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Feb 27 2009

Dart Award Winner

A Stolen Soul

For Wounded Maine Woman, a New Chapter Has Begun

The tiny purple crocuses caught Yong Jones' eye on a warm April morning.

The tiny purple crocuses caught Yong Jones' eye on a warm April morning.

She bent to smell the flowers that had poked through a patch of dirt by her door.

She remembered the Mother's Day when her son had handed her the pot of crocuses. Junior was 14 at the time, and he proudly told her: ''Mom, I got you a present.''

He'd bought the flowers with his own money, earned from raking a neighbor's leaves.

Yong and Junior planted the crocuses so they would bloom each spring and remind her of how much he loved her. As they dug in the earth together, she thought: ''Any mother would be so proud to have him for her son.''

Now, as Yong carefully cleared the dead leaves from the flowers, she realized this was the first time she'd noticed the crocuses since her son's murder.

''They're beautiful, Junior,'' she told him. ''I'm sorry I didn't see them blooming before.'' Above: Yong Jones smiles as she admires one of the purple crocuses blooming alongside her driveway. Larry Jr. bought the flowers for her with money he earned from his first job when he was 14 and they planted them together.

Maybe this is a sign from my son, she thought. Maybe this is an omen that there is something for me to live for.

Though Yong was relieved that her son's killer had been found guilty and had received a life sentence, it did little to relieve her sadness. She had never felt so lonely.

In the months following the February trial, her friends tried to help Yong let go of her grief. They offered suggestions on how she could begin a new chapter in her life. Get out of your house more, they told her. Volunteer. Take leadership once again of the Korean community. Enroll in classes. Do yoga. Walk in the sunshine. Buy new clothes. Renovate your home.

Yong listened to them and nodded her head. She was not ready to start a new chapter.

''Yes, I know I should feel lucky. I have a home to live in. A sister who loves me. Friends who care. Hundreds of strangers pulling for me. Yes, I have so much. But even with these things I have no meaning. I have no reason to get out of bed.''

Often, in her conversations with her dead son, she would ask: ''Junior, what am I supposed to do next?''

He did not answer. Above: Yong Jones searches for the name of a friend's husband who was killed during the Korean War as she stops by the Maine Korean War Memorial after visiting her husband's and son's graves.

As the winter snow melted, Yong continued to make daily visits to the cemetery where her son, Laurence Jr., and her husband, Laurence Sr., rest.

The vision she first saw when she buried her husband in 1995 now came to her often as she stood over his grave. She looked to the sky and saw the brilliant gold gate. Her husband had his arm around Junior's shoulder. They stood on bluish-white clouds highlighted by bold rays of sunlight. The two of them walked together beyond the gate into heaven.

Yong pleaded with them: ''I want to walk beyond the gate too. Why can't I be with you? Junior, I am your mother. I should trade places with you. You should live to have your own family. Your own son.''

As she stared down at her son's grave, Yong told herself no mother should live while her only child lies in the cold earth. Guilt and anger welled up inside her as she touched his name etched in the stone: Laurence A. Jones, Jr. Our beloved son. Born May 14, 1969. Died Nov. 20, 1993.

''How could I have let him go to Baltimore alone?'' she asked herself. ''I am his mother. I should have protected him.''

She also raged at God. ''Why me? Why did you take my son, my husband? Why must I watch killing after killing, bombing after bombing in Korea during the war? Why so many bad things? What did I do in my life that was so wrong?

''Take me too,'' she told God. ''Do whatever you want to me now. Finish my life.''

Death and dying often crept into Yong's conversations with her sister, Yong Im Chung, and her friend, Brenda Lawson. Though they worried about Yong, they had also grown tired of her fixation with the dead.

At times Brenda wanted to shake Yong. Once she yelled at her: ''You want to have cancer and die? You want to change lives with someone like that? We've all lost people we love, Yong. Life is for the living. You've got to get on with it.'' Above: Yong Cha Jones's sister sets out a variety of Korean dishes for Yong Cha and her nephew Jea Chung as the Chung family gathers for their evening meal.

Yong Im, too, tried to lift the depression that shadowed her sister. She still prepared Korean meals for Yong, hoping to make her stronger. Even though Yong frequently vomited her food, Yong Im coaxed her to eat what she could.

''Jupsuseyu!'' she yelled at her sister in Korean. ''Eat. Eat.''

One spring evening, Yong took only small swallows of food and pushed her plate aside. Her sister began to cry, and yelled at her: ''Go ahead and die! Then I die with you.''

Later, Yong Im regretted her harsh words.

''I don't know why she's not getting stronger. I guess she needs more time.''

Despite the uncertainty about her future, there have been signs that Yong is slowly letting go of her sorrow. She has called Brenda and invited her to a movie or to the shopping mall.

During a sale, the two of them spent hours rummaging through racks, buying spring clothes. Yong bought a few colorful blouses and a red suit. Brenda convinced her friend to buy a bathing suit splashed with bold colored flowers. When Yong hesitated, Brenda told her: ''You need to start wearing bright colors, Yong. Stop wearing black. Stop mourning.''

Brenda has also encouraged Yong to brighten the dark living room where she spends many hours sitting alone. So far, Yong has bought some pastel rugs to cover the brown carpet. On her tables and bookshelves, where she once displayed only pictures of her dead husband and son, there are now pictures of the living.

There are photographs of her sister and her family on the small table next to Yong's recliner. A University of Maine graduation photograph of her nephew Jea also rests on her table.

Despite these positive changes in her life, Yong knows it may take a long time to let go of her anger and grief.

To help ease the hurt, Yong has joined the Parents of Murdered Children, a national support group with chapters throughout the country.

Each month, she and other Maine parents who have lost their children to violence talk about their anguish and the open wounds that will never heal.

These mothers and fathers know there will never be closure. Though the killers who stole their children's lives may be convicted and locked up, they, like Yong, will carry scars on their hearts forever.

Other parents in the group tell Yong she must gather strength in knowing that she did all a mother could do to avenge her son's murder and rescue his stolen soul.

Yong reluctantly agrees with them. She takes comfort in this, and in simple pleasures like the purple crocuses that bloom outside her home.

She finds herself stopping to admire the flowers in the early morning light. Sometimes, she caresses their fragile petals and summons the memory of her son kneeling in the patch of dirt, carefully planting the crocuses for his mother.

She sees his innocent boyish face, his blond curly hair and his big grin, and she whispers to him: ''The flowers are beautiful, Junior. They mean the world to me.''

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Barbara A. Walsh

  • Barbara A. Walsh is a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter working on special projects for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram. Walsh was one of two principal reporters at the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, who worked on a yearlong series about Willie Horton Jr., a convicted killer and furlough escapee whose crimes drew attention to the flawed Massachusetts prison system. The series won a 1988 Pulitzer Prize.

David A. Rodgers

  • Rodgers has been a photographer at The Portland Newspapers since 1988. He previously worked for the Rocky Mountain News and the Boston Globe. Rodgers won third place in the National Press Photographers' Association's international pictures of the year contest this year for his work on the newspapers' Island Odyssey series, which ran in the summer of 1996. Rodgers also has won numerous regional and state photography awards.

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