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Fathers and forgiveness 

How a devastating accident tested the depths of one family's love

Raphael Hameed was about to turn 11 years old, but on this day all he could think about was his dad, who lay unconscious in the bedroom.

Ishaq (pronounced "ISS-hawk") was a single parent, raising Raphael in Chicago, but more than that the pair were partners. When he wasn't offering spiritual readings — like in the West African tradition, reading bones or coconut shells to divine, say, whether a neighbor would get an STD from a new girlfriend — Ishaq was a stage performer, calling himself "A Modern Mystic." He blew fire, or stood in a tray of burning coals, or lay on a bed of nails while someone broke a cinder block on his chest with a sledgehammer.

Raphael played the congas and the bongos in the background. Sometimes, Ishaq would take those long, sharp hat pins with the little teardrop shape on the end and stab them through his body. It was Raphael's job to pull them out. There was never any blood.

Born Lavern Grier, Ishaq picked up his Muslim name after converting to Islam in prison, while serving time for heroin possession. Chicago heroin in the 1970s was greedy and mean, and nobody got off easy, especially African-Americans. "It is evident to every aware resident of the South and West Sides that we also are in trouble," Chicago Tribune columnist Vernon Jarrett wrote of the heroin menace on Aug. 2, 1972. "Not a single black family — regardless of status or neighborhood — is safe."

Ultimately, Ishaq's wife, Gloria Baker, a registered nurse who moonlighted as a nightclub jazz singer, moved on after the couple's divorce, leaving Raphael and Ishaq to make it, or not, together.

But he wasn't making it today, so Raphael came into the room and pressed a cold rag over his dad's forehead. He held his hand and looked at him and never looked away. When Ishaq woke up, he told Raphael that he had overdosed on heroin, but was able to watch his son from above the whole time. He saw his little boy reach up and grab his hand and pull him down, he said, and he awoke.

"That was your spirit," Ishaq told his son, "and you're a very powerful, spiritual person."

A year later, Ishaq overdosed again. Raphael found him, after waking in the night. But this time, his father's body was ice cold, and the addiction, picked up serving as a cook for the U.S. Army in the Korean War, won.

Ishaq Hameed died on Dec. 13, 1973.

So Raphael went to live with his aunt in Ohio. He attended W.H. Kirk Junior High School in East Cleveland, a suburb of 18,000 that Google today tries to complete a search for with "ghetto," "dangerous" and "crime." The school's since been demolished, but at the time it backed up to Forest Hill Park, once part of the 700-acre estate of John D. Rockefeller. The other kids used to say the lake had been Rockefeller's swimming pool.

Faced with the streets, college or the military, Hameed joined the Navy in 1981, serving a year as an antisubmarine warfare technician in Norfolk, he recounts, before getting kicked out for too many infractions. He talks about that time lightly, even though this was Virginia and some of his difficulties might have been shaped by racism.

"I don't trip on it," says Hameed, who is black. "But in retrospect, I should've fought it. And I had an attitude at the time. I'm like, 'This is getting on my nerves. Every time I turn around, I'm getting written up for something.'" He says he had a hot temper, and "could cuss you out quick."

After that, he went back to Cleveland to work. However, the scenery was always changing. He ended up in Santa Monica, California, at Samoshel, a semi-permanent homeless shelter known as "the big white tent." It was built by the Salvation Army in 1994, crammed onto a frontage road next to Interstate 10, its transient environment reinforced by lane after lane of passing cars.

That's where he met Heidi Ollinger, in the mid-2000s. She was 10 years younger than him, and deep into Christianity. A spiritual seeker from a broken home in the Midwest, she had a past, with two children of her own who were now the responsibility of social services. She had driven from her sister's place in Washington state with a full tank of gas and about $500, and both had run out.

She left the shelter after three days to live in her car. Hameed found her close by. He brought her fruit from the shelter's kitchen. They sat in her car and talked for hours, just two lost souls swimming in a fish bowl. They talked about the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Gospel of Thomas, and the Book of Enoch. All are religious works similar to, but not included in, the Bible. All outsiders.

