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Catching up: Omen in fire and rain

Author / Coordinator: Kay Miller
Minneapolis Star Tribune
July 2006

After a year of sorrow and suffering, Shawnee Wair and Gary Washington were ready to create a family "for real.”

‘It’s good luck if it rains on your wedding day," relatives assured Shawnee Wair as she warily monitored Minneapolis weather reports the week before her marriage to longtime partner Gary Washington.

Their outdoor wedding on June 17 was an hour late getting started as out-of-town relatives searched for the Pergola Garden at Minnehaha Park. Shawnee waited out of Gary’s sight in shoes that pinched, excited but anxiously watching as the afternoon sunshine gave way to dark clouds.

Finally, it was time. She and Gary weren’t used to public displays of affection. After they said their vows and shyly kissed in front of God and everyone, Shawnee felt a cool sprinkling of rain on her shoulders.

Shawnee had seen fire. Now the gentle rain felt like a good omen after a year filled with death, despair and new life. The Star Tribune wrote about Shawnee and her family in February.

In 2005, a fire in their north Minneapolis duplex killed her 6-year-old daughter, Shawneece. Although sons Ulani, then 3, and Richard, then 9, got out safely, 4-year-old Taquarius was burned over 55 percent of his body. Doctors didn’t know if he would live. Two weeks later Shawnee learned she was pregnant with a daughter.

For most of her adult life Shawnee, now 27, has dealt with depression. After the fire, she slipped further into despondency as she tried to care for a severely burned son, two grieving boys and a difficult pregnancy. Her six-year relationship with Washington, 29, had been tumultuous. But after the fire he became her emotional anchor, visiting Taquarius at Hennepin County Medical Center (HCMC) when Shawnee couldn’t, and becoming Taquarius’ primary caregiver when he came home.

Still, deciding to marry was a huge step. Shawnee had reason to mistrust men. "I know Gary’s a good man. I didn’t want to let him go. I didn’t want to mess up. I’ve known him all my life. We have the same memories, the same friends. And Gary is my best friend."

So after their daughter Vashay was born on Jan. 10, she agreed to marry him on Jun. 17 — halfway between the date of Shawneece’s birth and her death.

"We wanted to be legal in God’s eyes," Shawnee said. "We’re trying to change our lives. What better way to start?"

Financially, they’re in much better shape than six months ago. Shawnee recently won a settlement in a wrongful-death suit against her landlord’s insurance company over her daughter’s death. With the money — "a gift from Shawneece" — she created trust funds to finance her children’s educations when they turn 18; she also bought and furnished a house in north Minneapolis. A suit over Taquarius’ burns is pending. "His hospital bills are already over $700,000," she said.

Gary, who never completed high school, said he plans to return to school to pursue a nursing degree. When he registers, it will be with the family’s new combined name: Washington-Wair.

Honking horns and fairy-tale dresses

Before the wedding, Richard, Ulani and Taquarius chased one another around the Pergola Garden’s cobblestones and flowers. Aunts called them over to tuck in their pleated shirts, admonishing them not to get their pants dirty. Vashay slept in her stroller in a frilly red-and-white dress. Behind her was a picture of Shawneece, borrowed from the family shrine.

In addition to dozens of friends and relatives who had traveled from St. Louis and Chicago, other people who have become part of their extended family came to celebrate. There were nurses from HCMC’s burn unit, physical therapists and the children’s teachers.

"I didn’t know so many people cared," said Shawnee, who waited impatiently behind a utility shed off the parking lot, occasionally peeking around the building at the assembled guests. She didn’t want Gary to see her dress and the hairdo that had taken hours to do. Passers-by honked merrily at the sight of the waiting bride.

Bridget Hall, a cousin who planned the wedding, finally called the attendants to line up, and Taquarius struggled to get into his attendant’s jacket. Despite regular physical therapy, deep scars from his burns still limit his mobility. On July 10 he underwent more contraction-release and skin graft surgery to release scarring on his right elbow and underarm.

"For the most part, he has a wonderful spirit," Shawnee said. "Now he’s able to tell me when he’s having a bad day. And when kids act like they’re scared of him, he just chases them around."

Recorded music started. Richard, Ulani and Taquarius lined up at Gary’s left side, resplendent in white tuxedos, occasionally reaching for his hand. They felt like a family. But the meter on "forever" started in earnest for Gary when he saw Shawnee coming toward him in her fairy-tale white dress, looking nervous.

Gary winked at her. Then he surprised himself, tearing up at how beautiful Shawnee looked. There had been stressful times when they had argued and she had told him to leave.

"We belonged to each other, but there was no ties. So you could just get up at any time and go," Gary explained later. "This step was to assure us that we wasn’t going anywhere. Whether we fight or not, we belong to each other. Now we’re a family for real."

If the wedding was more emotional than either Shawnee or Gary expected, the reception was more fun. Little kids tried to sneak sips of champagne as friends ate chicken, macaroni salad and chocolate kisses. There was a beautiful cake and red-and-white decorations. Taquarius danced like any little boy, rolling his shoulders and snapping his fingers.

In the middle of it all Gary placed a chair in the center of the room and called his bride over. Shawnee had sternly warned everybody not to make her cry. But when Gary went down on one knee and sang "I’ll take care of you" from Ace Watkins’ song "So Loved," she forgave him for her tears of joy.

"This is a new beginning," she said. "And I can’t wait to get started."

Paul E. Godlewski of the law firm Schwebel, Goetz & Sieben, P.A. represents the family of Shawneece against the landlord’s insurance company.

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