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Looking for a life lesson in the death of Lily Burk

Some parents are struggling to find solid ground in the wake of the 17-year-old Los Feliz girl's slaying.

August 01, 2009|SANDY BANKS

I began our dinner table conversation with the phrase that has become a drumroll for stories of catastrophe I feel bound to share with my three daughters:

Wanna hear something sad?

They don't, but it doesn't matter. They know the question is merely a way to brace them for whatever heart-wrenching tale I am determined to tell.

Like the case of the suburban girl sent to prison because she was the driver when her boyfriend pulled a gun, fired into a crowd and killed a teenager outside a movie theater.

Or the college student who mowed down a child on a bike as she was texting while driving, killing the child.

I tell the stories to put our own small sorrows in perspective. And for the cautionary lessons they afford, warning my daughters away from hoodlum boyfriends, reckless driving and other unwise youthful choices.

This week, my story was of Lily Burk, the 17-year-old Los Feliz girl who was abducted while on an errand for her mother last weekend and found dead in her Volvo in a skid row parking lot.

A transient on the lam from a drug rehab center has been charged with her kidnapping, robbery and murder.

I delivered the facts clearly enough, but I stumbled on the lesson part.

What exactly did I expect them to learn from such a horrific tale of coincidence and crime, of monstrous misfortune?

Or as my 24-year-old asked when I was done, "So, Mom, why are you telling us this?"

I've been struggling to come up with an answer all week.

--

On blogs, online news sites and a Facebook page set up by Lily's friends, tributes and messages of sympathy are pouring in from her classmates, colleagues of her lawyer mother and journalist father, and strangers struck by the randomness and brutality of her killing.

As parents, we look at Lily's death and shudder at how vulnerable our children are.

This week, we have tried to assuage our fears with action, scrambling to set up self-defense classes, urging our daughters to travel in packs, convening family meetings to come up with code words our kids can use to alert us to their distress if they are ever -- as Lily was -- forced to call home with a kidnapper breathing down their necks.

Some parents in Silver Lake are even flying in an author who writes about female empowerment to teach their daughters how "to explicitly rebuff unwanted advances."

We don't know if any of that would have saved Lily, but we are willing to go to any length to make sure our own carefully tended children will be safe.

Yet, all I can think about is that two responsible, successful parents have lost their only child, a delightful and beautiful young woman who was -- as my daughters are to me -- the light of their lives.

And the only lesson I can find is one expressed by a grieving teen on her Facebook wall, where her classmates and friends posted poems, prayers and memories of a smart, funny and talented "free spirit" who had a smile and hug for everyone and "was always so careful not to hurt people's feelings."

"Life is so unfair if something like this can happen to Lily," her friend wrote.

--

Our impulse in a case such as this one is to try to find some force to blame.

The suspect -- a transient with a long rap sheet -- was on the streets because, depending on your political leanings, either the three-strikes law isn't tough enough or the state has cut too much money from drug-treatment programs.

And Lily, some have speculated, became his prey because she was either too naive or too fearless to sense danger in the gritty mid-Wilshire neighborhood.

But I know from raising daughters -- mine are now 24, 20 and 18 -- about the push-pull between their desire for freedom and my urge to keep them tethered to our front door.

I like to think I have managed to strike a balance that honors both safety and independence.

But this week, I morphed into the mom I was when they were small, plotting safe courses for their every move and imagining all the things that could go wrong.

I snapped at the youngest when she unfastened her seat belt for a moment in the car. "Don't you know a girl got killed on her way to prom because she wasn't wearing a seat belt!" I yelled.

I made my 20-year-old sleep in her old bedroom rather than head back to her apartment late one night, even though it's only two miles away and she has made the trip safely hundreds of times.

I have tried to raise them -- as Lily's parents did her -- to be compassionate, generous and kind.

I don't want them to be suspicious of everyone, afraid to step outside the bubble of our comfortable suburban life.

But I also want them to make it home alive every night.

So I may check out the workshops, self-defense classes and empowerment sessions.

But I will also try to resign myself to the power of random chance and the reality of our own impotence to control our children's lives.

--

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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