Chicago Tribune

'LIFE IS ULTIMATELY FRAGILE'

Amid a swirl of emotions, Naperville father soothes mourners

By Peter Kendall
and Flynn McRoberts

Tribune Staff Writers
March 12, 1999




With a calming smile meant to reassure an entire community, David Lemak walked past three small caskets to the pulpit of a church Thursday and in a steady voice that broke just once, eulogized his children.

Borne on gurneys, the three white and gold caskets were arranged in order of age, like children lined up in a family portrait.

Reading from 10 handwritten pages, Lemak first remembered his eldest son, 7-year-old Nicholas, a boy always swept up in learning.

"The intensity of his focus was sometimes intensely exasperating," Lemak said, smiling again.

His 6-year-old daughter, Emily, was a buzz of creativity.

"She amazed me with the richness and complexity of the products of that imagination, even if the creation eventually became yet another mess to clean up."

Three-year-old Thomas was simply born happy.

"His ability to enjoy life meant never having a day that he did not smile," said Lemak, 41. "What he was smiling about sometimes eluded me, and I suspect that it was occasionally at my expense."

Mourners laughed softly.

The father's message to those grieving with him was simple: "Life is a gift."

"It is wondrous, beautiful, terrifying, joyful, painful and ultimately fragile," he added. "The length of our lives is truly irrelevant; it's what we do with our gift of life that describes who we are."

Emotion tripped him just once, early on, putting a quiver in his voice: "I was honored to be their father. I also understand they were not mine to possess."

Though it was his children who had been lost, Lemak, an emergency-room physician, sought to soothe and comfort a community torn by an act allegedly committed by one of its own, a nurse and mother who taught toddlers at Sunday school.

Lemak's estranged wife, Marilyn, charged with methodically drugging and suffocating her children March 4, was in DuPage County Jail under suicide watch on the day her children were buried beneath a towering elm, leafless in winter.

At Sts. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Naperville, the children's aunts, uncles and grandparents from David's and Marilyn's families sat shoulder to shoulder on the oak pews, dabbing at tears. Some looked down at their hands; some gazed up into the stained glass windows, their wet eyes reflecting colors.

And David Lemak, who said he had the courage and strength to stand before the packed church only because of the love and support he has felt in recent days, tried, in turn, to help make sense of simultaneous feelings of anger and love.

"The joy and wonder I was fortunate to have seen in my children is proof enough for me of how exquisite is the gift we have to experience life," he said.

"Does that mean we cannot now be angry, sad, frightened or just numb? No.

"Does this mean we should not feel our pain, hatred or confusion? No.

"We experience all of these emotions and many more in this, our greatest gift. But my children showed me that choosing to live with love makes the gift of life most precious."

He folded his pages and returned to his pew.

The mass began shortly after 9:30 a.m. after three matching silver hearses pulled up to the church and the 15 pallbearers gave one last tug on their white gloves before lifting the caskets -- Nicholas', the eldest, first, followed by Emily's and Thomas'.

As the choir sang the sad strains of "Amazing Grace," each casket came down the center aisle and was met by a priest, who blessed it with holy water.

Rev. Mary Hnottavnge, the Lemaks' pastor at the DuPage Unitarian Church of Naperville, assured the family that "After this deadly frost . . . will come a spring of flowers in the soul."

At first, she alluded to Marilyn and the crime.

"We are on unfamiliar ground here," Hnottavnge said. "We cannot imagine the reason for the deaths of these beautiful, beautiful children.

"It offends our sense of justice; it confounds our sense of reason."

Then she spoke of the children's mother directly, but not judgmentally. On Sunday, Hnottavnge said, she had asked her congregation to think of the children, of David and of Marilyn, a teacher in the Sunday school.

The pastor remembered each child, too, during a service drawing from the likes of the German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel to poets Emily Dickinson and Adrienne Rich.

Nicholas, she said, was "a leader who cut a wide swath." He adored other children, especially little ones, but also had a budding curiosity about things "with a touch of danger," such as tornadoes and earthquakes.

"Emily: a very petite little girl . . . a girl's girl, only wanting to wear dresses. Very delicate."

And Thomas, sturdy and athletic, "who, though only 3, could throw a ball quite accurately."

The pastor, joined by Rev. John Sebahar, who married David and Marilyn in 1985, recalled how over the past week she had seen "flashes of anger, of rage."

But she also had watched "people fall into each other's arms for comfort."

"Such courage have these families shown to do the things that must be done," she said.

In addition to the Lemak family and their friends, those who attended the service included Naperville's mayor, representatives of the city's Police and Fire Departments, businessmen and businesswomen and folks from all walks of life. Some were parishioners. Others were just drawn to the service.

Bill Durst came to pay his respects after remembering David Lemak and the children visiting his downtown Naperville chocolate shop.

Among the tides of happy children that have washed in and out of the business over the years, Durst said, the Lemak kids stuck in his mind for their bright eyes.

He said he lost his composure for a moment Wednesday night when, attending the visitation, David Lemak recognized him.

"I felt especially honored to have him acknowledge the fact that he had been to my store with those children," said Durst, obviously touched by the memory. "I didn't know what to say."

Another Naperville resident, Dick Eesley, paused for a moment outside the church as the service was going on inside.

"All you can do is try to share in some remote way in their grief," Eesley said. "Especially the father. It's unbelievable what he must be going through."

As the service concluded, the caskets were carried from the church to the strains of "On Eagles' Wings."

And he will raise you up on eagle's wings

Bear you on the breath of dawn

Make you shine like the sun

And hold you in the palm of his hand.

Outside, the three hearses waited, blocking the street with their big rear doors open to take in the caskets.

With a police motorcycle escort, the procession made its way out of the city's historic district and rolled the nine blocks to Naperville Cemetery. People stopped on the street, their heads moving back and forth three times as their eyes followed each hearse as it passed.

At the cemetery, the mourners huddled beneath maroon awnings. They stood in the shadows on a day as bright as sunlight on snow, for as long as it took to bury the children.

"My love for them sustains me," their father had said back at the church. "Even though I know I will never see, hear or touch them again."

Tribune staff writers John Chase, Eric Ferkenhoff, Jeff Coen and Michael Ko contributed to this report.


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