Tuesday, January 14, 1997
The short, valuable life
of one child


BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Richmond
Matthew Richmond
The news is not good, but then we probably all knew it wouldn't be. He was so grievously hurt. Burns of the most serious kind covered his body.

Matthew Brent Richmond, 12, died at 9:22 a.m. Monday.

I suppose somebody has packed up the balloons and posters and cards and notes sent to his hospital room. A Cub Scout troop wrote letters. So did some other kids and lots of adults. Strangers mostly.

A radio station played his favorite song, ''Midnight Cinderella'' by Garth Brooks. People called the hospital every day to ask how he was doing.

You have to suspect this was the most attention he ever got in his life. I wonder if he knew how much we were prepared to love him if we got another chance.

A woman who visited the boy at Cincinnati Burns Institute of the Shriners Hospital for Children told me that he was ''pretty out of it.'' A nurse there says they keep badly burned patients ''as comfortable as possible.''

I would guess that means as many drugs as they can handle.

Everybody is being careful about what they say.

His mother's live-in boyfriend, Richard Joseph Klein, has been indicted by a grand jury on one count of felonious assault and three charges of child endangering. His mother, Sharon Richmond, is charged with one count of child endangering.

Now, more serious charges no doubt will be filed. Probably today.

Shameless questions

The boyfriend says he was bathing Matthew and burned him by accident. The mother defended Mr. Klein at a bond hearing. These two waited more than 13 hours to get help for Matthew.

I have talked to as many people as I could find who knew this boy, shamelessly pumping them for information. It was, I promise you, out of respect for this child's life. I wanted him to be more than a ''developmentally disabled 12-year-old boy.''

Everybody wanted to tell me things that sound like what we all say about every other victim. He was nice. He smiled a lot. That's almost worse than the developmental tag. I wanted real stuff. They must have thought I was a little nuts.

But I now know that Matt loved Grippo barbecue chips and Mountain Dew and listening to the Reds on the radio. He liked making cookies. ''He made kind of a mess with the egg, but it was worth it,'' a family friend says. ''And don't you give people the idea that he was mute, that he couldn't talk.''

What did he say? ''Mama.''

He liked Matchbox cars and made the requisite ''vroom vroom'' noises when he crashed them together.

''He was hyper and happy,'' another woman said. ''I wish I had his energy.'' When you say that about a child, you usually mean you wish they'd meditate a little more.

Taking sides

Another woman, who helped Sharon Richmond when Matthew was a baby, said she used to talk to him, forcing him to be still. ''I wrapped my legs around him to keep him focused.'' She has sympathy for Sharon Richmond. ''There are two sides,'' she says, ''to every story.''

Someone close to his bedside this week said, ''What a fighter. I can't believe he held on so long.'' He struggled to live for 12 days.

Life must have been very precious to Matthew. Either that or he was just used to struggling. Everything he ever did was harder for him than for most kids. Walking. Talking. He was not a cardboard figure of a child. He was real, probably a handful at times.

What a dark story this is, except for the rather fine feelings Matthew Richmond roused in us. I wonder if they're real. And lasting. Will we remember his face when sides are to be taken? Will he remind us that we must take the child's side? Every time.

And that every single one of them should be treated as though there is no second chance.

NEWS STORY

Laura Pulfer's column appears in The Enquirer on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio, and as a regular commentator on NPR's Morning Edition.