The cars and trucks showed up in the cemetery in Rock Hill Saturday, at the same time that cars and trucks filled a cemetery in Connecticut.
The people in those vehicles, who walk toward graves that should not be, are tied together. Some who walked to graves were small, and because they are children, laughed and know the thrill of just being alive with room to run and sprint and gallop.
“My cousin Jesse died when he was just 7 years old,” said a tiny boy named Trevor Demby, 6 years old. The adults around him watched him run, race, jump, leap Saturday. Demby’s grandmother, Pam, whispered, “He favors Jesse. All boy.”
Trevor, then said something no 6-year-old boy should ever have to say: “Jesse died because he got shot.”
Gunshots killed the little kids in Connecticut, just like gunshots killed Jesse Helms.
In a country that has cried for the 20 little kids shot to death in a Connecticut elementary school Dec. 14, nobody has cried more than a tall, tough guy from Rock Hill named Joe Helms. Joe has hurt this week, pain so bad he almost drove to Connecticut to find a big and burly daddy like himself and throw his construction workers arms around the stranger.
“I saw them kids, so innocent and pure, they never bothered nobody and just wanted to learn and go to school and grow up, and somebody killed them,” Joe Helms said. “The families, they are never going to get over it. I know. Those kids are the same age my boy was.”
On Feb. 15, 2007, Joe’s son Jesse, a second-grader at Rock Hill’s Oakdale Elementary School, made gingerbread in his class – just like the kids did Dec. 14 at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Jesse’s mother, Sandra Glover, picked him up after school, and took him home to where the Valentine’s Day card Jesse had made for his mother hung on the refrigerator door.
Sandra Glover shot and killed Jesse, and then killed herself.
Every year just before Christmas the Helms family, almost 30 of them, gathers at Grand View Memorial Park to decorate a Christmas tree that is placed next to Jesse’s grave. There is a special tub of ornaments with the word “Jesse’s Christmas” on it.
The kids, and the adults, put on the reindeer and the Carolina Panthers ornaments because Jesse loved the Panthers. All around on the tree are placed the No. 48 Jimmie Johnson NASCAR ornaments. Jesse Helms, age 7, loved Jimmie Johnson more than anything in the whole world.
He loved Jimmie Johnson until he was shot and killed in a crime his family still cannot fathom. Just hours before Jesse was killed, his mother was convicted of domestic violence against Joe Helms from an incident the month before. She was supposed to get help. Like Adam Lanza in Connecticut who killed 26 people and then himself, she chose murder.
On a cold Saturday eight days after the children were shot in Connecticut, the brutality of killing a child made even less sense for the Helms family who know that there is never any reason for killing children.
“Those precious little kids,” said Pam Demby, Joe Helms’ sister and Jesse’s aunt.
After the family hung the ornaments on the tree, they gathered in a circle for a prayer. Paulette Hallman, Jesse Helms second-grade teacher, led the prayer. Hallman has taught more than a thousand children in four decades as a teacher. Yet she will never forget Jesse Helms, who smiled and laughed, and was shy, and died so horribly.
“Bless Jesse in heaven, and bless those little children who lost their lives last week,” Hallman said in her prayer. “Our hearts are with them all.”
This terrific family, young and old, men and women, held hands in a circle and cried and prayed because in Connecticut families at the same time were doing the same thing for the same reason.
Joe Helms, his son murdered just like those kids, looked up and said, “My heart is broke.”
Then 20 balloons – one for each child killed in Connecticut – were released.
“Merry Christmas, may God care for you,” one of the little kids called out.
And just like in Connecticut, a family wiped away tears and hugged and then went home to wonder about why anybody with a gun could ever turn it on a child who smiled and leaped with joy and just wanted to grow up to be a race car driver, but instead died on a cold floor from bullets.