveway, so hopefully, the nice young woman and her baby that lived there were gone somewhere.
The normally quiet neighborhood was shocked by the sirens and the flashing strobe lights of the fire trucks and police cars. The street quickly filled with both the curious and the concerned. All were eager to tell the officers of the people who lived in the burning house. They talked about the sweet young waitress and her beautiful daughter, Amy. They were just as quick to criticize the angry young man, Sean, that had moved in with the mother and daughter a few months before.
Firefighters rushed into the flames, anxious to ascertain that the building was, indeed, empty. It didn’t take them long, even with the fire and smoke, to find the body of Mary lying on the floor of the partially burned bedroom.
The fire was quickly under control, and paramedics ran in to assess the patient. They knew immediately that she was dead. They spoke in hushed tones with the fire Marshall standing outside. They told him they had seen the body, and they were certain the lady had not died from the fire. To them, it appeared she had been stabbed before the fire was started.
Officers then began to question the people gathered in the front yard of the destroyed home. One thing they kept hearing was inquiries as to the whereabouts of the baby. They all asked, “But, where’s Amy?”
Two of the neighbors related that they had heard yelling and cursing earlier in the day. It seemed like a heated argument was going on just before the fire broke out. Everyone was generous with his or her scornful description of Sean. The police issued an all-points bulletin on the man they assumed had kidnapped the baby and fled after he had killed Mary.
The smoldering body was removed from the house, and neighbors cried when they saw the body bag being put into the ambulance. Fear for little Amy’s life was uppermost in everyone’s heart.
An hour after Mary was taken to the morgue, Sean was picked up by police in a small town fifty miles away. His car had run out of gas, and he was hitchhiking to the nearest bus station. It had been his intention to leave the state as quickly as possible.
The car was searched meticulously, but no sign was found of Amy. After he was arrested, it took the police another forty five minutes of grueling questioning to get him to admit he had never taken the girl, that he had left the child near her mother. At no time did Sean tell them what he had done, nor did he tell them the location of Amy.
The police went back to the house where Amy had lived. They searched every room, in every closet, beneath every bed, behind every item of furniture. The only sign they discovered of the little girl was her blood covering the only bedroom wall untouched by the fire. People came into the yard to volunteer their services, and spread throughout the neighborhood, even going door to door, asking if anyone had seen Amy.
It was as dawn began to fully settle onto the hushed street that a female officer stumbled across Amy. She found her by pure luck, not by any sound she had heard or any other clues to help her. The abandoned trailer had been searched many times, but no one had looked under the wood, bugs, and garbage that littered the floor. It was there that she found the baby.
Amazingly, Amy was still alive, though broken, bleeding, and near death from the freezing temperatures alone. The officer opened her thick jacket, unbuttoned her shirt, and then wrapped Amy inside, next to her warmth, next to her heart.
She clasped the child to her as she ran to the ambulance that had been summoned. The paramedics tried to take Amy from her, but she pushed them aside, climbed into the back of the ambulance, and yelled for them to hurry. She told them the baby was barely alive, and they had to get her to the hospital immediately.
I was on duty when little Amy was brought into the emergency room. The sight of any child sick or injured affects us, but what had been done to this small body shocked and angered everyone in attendance.
A pediatric specialist was called in to assist in saving Amy’s life. At this point, none of us thought there was much hope of that, but we had to try. Every test that was ordered was issued a STAT, for we knew we were battling the enemy time.
Amy was put on a ventilator to help her breathe. Since her throat had been destroyed by the blunt knife, the plastic tube that helped pump oxygen into her lungs had to be put in her broken nose. We covered her body with warming blankets, trying to raise her body temperature. Once she was being ventilated, we were allowed to do a further assessment of her injuries.
All the ribs on one side of her small body were broken. Her kidneys were bruised and her spleen was ruptured. CAT scans showed an alarming amount of swelling to the brain which required immediate surgery to relieve the pressure.
Both of her green eyes were filled with blood, as were her ears. One arm was broken, and her entire body was covered with angry bruises and bloody cuts.
The attending physician called for surgery to get an O.R. STAT, and we ran down the hall with our tiny patient, praying it wasn’t too late.
