Mothers remember their own losses after Chester County tragedy

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comSeptember 28, 2013 

The hardest part for Missy Wallace is not hearing her son’s voice over the phone.

They spoke every day, but it has been four years since she’s heard his laugh or listened to him tell a joke.

“If you ever met him, you’d never forget him,” she said.

Wallace, a dispatcher for the York Police Department, is determined not to forget.

“When I quit talking about DJ is when he’ll really die,” she said. “That will never happen.”

DJ – born Donnie Eugene Kimble II – is always on his mother’s mind. But after learning that an 11-month-old Chester County girl was killed two weeks ago, her heart aches more than usual.

Madison Stewart died Sept. 20 after police say she suffered severe head injuries inflicted by Jeffery Todd Bradley, a 27-year-old Iraq War veteran now charged with homicide by child abuse. He is being held at the Chester County Detention Center without bond.

Deputies and family members have said that Bradley was the boyfriend of Penny Stewart, Madison’s mother. They had lived together since April in a mobile home on Hardin Strait Road near Lowrys.

On Sept. 18, Madison Stewart was taken by helicopter to Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. Bradley initially told police she had been electrocuted after putting a phone charge cable in her mouth. He later told investigators she had fallen.

After he called for help, Bradley performed CPR on Madison for about 11 minutes, according to a recording of the 911 call he made. Police charged Bradley when his account of what happened to Madison was not consistent with her injuries – a fractured skull, internal brain bleeding and kidney injuries.

Madison died two days later. She was buried at Rock Hill’s Grandview Memorial Park on Tuesday.

“It’s a bad thing to go through,” Wallace said.

She knows from experience. Her son DJ died Feb. 11, 2009, when a friend’s gun he was looking at went off. He was 19.

The avid skateboarder was the youngest of Wallace’s three children. He was the only one who still lived with her.

“Now, he’s skateboarding on the streets of gold,” she said.

She knows what Penny Stewart will face, and she knows it won’t be easy.

‘No one is around’

Hester Addison-Benitez of Rock Hill is all too familiar with the grieving process.

Her son, 21-year-old Roderick McClure, and her husband, James Addison, died after a drunk driver hit them on Dec. 26, 1996, in Las Vegas, Nev.

For the next several years, Addison-Benitez helped other victims who had lost loved ones in her role as a victim’s advocate.

During that time, though, she never confronted her own pain.

“I couldn’t see beyond my grief, but I could go help someone else,” Addison-Benitez said. “I wanted my husband and son back. To try and grieve both at the same time…I basically lost it.”

Six years later, on Mother’s Day, she asked God to either let her live or let her die. When she got up the next morning, she finally started to grieve.

Years later, Benitez has channeled her grief into advocacy.

She is executive director of Rock Hill’s STOP Impaired Driving, a nonprofit organization dedicated to spreading the word about the dangers and consequences of drunk driving.

Though a drunk driver didn’t kill Madison, Addison-Benitez said, she can relate to her mother’s pain.

“When any mother loses a child, it’s devastating enough,” Addison-Benitez said. “But when you lose a child at the hands of another and you can’t do anything about it, it’s harder. My son being 21 is no different than this child being 11 months.”

“I hurt for her,” she said of Stewart. “I wish I could go there and hold her. I can’t take away her pain…we have to go through that pain.”

“She’s going to want to shy away,” Wallace said of Stewart, whom she met while driving buses for the York School District. “She’ll need to find a support group.”

“She’ll need good, godly support,” Addison-Benitez said. “Somebody who will let you talk about your baby when you want…someone who has a lot of compassion, a lot of sympathy, a lot of empathy and a lot of patience.”

And someone who is consistent.

For the first few weeks, Wallace said, “everybody’s there.” But as days pass and life goes on, “then, no one is around.”

“She’ll get a bit of attention now,” Addison-Benitez said. Madison’s death will continue to grab media attention as the case moves to court. But, “when the case is adjudicated...then, bam – she’ll be alone.”

Lisa Harris, who lost her 7-year-old son, Keith, in 2008, still has her moments. Each year, the former Hickory Grove woman eats ice cream and cake at her son’s grave on his birthday.

“It’s going to be hard,” Harris said of what lies ahead for Stewart. “She’s got to know somebody that she can say (to), ‘Hey, I’m having a moment.’”

