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Three years old, with baby fat still puffing out his cheeks, the boy in the video grins up at the dreadlocked woman towering over him and asking his name. "Chis-ching!" he blurts.
"That my ba-aaaaby!" cries Theda Thomas, sliding toward the edge of her seat.
On this winter evening, Thomas, a substitute teacher for the St. Louis Public Schools, is reliving scenes from the mid-1990s, when she was the young mother of two toddler sons. To accomplish this feat, she has hooked up a five-inch television to an old VCR on the dining-room table in her childhood home. "Look at his beautiful face," she says softly. "I want to kiss him."
View clips of Thomas' home video at dailyrft.com
An attractive woman with dainty, ash-colored freckles, Thomas wears her hair short now, in tightly twisted tresses that she covers with colorful scarves. After two failed marriages, she's back living with her parents in north St. Louis — not the domestic arrangement she expected at age 36.
Though her possessions are scattered between half-packed boxes and the trunk of her car, the short stack of home movies has accompanied Thomas' every move. It's the first time she has pulled this one out in maybe a year, though. Inching forward for a better view of the tiny screen, Thomas falls silent, watching, as her boys, Christian and his younger brother Connor, explore the living room of the south-city apartment they inhabited back in 1996. Boys being boys, they clamber up and down the stairs, goof around in a basketful of laundry, and sing the ABCs with their mother while their father holds the camera and sunlight peeps through the curtains. About ten minutes into the clip, Christian puts on his dad's shoes and tries to take a few steps. Thomas leans back and bursts out laughing.
"See, this means a lot to me. Remembering all we did trying to keep him alive, and how they were saying he wouldn't make it —
"— A lot of people know about what happened to Christian, but some people never knew he could walk and talk, how he loved to sing, how he prayed all the time," Thomas says. "That little boy — he blessed the trees. He blessed everything."
Christian had come into the world out of wedlock and with a rare, life-threatening illness. He survived a coma on his third day of life and, thanks to a meticulous regimen of medications that kept his malady at bay, grew into a chatty first-grader who could read and write. But when Christian was seven, in the midst of a brutal custody battle waged by his parents, he fell into a month-long coma, from which he emerged with severe brain damage that left him unable even to utter his own name.
For the next two years, his parents continued to go at one another in family court, in a drama that featured appearances by police officers and judges, lawyers and physicians, as well as social workers at several city and state agencies.
But none of that is what Theda Thomas refers to when she speaks of "what happened to Christian."
The baby arrived on October 9, 1993: a seven-pound, nine-ounce, seemingly healthy boy. The newborn fell into a coma two days later, before he even had a name.
"It was 5 a.m. on the day I was to be discharged," Theda Thomas recounts. "They flew him in a helicopter from St. Mary's [Health Center] to Cardinal Glennon [Children's Medical Center]. He was so sick they thought that he would die, but at first they could not explain it."
Within 24 hours doctors gave Theda and Dawan Ferguson, the baby's father, the diagnosis: citrullinemia, a genetic disorder that can cause toxic levels of ammonia to accumulate in the bloodstream, potentially leading to coma, brain damage and death.
Thomas says her immediate thought was that God was punishing her for having a child out of wedlock. "I started feeling guilty right away," she says. "Being raised Catholic, I thought: Maybe this is because I fornicated. He's punishing me with this sickness. He knows we didn't do things by the book."
Theda and Dawan had met in high school in the late 1980s. She played volleyball and was a prom queen; he played soccer and performed in school plays.
"He was quiet, and he was different," Thomas recalls. "A black boy playing soccer? I liked that!"
Their families were different, too. Theda was one of four children in a close-knit family. Dawan, an only child, was born to a single mother who was fifteen at the time; as a kid he bounced between his grandparents' homes. In 1989 Dawan's mother, Dawana Ferguson, met and fell in love with John Steffen, who years later would rise to prominence as a downtown booster, real estate developer and the owner of Pyramid Construction Inc. The year Ferguson and Steffen met and married was the same year Dawan and Theda became high school sweethearts.
Recalls Thomas: "We used to go on double dates. We had a lot of fun."
Just as the Steffens got started on a family four years later, so did Theda and Dawan. She was twenty and a student at Harris-Stowe State College when she became pregnant in 1993. He was nineteen and working odd jobs.