A note to readers: Normally, this blog is about my travels from newspaper to online journalism. Today's blog is a little more personal.
Sometimes things happen in life that change you forever. And you can never go back.
Today, the state of Florida executed a man it released early from prison in 1991. He was a convicted sex offender who had raped several boys along Florida's Space Coast. On April 18 of that same year, he kidnapped and raped his last victim -- 11-year-old Junny Omar Rios-Martinez. Then he killed the boy.
At the time, I was a police reporter covering the beat. And I knew that night when I went to talk to his parents for the story, something in my gut told me, this child was never coming home.
I never met Junny. At least not when he was alive.
But I got to know him, a little bit I would like to think, by talking to his family over the next 17 years. I spotted him in the quiet intelligence of the younger brother he left behind. Or the impish bravado of his tough-girl little sister. I found him in the laughter his older sisters shared like a secret language no one else knew.
But mostly, I found him in his parents struggle to keep their family from falling apart after the unimaginable became their reality -- the unspeakable their truth. These days, couples fall apart for something the courts call irreconcilable differences. But for Vicki and Junny Sr. that never happened.
Instead, over time, their loss became a gain of sorts, a harsh recognition that sometimes life is shorter than we think, that the tiny moments of the every day are the ones that really count the most in the end. And in that recognition, they found a strength that perhaps they didn't even know they had.
Over the years, Mark Dean Schwab has fought against his death sentence. On November 17, 2007, days after his execution was delayed again, I saw the Rios-Martinez family at a celebration to honor their son. It was held in a park that bears his name just a few blocks from the home where his parents still live. "This day is all about Junny," Vicki said, before she and her now grown children and her grandchildren released doves in his memory.
Some years ago, I wrote a column about courage that ran in the newspaper where I once worked. I wrote about Vicki and Junny Sr. and said that courage was "waking up every morning knowing that your son is dead and getting out of bed anyway."
Today, I know I was wrong.
Courage is more than that, really. It is in the deciding that, despite what has happened, you will do more than merely survive. You will choose to live -- and to love anyway.
Vicki and Junny Rios-Martinez did just that. And no one, not even Mark Dean Schwab, can ever take that away.
In memory of Junny Rios-Martinez: 5/16/79--4/18/91