Keith told his mother he wanted to enlist in the Army or the Marines. He never crawled, she said, he only walked. He never used training wheels on his bike. He loved the outdoors and his four-wheeler, which he would ride to neighbors’ houses.

He was riding that four-wheeler Aug. 4, 2008, when he ran into the back of a logging truck.

His spinal cord snapped.

“The first few days I was just in shock,” Harris said. Those are days “I don’t really remember.

“I do remember being numb. I prayed constantly because I didn’t have anybody else. A week or so after the funeral, there was nobody. You’re just sitting there alone.”

Family members would rush off the phone if Harris started crying, she said. A co-worker recently asked her if she’s ever seen a dead body. She broke down in tears.

Harris was the third person to get to the scene of Keith’s accident. Her daughter, now 10, was close behind. The girl is still in therapy.

“People treat you differently,” she said. “They don’t know how to act. I don’t think people should treat (us) differently because we lost a child.”

‘No, you can’t’

Wallace isn’t a fan of the platitude: “I can only imagine.” She’s heard the cliché too many times.

Her answer: “No, you can’t. Some of you complain because your child lives in another state. Here’s the thing. You can see that child. I don’t have that option until I die.”

The only option Wallace has is a cabinet she keeps in her living room. It’s filled with DJ’s military uniform, his skateboard, his ashes and the clothes he wore the night he died.

Memories and pictures, she said, “that’s all Penny will have.”

Wallace still feels blessed. She had 19 years with DJ. Penny Stewart had 11 months with Madison. 

Harris, who moved to Gaffney in 2011, still celebrates Keith’s birthday. She places a small Christmas tree on his grave every year and still buys him presents. He also gets an Easter basket.

When she hears the words, “I can only imagine,” she says: “There’s nothing you can say to me to take my pain away. There are no words.

“Nobody could ever imagine the pain. I tell people, ‘You don’t want to know my pain. I’m going to have to deal with this the rest of my life.’”

In addition to the pain, Penny Stewart will feel guilty, Addison-Benitez said, because her boyfriend has been accused in the death of her child.

“She’s got that to deal with,” she said. “She’s going to ever be reminded of that.”

She’ll also have to overcome comments, Addison-Benitez said, from “cruel people who got their own opinions, who don’t know the story, don’t know the situation,” but “always have an opinion.”

Addison-Benitez can’t bring herself to go to a child’s funeral. Wallace can’t either. Despite their show of strength, both women still have their bad days.

At the same time, both are women of faith who said they never blamed God for their children’s deaths. He keeps them strong, they said.

“If I didn’t believe in Him, I’d probably kill myself,” Wallace said. “It’s that bad. It’s such a roller coaster of emotions.”

Wallace is looking forward to God’s “promise that I will see (DJ) again one day. Until then, I will keep his memory alive down here.”

‘Justice needs to be served’

Over the years, Addison-Benitez has been to dozens of court hearings, standing beside victims as they confronted the people who took away family members.

She said she doesn’t want to judge Jeffery Bradley.

Homicide by child abuse is a felony that, upon conviction, is punishable by 20 years to life in prison. Penny Stewart won’t have much say in what punishment Bradley might receive, Addison-Benitez said. She’ll have to “sit back” and see how the state prosecutes its case.

“It’s rough, it’s going to be rough on her,” she said. “All I know is justice needs to be served.”

Madison Stewart’s family agrees.

Early last week, her grandparents – Patricia Noe and Tony Stewart – said they wanted to make sure what happened to Madison would never happen to another child.

“That baby was this family’s whole life,” Noe said. “I never thought it would happen to us.”

Noe and others in her family are taking an activist role against child abuse. They wear shirts with a blue ribbon and Madison’s face emblazoned on the back. The words “Madi Cakes” are on the front, along with the dates reflecting her short lifespan.

Penny Stewart, meanwhile, has gone to Florida with her mother “to get away,” Noe said.

If Lisa Harris could speak with Penny Stewart, she would offer her cell phone number and tell the mourning mother to call her any time.

“She’s going to need support,” Harris said. “That’s the only way you can make it – support and prayer.”

The hardest part for Harris is “knowing you can’t give up, you have to face it,” she said. She talked about “God’s will.”

“For some reason, He thought I was strong enough to deal with this.”

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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