I do not know what compelled me to drive to Lighthouse Park the other day.
My editor, Kate Magandy, wanted a story on the angel statues that have mysteriously appeared in the park. I was casting about for a story after an interview fell through on a totally unrelated topic.
Angels were on my list. I knew Lighthouse Park. My granddaughter and I play there often. When we visit, she insists on climbing a bank beside the park’s boardwalk and patting one of those winged angels on the head.
So, one interview and I’d have this done. Only I got voicemail when I called the city employee most likely to have answers.
Something told me, “You need to drive over to the park.” Well, I had about five or six other things I probably needed to do, but I drove over to the park.
When I arrived, I saw a woman exercise-walking on the boardwalk. A second woman, dressed in pink, sat on a playground bench watching her two children enjoy the slides and roundabout.
I’ll just go talk to the woman in pink, I thought. Surely she has something to say about these angels.
We had talked less than a minute when she told me she had lost her baby, 23-month-old Ma’Leah Grace. Ma’Leah died violently, at the hands of her father, who was recently convicted of capital murder in the case and sentenced to life in prison.
Ma’Leah died almost four years ago, on August 27, 2013. There were lots of headlines. There was lots of publicity.
Rita had never told her story, but now it came spilling out. Right there on the park bench. I was astonished. This, I never expected.
Rita did not have custody of Ma’Leah when she died. The man who killed her did.
I needed to verify Rita’s story. I told her I wanted to get a copy of the custody order. My next stop was the Harrison County courthouse in Gulfport. I was unable to see on the court computer what was inside the file because it involved a child.
When I looked up from the computer, there stood Rita. She had come to get the order for me, and so she did. Yet another strange coincidence.
Next, I visited Rita’s apartment, where she showed me the medical reports documenting Ma’Leah’s fatal injuries.
Rita told me she longs to feel Ma’Leah’s presence, but she has not. Never in these long intervening years has her baby come to her in a dream.
I understood at least this part of how she felt. I hope I never understand what it is like to lose a child. But I did lose my mother, in 2004. I keep looking for her, in the clouds, in my dreams.
Maybe, Rita says, Ma’Leah is a guardian angel. Maybe she is watching over the family.
We want to believe this is so, both of us.
I called her when I had finished the story.
“It was nothing but God that placed us both in the park that day at that specific time,” she said.
I do know one thing for certain and true, because it has happened to me time and again. When a story’s time comes, it will be told. I’ve learned not to force stories before their time.
Rita had been waiting for someone to listen. She was unable to talk during the years she waited for a trial. She was subpoenaed but not called to testify in the case.
Maybe the angels decided it was time for Rita to have her say.