The two married each other a year later, living in shelters and rooms in different places at different times. It was while living in downtown Los Angeles, near Eighth Street and Main, that a very different future began its course.

Unto them, a child was born.

They named him Ishaq.

As he grew, "Ish" became the center of a jumbled world. He learned quickly, and Raphael was his teacher, finding space for lessons in parking lots and fields, or just watching Bill Nye the Science Guy videos at home. Raphael stayed with him, teaching reading and writing and life. They spent every day together.

The couple suspects Ishaq was somewhere on the autism spectrum. He didn't say "Mom" until he was 3 years old, but the boy was a natural on the computer; knew the planets and what they were made of; could tell you which geometric shape was the dodecahedron; could count to 10 in Spanish, and knew the rainbow colors in order.

"Ish was on his way to being a mental giant," says Raphael. "He was on his way to being, like, a Big Bang Theory Sheldon."

Ever mobile, the family moved to Colorado Springs two years ago after reading an advertisement for a live-in caregiver on Craigslist. The arrangement dovetailed perfectly with their support for marijuana reform. (They love cannabis just a little less than they love God.) The job ultimately didn't work out, though, sending the threesome to The Salvation Army's downtown R.J. Montgomery Center.

That was fine with Ish.

"Once [Ishaq] got something in his head, he'd go over and over and over and over," says Heidi. "There was this fun little video with letters and words, and Ish loved it. He would watch it over and over and over, when we were at the R.J. Montgomery. I put that video in while I was cleaning, because he would sit there and just watch."

You can just imagine his dark brown eyes locked on the screen, a grin revealing little teeth next to little pink gaps, his unruly hair swinging around his wide, happy face.

Eventually, the family moved into the third floor of an apartment complex near Platte Avenue and Murray Boulevard. The aging playground nearby and its tall steel slide weren't great for a 4-year-old, so Ishaq instead bounced through the new place like Tigger, jumping on mattresses and tumbling around.

Soon after, Raphael was growing his plants on the balcony, teaching Ish about the relationship between water and cultivation. Ish was drawing big block letters in Heidi's address book. He even had his own Facebook page, to which, on June 11 of last year, Raphael posted a picture of the two of them and the message, "Daddy loves you, son. You are my life's blessing."

Heidi was starting a job as a telemarketer. This was family living, and it had found them at last.

The high temperature was 95 degrees the day before and 90 degrees the day after, but on this Tuesday last July, it was mild and a little wet. The sun dawned on a cloudy day, gray against all the dark green, and ended with a wispy sunset around 8 p.m.

A few hours before, Raphael and Ishaq had left for the Ruth Holley Library and the store, in that order. They did this all the time — two or three times a week, staying at the library up to two hours each time. You couldn't keep the kid out of the books, and Raphael could use the Internet there if Ish would leave him alone long enough. It had been longer than usual since the last visit, though, because they had checked out so many books. Now it was time to return them: one book about the solar system, and eight books about individual planets. (Venus was missing.)

They stopped at Walgreens for pizza and chips, and started home. The sun was waning but still bright. They were both in shorts, Ishaq wearing a black Iron Man T-shirt and Raphael in his favorite camouflage top. They were walking along Murray, almost within sight of home.

Suddenly, an older white BMW came speeding at them from the opposite direction, rounded the curve, over-corrected, and slammed into father and son at 50 miles per hour. The impact broke a landscape boulder in half. Raphael was thrown 41 feet, his right foot torn off, his shinbone obliterated. His pelvis suffered an open-book fracture, meaning his bladder was now outside his crushed bones. His right shoulder was broken. His femur was broken. Blood the color of cherry pulp pooled around his feet.

After a short while, he tried to get up, but two neighbors held him down by his shoulders. Somebody used a black belt as a tourniquet, tightening it just above his right knee.

"Where's my son?" Raphael asked. "Where's my son?"

