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Strength to survive

Author / Coordinator: Renee Jones Schneider and Kay Miller
Minneapolis Star Tribune
February 2006

Shawnee Wair and her family have spent nearly a year recovering from a fire that killed one child and badly burned another. Shawnee finds unexpected strength in her fiance' and three sons, as new hardships -- and a new baby -- arrive.

 After the fire, Shawnee Wair blamed herself for kicking out her partner, Gary Washington, sending him back to St. Louis. Gary is a night owl. If he had been home, he would have smelled the smoke. Maybe he could have wrestled the blazing mattress out of the house. At the very least he would have helped Shawnee get all four of her kids safely outside.

It was shortly after midnight last March 22, and Shawnee, 26, was asleep on the sofa of her Minneapolis duplex when she awoke, unable to breathe. Smoke was pouring from her bedroom. She ran upstairs to wake 6-year-old daughter, Shawneece, and 4-year-old son, Taquarius.

"Come on, the house is on fire!" she screamed, pulling Taquarius and Shawneece out the kitchen door. It was cold outside. Taquarius was shirtless and neither child was wearing shoes. "Stay here. Wait for me," Shawnee ordered, dashing back into the blazing duplex for sons Richard, 9, and Ulani, 3.

But they didn't wait. As she tried to wake Ulani, Shawnee heard anguished cries and realized that Taquarius had followed her back in. "He was screaming, 'Awhh, awwhh!' There was smoke everywhere. And by this time, the smoke was so black I couldn't see him."

Shawnee kept yelling, "Follow my voice!" She reached Taquarius. But when she picked him up, the skin fell off his body.

After several tries, eldest son Richard yanked open the front door, saving himself and Ulani.

To her horror, Shawnee realized her daughter was back inside and running upstairs to her bedroom.

"Come to Momma," Shawnee wailed. But a wall of fire separated them. Outside, she smashed the window on her truck and put the boys inside. Frantic, Shawnee ran inside for Shawneece, only to be driven back by flames. Long before firefighters found Shawneece dead of smoke inhalation beneath her mattress, Shawnee knew her daughter was gone.

"I would have been OK if God would have kept us all asleep and we all would have died in that fire," Shawnee said. "I would have been OK with that."

Recalling that night, Shawnee cries softly. Ulani, who has listened big-eyed from across the living room, comes over, snuggling close and wordlessly wrapping his arm around her rounded belly. Two weeks after her only daughter died, Shawnee learned that she was pregnant. Thrilled at first that it was a girl, Shawnee wondered at the cruel irony: Shawneece had begged for a baby sister and "as soon as she passed, I get pregnant?"

Now Shawnee struggles with ambivalence about new life nestled up so close to death. "I just don't want to confuse my kids. I don't want them to feel like you lose something that's precious and it can be replaced."

It is Jan. 5, nine months after the fire. Shawnee sits on a couch, wrapped in a worn leopard-print comforter, surrounded by a household of goods donated after the family lost everything. Her baby is due today but shows no sign of coming. This has been the worst of Shawnee's pregnancies. She constantly worries that something is wrong with the baby.

"Before our disaster, I wasn't scared of nothing. Now everything scares me."

In the dining room, she set up a shrine with Shawneece's cremains, photos and first-grade essays. Shawnee passes it on every trip to the kitchen, but she can't bear to stop and look.

"Shawneece wasn't no ordinary little girl," she says. She loved her brothers, DVDs, the color pink and talking. "She thought she was everybody's momma."

Richard and Shawneece were especially close. If his little sister was missing a sock or a mitten, Richard would give her his, then hold her hand all the way to the school bus. Ulani had constant nightmares after the fire. He'd creep into Shawnee's room saying, "Momma, let's go get Shawneece."

Gary bows his head, looking sick and sorrowful as Shawnee talks. Within hours of the call telling him about the fire, he boarded a bus back to Minneapolis.

"I blame myself, too, because I wasn't there," Gary says. "Even though she sent me away, I felt like I was supposed to be there. I'm still holding that over my shoulders."

Gary, 29, is a different man since the fire. Before, he was angry and controlling. Tired of their constant fighting, Shawnee told him to leave. They had been a couple off and on for five years, creating a blended family after having other partners and checkered lives on the street. A year ago, Shawnee moved to Minnesota, intent on creating a "right life." Her kids had perfect attendance in school. "I was comfortable. My kids were comfortable. And in a second, the comfortables went away."

As Shawnee picked out Shawneece's casket, the family waited to see if Taquarius would live. The 4-year-old had been rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) with third-degree burns over 55 percent of his body. Some burns went to the bone. His face was gone. The fingers on his left hand were burned to stubs. His feet were badly burned. And there was so much damage to his lungs and throat that he needed a tracheal tube to breathe. His chances of surviving were less than 20 percent, said Dr. John Twomey, head of HCMC's burn unit.

"He was comatose for more than a month," Shawnee says. "He couldn't talk. He couldn't open his eyes." After doctors scraped away the burned skin, his body was as red and raw as meat, she says. "I never cried around him, even though there were times I wanted to break down, seeing my baby like that."

