Garden of grief

Sitting at the February funeral service for the four members of the Browning family, Garland Williams was overcome by the sheer number of people grieving the couple, their two youngest sons and the arrest of their eldest boy on murder charges in the deaths.

"Nobody knew how to be. People were just being there because their hearts were wounded with this grief," he recalled. "I thought then, 'There's got to be a place, going forward, to sit and reminisce.' This grief will never go away completely, but we can, perhaps, change the direction of that grief."


With the help of Williams, the former owner of a well-known garden center, the students and faculty of the middle school that the two younger Browning boys attended took a step yesterday toward redirecting that grief with the dedication of a reflection garden in the family's memory.

Students and teachers wept yesterday morning outside Cockeysville Middle as the gentle sound of harp music floated across the driveway and most of the school's 830 students lined up, one by one, to toss a small shovelful of dirt on the roots of the new garden's magnolia trees.

As school officials and teachers spoke of the Browning family - 11-year-old Benjamin, 14-year-old Gregory and their parents, John W. Browning and Tamara Browning - there was no mention of the couple's oldest son.

Nicholas W. Browning, 16, who was charged with four counts of first-degree murder in the deaths, remains in the county jail, where is being held without bail pending trial. In June, lawyers in the case are scheduled to litigate the issue of whether the Dulaney High School sophomore will be tried in adult or juvenile court.

Since the Brownings' deaths in February - they were shot in their beds as they slept in their Cockeysville home - the students and staff of the school that the younger boys attended have struggled with the losses.

Tammy Browning, 44, a stay-at-home mom who worked part time in property management, was very involved with the middle school's PTA, said Principal Philip W. Taylor. Her husband of nearly 20 years, John Browning, 45, was a partner in a Towson law firm and well-known among his sons' friends as a Scout leader. Greg Browning, an eighth-grader, served as the middle school's mascot. And the youngest, sixth-grader Ben Browning, was known for quoting the dialogue of television shows and movies.

"The hard edge is off," Taylor said of the school community's grief. "But this is letting kids know that grieving is not a one-shot process. It happens over time - for the adults, too."

The school is slowly getting back to normal, he said.

They skipped their annual Ghost Out, a day when members of the Students Against Destructive Decisions dress as the dead to highlight the number of teenagers killed in drunk-driving crashes. The band director commissioned an original piece of music in honor of the two boys - both of whom played percussion in their class bands - and began planning its concert debut next April at Goucher College. And the school's staff decided to leave vacant the position of Cougar mascot.

"The hardest part [of the year] was the basketball season," the principal said. "The eighth-grade basketball teams were never quite the same. Greg had been the mascot at every game. But after, attendance was down. Spirit was down. We tried, but the wind went out of our sails."

Planning for the garden began shortly after the Browning funerals in February. More than 200 students, parents, teachers and other volunteers spent the last two Saturdays preparing the ground and planting.

Williams, the founder and former owner of Garland's Garden Center who now works for Coldwell Banker as a real estate agent, set out to create a garden that could be both a focal point of the school's entrance and an evolving space suitable for the heavy use of middle-schoolers.

"It's not a hands-off, look-at garden," he said. "They can walk through it and sit in it and, from time to time, remember the boys who were their friends."

Marked by shimmering blue rock boulders, the plot includes a row of American boxwood shrubs, a weeping cypress tree, a heritage white birch and a few magnolia trees with their evergreen waxy leaves. There are "nonstop roses" - named for their persistence in blooming throughout much of the spring, summer and fall - and a skinny pink dogwood, whose tiny pink flowers fluttered in the occasional breeze yesterday. Tall grasses, perennials and flats of yellow and purple pansies - still awaiting planting - fill in the gradually sloping space.


It is a place where, Williams hopes, teachers will bring a student to talk for a few minutes, where classmates can gather even after they've gone on to college, where a couple of boys can jump from rock to rock and feel good about being a kid.

Yesterday morning, in a trio of ceremonies with each grade level, the school's principal dedicated the garden. Students hugged each other and wiped away tears - some sobbing uncontrollably - as school officials, teachers and staff remembered the Brownings.

Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joe A. Hairston described the occasion as a chance to remember "a special family" and "two special boys."

Science teacher Glenn Segal struggled through a poem that he wrote about Ben, highlighting the boy's energy and spunk, love of snacking, passion for animals and fondness for sports.

And Taylor, the principal, challenged his eighth-graders to pick an attribute of Greg - whom he described as always friendly and never mean to another student - to incorporate into their own lives "as a tribute to him."

"We all are looking for answers to why this tragedy occurred and there is, of course, no answer," Taylor said later. "This is a way of moving on."