Back on the sidewalk, the car's bumper hanging off over his body, lay a 5-year-old boy on his back. With his face turned to the right, his left arm sprawled out, and his eyes closed, he looked like every sleeping child. There was no blood on his Iron Man shirt, or evidence of external injury anywhere, but life left him anyway.

Ishaq Hameed died on July 8, 2014.

Heidi was at work when the accident happened, and had just returned home when police officials arrived.

"I took a shower, and I had literally just finished when there was a knock on the door," she says. "I was siting on the couch out in the living room. And I looked out the peephole, and I saw a couple of officers and some other people standing around. And I already knew something wrong had happened, just because I know [Raphael]. And I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt he would never go out there on purpose at 10 o'clock at night for any reason. Especially with me gone.

"First thing I asked: 'Where's my son? Where's my husband?' And he said, 'Your husband is Raphael Hameed?' And then I started getting that tickle behind my ear, that you get, you know, when you know something's coming that you don't want to hear, but you know it's gonna happen anyway.

"And so I said, 'Yeah, Raphael's my husband. Where's my son?' And he said, 'I do need to let you know that your son has been killed tonight.'

"And I completely wigged out. Started beating the floor with my foot, stomping it. I think I may have hit the officer, but I'm not 100 percent sure. He was very kind."

Raphael was taken to Memorial Hospital, drugged every which way as surgery after surgery attempted to make right what was so violently made wrong. His right leg was amputated midway down his shin, with pins and screws crisscrossing all over. X-rays of his shoulder show something like a rooftop TV antenna. An external cage helped hold his pelvis together.

Raphael remembers seeing hallucinations of Ishaq. "In the room, I saw my son in the sprinkler," he says. "You know the emergency sprinkler system? It was a sprinkler head. ... They'd see me and I'd have a slow smile. And I saw my son in space, standing on a platform with the stars at a distance, as if he was in an area that hadn't been developed yet."

Heidi quit her job. When she wasn't running home to tend the couple's marijuana plants or scouring nearby hospital waiting rooms for more tissues to cry into, she gave interview after interview to a media hungry for an emotional hook.

It wasn't until Raphael regained consciousness, on the seventh day, that his wife told him that Ish was dead.

He wailed.

"The pain of it — oh my god, I've never felt nothing like that before," he says. "That was the only child I've ever had, and that was a level of sadness ... I was afraid I wouldn't even ... There was a moment there I wanted to leave the hospital, and I had planned on, you know, finishing myself, to go to my son. I wanted to go to my son."

The BMW driver was another parent with a child: 22-year-old Xyrjah (pronounced "ZER-ah") Goldston, a Colorado Springs native born in her parents' bathtub one February. She had her own 5-year-old in the car, along with some friends she was dropping off.

Her airbags deployed late, meaning she hit the steering wheel and then the bags hit her, so her booking photo shows dark hair with highlights hanging over a large, red patch of cuts and scrapes across the right side of her face. Her lips are swollen and scabbed over in places, her eyes low and exhausted.

Police charged her with reckless/knowing child abuse resulting in death, vehicular homicide, vehicular assault, reckless driving, lane usage violation and failure to display proof of insurance.

Megiddëh ("meh-GEE-dah") Goldston, who also has a 5-year-old son, says her younger sister was devastated. "She's in the hospital, also extremely hurt, under arrest, ripped away from her child, who was in the car at the time, who she doesn't even know is completely OK or not yet — like, you couldn't even understand what she was trying to say. She was so upset, crying so, so, so, so hard ...

"When she finally got out of jail, we didn't see her again until a few days later, after she got her bail. I came down from Denver, came and got her, picked her up, sat with her, and it's like silence is really all that we could speak. Because we both knew that we don't know the end of this. We don't know how to make it better. We don't know what to say."

But then something happened.

It started with Heidi.

She talked to Xyrjah over the phone shortly afterward, hearing "I'm sorry" over and over. Then a camera crew asked if she could possibly forgive the woman who did this. And though she had started with harsh words on the day of the accident, Heidi said she did. She actually forgave Xyrjah for killing her son and crippling her husband, and said the young woman should forgive herself. Then Raphael woke up. And without knowing what his wife had already told the media, he said he forgave Xyrjah too.

