"Dear students and parents," begins the appeal for help from a Robert Frost Junior High School teacher, "as you may have heard, a week ago last Sunday one of our seventh graders, Michael Roberts, was severely burned while attempting to light a wood stove. . . ."
It was a chilly October night, one of those first fall nights when air conditioners switch off and thermostats flip on. Michael Roberts and his mother Betty had just returned from a church service. It was nearly 10 p.m. and their Gaithersburg home was cold.
Michael and his mother descended the stairs to the basement. In better days, Roberts, like most of her neighbors, would have turned on her oil furnace. But oil was expensive and Roberts, separated from her husband for more than a year, had only recently returned to work after a long convalescence from an illness and a broken ankle. Money was short.
Betty Roberts went back upstairs when her uncle arrived and Michael stayed in the basement to light the wood stove he had once seen his father ignite.
The next thing his mother remembers is an explosion and then a scream.
"When I looked down into the basement all I could see were flames and I knew most of the flames were Michael. I started screaming and praying that God would get him out of the house." She tried to reach him but could not get down the stairs because of the flames.
"Then all I remember is hearing 'Mommy' and . . . seeing him there . . . he had no clothes on and in some areas you could see that all three layers (of skin) had been burned off."
"All you could see was muscle," Roberts said.
Michael had splashed gasoline on the wood fire.
That was five weeks ago. Today, 13-year-old Michael Roberts lies in isolation in the intensive care unit at Children's Hospital in the District. Ninety-nine percent of his body is covered with third-degree burns -- the most severe type that burn through both the outer and second layer of skin to the muscle. He has two patches of skin, one inches above his forehead and the other a thin strip above his toes on one foot. He has undergone surgery seven times and parts of his body have been sliced to relieve the swelling; without the incisions the swelling would constrict the blood vessels and prevent blood from passing. He is on a complete life-support system.
The youth's doctors have told his mother his chances of survival are less than one in a hundred. But still she and members of the United Pentecostal Church and students at Robert Frost Junior High School keep vigil. Roberts has left her son's bedside only twice to spend the night at her mother's house. Both the church and the school are raising money for Betty Roberts and her family of five. Students at Frost have contributed more than $1,600 to the fund.
"I think originally a lot of the students were denying that it happened. It reminded them of their own vulnerability," said Roberts' science teacher, Henry Milne. "But as time has gone on, they talk about it more and want to know how he is. But I still don't think the kids really admit the possibility that he could die. They think he's going to come back this year.
"Death is not really part of their world yet."
Betty Roberts is on leave without pay from her $8,900-a-year clerical job at the Department of Health and Human Services and, she said, her estranged husband has reclaimed the Gaithersburg home that was slightly damaged by the fire. Her two other children, 11-year-old Lisa and 4-year-old Scott, and a foster daughter and a niece whom she supports are staying with Roberts' mother. She says she receives $60 a week support from her estranged husband.
"I think about Abraham and how God asked him to sacrifice his son and I wonder whether I would have the faith and trust in God to sacrifice my son," Roberts said from the hospital waiting room. "My children are my world. . . . If I didn't have my children I wouldn't care if God took me today.
"But I pray to God that He won't let him suffer and that if it is His will that Michael die, that He will be good to him and won't let him remember the pain and the terror."
Roberts said her son lapses in and out of consciousness, but when he is awake she asks him questions. He can't speak, and the bandages have only recently been removed from his eyes, but he nods or shakes his head when she asks:
Are you in pain?
Are you afraid?
Are you comfortable?
Are you afraid to go to sleep at night?
"You can see the pain in his eyes. . . . He's very frightened. . . . He says (nods that) he's afraid we'll leave him when he goes to sleep," Roberts said before quoting a section from the Old Testament:
"And he said 'While the child was yet alive, I fasted and wept for him, for I said: Who knoweth whether the Lord may not give him to me, and the child may live? But, now that he is dead, why should I fast? Shall I be able to bring him back any more? I shall go to him rather, but he shall not return to me.' " (2 Kings, 22)