On Tuesday night, four days after we got the news of Cedric Henry’s senseless death, I mustered all my courage and made my way, with victim advocate Desiree Ritter Lambertis, up the narrow, car-lined, twisting roads of a St. Thomas neighborhood I had never visited.
This is a neighborhood few of the privileged like me ever have an opportunity to tour.
Desiree only got lost once. Thank God we didn’t have to back down those treacherous winding cement lanes, little-more-than-paths full of hairpin turns. We turned around and went back to where we had started and began again. This time we went straight at the dead tree in the middle of the road and started climbing again.
Before long I saw Cedric’s white truck – his New Generation Appliance Repair logo on the back.
Desiree is a consummate professional in the hardest job in the islands. She had engaged Cedric’s stepdaughter before we arrived to get a feel for how his wife was doing before we made our trip to see her and Cedric’s two boys.
As we stood at the top of the steps of the recently painted pale yellow multiple family apartment building, Desiree called J’dika to say we had arrived. A moment later J’dika emerged from a doorway on to the porch hanging above the crowded neighborhood below and called for us to come down. We entered the two-bedroom apartment that Cedric and his family called home. Two women who identified themselves as his wife’s sisters were there and another woman sat on the couch.
Cedric’s wife was in the shower, we were told.
After speaking with the sisters for a couple of minutes, I made my way across the small living area a few steps away from the kitchen and dining room to the slender older boy that I already knew was Cedric’s 11-year-old son. Sitting in just his shorts on a stool in front of the television watching a video of some sort, he turned and smiled at me. The braces on his teeth in no way detracted from his remarkable smile.
“Hi, my name is Shaun. Your father was a friend of mine,” I told him holding back, you know, great grief. “What is your name?” He answered me, but I had to ask him how to spell it. N-A-A-K-H-A-I, he patiently told me.
“May I hug you?” Again that unbelievable smile – unbelievable for the fact that he just lost his father. He hopped down from the stool without a word and put his arms around me as I put mine around him. We hugged, for a long time. Naakhai knows how to hug. Really hug. He never indicated any need to let go.
I was there because I had made arrangements that day to raise money, to set up trust fund for Naakhai and Kdhan, Cedric’s 5-year-old, and I did not want to do it without first telling Cedric’s widow, Verdan Tonge Henry, what I was planning.
Verdan had emerged, fresh from the shower and was sitting at the high dining table by the time I finally let go of Naakhai and turned back toward the kitchen-dining area. I was surprised by how tiny she is, but not by how beautiful. Quiet, but not crying, she listened as I told her why I was there. Her eyes, along with the eyes of her sisters and daughter shimmered as I conveyed my condolences from the community. I told them all the stories that the people of St. Thomas have told me, or I had heard, over the last four days since she lost her husband and partner of the last 13 years. So many of the stories were about things Cedric had done for people way beyond what anyone would expect from the average “repair man.”
A man on a radio show this week told how he had bought a refrigerator – brand new – and it didn’t work. But he couldn’t find the receipt. Cedric told him, “just buy the parts and I will fix it.” Many, many, many stories like that. As I told my stories, Verdan’s sisters exchanged funny stories that Cedric would tell them, one about trying to explain he didn’t fix televisions to someone who figured since Cedric was so good at other things, televisions should be easy. Another about a woman who got mad when he told her over and over he could not fix her iron and that for $15 – far less than his charges – she could get a new one. Cedric was funny.
I also was able to tell Verdan what Cedric had told me about being torn between his work and making a nest egg for them and suffering because he had to make the choice between building a life for them or being with them way too many days.
Kdhan has not talked or eaten much since he learned his father died. I asked if I could meet him. Verdan smiled slightly and nodded, “yes.” Parting a curtain, she took me into a bedroom where another strikingly beautiful young boy was lying on a bed so big it made him seem even more vulnerable. I asked him if I could sit down. He nodded his agreement. I told Kdhan that I was a friend of his father and how much Cedric loved him. And how much I loved Cedric. “May I kiss you,” I asked. Very slight smile mostly in his eyes, “Please,” he said.
I kissed him on the forehead and told him again that I loved him, and that his daddy loved him, and that God loves him. I wanted to stay and hold him forever and somehow magically lift from that tiny body all his pain and confusion.
Who am I to even be there? I don’t know their life. I only knew the man they lost. But like everyone else who knew Cedric, I want to help.
As I was getting ready to leave the family to its grief, I suddenly realized that J’dika – though not his biological child, had also lost Cedric. I offered my inadequate condolences. “He’s been my father,” she said, “since I was eight years old. The only father I have ever known. And he was a real father to me.”
Tomorrow we will be providing information on what all those people in the community and elsewhere who keep asking what they can do to help.
Editor’s Note: Shaun Pennington has established the Cedric Henry Fund for Hope in Henry’s name.
The initial goal is to raise $1 million by the end of the first quarter of 2020. That’s 1,000 people giving $1,000. I know that is possible, but many can give more. And many can give less. Most everyone can give something.
The funds collected will remain in an escrow account at the St. Thomas Reformed Church until they are placed in trust to be managed by a local financial planning organization to be named shortly.
The first $500,000 will be placed in a trust specifically for the maintenance, education and welfare of Naakhai and Khdan Henry to be administrated by a trustee with the help of their mother. After they have received whatever secondary education they choose, or opened a business or put a down payment on a home, the remaining funds along with the next $500,000 will roll over into a foundation to be established with a board determining the grants to be given to other young people in the territory who have lost a parent either by death or long-term imprisonment due to gun violence. The foundation board of directors will be chosen to administer the granting of funds to be available by application and a set of criteria to be determined. Proceeds from the long-term, slow growth investment of everything over the first $500,000 donated can be used only for secondary education, vocational or otherwise, or to start a business or put a down payment on a home.