This set people buzzing.

"I'm just amazed that people are blown away by a forgiving heart," Raphael says now. "This is technically a Christian nation, Christian in its foundation. And forgiveness is the quintessential foundation of being Christ-like ... It was clear as a bell: Forgive those that persecute you. Forgive those that brush you in the wrong way and step on your toes; knock books out your hand, forgive them. ... And since this happened, Channel This and That, like Channel 11, the guy who was introducing the story to come up after the commercials —"

"Don Ward," supplies Heidi.

"Yeah, Ward, he was saying, 'I don't know if I could be that forgiving.' I've heard a couple of the news people on TV say that, act as if it was such a strange thing. And I didn't know it would be. I didn't know it would be taken as such a rare thing. 'Wow, somebody forgives this person who killed his child and destroyed his body.' I got pins and hardware in the shoulder, and down my femur. [My leg] is missing. My pelvis, crushed. Car hit me at 50, 60 miles an hour, knocked me 40 feet.

"After all of that was said and done, there was nothing that could come out of my mouth but 'I forgive her.'"

It led to another blessed turn: the friendship of Megiddëh Goldston.

Goldston, 26, is strikingly pretty, with long, dark hair and tattoos on her back. She was married to an Ethiopian man, but divorced a few years back and moved in with a pair of brothers she knew from Wasson High School. The school had been a tough experience, where she says a basketball coach tried to rape her, causing her to stop playing the sport and dropping out of orchestra. She calls Xyrjah her "baby girl."

Medicaid was paying the Hameeds' medical bills, but everything else required help, so in stepped Megiddëh. She had been contacted by Raphael after she donated to the family's emergency GoFundMe account. (Of the roughly $6,500 raised by the public, $670 bears the name "Goldston.")

They eventually met — on camera, if you can imagine; you can watch the Oct. 18 video at tiny.cc/7dvnvx — and she started contacting local businesses to see if they would donate money.

This led to visits at their new, more expensive apartment — downstairs from their old one, because Raphael now used a wheelchair — and help with groceries and errands. And maybe most importantly, the chance for them to meet Megiddëh's son Zach.

"When I brought my son for the first time it was so heavy, because Zach's the same age that Ish was," she says. "And they look the same: Zach's mixed-race, Ish was mixed-race; the same height and everything. I felt bad.

"I [also] felt like it needed to happen. They kept talking about him, asking about him, seeing if he needed anything. And Zach knew about them. Zach prays for them all the time — like, every prayer that he says, he adds, 'and the Hameeds: Pray for them. Amen.' So when I brought him over, I could just see Raphael, his heart is just kind of heavy, like, crying. And they gave him a toy, and they're sitting there playing with my son, but it was also therapy for them, too, because you can't just be with a kid all the time and then, bam, never with the child again. You miss that relationship."

Megiddëh will just come over and hang out, or run to the store with Heidi, or Skype with Raphael from her job managing a retail mall kiosk in Denver. And if she can't come by to do something, she'll send a friend.

"I wasn't raised especially religious," she says, "but through time I've come to feel like I have a relationship with God. And when I think about what my idea of what God would want me to do, he would want me to keep my sister. Like, in the Bible they say, 'Oh, where's your brother at?' 'I don't know, I'm not my brother's keeper.' And, like, in reality, he killed his fucking brother. Those are stories we really do have to learn from.

"Right now, I feel like God is calling, 'Where's your sister?' I am my sister's keeper. I'll be there. I'll show up to this, and help to take care of them, and help to do whatever I can do to make things a little easier for them. If my sister could [emotionally], she would. If it was flipped around and she needed to do this for a friend, she would. If she needed to do this for me, she would. ... So if I can help her, and help this family at the same time, I can feel better when I lay my head down at night.