Amy was in surgery for many hours. At times, the surgeon was sure she wasn’t going to live through the tedious operation. Amy’s family was called in to let them know she was alive, barely, and fighting for her very life.
As we waited for word of the baby’s condition, we heard how Sean had relayed the events of the day to the police, after they questioned him into exhaustion. Mary’s mother, Helen, cried as she told us the terrible things he had done to her baby girl, and the things he’d done to Amy. We were silent, not daring to voice what we were feeling. Helen was heartbroken and upset, but she was yet to see the tiny body we were working on. We knew, had she been in our shoes, and had seen what we had seen, her heartbreak would turn into an anger few people ever know. It is an anger fueled by hatred, from wanting to hurt, maim, even kill, the person that had perpetrated this horrendous crime against an innocent child.
We comforted the family as much as was humanly possible and waited out the hours Amy was in surgery. Every minute that went by, we were sure the doctor would come out of O.R. with the sad news that the baby had died of her massive injuries.
Helen, alone, had enough faith to move mountains. She talked about taking care of Amy when she got well, of having her play in her front yard, and helping her plant the flowers she loved to pick in the spring. I’m ashamed to say that none of the staff shared her belief.
Amy survived surgery, but the prognosis wasn’t good. There was massive damage done to the right side of her brain, and it was believed she was deaf, blind, paralyzed, and mute. The surgeons were quick to point out that none of this was conclusive and only after Amy had healed would we know the true extent of long term damage.
Helen was taken to Amy’s bed in the pediatric intensive care unit. When she saw the machines, bandages, and the tiny body filled with tubes, she began to cry, softly. Even in the midst of her grief, she didn’t want to alarm the little girl. She stroked her arm, and picked up her small hand to curl her fist around her own trembling finger. She rubbed her leg, and stroked her hair as she told her how much she loved her and would always take care of her. She talked to her about playing in the sunshine, and playing dress-up in her old clothes.
The staff worked silently, eyes averted from the stark, mournful despair in Helen’s face. We knew this was a private moment, and she needed it to begin the healing process. She had lost her only remaining child to a mad man, and she openly prayed that she be allowed to keep her granddaughter with her.
That evening, the local newscast carried the story, along with pictures of Amy, her aunt, and Sean. The community was outraged and cried out for no leniency for the monster that had committed the crimes against the young woman and the little girl.
Amy had a rough night, her breathing slowing to the point of near death several times. Each time, we thought it would be the end of the brave little girl.
As the morning light was cascading into the room that was filled with machines, an examination showed Amy’s pupils were unequal and unresponsive. A STAT x-ray was ordered, and it was discovered the swelling had resumed in her brain. O.R. was again readied to take the child into surgery.
Because of the local and national concern generated for Amy, an impromptu news cast was given. While emergency room doctors and nurses spoke into the camera, Amy was having a shunt inserted inside her head to relieve the pressure of fluid building up there. Once again, she made it through surgery, and we were no less than amazed.
Amy was still sedated when she arrived back in PICU, but began to awaken shortly afterward, as her diaper was being changed by the nurse. From the moment she opened her eyes, stare unfocused, the child started crying. She continued to cry almost continually for the next week. The specialist felt it was due to neurological damage, and wasn’t sure if it would ever end without the benefit of constant medication.
We also found that Amy wasn’t able to follow simple commands, her eyes did not follow moving objects, and she didn’t react to loud noise. When tests were conducted on her feet and legs, it was found she also didn’t react to pain stimuli in those areas of the body. In short, Amy’s diagnosis was severe brain damage, compounded by blindness, deafness, and paralysis. The outlook was quite grim for the child.
The news wasn’t good for Helen, either. She had stayed with Amy around the clock since she had been brought to the hospital. Finally, exhausted to the point of tears, she admitted she needed help. Yet, when she called family members to take her place at Amy’s side so she could go home, sleep, take a shower, and get more clothes, no one would come. Each person she called had an excuse for being unable to stay with the child. It was as if they had turned their backs on Amy and Helen.
Helen summed it all up for us, “I’m not mad at them. I guess, in a way, I even understand. Unlike me, they’ve listened to what the doctors have to say about this baby, when they tell us there’s little or no hope of Amy being normal, if she even lives. I guess I’m just too old and stubborn to accept that. I lost almost everything I had the day my child was murdered. I just can’t give up on the love of her life, Amy, now. She would count on me to be here for her, and I love her too much to do anything else.”
