Black soot covers the two-story house like a dark shadow. The roof has collapsed, and a bright red sign proclaims the home has been condemned.
Until a few weeks ago, when the riots roiled Baltimore, this house at Hilton Street and Piedmont Avenue was home for Laporsha Lawson and her severely disabled son, Khai’Lee Sampson.
The liquor store adjacent to Lawson’s home started burning about 1 a.m. on April 28. Lawson awoke, raced up the stairs to grab Khai’Lee and rushed him to her parents’ home about a block away, moments before flames engulfed the house.
“They took everything from my child,” said Lawson, 28.
The wheelchair customized for Khai’Lee’s small body, the back brace that helps him sit upright, the machine that pumps oxygen into his lungs when he stops breathing at night — all were destroyed. So were the supplies for his feeding tube, his clothes, even his new swing.
As Lawson cradled the 7-year-old on her parents’ sofa recently, she said she felt betrayed by her neighborhood.
While she understands the rioters’ anger at the death of Freddie Gray, the 25-year-old who suffered a spinal injury in police custody, she can’t understand why people would destroy their own community.
“Everybody wants justice for Freddie Gray,” said Lawson. “But what about justice for Khai’Lee?”
Lawson, who goes by Porsha, and her parents, Jerome and Gloria Dukes, believe arsonists were attempting to destroy the liquor store adjacent to Lawson’s home in the Hanlon-Longwood neighborhood, about a mile west of Mondawmin Mall.
Fire officials say they are still investigating the cause of the fire, one of 61 that blazed April 27 and 28, according to city Fire Department spokesman Samuel Johnson Jr.
The liquor store was wiped out in the fire; workers demolished its charred remains a few days later.
Lawson and Khai’Lee have been staying with her parents since the fire. It’s a tight squeeze, as her grandfather and eldest nephew are also staying in the house. Piles of clothes and diapers that have been donated to Lawson and her son are stacked around the living room.
On a recent afternoon, Khai’Lee reclined on the sofa. His legs, delicate as a bird’s, were bent at a sharp angle. His big brown eyes darted back and forth, framed by long lashes.
“He looks flushed,” murmured his grandmother, angling the fan to blow on his face. His grandfather wiped drool away from the corner of the boy’s mouth.
Gloria Dukes said she’ll never forget the sight of Lawson, her youngest child, standing at the door with the boy cradled in her arms. She could see the flames in the distance behind them.
“I couldn’t do nothing but hold her,” she recalled. “I told her it was a test — ‘God is testing you to see how strong you’re going to be.'”
Lawson said she is just grateful her son survived.
Her longtime friend and neighbor, Ashley Diaz, 28, saw smoke rising from the liquor store and pounded on Lawson’s door.
“I almost ripped the screen door off,” Diaz said.
Diaz’s quick action allowed Lawson to get Khai’Lee out before the smoke reached their house. Exposure could have devastated the boy’s delicate lungs.
“I wouldn’t have had enough strength to walk around this earth without my baby,” said Lawson.
The fire marked the second time that Lawson nearly lost Khai’Lee.
He was a bright, precocious baby and toddler, who loved to share snacks with the family’s Labrador retriever, Lady. He could talk at 11 months, and learned to walk and run soon afterward. Family photos show a chubby, bright-eyed boy snuggling with his mother and playing with cousins.
But Khai’Lee had a serious health problem. He was diagnosed with asthma as a newborn, and often had to be hospitalized after an attack. About 1 in 5 Baltimore children suffer from asthma, more than twice the national average. A recent study from the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center shows that asthma is more likely to strike poor and African-American children.
When Khai’Lee was 18 months old, an attack caused him to stop breathing. A friend of Lawson’s, who was watching the boy, called 911, but, when an ambulance did not immediately arrive, drove him to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
Lawson was at the city’s Juvenile Justice Center in East Baltimore trying to help a young relative who had been locked up. When she got the call that Khai’Lee had stopped breathing, she dropped her phone and ran the 10 blocks to the hospital.
“I looked up and said, ‘Lord, please let my son be all right,'” she said.
Meanwhile, doctors were trying to resuscitate Khai’Lee. He had not been breathing for 45 minutes, Lawson said. Just as the doctors were about to give up hope, Khai’Lee came back to life.
However, he developed cerebral palsy from being deprived of oxygen. He was no longer able to move his arms or legs. He lost the ability to speak.
Lawson says doctors have warned the family several times that it was time to plan the boy’s funeral.
Khai’Lee made it through each time. And, despite the dire predictions, he began to open his eyes and smile. Sometimes, his family hears him saying, “Maaaaa” or “Yeahhhh” in low tones.
The family tries to expose Khai’Lee to all the joys of childhood. Gloria Dukes customized a dinosaur costume to fit over his back brace last Halloween. Jerome Dukes walks him around the zoo and amusement parks.
Lawson has put her life on hold for him. She quit her job in retail after his nearly fatal asthma attack because she did not want to leave his side, she said. She’s had a few job interviews in recent years, but she thinks she scares away employers by telling them her son is her first priority. She rarely goes out at night, because the boy grows anxious without her, even with his grandparents doting on him.
“I didn’t know I’d have to give everything up” to become a mother, Lawson said. “But it was so worth it.”
Lawson tears up when she talks about how grateful she is for her parents’ support. Her parents say it’s a blessing to be able to help their daughter and grandson.
“When it comes to my family, if they don’t have anyone else to lean on, they always have me,” said Jerome Dukes.
Lawson also appreciates the support of Khai’Lee’s school, William S. Baer, a public school for children with significant medical problems or disabilities. He got to play the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a Black History Month assembly and took home a medal from a Special Olympics activity at school.
Lawson said her son has appeared out of sorts since the fire. He seems to miss his high-backed swing. He loved to sit on the porch on the swing, listening to children playing.
She covered Khai’Lee’s cheeks in noisy kisses, trying to coax a smile from him. The boy’s eyes brightened briefly.
Lawson hopes to move into another rental home shortly. Because of Khai’Lee’s medical needs, it must have air conditioning and can’t have carpeting, which traps allergens.
She wishes she could sneak back into the old house and see if, by some miracle, anything is salvageable. She lost mementos belonging to her oldest brother, who died of a blood clot three years ago, as well as Khai’Lee’s baby book.
She keenly misses the little rocking chair that Khai’Lee loved to play with before he was paralyzed.
“That’s the one thing I really want to get,” said Lawson. “That’s real sentimental.”
Lawson says she did not have rental insurance. The Baer School, the Bea Gaddy Family Center and others have brought so many donations that Lawson rented a storage unit to hold them. Khai’Lee’s father, whom Lawson split up with years ago, has pitched in to help, as have many relatives and neighbors.
An online fundraiser has brought in more than $21,000 for the family, but Lawson said it will cost far more to replace the medical equipment. Some of it will be covered by insurance, Lawson said.
It’s been especially hard to move Khai’Lee without a wheelchair, the family said. Neither grandparent is able to lift the 40-pound boy.
“It’s hard to carry him,” said Lawson, resting her cheek on the boy’s head. “But I’m his mom. This is what I do.”
This article originally ran in The Baltimore Sun on May 18, 2015.