"This shit bothered me, like, for so long. Finding out that it happened — because it wasn't for two or three months that I actually got in touch with them, to where I was making an impact in their life ... I wanted Heidi to feel better as a grieving mother. Like, I wanted her to know that she wasn't alone. I wanted Raphael to know that he had a daughter in me, even though he lost his son; that whatever they need, I was gonna help to fill in that gap."

The Hameeds' living room is the hub around which their life revolves these days. Raphael's medical bed fills one corner, with a white couch and coffee table, and an entertainment center across the way. It's an effective setup, and offers room both for Raphael to maneuver his wheelchair around — he's six weeks into walking on a prosthesis and gaining strength — and Heidi to maintain her joyful addiction to TV shows such as CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Law & Order and, especially, Supernatural.

On top of the entertainment center, Ishaq's ashes rest watchfully, while his drawings and pictures fill a nearby wall. He's never, ever far away. Heidi will even go sit on the broken rock at the accident site and talk to him.

On March 6, Xyrjah Goldston pled guilty to vehicular homicide and vehicular assault. She's scheduled to be sentenced May 26, when her other charges will be dismissed, and is looking at something between probation and 18 years in prison. Raphael says he plans to ask for no jail time and 15 to 20 years parole and restitution for her, so she can stay with her son.

The relationship led to all three talking to StoryCorps, the traveling interview series broadcast on NPR and archived in the Library of Congress, on Jan. 2. It's a touching few minutes.

"Raphael, you could easily be still in that hospital bed, angry, like, screaming at the world," Megiddëh says.

"Nah, we love: That's how we roll," Raphael responds. "And your sister made a mistake. We all make 'em. That's why we try to embrace you guys ... You're a beautiful woman with a beautiful child. It's like if you've ever stitched anything together. There was a tear in the fabric, and we've been stitching it."

Looking back, Raphael says he was surprised no local churches ever asked the couple to come speak about their experiences. "Because we rockin' Christianity," he says. "We rockin' it. We ain't ashamed." Adds Heidi: "And they don't want to be outshone by parishioners or laypersons or, even worse, people that don't go to church on a regular basis."

It's part of the couple's indictment of how Christianity is often practiced.

"We were at this R.J. Montgomery Shelter," Raphael says. "Churches come on Sundays, pick people up. Every time they come they're overdressed, fur coats, tons of perfume — you could smell 'em when you're in the bed area. ... I'm into the reading, I'm into the studying, I'm into the understanding of what This Guy was all about. These guys are into the worldly aspect of flesh — the egos."

Xyrjah declined to talk specifically about much of the accident, but offered this via Facebook: "I'm hoping that others will learn from my mistake. Driving a car too fast, no insurance, is just not cool. I hope people see everything I'm going through and what this family has to go through all because I chose to drive too fast, and learn from it. Learn to drive the speed limits posted and be more aware of the risk of what can happen.

"As far as my future? I'm just blessed my child is still here with me ..."

Raphael was never sure before that, in this kind of situation, he would react like he did. He had been talking the talk, but the time to walk it came with brutal swiftness, and it was all lit up and on-camera and in court and at home. It was his conversion, his proof and his relief all at once.

Then there's the loss of his leg, and the breaking of his body. Outside of some casual recollections, he says he has no memory of the day, and for that he's thankful.

"When my mind came to [in the hospital], I was searching and searching and searching and I couldn't remember nothing," he says. "I'm like, 'Maybe that's a good thing.' Because, I believe, I'm not sure, I intuitively grounded myself in an attempt to shield [Ishaq]. He didn't shed one drop of blood. I look at that in the same light as Jesus went through what he went through, and not one bone was broken. And Ish went through what he went through, and he didn't shed one drop of blood ...

"And in retrospect, I find it to be, I mean, if my son had to die, yes, this was a fine price to pay. If I'da been unscathed, let's say just knocked off to the side and come to, I would've been even more devastated. The fact that I kind of paid my price for the loss of my child — that's the way I look at it.

"It makes things better in my head, because I see blessings. In all of it, I see blessings."

  • How a devastating accident tested the depths of one family's love

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