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Al Martinez

For the Love of Shana Lee

February 26, 1987|Al Martinez

I keep seeing the face of the boy, a child of 3, looking out at the world through troubled eyes.

His expression is pensive, a look caught in the microsecond of reflection, a thought emulsified on film, trapped and frozen, the fading spirit of a young life ended.

Who killed Joey Phelps?

The question haunts me.

Who caused him pain? Who triggered soft whimpers in the night? Who finally and with savage brutality struck the blow that damped the last tiny ember of his life?

Who is responsible and why did they do it?

A picture appeared in The Times. Joey Phelps was beaten to death in the bedroom of his Sylmar home. His injuries, a coroner's assistant said, were like "being hit by a truck."

Joey's mother and her boyfriend are accused of felony child abuse. As the case moved toward trial, the mother was also charged with manslaughter.

On the night of Joey's death, a neighbor heard heavy thumping that went on for an hour in the moments past midnight.

Then she heard a soft whimper.

And then there was silence.

In that silence, the heart of Joey Phelps stopped beating, an almost imperceptible disruption in the rhythms of life that pulse around us.

In that instant, he became a face in a photo, a snippet of news that will fade with the passing days.

But Joey left a special imprint on my life, and I'll tell you why.

I'm no stranger to death. I have walked through dark shadows for many years as a Marine at war and a journalist at work.

I have heard cries of pain in such awful vibrato that decades later they enribbon my sleep.

But still . . .

I see Joey's face with all of its bright promise and sad vision and it troubles me. Given the circumstances of his fate, it would trouble me at any time, but especially it bothers me today, for there is a sudden sweetness in my own life.

I have a new friend.

Her name is Shana Lee and she was born to the world on a gleaming, wind-swept morning into a family that adores her.

She's beautiful and I'm crazy about her.

"I keep doing this," her pixie mother said to me, "just so you'll have something more to write about."

Then she handed me that special little girl and said, "Meet Shana Lee."

I held her in my arms and shared the life burning within her, as elemental as the howling night winds that brushed pastels into the dawn of her birth.

I heard small sounds from new lips and touched the tips of fingers that would one day reach for stars.

"Shana Lee," I said to her mother, "is one hell of a baby."

I held her for a long time, quieting the cries, rocking her gently into sleep, leaving her tucked in soft blankets in a room warm with love.

I returned from the hospital still filled with the wonder of my new friend . . . and was confronted by the picture of Joey Phelps.

A colleague had left it on my desk because, I'm sure, he felt the same pain I would feel when I looked at the little boy's face and tried to imagine the reach of his anguish in the last terrible seconds of life.

An existence so new, so violently ended.

The picture was left for me to absorb and write about by someone who could never anticipate the dichotomy of emotions it would produce on this special day, or the tones of irony that would shape this column.

I find in the death of Joey a message of brutality that fills me with great sadness, as I find in the birth of Shana Lee a message of love that fills me with elation.

Here was a boy of significant promise brought into a world of troubled circumstances, gone without a chance to ever reach up and out, to touch the stars that Shana Lee will touch.

Who knows what Joey Phelps could have given the world?

Who knows what bright potential gleamed in eyes so suddenly robbed of light?

Life deals us futures laced with chance. Some survive the capricious odds, some don't. One flower lives, another dies. Both share the same sun, the same earth, the same rain.

What genetic acids blend to destroy a Joey Phelps and what wonders combine to give us Shana Lee? What blesses one and condemns the other?

That isn't a new question and there isn't a good answer, but I'll keep asking it and so will you, until someplace down the road we can isolate the factors of savagery that conspire to take a little boy's life on a dark and lonely night.

I hadn't intended this as a requiem for Joey Phelps, because the wonder of Shana Lee is so much with me.

I had only meant to chronicle the sweet, funny, panicky, worrisome moments of birth and greet with trumpets the new friend who will walk with me over trails she has never walked before.

A friend through whose eyes I will view life in tones of color I had not noticed in the past.

Welcome to the world, Shana Lee. Welcome to the world, glowing beauty.

And, oh yes . . . goodby, Joey Phelps.

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