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Parents Prayers Answered By Gravestone For Little Keith

Akron Beacon Journal staff writer

By modern standards, it wasn’t much of a life. The average life expectancy for an American male is 74, Keith William Watson III died at 58 days.
What parents wouldn’t feel cheated? Yet the parents of Keith Watson feel blessed.
Two years after his death, they rave about their relationship with their son – even though it consisted mainly of gripping one of their fingers with his tiny hand. They trot out his baby pictures and smile – even though he spent his entire life on a respirator.
All the pictures taken after Keith turned 5 – days – show a gigantic seam down the front of his little body where the surgeons went in to try to repair his defective heart. The pictures show a fuzzy bunny with a green bow next to the plastic tubes.
“He had a great life,” said his father, Keith Watson II. What is going on here? Such is the power of faith.
The faith of this couple from Franklin Township in southern Summit County didn’t move mountains. But it did carve granite.
This is a story about a handful of people who came together by happenstance and soon interacted in a way that just might make your day. Keith Watson III was born with a rare condition known as HLHS, in which the left side of the heart is underdeveloped. About 80 percent of the time, it can be cured through a series of three operations. But Keith’s body could only stand one surgery and it surrendered on Sept. 1, 2000.

No money for marker
At the time, money was tight. It was so tight that the Watsons couldn’t afford to buy a marker for their son’s grave at Manchester Cemetery , just down the street from their house.
They started saving for one, but money got even tighter in May when Keith II was laid off by an Akron electronics company. That didn’t mean Keith III was forgotten. No even close. His mother, Christina, would stop by the cemetery several times a week to tend his unmarked grave. She would do some housekeeping and do some praying.
She’d pay for strength. She’d pray for her family. Sometimes, she’d pray that, someday, she and her husband would be able to give their child a suitable marker.
One weekday this summer was typical. Chris was pulling weeds around her son’s plot and watering a little flower. But on this particular day, a man named Ken Freeman was nearby, laying a foundation for a monument at another grave.
Out of the corner of his eye, Freeman watched in amazement as this unknown woman lavished care on an unmarked grave. The image was burned into his brain. And when he went home that night, he told his wife, Barbara, that he hoped something could be done.
Barbara Freeman knew exactly what to do. She works for Summit Memorials, an Akron company that makes gravestones. The next day, she asked the company’s owner, Ken Noon, whether he would donate a stone. He quickly agreed.
But first, they had to find out the woman’s identity. A fellow at the cemetery didn’t know, but he contacted the funeral home, and they put things together. Word was sent to the Watsons that a headstone was theirs for the asking.

Couple used to giving
The Watsons were thrilled, but a bit sheepish. After all, they weren’t accustomed to taking things from strangers. They were more accustomed to giving. Chris spent two years as a missionary in Japan. Armed with an education from Moody Bible Institute in Chicago, she went abroad to teach English and the Bible. Chris and Keith serve in the youth ministry at Calvary Bible Church. But this was literally an answer to their prayers.
When they arrived at Summit Memorial, they were expecting a little marker. Instead they were shown a large black-granite stone. They provided their son’s name and dates. When asked if there was anything else, they brought out a poem. When pushed more, they mentioned how their son used to grip their finger.
Chris Watson wanted to show them a photo of her son, so she pulled out a copy of a small program that was handed out at the memorial service. On the cover was a detailed drawing of a fuzzy bunny with a green bow, just like the one Keith had in the hospital. The bunny was sitting up with one paw raised, waving goodbye. A tear was falling from his left eye. That, too, was added to the stone.
Barbara Freeman plays down the company’s monetary sacrifice, saying an identical monument sold to someone off the street would cost less than $1000. But to the Watsons, the gesture felt exactly like a gift from above.
“They gave us the best of everything – their attention, their materials, their craft,” said Keith II.

Faith Endures
The Watsons said their faith never wavered during their son’s struggle. From the moment they heard about the potential problem, when she was 20 weeks pregnant, they knew things were out of their hands.
Right after an ultrasound detected the condition, said Keith, “we sat alone. We cried. And then we started to pray. We just realized that God wasn’t worried, and God wasn’t surprised at what was happening. If we believe that, and we believe God loves and cares for us, then we didn’t have to be worried or surprised.”
Mind you, it wasn’t easy. It was horrible. They spent eight solid weeks by Keith’s bedside at the Cleveland Clinic, leaving only long enough to grab a few hours of sleep at the nearby Ronald McDonald House.
Still, said his dad, “we saw a lot of good things happen because of Keith’s life. A lot of people were touched by how he lived and how our family and friends took care of us through that. We think the whole ordeal was a great witness for Christ.”

Another Son
There’s another Watson on scene now: Seth William Watson, born 385 days after the death of his brother. His parents say his name means “the Lord has replaced” or “the Lord has appointed.”
Seth bops around the living room of the family’s small Cape Cod, dancing and jabbering like a bright, healthy 15-month-old. He picks up a toy, and Frosty the Snowman plays. He picks up another, and Big Bird talks.
The fuzzy bunny with the green bow is Seth’s now. It’s a very special critter. But Seth is generous enough to offer it up for a visitor’s inspection.
His brother’s headstone was put in place in October. It stands toward the rear of the cemetery, facing west, and is visible from a long way off. Near it are markers for three Manchester infants who died after only one or two days of life.
As the centuries pass, the little hand and the crying bunny that were sandblasted by a caring craftsman will gradually vanish, sandblasted by the winds of time.
But for now, the world will know that Keith Watson III was here, and that Keith Watson III was loved. Not that there was ever any doubt.

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