Shawnee went to the hospital every day. Often she couldn't bear to stay. Hour to hour, day to day, she didn't know if he would live. She was there when he regained consciousness, to tell him what had happened so he wouldn't "freak out" at the trach tube that made it hard to talk. Taquarius kept trying to tell her something about Shawneece. But by the time he could speak, he had forgotten what it was.

"Why did Shawneece die but I didn't?" he asked later.

"Because God has a plan for you, and God needed her with him," Shawnee answered. But really, she didn't understand it herself.

Relatives visited in shifts -- brothers, aunts, sisters, cousins. They were critical to Taquarius' survival, Twomey said. Around his brothers, Taquarius became a playful little boy again. Often it was Gary, however, who stayed through the night.

Shawnee had been hospitalized the year before with depression so severe that she was on Social Security disability, for which she received $500 a month. Now she spiraled deeper, spending most days crying on the couch. Many times she considered suicide. But with Taquarius fighting so hard for his life, how could she take hers?

The fire's cause was undetermined. But its aftermath pushed the family further to the economic margins as they lived on $200 a month in food stamps, Shawnee's disability, the $600 a month in Supplemental Security Income for Taquarius and the charity of strangers. Gary had always worked two or three jobs. But he quit to take care of Taquarius, who needed round-the-clock care at home. Most of it was painful.

"He didn't want to wear his mask that would smooth out the skin grafts. He didn't want his leggings to be taken off for skin care and put back on. He didn't want someone to get under his trach and clean the stoma [hole in his throat]," said Alta Karstensen, senior pediatrics staff nurse.

But Gary had a special touch.

In the dining room, Gary sets up for their morning ritual. Taquarius walks stiffly to a chair, inching himself robot-like on tiptoes to a sitting position. Gary speaks softly, asking Taquarius if he's hurting. With a gentle rag he washes the boy head to toe, taking extra time with tender spots on his feet.

Deep, ropy scars run the length of Taquarius' arms. There's a cross-hatch of grafted skin on his back. He's had a dozen surgeries and faces at least that many more.

"I have butt cheeks," he announces.

It takes Shawnee a minute to register that Taquarius is joking about the smooth skin harvested from undamaged parts of his body to reconstruct his face.

"Oh, you do have butt cheeks," she says, howling. It feels good to laugh.

If Gary could wipe away all the scars with a tender touch, he would. He finishes by gently massaging Taquarius all over with lotion. The boy's eyes roll to the back of his head with pleasure.

"Gary snuck his self into my heart through my kids," Shawnee says quietly.

The baby is five days late when deliverance comes Jan. 10. Shawnee's water breaks at 4 a.m. Gary drives her from their north Minneapolis duplex to North Memorial Medical Center, leaving the sleeping boys with Shawnee's younger sister.

By 6:28 a.m. the contractions are five minutes apart. But Shawnee still is directing family life from her hospital bed. She tells Gary he has to go home, get Richard ready for school and bring Taquarius and Ulani to the hospital.

Gary quietly protests.

"Gary, I don't want you to miss this, but Richard's got perfect attendance. That means a lot to him because at the end of the year they call your name," she insists. "Go fast. I'll hold back. I won't push."

They need not have worried. Shawnee labors past the predicted noon delivery. There is time for the boys to eat breakfast, don "I'm a Big Brother" wristbands and to climb on Shawnee's bed for kisses.

Suddenly, at 2:30 p.m., it is time. The large labor room fills with doctors, nurses and family members. Three big pushes and the baby is out. The room erupts in cheers. Vashay Ne'Shawn Washington-Wair is perfect. Shawnee looks into her eyes and sighs with relief, "You are gorgeous."

At the edge of the bed, Taquarius and Ulani stand stiff as soldiers. Shawnee tries to draw them in: "Do you want to kiss your sister?" Ulani inches closer.

But Taquarius, whose fight to survive kept his family focused on something beyond death, holds back, uncertain.

Life is imperfect, but all the more so when you're living close to the margins. As Shawnee copes with a new baby, depression and the still-raw tragedy, the family again relocates, this time to escape a mouse infestation that made the boys afraid to go to the bathroom at night.

The key turns roughly in the lock of the family's new home in the Jordan neighborhood. The first thing Shawnee carries into the home is the pink silk-covered box containing Shawneece's ashes. She places the box on top of a built-in bookcase, as Taquarius and Ulani run around, exploring. The house is cute, with fresh paint and new carpet.

But drug dealers gather outside a convenience store across the street. Shawnee peeks through a slat in the blinds, furious: "Oh, no, not in front of my house! I'm going to be calling the police every day!"

Richard will have his own room for the first time. But Shawnee is horrified when she sees its wall-mounted heater, which has an open gas flame the size of a textbook. A thin metal cover with no lock covers the flame.

"Oh, Gary, I don't like this," Shawnee cries, wheeling to eye Ulani. "You don't touch that ever! You hear?"

Exhausted, she sits and nurses baby Vashay in a little room off the kitchen that will be the nursery, seeking a moment of calm. Shawnee doesn't understand all that has happened to her and can't think of all that is to come. God has a plan, she says.

"I put everything in God's hands."

Paul E. Godlewski of the law firm of Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben is representing Shawnee Wair and her family against the homeowner and his insurance company.