His name is Noel

Woman with life of tragedy has hope for happy ending

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SUMMERVILLE - Scars still knit across her chest all these years later, a lace-like testament to what she has endured. And survived. Down her body they stretch, bending her left wrist, knotting fingers, gnarling skin and muscle.

Despite warnings that she might not live, might not work, might not bear children or keep her right mind, Rachel Williams has done all of those things.

She has lost them, too.

The biblical Job's suffering lasted for months. But Rachel's has lasted a lifetime. A fire, deaths, abuse.

At 71, the great-grandmother still harbors hope for happier endings, though. It rests in a sacrifice made long, long ago and in the mystery that has lingered in her heart since.

Somewhere out there, that hope lives in the baby boy she named Noel.

IT BEGINS

In many ways, Rachel's story begins on March 16, 1956.

That day, she set out with her niece and a gallon jug to buy kerosene. She was 9 years old and happily wearing a new dress, the first she'd owned that flared out like a blossoming flower when she twirled around.

The store owner was gone when they arrived, so a surly teenage worker filled her jug with kerosene instead. But when the girl finished, she flipped the hose at Rachel, splashing kerosene onto her dress, soaking it down to the flannel slip she wore beneath.

Rachel raced home in tears.

The kerosene soon dried. So did her tears. Rachel went about the rest of her day in Charleston Heights, where she lived with her great-aunt.

That night, when she knelt at their fireplace to say her prayers, her dress flared out around her.

Our Father who art in heaven ...

Fire nipped at her hem. When it reached the kerosene, her new dress alighted. Frantic, Rachel darted to their porch, instinctively trying to get outside. The door was locked. She struggled to get out. Her sister, who was outside, couldn't get in.

By the time her family extinguished the flames, burns seared three-quarters of her body, most of them third-degree. Her left hand was burned to the bone.

Rachel's memories of the year after, spent entirely at Old Roper Hospital, are of pain. She underwent countless surgeries and skin grafts. Doctors attached her wrist to her hip so a critical graft would grow. They sealed her legs in casts.

After a year, she went home for several months, only to be admitted to the Medical University of South Carolina for another year.

Her family lacked health insurance to pay for cosmetic procedures, so when she finally returned to school she was severely scarred and two years behind. Along the way, she overheard her great-aunt confide that a doctor had said Rachel might lose her mind. She might never work much or have children.

Rachel stopped listening then.

She became determined to get her high school diploma and become independent. A good student at Bonds-Wilson High, she found peace sitting on a bench alone to study or watch the sky while listening to the band practice.

However, back at home, new trouble arrived. A male relative by marriage had begun coming around to see her. She was 14. He was 21.

After three years, at 17, she became pregnant by him. When her great-aunt learned of it, she confided in a neighbor who, in turn, alerted the state Department of Social Services.

JUST TOLD WHAT TO DO

A DSS caseworker came to their home. So did Rachel's mother, a widow who lived in Orangeburg County with her other six children. She had allowed Rachel's great-aunt to raise her but still saw Rachel once a year.

Although Rachel was about to turn 18, they didn't include her in the discussion. To them, she was young, unmarried, disabled, poor - and couldn't care for a baby.

"They just told me what to do," recalled Rachel, whose last name was Howell back then.

She would put the baby up for adoption.

Rachel's mother didn't want the shame of an out-of-wedlock pregnancy to rub off on her other three girls, and a DSS caseworker noted at the time that the family was "anxious for her to leave the community." They sent Rachel to a foster home in the Upstate.

Rachel voiced two requests: She wanted a picture of her baby, and she wanted to hold him.

She gave birth at 8:59 a.m. Dec. 16, 1964, at Spartanburg General Hospital. Her son weighed 5 pounds, 6 ounces. Nurses whisked him away before she could see him.

Rachel named him Noel.

When it was time to return home two months later, a DSS worker took her to see Noel, as she'd requested. She held her first-born child and tried desperately to commit to memory the squared shape of his forehead, the precise brown hue of his eyes, how much he looked like her.

Then they gave her a bus ticket home.

She never got the picture.

A "NERVOUS BREAKDOWN"

Five days shy of a year later, Rachel gave birth to a second son fathered by the same man. He gave her $10, all she says she ever received before he died.

Rachel would not give up this son, Aaron. Determined to provide for him, she took a job as a housekeeper, though her body and mind hadn't yet healed. She suffered what doctors back then called a "nervous breakdown."

Her family stepped in to help with Aaron while she underwent treatments. She also received vocational rehab training, which equipped her to start a job at the Charleston Naval Base, where she worked for 15 years as a teletypist, sending military communications around the world. She had a third son by another man and earned her diploma in 1972, excited to show her boys the importance of education.

She always figured that after she found success she then would find Noel.

