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Watching a World Crumple

After a neighbor losses her husband and daughter in separate acts of violence, fate becomes a darker, harder thing

May 10, 1997|SUE DIAZ and SUE DIAZ | Sue Diaz is a freelance writer in San Diego

Near the patio door off the family room in Ying Lowrey's airy Southern California home rests her little girl's doll-house. For a brief time, it was a busy place, an elaborate mansion created by a 72-year-old grandmother for her youngest daughter. It's filled with amazing detail: tiny porch lights, swinging French doors, bath mats, wallpaper, sinks with silver faucets, quilted bedspreads, a dining room table with four high-backed chairs, a small refrigerator.

Nini would have five days with her new doll house, before the accident.

From my living room window I can see, through the branches of her front yard ficus, the Levolors int he corner upstairs window of Ying's white stucco home. We sometimes meet for lunch, sometimes send our kids to each other's doorsteps to borrow cloves of garlic or cups of flour.

I knew Ying when she was more anonymous, before her name made headlines: Ying Lowrey, widowof Dr. D. Preston Lowrey III, one of three professors slain at San Diego State last August during a master's thesis presentation. Ying Lowrey, mother of 8-year-old Nini, killed crossing a street on her way to a playground just six months and one day after her father's death.

And so the world changed. For Ying, certainly. But for me,too.

I remember the other world, the one where neighborly small talk was easy and routine, where Life's Big Questions consisted of things like: Which of our minivans will be the carpool to Adobe Bluffs Elementary that day?

Every morning I walked my dog past the Lowrey's home. Often I'd see Ying and Preston, juggling briefcases and folders and paper bag lunches, piling into one of their cars for their commute to the university where they both taught. Depending on that day's schedule, their two kids might be bumping around them, too. Kendall, with his high-top sneakers and slick black hair, sliding into the back seat. Nini, his little sister, with her pink Barbie backpack, sporting the single strand of fat faux pearls she wore with every ensemble, even her bathing suit.

Last year at this time, a tragedy was something Ying and Preston might see in three acts on a special night out at the Old Globe.

In the Lowrey's family room, where I've spent alot of time lately, my eyes are drawn to the life-sized color portraits frame above the fireplace. One of Preston, looking impishly uncomfortable in a dark blue suit and tie. One of little Nini, the way she loved to look: beautiful in her Christmas dress of lace and velvet. It doesn't seem possible that the two of them are being held there, captives behind glare-free glass.

My mind sifts through a million "what if's." What if Preston hadn't been asked a mere 24 hours before his death to fill in on that review panel? What if he and his family had been camping in Yosemite that fateful August week, instead of the week before? And six months later, what if Kendall hadn't had a cold the day Ying and the children were planning to go to Magic Mountain, instead of to the Chinese New Years celebration at the school across from the park? What if the traffic light at the nearby intersection had turned red an instant sooner? What if.

I glance over at Nini's doll house, as quiet now as thoughts of forever. My eyes rest on its 3- inch occupants,whom Nini named "Peter" and, inexplicably, "Kayline." In the few days she shared with them, Nini helped the two cloth figures navigate her house's narrow stairs. Her small hands settled them on their sofa and tucked them in their beds after busy days of imaginary dinners and dance parties. In the world of Nini's doll house, life for Peter and Kayline could always be happy. Now Peter and Kayline languish, lifeless, near an armchair in this world that Ying, Kendall and the rest of us survive in.

The novelist Thomas Mann wrote, "To be poised against fatality, to meet adverse conditions gracefully, is more than simple endurance; it is an act of aggression, a positive triumph." The hand of Fate is out there, waiting. Like Ying, now without her husband and daughter, all of us live in the shadow of that hand; powerless, it's true, but not without strength. Not as long as we can still reach out to each other, not as long as we can hold in our beating hearts the fragile miracle of every ordinary day.

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