The brief life of Philip Eugene Parker Jr. was celebrated yesterday with laughs, tears and draft beer at the waterfront bar where his mother occasionally seeks solace - an elusive feeling ever since her son was killed in the pitch dark of a prison bus.
John Lennon's "Beautiful Boy" played, and 20 balloons were released in memory of Parker's 20 hard years of living. Also, a white dove was released to express the hope that in death Parker found something he never had in life: peace.
"Sweet and troubled and confused" is the way Parker's mother described him. "He was my gentle giant," Melissa Rodriguez said of her second-born son, a muscular 6-foot-6, 240-pound Baltimore man who would have turned 21 tomorrow.
"They had to bend my baby's legs to put him in the casket," she recalled tearfully. "So I guess he'll spend eternity uncomfortable - the way he always was."
Rodriguez, too, has not found comfort. After her son's strangulation Feb. 2, she lost 52 pounds, shrinking from a size 14 to a junior size, and she continues to write to him, as though he were still alive and confined in the Maryland Correctional Adjustment Center in Baltimore, a Supermax prison for inmates in solitary confinement. Nearly seven months after her son's death, she hasn't visited his grave; she can't find the strength. Just talking about him makes her hands and voice tremble and the tears flow uncontrollably.
'Missing a piece'
"A piece of me is gone," she said quietly. "When you have children, they make you who you are. They make you want to be better. They make you want to be stronger. ... I'm missing a piece."
With his feet and hands shackled tightly to a chain around his waist, Parker was strangled during a nighttime bus ride carrying four prison guards, a driver and more than 30 other inmates as it traveled from Hagerstown to the Supermax prison on East Madison Street. Kevin G. Johns Jr., a 22-year-old twice-convicted killer seated near Parker, has been charged with first-degree murder. Baltimore County prosecutors are seeking the death penalty.
"What was Philip thinking at the end? What were his last thoughts? These are questions I can't get over. That is all I think about," Rodriguez said, her voice breaking. "This is what I've got to live with for the rest of my life."
She blames the state's justice and prison systems, and she blames herself. She was 16 when she began giving birth to five sons in successive years.
Today, she is a grandmother of four who feels much older than her 38 years. She said Parker was a sweet but troubled child. In elementary school he was diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and, by age 14, he was being medicated for bipolar disorder.
"Unfortunately kids don't come with [instruction] books, and that is my grief and I'm dealing with it," she said. "When we have children with disabilities we need to slow down and realize it is all about them, not about us."
Parker had about 15 months left on a 3 1/2 -year sentence given him when he was 18 and attempted to rob two kids with a broken pellet gun, she said. He had long before lost his prison visitation and phone privileges and was housed with the maximum-security inmates at the Supermax because he repeatedly got into trouble at Maryland's Hagerstown prison. He flooded his cell, ripped out the toilet, lit his mattress on fire and fashioned weapons out of socks and soap and batteries. It had been his goal to be transferred to the isolated confinement of the Supermax, Rodriguez said.
"The gangs [in Hagerstown] were always chasing after him to join," Rodriguez's father, Clifford Kiser, recalled yesterday from the Baltimore rowhouse he shares with his daughter.
"Even though he was this big, strong man, he had this fear of others hurting him," Rodriguez added.
It's this knowledge of his fears that haunts her. If the deepest cut life can afflict is a child's death, Rodriguez said, this cut went even deeper because of the brutal way he died. Now the general public remembers her son only as "the guy who died on the prison bus," she said.
"That's no kind of legacy," she said, just before leaving her home yesterday for the party at Malibu's Lakeside Restaurant and Bar in Brooklyn. "Today is about celebrating Philip's life. ... It's not supposed to be about his death."
But at Malibu's, alongside the balloons and the beer, were stacks of voter registration cards. Rodriguez is trying to form a nonprofit (Justice4Phil. com) that will lobby for housing and medical reforms that she says are long overdue in Maryland's juvenile justice and prison systems.
After Parker's slaying, Rodriguez received a sympathy letter from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. She tossed it aside.
"We put you in office and we can take you out" of office, Parker said angrily yesterday, as though she were speaking to the governor. "This isn't over. Not by a long shot."
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