What loss looks like: Katrina takes home, virus claims son; they … rebuild.

Published in the Clarion-Ledger

Article by Billy Watkins

10:34 PM, Sep 1, 2012

They could hear the wind and rain of Isaac Tuesday morning as it neared the Mississippi Gulf Coast but paid no attention to it. Instead, David and Marcie Baria, along with their three children, stared at their 11-year-old dog, Clover, taking her last breaths on a table inside a veterinary clinic.

“She was a ‘natural dog,’ ” David says.  “That’s a nice way of saying she was a mutt who loved the outside. They never invented a fence that could keep her in. Not even an electric one. We tried that, and I would hear her yelp as she went racing across it.”

She was a pound puppy, picked out in 2001 by the Barias’ oldest child, Darden, who was 6 at the time.

That made Clover’s death even more emotional. They kept wondering, if Darden were still alive, what his last words might have been to the first dog he ever loved.

As Isaac bobbed and weaved in the Gulf Coast, the Barias took minimal precaution. They stocked their Waveland home with food and water in case the power went out. They notified friends and relatives they weren’t leaving. And then they waited like everyone else.

It wasn’t that way with Katrina in 2005. They prepared every way possible – boarding up windows, moving precious possessions upstairs to avoid any possible flood waters, packing the computer hard drive that contained irreplaceable family photos and heading to stay with friends in Jackson.

“It was an amazing house,” Marcie says. “We had been in it about 17 months. It was built in 1875, was made of cypress and had a view that would take your breath. When you looked out our front windows, you saw a huge live oak and the water … it was so beautiful, it just lured you to the beach.”

When they returned, the only things left of the 130-year-old home were the front and back steps.

“When something like that happens and you basically lose everything you own, you have two choices – you can curl up in a ball, and there is nothing wrong with that because it’s a very traumatic event, or you can do something productive,” David says.

Somehow, he and Marcie chose the latter. David bought a truck and a trailer and, with the help of friends, began carrying supplies from Jackson to those on the Coast who also had lost everything.

“I’m not sure,” says Melissa DiFatta, David’s sister who lives in Jackson, “that if I had just had my house turned into a pile of sticks that I would have been in that frame of mind. But that’s all David kept saying, ‘We have to help others.’ ”

“David is my hero,” says Melissa’s husband, Anthony. “He was hurting, had just seen his house blown away and yet his most pressing concern was the pain other people were going through.”

Explains David, an attorney: “Our law office wasn’t functional. There really wasn’t anything for me to do. So it seemed to me like the most sensible thing – try and make a difference.”

What the Barias didn’t know was that another storm – an immeasurable one of a different kind – was just around the corner.

Darden had dark blonde hair and blue eyes. He loved to read, was a good student and athlete, and a huge fan of music, especially the tunes of the punk rock band Green Day. He also had a quick wit.

“Darden didn’t mind speaking his mind,” Melissa says, “We rib each other pretty hard in this family, all in fun. And Darden was always right up in the middle of that.”

A couple of weeks after Katrina, 10-year-old Darden began complaining of headaches.

“I came in one day, and he was rubbing ice on the top of his head,” says Marcie, a 1982 graduate of Jackson Preparatory School and also an attorney. “One of my friends saw him, and she said, ‘Marcie, he doesn’t look good.’ Being the child of a doctor, I’m not one to overreact, but Darden was saying some random things. David was on the Coast, delivering supplies. I called and told him that Darden was sick and he needed to come home.”

Marcie took Darden to the emergency room at Jackson’s Baptist Medical Center. Physicians diagnosed it as a “fever virus” and sent him home.

“The next day I asked him something, and he gave me an answer that made no sense,” Marcie says. “So I said, ‘Come on, we’re going to go back to the ER.’ At that point he could barely walk and had trouble putting his (shoes) on.”

While in the holding room waiting for the doctor, Darden became “manic,” Marcie says.

“He started screaming and yelling,” she says. “And when I grabbed his shoulders to try and calm him down, he bit me on the left forearm.”

Doctors admitted him to the hospital. His fever soon spiked to 106, and he was transferred to the University of Mississippi Medical Center.

“They ran every test they could think of but came up with nothing,” Marcie says.

He went into a coma on Sept. 20. His fever wouldn’t go down. Doctors detected some brain damage.

“They finally told us that his pupils were not responsive and that he was brain dead,” Marcie says. “They told us it was up to us whether we wanted to keep him on life support.”

Friends and family were summoned. After everyone had a chance to say their goodbyes, the respirator was turned off. Darden died a few hours later, on Sept. 27.