Helen then sank into a chair near Amy’s bed and dissolved into harsh, racking sobs that tore at our hearts. We touched her arm, or gently stroked her hand, but we felt so helpless. What could we do, other than try to save her granddaughter’s life? We weren’t in the position to force other family members to help a tired grandma, or to love this little girl that needed all of them so much. It was at this moment that Amy awoke, and began to cry once more. I was afraid for Helen’s emotional well being, as her face was wet with sorrowful tears of near defeat.
Amy was sedated to allow her to rest, and Helen fell into a fitful nap in the stiff, unyielding chair. I pulled the sheet up to the child’s chin, and draped a blanket over her loving grandmother, then prayed they both could get some rest.
Two hours later, alarms began to shrill throughout the unit. Helen awakened instantly and jumped to the side of Amy’s bed. The machine was screaming out a warning that the pressure in her small, tired brain had yet again increased. The specialist was summoned, and he called the surgery department from the cell phone in his car.
Another stressful surgery commenced. As with each one before, we prayed, yet expected the worst. Helen proved she was made of sterner stuff, or had a deeper faith. She leaned her head on the side of Amy’s bed and prayed.
Amy was placed in Helen’s arms after she left recovery. So much had been done to her tiny body; we felt no further damage could be done by letting her hold her instead of placing Amy in her bed. She crooned to her and sang little girl songs, filled with the love and wonder of a kinder, gentler world. Perhaps it was her deep, abiding love, or the promise of God’s saving grace that worked magic that night.
Amy opened her eyes and smiled at her grandma. She reached up to touch her nose, and grinned when her own eyes opened wide in joy. She touched her lips when her face was wreathed in a smile, then her hand slipped down to her arm, attempting to tickle her as her mother had always done to her. The room was filled with hushed awe, and all our faces were wet with tears of happiness.
The last surgery proved to be successful. The swelling in the brain failed to reappear. When Amy touched Helen’s face and grinned, we knew she wasn’t blind, and some of her long-term memory was apparent, evidenced by her attempt to tickle her grandmother.
As news spread across the nation, toys, clothing, and gifts of all kinds were brought or sent to the hospital. Money to help defray medical expenses also poured in, and Helen never failed to thank God with each delivery.
Further testing, though, revealed that the prognosis for Amy was not as good as Helen hoped. Amy was blind in one eye, had permanent hearing loss, and a substantial amount of irreversible brain damage. In spite of this crushing announcement, Helen was happy. Amy was still alive, and the damage wasn’t as bad as we first feared it would be. She told everyone that would listen that she truly believed Amy would be walking and talking by the end of the year. She seemed ready and willing to accept the responsibility of caring for her young charge.
Sean was charged with murder, and is still in jail, awaiting trial.
One of the gifts Amy was given was a custom-built stroller donated by a national medical supply company which cost over $2,500.00. Last week, Amy was strapped into that stroller, and while wearing a pretty white hat and a bib that read “Special-and God loves me”, she attended a news conference in one of the meeting rooms of the hospital.
The reason for all the celebration was the fact that Amy was going home with her grandmother who had never given up hope. Even though she faces extensive physical therapy, and may never be the little girl she was meant to be before that cold winter day she was nearly killed, Amy had escaped the death certificate we thought would accompany her from the building.
I stood outside the room where the news conference was being conducted. I watched Helen answer the media’s questions with a graciousness that I’ll never forget. She wore a beatific smile the lit up the room as she said she believed in miracles, and that Amy was already proof of that.
“I want to thank the doctors, nurses, and technicians that took care of my Amy. But I want to offer praise to God, who in all His loving mercy, saved this child when all else failed. Lord, please take care of my little girl, and thank You for allowing me to keep my sweet little Amy.”
As the Christmas season approaches, Amy has continued to amaze and delight rehabilitation workers at the hospital she was sent to in New Jersey. As promised by her grandmother, Amy is now walking and talking with all the excitement shown by any normal five-year-old. Her favorite pastime is dressing up in Mary’s old clothes and smearing makeup all over her sweet little face. Next fall, she will attend kindergarten, a monumental accomplishment.
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