Along the way, she married and had three more sons, then left her job to stay home and raise them.

While driving with her husband one day, they argued. She says he backhanded her across the face so hard that her glasses broke, and she needed seven stitches. She tried to make the marriage work, until he broke her finger while trying to hit her with a pipe.

Rachel, who also served in the ministry at Book of Acts Church on Johns Island, turned to God: "If you don't intervene, I'm going to perish," she prayed.

On the cusp of another breakdown, she turned to the MUSC clinic where she'd received so much outpatient care for her burns. She carried her youngest child, just a baby, and spoke nonsensically to the staff, overwhelmed and terrified as she felt. Aaron was a teenager and big enough to stand up to her husband - and had begun to do so. She feared what might happen.

A nurse helped her find an apartment. Rachel gathered her boys and told them, "We're not going home."

With some peace in their lives, she soon moved into a little house in North Charleston's Pepperhill subdivision to raise them. Despite the abuse, she worked hard to maintain normalcy for her sons.

"It never changed her outlook on life," Aaron recalled. "She is just a real soft-hearted person. She gave us whatever she had."

Soon, Aaron was grown up and moved out. Her next-oldest, Wesley, lived at home and drove a school bus. Given her baby had just started kindergarten, she went back to work, this time as a clerk at MUSC.

Life moved on - until March 11, 1988, when it stopped again.

"MOMMA, I CAN'T FIND THEM"

That morning, Rachel picked up her 6-year-old son David and carried him across a field from their house to his kindergarten. It had rained overnight, leaving the stretch muddy. Her shoes suctioned into the ground with every step.

"My goodness, you've gotten so big!" she said to him.

Looking back, she believes that God gave her the strength to carry her baby boy one last time.

After school, David played outside with his brothers, 11-year-old Jerome and 8-year-old Johnathon, as usual. Rachel laid down for a few minutes to rest before leaving for a night shift at work.

As she dozed off, Jerome joined her, reading a new comic book. When he finished, he went outside to rejoin his brothers. Then he returned.

"Momma, I can't find them," he said.

They searched around the house, around the yard, checked with the neighbors. Dusk settled. Fear nudged. Had her ex-husband come and taken them? They called the police.

The family who lived next door had just moved out that day. Over the winter, they had let their above-ground pool, about 4 feet deep, grow a film of slime that shrouded the water beneath.

Someone noticed that they also left toys in the yard.

Around 10:30 p.m., a police officer noticed a basketball floating on the pool's surface. On the bottom, David and Johnathon lay dead.

Over the years ahead, Rachel often wondered if one boy went for the ball, then the other leaped in to help him.

"I get stuck there," she said. "The guilt goes deeper than you can imagine."

MOVING FORWARD

As the years passed, Rachel moved forward. She spent almost 12 years at Joint Base Charleston working in personnel jobs that she loved before retiring.

Now 71, she works as a caregiver for a Summerville couple's disabled adult son.

Marina Sharts also has known tragedy. Her son, William, suffered a severe head injury when a car hit him while he was riding his bike three decades ago. For 11 years, Rachel has helped care for him.

"She has a bond with William that no one else has," Sharts said. "She is amazing."

But over the years of working and raising her boys, Rachel often wondered: What happened to Noel?

If he's living, he is 53.

If he's like her other sons, he is a good 6 feet tall at least.

She clung to memories of his pretty brown eyes and the forehead squared like hers.

"My imagination just goes away with me all these years later ..." she said.

Rachel always figured that when she had a little extra money she'd hire a private investigator to find him. But she never had a little extra money.

So, several years ago, she contacted DSS.

"I want it to just be possible that whenever I close my eyes, I might know what happened to him," she said. "It would bring me some peace."

She received a letter back from DSS. It began with an apology.

THE HURT GREW, BUT A FEW CLUES

Much had changed since 1965, the letter noted. Comments in the old records "reflect the attitudes of the individual and social time period," a DSS official wrote in a cover letter to Noel's adoption records.

Rachel flipped the page and began to read a description of her son. "Noel is a chocolate brown complexion with typical negroid features. His black hair is kinky and soft, and his eyes are black."

The report referred to her "Negro parentage" and noted each family member's skin tone ("very dark skin"), education levels ("fourth grade") and economic condition ("very poor"). It said that her mother was "somewhat slow mentally but was very cooperative with worker." It called her father an alcoholic and noted her parents received public assistance, even though Rachel didn't live with them.

Rachel's hurt grew more when the report said she had agreed to the adoption and that Noel had lingered in foster care for a year after they took him.

His adoptive parents' names and other identifying information were redacted. Yet the pages still contained snippets of clues that could help find him: Someone involved, perhaps his adoptive mother, was named Ida.

His adoptive family might have lived in the Greenwood area.

And his name - his middle name at least - might still be Noel.