“It was so hard for me to walk out of that room and just leave him there,” Marcie says. “I’d read an article about a woman whose son had been hit by a car and killed, and she said it wasn’t so much you wanted to die, too, but that you just couldn’t conceive of the idea of continuing to live.”

On the morning of Darden’s funeral, as others were getting dressed and consoling one another, David refused to get out of bed, not wanting to face a parent’s worst fear. It took Melissa to convince him it was something he had to do.

Their daughters – Merritt, 9, and Bess, 7, at the time – were devastated and confused.

David becomes emotional when thinking back to what his daughters had to face at such young ages: “They were just children who expected their parents to take care of everything. They lost their home and everything they know. They lost their brother without an explanation as to why. And Marcie and I weren’t always available to them because of our own grief.”

Soon after Darden’s death, the Barias traveled to Marcie’s sister’s home in New Mexico. They received a call from a specialist at UMC with the cause of death: Rabies, a disease transmitted by the bite of a rabid animal.

Darden was the only person in the U.S. to die of rabies that year and the first in Mississippi since 1948.

David and Marcie narrowed to two places where he might have been infected.

“We found a dead bat in our house,” David says, “but Darden was articulate enough to tell us if something had bit him. But he also went to camp at Alpine Camp for Boys in Mentone, Ala., where they spent the night in a cave.

Melissa has researched rabies extensively. “By the timeline I have come up with, it points toward Darden being bitten at Alpine. But there is no way to know for sure.”

Marcie has quit searching for the answer.

“At this point, it really doesn’t matter, does it?” she says.

Both stopped practicing law following Darden’s death.

“Both of them were in shock,” says Butch Myers, 47, of Purvis, a friend of David’s since their teen years growing up on the Gulf Coast. “I finally went to Jackson, where they were staying, and told him, ‘Come on, it’s time to get to work.’ ”

Says David: “There was no way I could do law at that time. I couldn’t articulate thoughts. I couldn’t process information.”

Instead, he and Myers began cleaning up people’s property throughout south Mississippi. “David totally immersed himself in that,” Myers says. “I could see him coming back a little bit at a time.”

They eventually formed Rhino Demo Inc., which specializes in industrial demolition.

“But we underbid just about every job and wound up making hardly any money,” David says.

He went back to practicing law a couple of years later. Myers continues to operate Rhino.

“I’ve always been passionate about righting wrongs, and even though practicing law can be a grind, it was good to get back to something I felt relatively proficient at,” David says.

In 2007, he was elected to the Mississippi Senate. In 2011, he won the race for the state House, District 122.

“I’m not one of those wives who loves politics,” Marcie says, “but there were a lot of wrongs that needed fixing down here on the Coast following Katrina. David had it in his heart to do so.”

Now, the two practice law together at Baria-Williamson in Bay St. Louis.

“We took a financial beating after Katrina,” David says, “but we’re finally bouncing back from that.”

It was “the surest feeling I’ve ever had in my life,” Marcie says.

During Darden’s funeral, a spirit came over her that said, “Another child will come into your life.”

“Of course, when I told David, he thought I was crazy,” she says.

She turned out to be correct, even though medical issues prevented the couple from naturally conceiving another child.

Meet 4-year-old Max, whom David and Marcie adopted May 30, 2008. “They wheeled him out to us from the delivery room at Gulfport Memorial Hospital,” Marcie says.

All 7 pounds, 14 ounces of him.

“We didn’t name him after a family member or anything, it’s just the name we kept coming up with,” Marcie says. “And, boy, is he named correctly. He is wide open to the max all the time.”

Says David: “He’s all boy. He wears his cowboy hat, gunbelt, chaps and boots, and he’s the sheriff. He pounces on me the minute I walk in the house. Merritt (now 16) and Bess (14) are great sisters to him.”

And Max knows all about Darden, whose ashes are kept in David and Marcie’s bedroom.

“We talk to Max about Darden, and every night when we say our prayers, we mention Darden,” Marcie says.

Darden would be in his senior year at Bay St. Louis High School. His friends, many of whom have stayed in contact with David and Marcie, told them they will have an empty chair at graduation in Darden’s honor. The school’s yearbook will be dedicated to him.

“For a boy his age, he had some very intense friendships,” David says.

Losing nearly everything you own and watching your firstborn die in the span of a month can often destroy a couple – or it can give them a deeper vision into the meaning of everyday life.

David tells the story of sifting through the rubble of their home and finding four bottles of wine they had stored in a kitchen cabinet.

“Marcie and I had bought a really, really nice bottle of wine that we were saving for a special occasion,” he says. “That one shattered. The three cheapies were all fine.

“So ever since that moment, my saying has been ‘Drink the good stuff today.’ In other words, don’t wait, don’t put off soaking up all the things you cherish the most. Do it today, before it’s too late.”